We announced our new venture into Let’s Play curation only 11 days ago, and in that time you submitted some excellent examples of Let’s Plays. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 11 days watching Let’s Plays, and I’ve gotten to feel productive while doing so. Thank you for this. Given this initial response, I’m excited to see how this curatorial column will grow and enrich our practices even further here at Critical Distance! So, without further ado, I bring you the inaugural This Month in Let’s Plays!
Several of the Let’s Plays submitted this month focused on retrospection, or looking back on previous game experience. For instance, Matthias Worch, who famously designed levels for Quake and Doom, plays through the games while offering insight on his design process and how design inspires meaningful choice. This is the first video in the series:
Elsewhere, James Howell analyzes Metal Gear Solid 2 game footage from 10 years ago by overdubbing the playthrough with retrospective commentary about the choices he made and why he made them back then. As he notes, “it’s really interesting to see what you used to do in a game” and consider how play styles changes.
Play it Again, Sam
We also had a few submissions this month that focused on re-visiting and re-analyzing games. While this is similar to retrospectives, in a way, this contribution from Leigh Alexander is particularly apt in terms of the locational use of “visit.” In a “right place at the right time” sort of moment, Leigh Alexander plays the 1985 game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego ( a game about the travels and exploits of the criminal mastermind, Carmen Sandiego) from an airport in Helsinki. Leigh allows the ambient sound of the airport to flow over her own commentary, which is also, appropriately, about travel experiences.
Taking a different approach, Brendan Vance revisits Problem Attic. Prompted by a lack of critical response to Problem Attic, Brendan Vance feels compelled to preserve the game in a substantial way. The game, he remarks, is important to him, and as such should be kept from being swept under the deluge of constant “content” available to players. In playing through the game Vance revisits his own initial thoughts about the game.
Play Theory/Theory Play
Two submissions this week also have a tight focus on critical discourse. For example, in this Let’s Play “aside” (there’s a new LP genre for you!), Heather Alexandra breaks down the approach of her analysis in the rest of her Shadow of the Colossus LPs. As Wander sits, head down on screen, and as his horse passes by on the outer edges of the screen, Alexandra discusses semiotics, and how signs are constructed in the game to deliver a message. She also discusses Wittgenstein, and phenomenological subjectivity (in so far as each player must find his/her own meaning through the semiotic process).
Next, In Two Minute Game Crit, Stephen Beirne takes on a fast-paced analysis of walking sims (speed walking?) that frees the games from the limiting mentality of what the games can do and how the medium works. He argues that “what the player does mechanically in a game isn’t always a clear indicator of what a game does in general.” Beirne’s analysis leads him to call for a new term for the games: Phantom Rides which refocuses the games on their ability to “transport us to other places for new experiences.”
Noah Caldwell-Gervais looks back at the Red Faction series and how its lower budget forced it to be creative to standout. Even among B franchises, Caldwell-Gervais argues that Red Faction stands out for its ability to persist and survive through multiple sequels, despite a few flops. In this Let’s Play of the first game, Caldwell-Gervais provides an in-depth and detailed analysis of what made the first game enjoyable: its ambition, pace, and personality and finds that these same qualities are part of the game’s failings as well.
Our next submissions takes us back not just to an older game, but to an older Let’s Play, but I’ve elected to include it anyway – ya know, for posterity. Back in 2011, Research Indicates created a series of Let’s Play videos for Jurassic Park Trespasser, a “not good” game with potential. The Let’s Plays discuss not only the tricks game developers used to use to reduce heavy system footprints, but also analyzes the ludic and narrative complications the game failed to overcome. (Content warning: ableist slurs.)
When Context Matters
Right now, I’m about to stretch the limits of this heading in order to keep putting things neatly organized. Prepared to be dazzled. In our first Let’s Play, History Respawned is joined by Professor David Andress, a scholar of the French Revolution, to discuss Assassin’s Creed Unity. They begin by discussing the lack of historical context provided by Ubisoft in the game for the French Revolution. Dr. Andress spends several minutes recounting the brief history of the revolution to show that the game actually throws the player into the history at a rather late point and that, without a solid historical context, it’s easy to misunderstanding what or who “the terror” actually is. Dr. Andress also discusses the landscape and tone of the game in context of the accurate history, as well as why the Ubisoft may have opted to put the player in a counter-revolutionary position.
Next, our own Cameron Kunzelman and his friends play Minecraft but, in doing so, set up a few rules for themselves that establish the context of their play (see? Are you dazzled?). In this first episode you can hear Cameron and friends go over their standing standing rules: no killing animals, and “if someone builds a thing, don’t mess with it.” As they play against these rules, you can hear the players discuss how it alters their game priorities. For example: if you don’t kill any animals, farming becomes a top priority. This is just the first in what is now a 7 episode series. You check them all out.
And lastly, Steven Kiazyk talks about approach to speedruns and the need to take in the context of the game and what the developers wanted you to do, before actively avoiding doing that thing. To model what he means, he sits down with Tim Schafer and does a speedrun of Psychonauts. (Content warning: ableism.)
I hope you’ve enjoyed this inaugural roundup of Let’s Plays! I absolutely have. As we continue to seek submissions for February, please keep in mind that the LPs included here need not set the standard. We remain open to other types and forms of Let’s Plays and we encourage you to submit links to those things you’d like to see curated here.
And if you really like what we’re trying to do here, remember that we are reader-supported and you can make a monthly contribution here.