The Joy Of Playing Video Games Without Actually Playing Them

Playing video games can be wonderful. Sometimes not playing them can be even better.

See, games are often time-devouring. Tedious. Difficult. Annoying. You might not want to spend hours of your life grinding for experience points to kill a dragon or shooting up bloody clouds of soldiers en route to some submarine. (There's always a submarine.) And sometimes you don't want to activate that part of your brain that has to actually do things; you want to sit back with a latte and let your mind relax as your eyes absorb polygon-packed renders of buff space marines and gorgeous anime princesses.

So why not let someone else play for you?

There's a forum on Something Awful called Let's Play, a wonderful place where dedicated gamers devote roughly bazillions of hours to the noble task of playing games for other peoples' amusement, then record the experience in detailed walkthroughs. They can be video recordings, screenshot-stuffed play-by-plays, or some sort of blend of the two. And they're usually presented with some sort of snarky or interesting commentary for our entertainment.

Although the idea of vicarious gaming certainly didn't originate on Something Awful—gaming play-by-plays are as much an Internet tradition as fanfiction, porn, and fanfiction porn—the Let's Play forum has become a nexus for those who enjoy watching other people play through games. Go ahead and flip through this archive of Let's Play threads. There are quite a few out there. Some are smart, educational, hilarious. Almost all of them are fun to read.

In many ways they're even more pleasant than actually playing games.

I've spent quite a bit of time on that forum over the years, thumbing through Let's Plays of games both new and old to read everything there is to read about the hidden secrets of Saga Frontier or the endless plot twists of Metal Gear Solid. When crafted and presented well, these threads are both addictive and delightful. In many ways they're even more pleasant than actually playing games.

"Blasphemy!" you might be screaming at your computer screen, ready to scroll down to Kinja and type something nasty before the drool can even evaporate from your bottom lip. "Do you even like video games? Get fired! Asshole!"

Back up a second there. I certainly love playing games—I probably wouldn't work for Kotaku if I didn't—but I also believe that life is short. My tolerance for tedium grows lower with every passing day. When I feel like a video game is throwing useless tasks at me in an attempt to hit that vaunted "8-10 hours of gameplay" marketing bullet point, I just want to turn it off. Or watch someone else do that shit for me.

Here's an example: For the past few weeks, I've been playing Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, a role-playing game that is not very fun at all. (Check tomorrow's Random Encounters for more thoughts on that abomination of a sequel.) After spending some 20 hours with Square Enix's unpolished turd, I finally gave up and hit the Let's Play archive just to read what would happen next. And after seeing the answer, I'm really glad I did.

(You might be wondering why I spent 20 hours with a game I didn't enjoy playing. This is because I am crazy.)

It's not just the bad games that are fun to play vicariously. What if you feel like replaying a game? What if you want to experience something you haven't played in a decade but you just don't have the hours to tread ground you've already tread? It's much easier to spend an evening reading someone else's playthrough than to spend a week firing up the old PlayStation just to see if Resident Evil is as scary as your nostalgia says it is.

What if a game isn't as awesome as you remember it? Or as awesome as other people remember it?

And, hey, what if a game isn't as awesome as you remember it? Or as awesome as other people remember it? What if you missed a classic like Deus Ex or Final Fantasy VII and you're worried that everyone else's imaginations have aged much better than the actual experiences? Let's Plays can help plug in those gaming knowledge gaps that you've never had the time or energy to fill.

They can also teach you how to break a game. Or walk you through English versions of games that have never been released in America, in case you're one of those people who refuses to use emulators.

So here's the big question: can a Let's Play really replace the experience of interactive entertainment? On one hand, you're still getting a bulk of the experience; watching or reading someone else play through at least the majority of a given video game does far more to stimulate your brain than, say, reading its summary on Wikipedia. But without the feeling of a controller in your hand, are you really getting much out of a video game?

I think the answer is no, but it's a tough no. Think back to some of the games you've played over the years: are there any you'd rather have sat down and watched with a bucket of popcorn? Or read on your iPad before bed? Wouldn't you rather have let someone else battle through all of those random encounters? Or navigate those awful water levels?

Granted, if a video game's quality is based on the meaningful choices it offers, you're limiting yourself by not experiencing them on your own. But for games that put you through way too much busywork, games you've always wanted to check out but just never had the time to try, games that don't seem rewarding enough to deserve 10-20 hours of your precious time, Let's Plays can be a valuable alternative.

Not that you should ever stop playing video games, of course. But if your backlog is getting out of hand or you just want to know what all of your friends are talking about when they quote BioShock or rave about Skyrim, there's nothing wrong with letting someone else do all of the hard work.

(Photo: Milos Stojanovic/Shutterstock)