Here's the Thing

On Loss and Let’s Plays

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #98. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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A monthly glimpse into whatever gaming bugaboo Rob’s got on his mind.

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I got into the whole Let’s Play thing a bit late; it wasn’t until 2013/2014 that I bothered subscribing to anybody on YouTube and, even then, I usually scoffed at the idea of simply watching some stranger play a game when I could just play it myself. Once I started getting into it, I began to understand the entertainment value of it, but the scoffing continued when I’d scroll into the comments and regularly see someone with a sob story about how crappy their life is and how watching this person’s videos is what kept them going. I mean come on, that’s gotta be a melodramatic exaggeration, right? Here’s the thing: it’s not. And it wasn’t until my own life was upended by tragedy.

Last year (October to November of 2016, specifically) was bad. Really bad. In addition to the surface level stress of a significant chunk of the country wanting to put a hateful little goblin in charge of everything, our beloved cat Ampersand – no exaggeration, she was a huge part of our lives and in many ways the glue that held us together – was diagnosed with stomach cancer. We were scared and upset, but we also figured that we’d have a couple more good years with her as we prepared to say goodbye. Unfortunately, things moved a lot faster than anybody could have anticipated. In less than a month, we were taking her to the vet for the last time.

Alongside the misery and stress that came with all of this, I also had a serious problem with grieving. It’s something that I’ve dealt with for most of my life and I kind of hate it. For whatever reason, it’s been extremely difficult for me to be properly upset about serious grief. It might sound great, being able to endure something tragic and not shed a single tear, but it’s actually awful. Bad stuff would happen and I wouldn’t have any sort of cathartic release. The events surrounding Ampersand’s illness were going to be the same way and I hated knowing I wouldn’t be able to let any significant emotions out.

Then I started turning to Let’s Plays. More and more, I’d focus on long-running series of emotional games, played by people I enjoyed watching. Most notably, I kept going back to the end of Jacksepticeye’s playthrough of Undertale (plus the playthrough by Barry and Ross from Game Grumps’ Steam Train), as well as Jack’s playthrough of The Last Guardian. For whatever reason, seeing these emotional videogame moments play out and watching/hearing other people crack started to break down whatever barrier was preventing me from dealing with my own grief.

I cried along with them, and it felt good. I mean it felt bad, because I was miserable and distraught over the loss of a family member, but I was finally able to let that misery out. In a way, it almost felt like they were grieving with me, even though I know that’s not true. That perception helped a lot, though. This isn’t to say that a couple of YouTube videos made everything better, but they helped me a lot as a coping mechanism.

It took me a while, but I finally get why people will become emotionally invested in the Let’s Players they watch regularly. They are there for you when you need them, whether it’s with a timely and poignant upload or a two-year-old video that you can always go back to when you need to feel better about things.

I have nothing particularly witty or meaningful to say in order to bring this to a close, so I’ll just go with this: Let’s Plays helped me deal with the most painful moment of my life (so far), and I’m very thankful for that.

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Rob Rich has loved videogames since the 80s and has the good fortune to be able to write about them. Catch his rants on Twitter at @RobsteinOne

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