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The fastest way to complete your video game backlog

Streamers and VOD creators have made it easier and cheaper to experience old games

Super Mario 64 ending with two Toads, Mario and Peach Nintendo
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

In the spirit of Backlog Week I should probably muster some encouraging words, but let’s be real: you and me, we’ll never reach the end of our backlogs. They’ll only get longer and more intimidating to approach. In 2018, the time required to keep up just with the year’s best new releases has surpassed the hours available in a day. Between the abundance of small-to-medium scale games and their countless updates and patches, along with AAA studios’ ever-increasing focus on designing big games to be services that consume hundreds to thousands of hours, nobody can expect to play every game that they’d like to. No, not even those of us paid, in part, to keep up.

I do have a semi-solution, one I rely on professionally, and that I think others will appreciate recreationally. The fastest (and often best) way to enjoy a backlog, not simply slog through it as some perverse obligation, is to watch it.

My advice won’t shock anyone under the age of 20, many of whom already use livestreams and YouTube videos to solve not just the question of time, but of money. It’s hard to catch up on games on a part-time job or a modest allowance. But for adults less familiar with watching games, I encourage you to consider playthroughs as an accessible and helpful entry point to the joys of watching games.

To all the purists: yes, I get that playing and watching games aren’t the same, that a large part of the magic games -- the freedom they offer players to experiment and explore, to interact, to set our own pace in a way that’s not permitted by passive entertainment like film, TV or even a good book -- doesn’t apply to a stream. But the more I watch games, particularly when played by people who generously annotate their experiences with wit and insightful comments, the more I’m okay exchanging the pleasure of interactivity for the convenience of a good playthrough. (On occasion, not always; this isn’t a call to stop playing games entirely.)

The advantages of watching your backlog are numerous: you can fast-forward or skip dull chunks of games entirely, zipping past filler stages of first-person shooters or the grind of RPGs; you get to witness expert-level play without hundreds of hours of practice; you might discover secret nooks and crannies you might have missed had you played in a hurry. It’s also free. The cost of video games as a hobby, particularly every mew console plus a PC so that you don’t miss a thing, is untenable. But so long as you have access to a web browser or a smartphone, you can watch what you’d otherwise miss.

Playthroughs allow us to catch up on a game and the conversation around the game. My favorite brand of playthroughs progress like a good tour of a city you’ve never visited; like a tour, it lacks the benefits of strolling the city on your own, but nonetheless stuffs everything you want to see into a comparably diminutive window of time, And through this sprint past all the landmarks, the skilled tour guides gleefully, elegantly and patiently shares the context that only locals and experts can provide.

Kotaku recently collected 10 of the staff’s favorite Let’s Plays, many of which nail this style and tone. The highlight is this exhaustive video series from James Howell analyzing an old run he performed in Metal Gear Solid 2. Howell is exceptionally good at the game, giving viewers a look at a style of play most wouldn’t see -- even if they had the time to play the game on their own -- and his commentary unpacks how the game works, why players pursue this level of expertise and who Howell was when he captured this run. You’re seeing Metal Gear Solid 2, but you experience it through a lens only possible from the Let’s Play format. You don’t get to see the whole game, and yet, you get so much of what the game has to offer.

Watching games has its challenges. First and foremost, you need to find good hosts who know when and when not to talk. The hosts’ taste don’t need to align perfectly with your own, but it helps if they share some of your broad opinions on what’s special about games. If you crave rapturous hype and don’t mind shouting, a simple scroll of the YouTube Games are will introduce you to some fun (though sometimes problematic) players. But if you prefer something slower, more thoughtful and curated, it will require some legwork to find the right streamer or playthrough creator for you. You might find, like I did, that the perfect streaming diet is a mix of styles.

If you’re the sort of person who cares deeply about games -- who doesn’t have the time or energy to play as much these days, but still has the passion -- I assure you the investment in finding a good player-proxy on YouTube or Twitch is worth the headache. I’ve found these videos to be a healthy, more fruitful replacement for social media as I scarf down lunch or take a short break from the day. You can’t play games at the office -- but you can watch them. As I get older and my weekends and weeknights fill with the obligations of adulthood, that’s the only selling point I need.