I Like To Watch

I Like To Watch

1

With a Nazi gun aimed at your back, and your father bleeding on the ground, a path opens up before you. Random letters carved in stone. What do they spell? The word of God… the name of God… Jehovah! You take the first step.

But in the Latin alphabet, Jehovah begins with an I.

We are talking, of course, about a video game. Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade: The Action Game is a side-scrolling, arcade-style adventure game that came out in 1989. It incorporates a few puzzles and a beep-boop soundtrack inspired by the film score. If you don’t own the game—or the Atari you’d need to play it—you can experience it vicariously by watching a user-created walkthrough on YouTube.

“I’m not the guys who smoked enough crack to make this game,” says MercenaryCobra1, the author of this walkthrough. But he is the guy who smoked enough crack to upload a YouTube video of himself repeatedly playing and beating this game.

Lately I’ve been watching a lot of walkthroughs. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. They’re supposed to provide a very specific service. You watch a walkthrough in order to see the game played in the optimal way, and then you play the game yourself and beat it. But I don’t own any of the games I’ve been watching, and I have no intention of playing them. I just like to watch.

So maybe walkthroughs are more than just tutorials.

Here is the same game, as played (as walked through?) by Urinating Tree. He’s not showing us how to beat the game. It’s more like his mother locked him in his bedroom, and he’s broadcasting his tantrum to the world.

Walkthroughs can be fun and pathetic at the same time. Fun like smoking pot with your friends while you heckle a crappy movie. Pathetic like witnessing a stranger grapple with the inevitable reality of his own loneliness and misery. Either way, it’s entertainment. Walkthrough authors like MercenaryCobra1 and Urinating Tree are using video games as raw material for their own creations.

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2

When the video game is based on a movie, it gets even weirder. There is not much difference between watching The Last Crusade as a movie and watching someone play The Last Crusade as a video game. I’m not talking about the graphics, obviously. I mean they provide the same point of view, the same type of dramatic irony.

In the film, Harrison Ford is the audience’s avatar. The camera stays with him as he walks into a maze of traps on his way to the Holy Grail. We feel the wind that blows across him. The scene is suspenseful because we feel like we’re standing in Ford’s shoes. And it’s funny because there is someone outside it, providing a wisecracking commentary. Back at the entrance to the cave, Sean Connery is the first to solve the puzzle. “The word of God” means the name of God, or Jehovah. Ford realizes it an instant later, as if he’s controlled by a joystick that Connery is holding. Connery seems to be looking over Ford’s shoulder when he says, “But in the Latin alphabet, Jehovah begins with an I.” And when Ford climbs out of the pit he repeats the words that his father, or controller, just said. The whole scene is like a video game walkthrough. We have an imperiled avatar and a narrator who stands outside the action, commenting on it, making the avatar move.

Even when the graphics are terrible—and the graphics are certainly terrible in Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure (1989) and Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade (1991) by Taito for NES—a walkthrough can have the same dramatic irony as a movie, thanks to the player’s point of view and a phenomenon that I’ll call the “Don’t open that door!” effect. You know what’s supposed to happen, but you can’t do anything about it, so you squirm in your seat.

When that cursor is hovering over the letter J (around 1:38), I want to shout, “Jehovah begins with an I!”

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3

I find it almost hard to believe that the first major film based on a video game, Super Mario Bros., didn’t have a single computer-generated scene. The actors were all human beings. The story followed a typical three-act screenplay. Aside from the names of the main characters, the film was totally unlike the video games. Even as recently as Angelina Jolie’s second Tomb Raider movie in 2003, films based on video games were very much Hollywood products.

Meanwhile video games were becoming more like films. Sticking with Indiana Jones as our example, the next slate of games—Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine (1999), Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb (2003), Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings (2009)—took advantage of 3D graphics, orchestral scores, and cinematic cut scenes. While the early Indiana Jones games offered the same point of view and dramatic tension as the films, the later games finally delivered a comparable visual experience. Watching a walkthrough of The Emperor’s Tomb is like watching an Indiana Jones movie—except that Indy keeps exploring empty corridors and bumping into walls.

All it takes to make a unique Indiana Jones movie—as 77elvistheking has done here—is to record what happens on your own screen. If you’re playing a video game, you’re making a movie.

So when I watch someone play a video game, am I watching a movie? The makers of Uncharted definitely think so. For each of the Uncharted games—Drake’s Fortune, Among Thieves, and Drake’s Deception—they have released a “movie” by the same name. For all intents and purposes, these are walkthroughs: three-hour “movies” that plunge deep into the narrowing gap between movies and games. Watching them, I feel weirdly disassociated from myself, as if someone else is being me.

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4

The first video game I ever saw was Contra. My uncle was visiting from Virginia and he brought an NES. We hooked it up to an old TV in a spare room. I was too young to play such a violent game, he said. But he let me sit and watch.

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5

I think it comes down to passive versus active engagement. In the film The Last Crusade, tension arises from the illusion that we’re standing in Ford’s shoes (active) and the knowledge that we are not in control of his actions (passive). To watch a walkthrough is to compound that tension. The video game format gives the illusion that we are in control (active). But we’re not in control of the walkthrough (passive). But we know we can play the game ourselves and regain control (active). But that would require more time spent walking into empty corridors and brick walls (passive).

A movie becomes a game. A game becomes a walkthrough. A walkthrough becomes a movie. We keep switching between author and audience, between control and no control. Who is really being Indiana Jones?

Fuck it, let’s just watch The Last Crusade in LEGO.

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6

Some games are so beautifully rendered that you don’t even have to “play” them in order to enjoy them. You can just walk through.

Skyrim is one of those games.

“I am doing this for you all mainly because I am absolutely crazy,” says theRadBrad, author of this walkthrough. It’s his second attempt at the Dragonstone quest. On his first try, he spent two hours playing the game and recording his commentary before he realized his sound recorder had malfunctioned. Two hours of gameplay wasted. He had to start over.

Consider the walkthrough artist! Obsessively honing his skills at an obscure game in order to help, and maybe even entertain, a few thousand strangers on YouTube.

“Maybe this time I will be better at everything I do,” theRadBrad says. “Take that shit to the next level. How about that?”

- Brian Hurley

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