Let’s Plays and the Evolution of Storytelling in the Digital Age

Just over a year ago, a YouTube channel began uploading a Let’s Play of an unknown video game called Petscop. The game, according to the narrator who calls himself Paul, is a long-lost PlayStation title developed by a little-known studio called Garalina. Petscop is apparently unfinished, as Paul is quick to point out in the first video; nevertheless, he goes ahead and shares with his audience the game’s first level, which features colorful visuals and simple environmental puzzles that involve retrieving “Pets” from the abandoned “Gift Plane”. It’s an affectionate portrayal of pet adoption that would have surely captured the hearts of many children had it seen release, and the Petscop Let’s Play series offers a unique perspective on one of the many unfinished games that never made it to market during the PlayStation era.

Except, of course, it wasn’t.

Storytelling in video games is nothing new, but the rise of Let’s Plays has produced a surprising new subgenre of using the act of playing video games as a storytelling mechanism. In these types of videos, which I call narrative-centric Let’s Plays (NCLP’s), the game itself acts as a set piece with moving parts that are controlled by the player-narrator, who tells a story through their words and in-game actions. In some cases, multiple players may band together to form a cohesive storyline as player-actors, crafting a compelling narrative through their interactions with each other. At this point, the term Let’s Play may no longer be accurate for what is being described here, as the focus is now on the characters being portrayed (either in-game or in real life) rather than the gameplay itself.

As you may have guessed, Petscop is not a real game, nor is Garalina a real studio. This becomes apparent when Paul enters a cheat code that transforms the game’s normally cheerful environment into something darker and ominous. Petscop is, in fact, an example of an internet phenomenon known as “creepypasta” in which people share fictional stories that are meant to be, well, creepy. Subsequent episodes of Petscop make references to the abuse and murder of Candance Newmaker, and Paul’s reliability as the player-narrator comes into question as he traverses deeper into the game’s underworld. In reality, Paul is an actor, and Petscop is likely a game he made himself to tell this story, but I never really cared about whether Petscop was real; to tell a story through a Let’s Play is no easy feat, and Petscop does it so masterfully.

There is no doubt that NCLP’s draw some inspiration from machinima. Machinima combines film-making, animation, and computer technology to tell a story within a game environment in real-time. Much like traditional cinema, Machinima can take on many forms and subgenres, but compared to broadcast media, machinima is relatively affordable, and today many programs such as Valve’s Source Filmmaker and MikuMikuDance (MMD) are available for free and offer a wide array of different toolsets to create short animations using preset 3D models with very little cost. Rooster Teeth, the entertainment production company responsible for the long-running Red vs. Blue series began as a small studio creating machinima using little more than a retail copy of Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved. Like NCLP’s, machinima puts game tools to unexpected ends, creating a culture of emergent play as a means of expressing one’s self.

The biggest difference between NCLP’s and machinima is that while machinima attempts to emulate traditional cinema, NCLP’s don’t shy away from the fact that they use the video game as a set piece for their stories, and some (as is the case with Petscop) even use the game itself as an artifact that drives the narrative. But Petscop represents a relatively extreme example of NCLP due to its use of an original game. In reality, most NCLP’s use off-the-shelf products to tell their story. One of my favorite YouTubers is Criken2, who has evolved the traditional Let’s Play model into a Let’s Role-Play. In his playthrough of Dark Souls III, for example, he plays the role of a megalomaniac god-complexed everyman named Edwad Emberpants as he attempts to traverse the Kingdom of Lothric with the company of his friends Gwyn’s Firstborn (VaatiVidya) and 100% Cinder Sun (BedBananas). The Edwad series is very much not about Dark Souls itself (in fact, after watching the series, I still know nothing about the game), but rather the comedic interactions between the three characters as they craft their own lore that I assume deviates greatly from the original narrative.

This sort of unique narrative structure that NCLP’s employ is not unique to just Let’s Plays. In 2007, a YouTuber who calls himself Donnie began uploading a series of seemingly run-of-the-mill Photoshop tutorials called You Suck at Photoshop. Viewers quickly realized, however, that all was not what it seemed. Donnie is a highly distraught man who is unhappy with his marriage and his job, and his tutorials reflect his life misery as he edits away memories like his wife’s marriage ring and his dream vacation he is not allowed to have. Over the course of the 10-part series, Donnie’s marriage dissolves and he eventually loses his job and his home. Donnie, like Paul, is an actor, but instead of Let’s Plays, he uses the unique medium of How-To videos to tell his story.

As the landscape for gaming-related media consumption evolves, so too must Let’s Players. Traditional Let’s Plays have oversaturated the market and are now only commercially viable for a handful of prominent channels. To stand out, one must be different, have a new story to tell, or at the very least tell the story differently. The sudden popularity of Petscop has given rise to other similar channels, and I hope to see more content creators use this mechanism for storytelling. Who knows? Maybe NCLP’s will become the next big storytelling medium in today’s digital age.

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