The following article contains spoilers for the film Citizen Kane, the novel A Tale of Two Cities, and these games, in order of appearance: Undertale, Life Is Strange: Episode One, Dark Souls, and Fallout 4.
If you read the Wikipedia summary for Citizen Kane, you understand the plot, you know that “Rosebud” symbolizes Charles Foster Kane’s lost childhood and the corruption that led him to his lonely demise, and you’re aware that it’s widely considered to be the greatest film of all time. If you read the Wikipedia summary for A Tale of Two Cities, you understand the plot, and you understand the theme of duality, (you know, the best and worst of times, all that jazz). If you read the Wikipedia summary for Nirvana’s breakout album Nevermind, you know the names of the songs, the unprecedented commercial success of it, and the fact that Kurt Cobain was influenced by The Pixies in his songwriting. Congratulations, you’re now a fountain of knowledge and when someone asks you about film, books, or music you have something to say. Repeat for any genre or medium of your choosing.
Despite the vast knowledge you’ve accumulated while sitting on the toilet at work, there are some things you don’t know from reading about these works. You can’t pinpoint the moment you stopped sympathizing with Charles Foster Kane and started to see him as the villain. You can’t say whether you’re saddened by Sydney Carton’s death or glad that he cannot interrupt the romantic plot line anymore. You can’t describe the feeling of blaring “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in your bedroom and feeling like Kurt Cobain gets you like no one else does.
Just as you cannot say you’ve watched a film, read a book, or heard a song via reading about it, one cannot say they’ve played a video game unless they actually sit down and play it. The Wikipedia summary of Undertale tells you about (you guessed it) the plot, that Toby Fox developed the entire game, from art to music to gameplay, and that there are multiple endings based on player behavior. What you cannot get from Wikipedia, however, is the remorse you feel when you realize that you didn’t have to kill Toriel in the first chapter of the game. The feeling of knowing that I murdered someone who legitimately wanted to protect me on my first run haunts me to this day. Reading a summary cannot invoke that kind of emotion.
I believe that the same principle extends to other non-playing methods of games. Reviews and Let’s Plays can give some information to the viewer, but there is no substitution for playing. Objective concepts such as audiovisual quality can certainly be understood from watching a game be played, but what kind of emotions does the music bring to the listener? What catches the player’s eye on those brilliantly rendered models? These are unique, individual experiences that cannot be gained through YouTube videos. The examples below indicate why playing a video game for yourself is the only true way to experience it.
The first example of a game that cannot be truly experienced outside of a playing environment is Life Is Strange. This and other choice-based games are widely known for being “cinematic” and “more interactive story than game.” Because of this, some believe that they can be watched rather than played. I disagree, on the basis that the choices only matter if you are the one choosing. The barrier of the YouTuber between the watcher and the game prevents any real emotional investment. But from Telltale games such as The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands to visual novels like Sakura Spirit and Nekopara, these games are still frequent subjects of Let’s Play series. I’ll be watching PewDiePie’s Let’s Play of Episode 1 of Life Is Strange and comparing it to my own playing experience to showcase the difference between playing and watching a choice-based game.
Right off the bat Pewds differs from me, as I watch him flip through the journal at the start of the game, making snarky comments about the contents. When I was presented with this option, I slowly and methodically read through the journal entries in order. From this, I gained an understanding of Max as a person. From PewDiePie’s take on it, I giggled at this pronunciation of “Seattle” and would have learned nothing real about Max. The trend of me only getting real meaning from my own playthrough continues into the choices. From unimportant options such as choosing to rewinding time to give the teacher the right answers (PewDiePie cheers, I question the ethics) to deciding whether or not to intervene when a student is being bullied by the school security guard (I immediately jump in, PewDiePie takes a picture, suggesting that he and the viewers are “stealthy ninjas”). How much attention we give the game differs as well, as he entirely misses a conversation opportunity with a fellow student about their abortion that I found before advancing the plot past that section. These are just a few examples of why I wouldn’t be able to say that I truly experienced Life Is Strange if I just watched PewDiePie’s take on it. If you aren’t making the choices, you aren’t getting the full experience.
Now that we’ve established why it’s important to be the one making the choices in a game, let’s look at why it’s important to be the one handling the controller. We’ve seen the moral difficulty of games, but what about the mental and physical difficulty? Watching someone have a hard time landing on that platform or failing to dodge that power attack is nothing compared to being the one who is messing up. I’ve never felt like throwing my controller because a YouTuber got taken out by a cheap headshot. Until you’ve experienced the elation and frustration of winning and losing yourself, you’re missing one of the core gameplay experiences. And what better game to prove this with than the quintessential combination of elation and frustration in game form, Dark Souls. Let’s see what differs between Mr. Odd’s series and my own playthrough to prove this.
Before we even get to the meme-level difficulty of Dark Souls, we should note that there are 10 starting classes in the game, on top of many other character creation options. What if I want to start as a Sorcerer or Pyromancer? Right off the bat, I would be having a completely different experience from Mr. Odd, who started as a speedy swordsman. After that, he mentions that he has some influence from social media as to how he should play, which I didn’t have on my first playthrough. This led to some poor stat allocation for me that he was not victim of. Getting to the gameplay of Dark Souls, Mr. Odd seems like a natural to most of the concepts. He understands the inventory system and the combat much better than I did my first time. I’m embarrassed at how long it took me to realize that it only takes one button to change to two-handing a weapon, and even more so that I failed to realize that the first boss can be easily dispatched with plunging attacks. Ignoring my suspicions about whether his series really is “blind,” as he claims, we both learned at such different paces that I cannot imagine getting the real Dark Souls experience from watching him.
One area where we reacted similarly was in our first try of the most iconic boss fight in the game.. Commonly known as the hardest fight in the game, and one of the hardest in the whole series, feared tag-team Ornstein and Smough are overwhelmingly difficult the first time. Managing two giant knights who have wildly different patterns bewilders most players initially, myself and Mr. Odd included. We both were surprised to see our opponents, ran around aimlessly, and then died pathetically. You might be wondering, if we had such similar experiences, doesn’t that prove that I’m wrong? Can’t you get a similar experience from watching the Ornstein and Smough fight as playing it? I would disagree, because while I watched Mr. Odd struggle, panic, and embrace his death, I never felt those emotions. When I played it, my heart was pounding, my hands were sweating, and there was vomit on my sweater already. Watching the video of it, I was merely entertained. I found Mr. Odd’s confusion funny. I only felt the real terror of Dark Souls on my own playthrough, again proving that playing is the only way to say that you understand the game.
So we’ve seen the reasons why you need to be the one making the decisions, and why you need to be the one taking action as well. How can we combine the two? We’ll take a genre that leaves almost everything up to the player, giving options for both the character’s motives and actions. Open-world role-playing games like Fallout 4 give the player the option to customize almost everything in the game. Play style, available speech options, how the player looks, how the player acts, what weapons and armor they use, who they ally with and where they go are just some of the options the player has. With all of those presented, how could one not agree that the game ought to be experienced personally? Let’s watch TobyGames’ Let’s Play to see how wildly different every Fallout 4 run can go.
Just like in the Dark Souls section, there is the immediate difference of cosmetic character creation as well as stat allocation. We already covered those topics, so what other purpose can this section serve? Let’s see what happens immediately upon exiting Vault 111 to find out why Fallout 4 absolutely needs to be experienced by a player, not a viewer. The very first action Tobuscus takes after entering the overworld differed from mine completely: he walked backwards. I immediately walked forwards and fell down, reaching town faster but taking damage in the process. After this we can see a butterfly effect that only open-world games can produce: what led me to finding the fusion core before Preston needed it, while Tobuscus had to backtrack to find it? Why did he explore the underground sewer system of Concord during his first visit, while I didn’t even find the entrance until I was level 21? From which factions we align with (he immediately accepted the Brotherhood of Steel’s invitation, I have always believed that they are the Fallout equivalent of Scientology and rejected them instantly) to which weapons we use (our Pipe Rifles have different attachments, but even the smallest differences can change everything!), Toby and I practically played two different games. Since everyone will have their own experience, it is obvious that Fallout 4, just like every other video game, is made to be experienced by a player.
I’d like to make something clear as we wrap up here: I don’t hate Let’s Play videos. I find some entertaining, and I can understand why some people prefer them to actually playing games. I just want to make my point of separating them from actual playthroughs. Some (I would say most, if not all) games simply require making the choices and inputting the actions directly to get the full experience. No one who reads a New York Times review, SparkNotes summary, or Reddit comment section can say that they watched a film, read a book or listened to an album. The same goes for these Let’s Plays; enjoy them, but don’t go around claiming you know a game as well as someone who finished it themselves.