As YouTube salaries rise and print media jobs run thin, it’s time to take a look at the video game review industry and decide whether it’s just easier to find great games by watching someone else play them.
Back in the days before the Lets Play revolution, buying a game based on watching someone else play it was a tactic reserved for those who viewed industry announcements or were stuck on the couch while their mate played their favourite game. Truth be told, it was probably the latter. In essence then, this is the same way Lets Plays function as reviews. We look to our favourite YouTubers to see what’s making them laugh or scream. But are we looking to them for guidance on purchasing or simply to watch through a game we will never pick up ourselves, especially not if we’ve already seen everything on offer.
It’s important to note a difference in aims. Not all Lets Plays are supposed to function as reviews, in fact only a very small number actively do, however viewers often treat them as such. Placing a high level of trust in the YouTuber to either berate the game when it’s running poorly or revel in aspects of it that they find interesting is the same process that applies to the written review. From this, it can be argued that we’re beginning to choose games based not on what we’re promised they can provide, but what we’ve seen they provide and at the hands of individuals idolised by a lot of their audience. While it’s not necessarily a bad situation – players are much more informed of their choices, and raw reactions are easily translatable over video – there are some problematic elements.
One of these problems was all to real for That Dragon, Cancer when on release it performed much lower sales due to its linear narrative allowing YouTubers to simply post the entire game and have viewers supposedly experience it pretty much the same as they would if they were at the helm.
Rather than treating the videos as reviews, a much higher percentage of viewers simply watch through the game rather than buying and playing it for themselves. Lets Plays display the game, and sadly often the whole game, rather than reviewing. For the most part, commentary is based on the YouTuber’s formulations of narrative as they progress, laughing at glitches, or screaming at jump scares. Rarely do we see a Lets Play that critically evaluates a game’s worth or potential from an impartial viewpoint with the aim of providing honest feedback to players deciding whether to take their wallets out or not. Rarely do we see a Lets Play that traditionally reviews a game.
So if Lets Play videos don’t align themselves with the traditional model of a ‘review’, does that mean the traditional model has changed?
I argue no. We still have millions of words uploaded every day in review content across the web. We still have sites devoted to specific genres, platforms, companies, and developers comparing the latest releases in thought out, divisive discourse. Yes, Lets Plays offer analysis drawn out over hours of footage, but not only do they undercut their role as ‘reviewer’ by showing all the action outright, but they rarely appear as soon after a release date as written pieces. It’s this rush to release day that ensures the traditional, written review is still the mainstay of the reviewing industry. If players are really considering purchasing a title, they’ll Google a review just after it’s release.
Lets Plays have their space in awesome reactions to the best things the industry can give us today, as well as identifiable and comedic groups of individuals collaborating to share their passion with likeminded viewers. They’re a revolution in the way we connect and celebrate the amazing content we’re enjoying every day, and loads of reviewers simply share their best moments with their friends. I’m a full supporter of the Lets Play, just not of the Lets Play as review.
There’s a pattern of behaviour that we can hold onto to keep enjoying our written word reviews for when we actually want a game, and our Lets Plays for our entertainment. YouTubers often look to what is being covered by the mainstream press to see what to stream or upload. That is, if a game is being reviewed and being reviewed well, YouTubers are more likely to bring the game to their channel and therefore more exposure.
Remember this isn’t a dig at the Lets Play, if you’re not watching the whole game just to avoid paying the cost, they’re a great way to get a taste of a game and relax with a funny personality. Lets Plays actually contribute a lot to the industry – starting off with small indie PC developers and the exposure they afforded them in the early years and moving through to Steam titles that have often been buried under over saturation and often get a second wind from a popular playthrough.
Lets Plays aren’t reviews, and shouldn’t be treated as such by people looking to make a decision on a purpose. They’re entertaining, funny, and provide studios some good exposure, but they can also be dangerous to sales for those same small companies. In essence, if you want to know whether to buy a game, don’t watch it first, I can guarantee you it will ruin the whole thing.