The Significance of Narrative in Gameplay Livestreaming: How Do You Persona?

Despite the world burning down around them, video games and gameplay livestreaming turned in an awe-inspiring 2017. For most people, the year was all about Nintendo, Cuphead, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. With multiplayer games dominating the most viewed games section of Twitch, it becomes easy to confuse what Twitch does and what Twitch does well. With the end of the year, I am compelled to write some on Persona 5 and how it showed us Twitch’s capability to transform gameplay into something more.

Persona 5, for the average player, is one of many great games that came out in 2017. It is perhaps the best installment in the franchise and one of the greatest JRPGs (Japanese Role-Playing Games) of all-time. You play as the oft-silent protagonist who was wrongfully arrested for a crime and forced to transfer to a new school. You spend over 100 hours taking in marvelous audio and visual design while building friendships, chasing romance, and fighting supernatural evil. It is a very distinct gameplay experience and not for everyone.

After Ezekiel_III (“Zeke”), someone well known for not being a fan of JRPGs, ranked Persona 5 his number 2 game of the year for the Dropped Frames Top 10 of 2017, I began watching his VODs. For those who have never seen him stream, I would describe it as superimposing Deadpool’s inner-monologue over an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Since Zeke is very much a comedian first and gamer second, he will regularly bring a high energy personality to a stream that creates an experience unique from playing it independently. A slow, narrative-driven game such as Persona 5 allowed these characteristics to flourish. In the middle of scenes, Zeke would provide additional audio or video to best present the gameplay experience as he wished. Such alterations would include changing the size of his green-screened video so that he could flirt with a teacher, join the protagonist in a medicinal bath, or peak through the window during an awkward scene. By selectively infusing and defusing scenes, Zeke was able to transform the gameplay.

Ezekiel_III checking in on PC

I next watched some of Adam Koebel’s playthrough from earlier in the year. Unlike Zeke who prioritized comedy as his transformative tool, Koebel took a more nuanced approach by applying personal perspectives to the gameplay, namely as a game designer and member of the LGBTQ community. As the designer of Dungeon World and primary DM for RollPlay, Koebel has a great interest in both game mechanics and world building. As a member of the LGBTQ community, he has a greater awareness of how media presents gender and sexuality. Koebel can pair these two components of his identity to identify and discuss points of interest throughout the game. His approach was reminiscent of how I have used television or movie clips when teaching more complex topics, such as theology or ethics to high school and college students. Furthermore, his perspectives are unique from most of Twitch’s regular audience and, therefore, presents a perspective and experience unattainable for most viewers.

These two examples of exceptional uses of Twitch are not to say the more standard streams do not have their merit. Like most Twitch viewers, I enjoy watching the gameplay of the best players in the world or people adding humorous commentary to some of my favorite games while they play through it; however, neither of these approaches create a unique gameplay experience. By working to transform the entire experience beyond the presented gameplay, streamers like Ezekiel_III and Adam Koebel provide the best explanation for why watching someone play a game is, at times, better than playing it yourself.

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