Stories, Cinematics and Let’s Play Videos

by on May 10th, 2013 at 10:30 am

I’ve never really enjoyed watching other people play video games.

Back in the good ol’ days when, if you had more than two players, you’d need to wait for someone to lose before you got a chance I never so much watched as patiently waited my turn. I was never a dick about it; I’d sit quietly, watch, and either laugh at or congratulate the player depending on which was appropriate. But, so help me, I don’t care if your mom says you have to go home early, Steve*, my turn will not be skipped to give you one last run.

What do you mean I can't connect six of these!?

What do you mean I can’t connect six of these!?

This is why I’ve never really gotten into Let’s Play videos (with a few slight exceptions, which I watch only for the commentary, not the game being played); if I’m interested in the game then I’ll buy it. If I’m not sure how the game will look or feel then I’ll find a demo I can play. I love games with intriguing stories, I’m the one who initially suggested making stories in games a recurring topic headliner on Gamers Schmamers, but I really only find enjoyment when I delve through the story by engaging in it directly. I find the direct player involvement, the ability to shape the experience to your own unique style, to be an inherent part of the game story experience.

I always assumed that others felt similarly on the issue. Surely nobody can enjoy just watching a game be played! When Konami released a version of Metal Gear Solid 3 that came bundled with a disc called Existence, which was a mix of gameplay and cutscenes to make a movie-like cinematic experience, I assumed it was just a cheap throw-in that the vast majority of people were going to skip.

Then last week I was playing Far Cry 3 when my girlfriend came over. I told her I’d get to a checkpoint quickly so I could turn the game off but she said she was alright watching me play. I figured it was just her being polite and not wanting to interrupt what I was doing. I’ve been attempting to get her to play some different games with me; she’s played Ocarina of Time all the way through several times, and loves Mario Kart and Mario Party, along with tabletop games, but other than that she’s not a gamer. I suggested we switch to Twilight Princess, since she liked Ocarina, and she could play some but she insisted she just enjoys watching me play.

If I learn nothing else from this, it's that I have further evidence that Ocarina of Time is a universally enjoyable experience.

If I learn nothing else from this, it’s that I have further evidence that Ocarina of Time is a universally enjoyable experience.

I again brushed it off as politeness, finished the trial I was on and we watched a movie instead. Then this week we had some people over to my house to play a few tabletop games. While we were waiting for the rest of the party to arrive my friend and I began to discuss video games. I asked him if he had played some games, and he said he had a “confession” to make: he was a gamer that was bad enough at games that it ruined his experience in many of them. So instead of playing, he looked for walkthroughs online and watched them. Recently, he got hooked on the plot of L.A. Noire and watched the entire game via different YouTube walkthroughs.

This guy accidentally said a beer bottle cap was red and not blue, so Phelps blew his car up.

This guy accidentally said a beer bottle cap was red and not blue, so Phelps blew his car up.

Then today I was watching some old episodes of the show 4 Point on the Nerdist‘s channel and they were discussing the recent, fan-made movie of Uncharted 2 made by stitching all the game’s cinematics together. I’ll include the video at the end of the story if you’ve got a couple hours to kill. The members of the show were split on how they felt about the video: host Alex Albrecht thought it was a wonderful way for people who don’t enjoy video games to still enjoy a story that was part of a multi-million dollar production, while guest Chuck Bar… er, Zachary Levi thought nobody would end up watching it other than the fans who made the game.

Me? I’ll admit, I don’t know what to feel about it. Uncharted 2 is in my top five favorite games ever played. I love the story, but honestly I don’t think there’s anything very spectacular about it. It’s good, standard adventure fare, but what I really loved about playing it is the subtle nuances they threw in. The little interactions between Nathan, Scully and Elana bring a lot to the game and bring along character development, and it’s done in a really fun and natural feeling way as just banter while you scale epic set pieces (and shoot an entire battalion of enemies per set). The voice acting is all done extremely well, and the cutscenes and scripted and directed in a way that keeps things entertaining. I liked that stuff because I liked feeling like I was Nathan Drake and that I was going on an adventure with two friends, friends who felt like they had fully fleshed out relationships and history with me.

Of course, we've now started on the inevitable path towards video game movie adaptation novelizations. I'm holding out hope for Animal Crossing by Stephen King.

Of course, we’ve now started on the inevitable path towards video game movie adaptation novelizations. I’m holding out hope for Animal Crossing by Stephen King.

Personally, I wouldn’t enjoy watching the game without playing it. But it’s apparent that other people do. The video was posted on April 21st and already has over 440,000 views. It’s no Joss Whedon’s Avengers, but that’s impressive considering the scenes they used weren’t originally designed with this sort of medium in mind. If a bunch of dedicated fans are able to take some snippets designed to carry a player from stage to stage and turn it into something viewed by nearly half a million people, imagine what could happen if a AAA studio hired a team of professionals and sank some money into making movie experiences to go alongside games.

Maybe such an endeavor by a company wouldn’t be successful; perhaps it’s the novelty of Let’s Play and tutorial videos, or simply sitting on the couch and watching someone navigate a game, that makes it entertaining. And I don’t have enough faith in most of the major studios to believe they’d earnestly attempt to make the movie tagalong a unique, fulfilling experience. But I sure as hell have faith in fans finding interesting ways to show off the games they’re passionate about, and I’m now forced to admit that there’s a lot of merit to be had from watching someone else play. Video games have emerged as a legitimate, artistic way to tell stories and if more people can enjoy them, even if this particular approach is not my cup of tea, then that’s great.

So if you haven’t played Uncharted 2, make some popcorn and sit back to enjoy the show.

*I’ve never actually played games with a Steve. I was talking about my friend Michael.