The Terrible of Animal Crossing. Art by Demon Allie. Let's Play thread by Chewbot.

A list

With the exception of Dwarf Fortress and Deadly Premonition, I have no intention of playing any of these games. Some of them are inaccessible to me for technological reasons (I have a Mac without Windows). Others I would probably consider unplayable, or not worth overcoming usability issues to play (apologies to Michael Abbot). A few I remember from years ago, but never finished for one reason or another (Arcanum was buggy; Darkseed, awful). None of my friends are profoundly knowledgeable about the history, technology or content of these games, and even if they were, I doubt they’d have time to sit down with me and talk about them at length.

So how is it that I know these games—know them, if not inside and out, then at least well enough to talk about their mechanics and plots, their flaws and glories? How is it that I’ve shared meaningful experiences, have heard or even taken part in stories told by them and about them?

You play, I’ll watch

Let’s Plays are a collaborative, multimodal storytelling form, where the story being told is the experience of playing a specific video game. The term and format originated in a subforum of Something Awful, a sprawling humor site. Let’s Plays (hereafter LPs, since I can’t take the grammar) can include text, screenshots and videos. They may be written from the perspective of a player, or from the perspective of a character within the game, or something in-between. They may take the narrative of a game at face value, or they may embellish it, adding subplots, characters and depth that wasn’t there to begin with. Some LPs are extremely meta, featuring commentary more about the LP format or the nature of being a gamer than about a specific (or even a real) game. It’s a flexible, fascinating format—just the kind of delight you might hope would emerge from a site that’s something like a friendly 4chan.

Even when catalogued and nicely packaged by the Let’s Play Archive, a free website founded by Something Awful member Baldurk, LPs reflect their rowdy forum origins. Let’s Play threads deliver on the collective, community-oriented sensibility implied by their name: they often incorporate conversations between readers and players/posters. Sometimes the games are even passed around, like a ghost story (or a bottle of Jack) around a campfire, offering different views on anything from mechanics to setting to objectives. The classic LP “Dwarf Fortress—Boatmurdered” is a perfect example: several players take turns spending one in-game year as the administrator of the title fortress. Some players act as competent administrators focusing on military or economic issues; others talk more about the game’s ungodly deep mechanical systems; and still others role-play as incompetent nincompoops, concerned only with glory or odd personal obsessions. In every case, the attitude of the player is reflected in the fate of the fortress.

My love for the Let’s Play is born out of my love for good stories and good storytellers. LPs have let me experience games I might never have encountered, and have given me new insights into games I adore. I’ve enjoyed LPs in situations where playing a game is not an option (they’re great on lunchbreaks at dull jobs!). Some LPs have led me to interests outside of gaming. The best LPs teach you about a game while also offering a hearty helping of comedy, drama and personality.

Suggestions

Chewbot’s Animal Crossing LP is a genre-defying horror classic. Research Indicates’ Jurassic Park: Trespasser LP takes you on a tour of a game that might have been one of the all-time greats, and explains exactly how and why it fell short. Seorin’s Arcanum LP is a fabulous fantasy that goes beyond the already complex plot of the game itself. And Thuryl’s Might & Magic LP—the first I ever read—is a generous, funny and highly social playthrough of an older game that I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole today.

Or visit the Let’s Play Archive yourself, and scroll through the list of games until you see something that piques your interest (“I remember that!”; “I always meant to play that one!”; “What the hell?”). If you’re a Let’s Play addict, share your thoughts or recommendations in the comments. And if you’re a Let’s Play author… thanks!