Ever binge-watched a series on Netflix? If you have, then you’ll already have something in common with YouTube’s playthrough community. But why watch a playthrough of a game when there are so many award-winning movies and TV shows out there? What on earth, I hear you asking, makes no-commentary playthroughs special?
Well, to start off, I’m not talking about the gaming videos YouTube influencers churn out. The ‘no-commentary playthrough’ genre is quite different from tuning in to hear your favourite personality scream at Five Nights at Freddy’s, spawning ‘lols’ and ‘bants’ along the way. RabidRetrospectGames (opens in new tab), one of the biggest no commentary channels on YouTube (currently they have over 250,000 subscribers), is of the opinion that “some YouTubers out there have a tendency to ruin whatever it is that they are playing by talking over key elements to whatever it is that they are playing”. Chatting over key bits of dialogue or skipping a cutscene can take viewers completely out of feeling immersed in the game, as doing so makes it more about the reaction than the game. No-commentary playthroughs exist to turn games into movies, making them one big spectacle you can sit back and watch in one go. For some, having someone talking over playthroughs is like sitting next to a chatterbox in the cinema.
Playthroughs bridge the gap between films and games, the former presenting you with incredible spectacles and the latter giving you the chance to be part of it. Comfortably wedged between the two, playthroughs remind the audience that if you want to, you can experience it for yourself. Although sometimes it’s easy to forget you’re not playing the game yourself, as the HUD around the edges of the screen is far from invasive. Instead it reminds the audience that they’re watching a game being controlled from behind the scenes, recorded for their entertainment.
When you have to pay £12 for a movie ticket or subscribe to an online streaming service to get your dose of pop culture, the availability of game playthroughs online are for many a free alternative too good to ignore. With stories just as good as blockbuster films or successful TV shows, games offer the same entertainment value as their big-screen competitors. Sometimes viewers even skip most of the gameplay: “several of our most popular videos are cutscenes and gameplay stitched together to make makeshift movies”, says RabidRetrospectGames. Plus, no commentary channels prefer to get their playthroughs up as quickly as possibly in longplay format, meaning there’s no waiting around for new episodes to appear. You can sit down and watch 8 hours of gameplay in one video if you want to, its ‘longplay’ format meaning viewers don’t have to bother searching for the next video and can just sit back and relax.
YouTube as a platform also lets its creators immediately see feedback from their audience, meaning that the viewers know that their voice has a greater chance of being heard. If there’s a specific way they want them to play, they have an opportunity to influence the consequent videos. Along with the fact that in most RPGs it’s up to the player to explore as much as they want, no-commentary playthroughs are also a way to bring the audience closer to the story and setting. If you see Tyrion walking through an intriguing street in Kings’ Landing you can’t exactly make him stop so you can drink in all the detail. With no-commentary playthroughs, however, some creators have become conscious that their audience mostly want to soak up as much detail as possible, so have begun to mention in their descriptions just how much depth they go into. Whether it’s searching for all the collectables in the game, or emphasising the fact that they explore all dialogue branches, viewers can pick and choose a playthrough to match how they’d play the game.
Many YouTubers realise that their viewers are hankering for the story, so some have started to hold key notes, text, and objects up on the screen for a couple of seconds. Users can pause and read them for themselves, maintaining the quick pace during an efficient playthrough without overlooking a substantial part of their audience. Small actions like that are just one of the reasons why they’ve got such a loyal fanbase.
For many, these playthroughs are their primary exposure to the world of video games. Most would say it’s because they can’t afford the game, as their price tags are enough to make most wallets wince. Even if you are tempted by the game, dropping $45 on it can seem like a lot, so playthroughs become a useful preview tool to test out whether they’re worth it. (opens in new tab), a popular no-commentary channel, thinks that seeing as demos have “gone, playthroughs on YouTube [are] a popular alternative”. Especially considering that some trailers may not include gameplay footage and end up fooling players that the whole game is going to look like one giant cutscene (*cough* Aliens: Colonial Marines *cough*). Sometimes it’s because - and I can sympathise with this - they simply can’t bring themselves to play. Paralysed by fear isn’t just a turn of phrase: walking through the asylum in Outlast takes a lot of guts. But they still want to watch the story unfold, intrigued by trailers or people singing its praise online. It’s somewhat comparable to watching a horror film - you wouldn’t want to find yourself inside one, but you still want to see what happens all the same.
As Bolloxed pointed out, people who watch no commentary videos are “only interested in the content of the game, not the player”, but that doesn’t mean that what you’re watching is dull. Showing the potential of a game is one of the most important aspects of creating a playthrough, especially when the creators stay silent and rely on gameplay to start a dialogue with the audience. Observing that you “have to communicate and engage with [the] viewer via their playing”, Bolloxed mentioned how they have to “show off a bit of skill and basically keep it entertaining so the viewer will continue to watch and not get bored. This can be quite time consuming at times as you often have to do several 'takes' of a level if you die or do it badly for example”. Just like movies, to a certain extent playthroughs are about acting too. Creators maintain the personality of the character they’re controlling throughout their gameplay. Using skills and exploiting perks which match their character’s disposition, they’re showing people the potential of the game whilst also making sure they’re watching one constant stream of action, rather than disrupting it with deaths and fumbling gameplay.
Quietly bubbling on YouTube is gaming’s silent majority. Watching playthroughs is a way to feel like part of the gaming world, and hunting them down - then admitting you watch them to people who have their own consoles - demonstrates initiative, passion, and patience. Here’s to hoping they don’t go the way of demos and die out anytime soon.