Well Played, volume 6 number 1: Permadeath Speedrun

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I have a video in the latest issue of Well Played (volume 6, number 1) that is a special issue based on the idea of the “Let’s Play” format. There are six videos in the issue, all bringing to bear some kind of academic/thoughtful approach to the idea of the let’s play and what it can be used to talk about. I haven’t had a chance to watch them all as yet, but there’s quite a range of material and approaches here, from a take on a South Park game that emphasises the way it slips seamlessly between cutscene and play (all of it looking just like the show) to a playing of Fallout 4 that involves trying to play “realistically”.

My own contribution to the issue was a packaging of a collection of my Let’s Play: Permadeath: Speedrun series from the last while. It seemed like a good fit to me when I saw the call for the issue come out, as I personally think of the video series as being very much a form of analysis/insight into games, even if the videos themselves don’t involve a little picture of me talking about what it all means. I guess there’s a question there of whether I’m offering “enough” in terms of material for the viewer, whether it needs unpacking, but, you know, art and all that.

Making the version that’s actually in the issue proved oddly difficult. My first instinct was just to stick a whole bunch of the videos together and hey presto. But obviously that really is too underwhelming. When you put them together as a “whole” you’re kind of suggesting there’s a larger story involved and you have to give at least some context and preparation to the viewer. So I thought initially about just some initial titles that explained what a permadeath speedrun is and why I think it’s an interesting way to look at a videogame and think about how it works and how it presents and interprets the idea of death, life, effort, etc.

But pasting a serious “artist’s statement” at the front didn’t feel, well, poetic enough. So I ended up writing an introductory passage to be read out over the video sequence of Half-Life with the tram introduction followed by Gordon’s immediate death. That allowed me to hook into the rhetoric and tone of the actual narration of that sequence, which introduces you to Black Mesa and the basic environment of the game. In the text of the speech I tried to strike a balance between genuine information about what the larger video was about (i.e. what a permadeath speedrun it, how it works, what it might mean) alongside a more poetic interpretation, drawing more specifically on the ideas present in Half-Life‘s original narration. It turned out to be a pretty fun writing challenge, and in the end I was quite happy with the balancing act.

That speech is the main addition – beyond this the series is pretty much just present as a sequence of videos, contextualised by the first video and its introductory narration. I shuffled the order of the videos around into something I felt had decent pacing and comic timing (after all, a lot death in games tends to be slapstick). Then, because I was so desperate to include it, I put in my one-and-a-half hour long speedrun of Papers, Please at the end, accelerated using movie-magic so that it’s actually (somewhat) watchable. The sped-up sound of the accelerated section of the game, endless high-speed flipping of paper, is strangely hypnotic to me.

Anyway, that’s the story of my contribution to this issue of Well Played. Hope you get a chance to watch it at some point!

18 January 2017
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