Friday, July 15, 2011

Some Thoughts On Let's Plays

A familiar sight to anyone who has watched Shawn's Let's Play series.

For the past year or so, I’ve become a serious viewer of YouTube. No, I don’t sit there watching viral video after viral video or whatever else the service might be renowned for, I visit it regularly because of my Minecraft addiction. My fascination with that game has meant that I’ve been intrigued by design ideas, enlightened by tutorials and impressed, of course, with all of the amazing builds that continually get posted. But it also means that I’ve been interested in observing other people’s experiences with the game, too, and the best option for that is through Let’s Plays.

Let’s Plays aren’t new and are certainly not exclusive to Minecraft. They have been around for years and are as popular as live-streaming is on sites like Justin.TV, or achievement guides and general game walkthroughs are on YouTube. Practically every game has a person who is posting a Let’s Play series of their time with it, and the concept itself is a great idea -- particularly if you want to understand a game without playing it yourself. But the popularity of Let’s Plays has exploded in recent years and games like Minecraft are the reasons why: they owe themselves to the format remarkably well, and the result is the inevitable over-saturation that I’m now going to address.

Shawn Martin, a YouTuber whom I’ve been following for a few months now, recently posted a video discussing his disinterest in Let’s Plays, as well as questioning why they are so popular. In it he describes his disdain for the over-saturation of them, particularly in the context of Minecraft, and mentions that he can only find an LP interesting if the people behind them are interesting themselves. I had mixed feelings towards this video as I both agreed and disagreed with it, depending on context. I suggested as much in my response to his video, and now I’m elaborating on that here.

My stance with Let’s Plays is strange. On the one hand, I share Shawn’s view in that I find the majority of them disinteresting and would much prefer to do something else, preferably actually playing those games being shown when and where possible. But at the same time, I can understand their appeal: they provide the opportunity for people to experience games they might not otherwise get to, and they can also offer great insight into how different players approach different games, furthering an understanding of a particular title. While the subject can include all games, Shawn is mostly addressing the multitude of Minecraft LPs out there, so I’m going to stick to those as well. I’ve already documented how I got into Minecraft: curious as to what all the fuss was about, I randomly searched for the game on YouTube, found a couple of videos and, before I knew it, was completely enamoured with the game. The reason for this was simple: I found some compelling Let’s Plays that demonstrated the game to me more effectively than I had expected, answering why the game was becoming such a phenomenon, and as I continued to watch I realised that these adventures were actually fairly entertaining stories -- stories that I personally couldn’t experience, but was still able to participate in because these people were posting them up publically. The potential this idea provides is intriguing, I feel, and why I find Let’s Plays to be such a fascinating concept, but despite my enjoyment with these particular narratives, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that most LPs are, frankly, boring. As Shawn suggests, once you have seen one person build a wooden house in Minecraft, you have seen everyone build a wooden house in Minecraft. One of the reasons why I found his own Let’s Play series fun to watch is because he wasn’t playing the game in the same way that Coe or X did, so he was providing something different to see. Instead of focusing on adventure, survival or exploration, Shawn’s small series -- to me at least -- focused on what he could do with his world, as well as what kind of impact his guests could have on it too. I found the transition of his desert into an inhabited region with many unique buildings interesting (see above picture), and enjoyed seeing new ones pop up as new people featured on his LP. And because he wasn’t playing the game ‘normally’, I also appreciated seeing what designs he and his friends could come up with because he wasn’t restricted to obtaining all his materials legitimately and, therefore, had more creative freedom to construct something cool and unique. It was a different take on a familiar game and justified, in my opinion, the time I spent watching his series over yet another generic Let’s Play that did the same things as all the rest of them.

As Shawn said in his video, it’s the people with personalities or who strive to do something different that are the most entertaining and interesting to watch, and unfortunately too many people fail to offer that experience to their viewers. People like Shawn and Coe do, in my eyes, and that, alongside the narratives I’ve already mentioned, is why they are so fun to watch for me personally. Let’s Plays aren’t dependant on the games they involve or the events that may transpire; they depend on the people who make them, and when everyone and their dog does it the concept loses its appeal -- and potential -- because it’s the same thing over and over again. Originality is important, then, and as Shawn expressed there’s just nothing original about playing Minecraft, publically, anymore. That’s disappointing to know, especially when it was Let’s Plays that inspired my addiction to the game to begin with, but it’s not surprising, either. Perhaps the incoming Adventure update will rectify this unfortunate byproduct of the game's success.


cmak15 said...

I enjoyed your post. I'm the guy who posted the original video. Thanks for sharing your ideas and extending the discussion.

Steven O'Dell said...

cmak15 (Koba?) -- And thank you for taking the time to read my take on the subject. It's not very often that I get to participate in a conversation like that and while, obviously, the bulk of it took place on YouTube, it was still fun contributing in my own little way.

Thanks for stopping by! :)

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