This installment’s question comes from Gameological contributor Anthony John Agnello: What game would you rather watch than play?
Nothing can diminish my absolute love for Super Mario 64—or rather, the first 10 or so courses of Super Mario 64. Playing through those early levels remains one of my favorite activities, but once you start getting into the upper floors of Princess Peach’s castle, I immediately want to take off for more forgiving climes. It’s not that the game has aged poorly; it’s that courses like Tick Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride were always vicious in their need for precision. While I don’t like steering through them, I adore watching speed-runners take on the Super Mario 64’s late game. There’s something transcendent about simultaneously knowing how profoundly difficult it is to play at that high a level while also watching someone manipulate this 20-year-old game in ways you didn’t even imagine were possible.
Nothing makes me feel dumber than playing competitive games online. I don’t consider myself an especially talented player of most games, but on the rare occasions that I venture into online multiplayer, I’m still shocked at just how quickly other players crush me under their boots. This is doubly true of calculation-heavy strategy games, which I’m bad at even in the privacy of single player modes. That’s why I love watching talented players dominate their opponents in Hearthstone. Having an insightful and knowledgable player, like Extra Credits’ James Portnow in the above video, break down the game’s byzantine rules and explaining his every strategic decision as he plays goes a long way toward making online play seem like the kind of thing even a mere mortal like myself could pull off. I’m still a little too scared to test those waters, but for now, I appreciate getting the vicarious thrill.
I hate jump scares. The few times I’ve played P.T. (which I still have on my PS4, thank you very much) were white-knuckle, barely able to breathe affairs; I think I actually might have screamed at one point. That makes me less than the ideal audience for Five Nights At Freddy’s. The game, which has you monitoring menacing animatronic beasties through security cameras in a hellish version of “Red Light, Green Light,” has all the elements of something I can’t stand with no real mitigating factors to make me willing to overcome those elements. But the cult that rose up around the series fascinated me, and I’ve found that I can tolerate YouTube videos of people suffering in my stead, provided they keep the shrieking to a minimum.
I play a lot of fighting games—mostly poorly—and while I understand and can execute the relatively sedate basics of something like Street Fighter V or Killer Instinct, the beautiful lunacy of Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is completely beyond me. Sure, it’s fun to tool around in its wacky toy-box, picking obscure characters and slapping on buttons until I get my fill of their screen-filling super moves. But playing Marvel competently is another story. It’s blazingly fast and demands inhuman reaction times and precision. I’ll never get good at, and at this point, I’d rather leave that wizardry to the professionals. The game’s competitive scene has waned—it is 5 years old, after all—but the mad spectacle of its fights ensures it’s still an entertaining part of every fighting-game tournament and the raucous crowds that gather around it amplify the thrill of every improbable comeback or painful walloping.
Here’s my big, cranky confession: I hate watching videos of other people playing games. I can read a lot faster than I can watch stuff, and I hate 90 percent of the stupid jokes most streamers make, which means I skip out on almost every Let’s Play video that’s ever been recommended to me. But I love reading about games, especially those that I don’t have the energy, skill, or inclination to play, which is why the rare, beautiful screenshot LP is such a joy for me. Take, for example, 1987’s Wizardry IV: The Return Of Werdna. The hardest game in a very hard series (and thus a claimant to the title of hardest role-playing game ever), Wizardry IV is a brutal, mean bastard of a game. The combat is merciless—you’re the frail, evil wizard who was the bad guy in the first game, facing off against parties of heroes still equipped with the one-hit kills and party-wiping spells that make late-game Wizardry combat such a luck-based bloodbath—and the mazes were designed by a sadist. I don’t want to try to map out long, identical-looking hallways full of unmarked teleporters or solve a puzzle based on having a working knowledge of the mystical Sephirot. But I do want to read about someone else (in this case, a Let’s Player named CrookedB) do that, while I sit back and think about how fascinating customer-hostile game design can be.
I get very disoriented by first-person games. For some reason, not being able to see my character’s body adds an extra layer of difficulty when it comes to navigating because I can’t seem to grasp where I actually am. When I first saw someone playing Portal, I knew it was a game I was absolutely incapable of playing: a first-person game where the whole point is understanding and using your surroundings. But that makes watching it, especially when the player’s good, like viewing a circus performance. I appreciate the speed at which someone can rush through a puzzle that breaks my mind the way I can be awed by a contortionist bending in ways I never will.
Not infrequently I’ll get the notion in my head that I should really check out this whole Metal Gear Solid thing the kids have been talking about this last quarter-century, but the thought of approaching the formidable bulwark of the series’ collected lore, penned by what appears to be a brilliant and enthusiastic crazy person, weighs down on me and I find Darth Vader’s simple admission to his son echoing in my head: “It’s too late for me…” Still, the series appears to be such a lovingly bizarre mishmash of utter seriousness and reckless batshit craziness that I can’t help but want to see what it’s all about, so I will happily grab a beer and sit on a friend’s couch as they play Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, traversing Afghanistan and attaching soldiers to balloons as they explain the opaque intricacies of the game to me. “Who’s that guy?” “Why does he look like that other guy, but have a big horn made of robot sticking out of his head?” “Why did you choose teal and magenta for the color scheme of his bionic hand?” I’m sure my stream of non-stop questions is maddening to my friends, but it’s awful fun for me.
I spent most of my afternoons in elementary school at friends and neighbors’ houses watching them play video games I couldn’t afford, so I’ve always had a fondness of local spectating. As an adult, I find great joy in turning friends, family, and roommates on to new games and watching as they experience them for the first time. The one that never gets old is Katamari Damacy. There’s the thrill of watching first timers shriek with bewildered glee the first time they hear the shouts of a living creature they’ve rolled up with their ball of junk, or their audible eye-roll when they figure out that The King Of All Cosmos is just a lazy, drunk, deadbeat dad. On the end of the spectrum is the artistry of expert play. Katamari masters know exactly what series of objects they need to collect and where to find them for maximum efficiency. The observer just sits back and watches the katamari balloon up in size like a force of nature as it takes sharp turns that seem physically impossible for a lumbering mass of fire trucks, Ferris wheels, and trees. I love to play nearly all of the Katamari Damacy games, but I think it might be a bit more fun to sit back and watch somebody else give it a spin.