The long-form YouTube video game essay has seen a meteoric rise in popularity over the past four to five years. What was, initially, a niche, enthusiast-only format, is now the vehicle for some of the most popular video game related content available online. There is a very strong chance that your favourite game will have (at least) a half hour long ‘critique’ listed somewhere within the vast athenaeum that is YouTube; likely narrated by a softly spoken individual accompanied by royalty free classical music (bonus points if said classical music is a variation of Strauss’ Blue Danube). Separating the wheat from the chaff can be a daunting and time-consuming task, especially when presented with playlists containing upwards of 1400 individual essays and analyses. So, as someone who has spent far too much time listening to other people talk about video games on the internet, I have collated five, of what I consider to be, the absolute best of the medium. These are presented in the ever click-baity, SEO friendly style of a top five list, because the only authority is false authority.
5. Devil May Cry Commentary — Matthewmatosis
One of the progenitors of the long form YouTube video game essay with, at the time of writing, videos almost a decade old, Matthewmatosis is best known for his in-depth commentary on the Souls games, as well as a series of reviews concerning the 3D Legend of Zelda titles. Matosis’ videos are often and primarily concerned with mechanics, and how the mechanics of the game in question function in tandem with the rest of the design choices present. The is clear when viewing the kind of hardcore, high skill ceiling titles that he shows a preference for in both his main channel content and his live streams, such as Dustforce, The Wonderful 101 and Alien Soldier. This intense, sometimes rigid adherence to the idea that gameplay trumps all can make some of Matosis’ content quite challenging to get behind, but despite some personal disagreements regarding design philosophy, I find his critical (for lack of a better term) ‘let’s play’s’ to be fascinating. His ‘Devil May Cry Commentary’ is, I believe, to be the standout video in his body of work. Throughout, we get to watch Matosis complete a no damage, Dante must die, all S-rank, no item playthrough of the original Devil May Cry, while providing a full, separately recorded, audio analysis over the footage. Even if you have no interest in character action games or Devil May Cry as a series, it is incredible to watch someone with a clear mastery of the game and the game mechanics methodically work their way through the entire experience while providing relevant, interesting criticisms. Matosis is clearly extremely comfortable with the hardcore, gameplay focused style of Devil May Cry and his commentary is often both insightful and interesting as a result. The best compliment I can give this piece is that every time I rewatch it, I get the strong urge to play through Devil May Cry again — a game I’ve beaten more times than I can count.
4. In Defense of Dark Souls 2 — hbomberguy
Taking everything in pretty much the exact opposite direction in terms of game design philosophy, we have what is likely to be the most subversive entry on this list, hbomberguy’s ‘In Defense of Dark Souls 2’. Often cited as the worst game in the Souls franchise, Dark Souls 2 received a lot of fan backlash upon release, usually focused on its less than stellar hitboxes, odd, disconnected world and visual disparities when compared to its pre-release material. The game was a hot topic on video game forums, as well as a veritable goldmine for snarky YouTube content creation (which it may still be, considering you can find videos with names such as ‘The Dark Souls 2 Problem’ that are currently less than three months old). Most of the popular essayists threw their hat in the ring when it came to Dark Souls 2, with some of the most viewed videos coming from the aforementioned Matthewmatosis and the not-to-be-mentioned (though still very watchable!) Joseph Anderson. In the midst of a lot of this negative critique, hbomberguy released a video that dared to claim that not only was Dark Souls 2 very good, but that it might even be better than the original. While I am something of Dark Souls 2 apologist myself, I have not listed this video purely based on the fact that it pushed back against the opinion of the hardcore fanbase, but because it provides an example of a very worthwhile, very different framework by which to analyse video games. While Matthewmatosis provides his usual, interesting, and well-thought-out mechanical approach to criticism, hbomberguy incorporates a literary style, which focuses far more on atmosphere, visual storytelling, reference, and a lot of details not necessarily informed by the pure, moment to moment mechanics of Dark Souls 2. The fifth part of the video, which specifically focuses on story, is excellent and provides a though provoking and honestly, quite touching reading of the world and internal character of the game. On the flip side, if you really hate this video (and are something of a masochist), there’s plenty of not quite so well thought out responses you can wade through, some over ten hours long! Most of these videos come complete with crudely photoshopped thumbnails of hbomberguy himself, clearly the first step in proving that you are, in fact, the strongest and smartest Dark Souls 2 disliker.
3. Final Fantasy VII Remake / The Infinite Review #22 — The Infinite Review/MechaGamezilla
The smallest (and most underrated) channel on this list provides us with one of the best looks at both Final Fantasy VII Remake and Final Fantasy VII that you can find on YouTube. Previously creating content under the title of MechaGamezilla, The Infinite Review is a channel dedicated to ‘reviewing the entire universe’, so it was quite clear that he would have to tackle video games at some point. Again, providing something quite different from both Matosis and hbomberguy, The Infinite Review offers a far more humorous, casual, and anecdotal kind of critique. Touching and expanding on some of what I loved about the story segment of hbomberguy’s Dark Souls 2 essay, The Infinite Review provides a personal and emotional analysis of the impact that Final Fantasy VII has had on most video game enthusiasts’ lives. The kind of colloquial, relaxed atmosphere present in the video really helps to highlight the emotional bond that a lot of players have formed with the game in question — the actual analysis may not be quite as formal or as ‘serious’ as most YouTube ‘critiques’, but it is no less poignant, or important. As we, collectively, reach a point where admiration and adoration for these classic games becomes something of a platitude (so much so that pure contrarianism is stronger than ever in some gaming circles), it is incredibly refreshing to watch a critique so honest and personal that it helps reignite that spark: that spark that makes you fall in love with a game all over again.
2. ACTION BUTTON REVIEWS Tokimeki Memorial — Tim Rogers
As we hit he final two entries contained on this list, we begin to tackle some of the absolute finest video game content you can view anywhere online. I make no reservations when I claim that I could easily fill two top ten lists with just videos created by these two essayists alone. Our number two spot is home to video game journalism legend Tim Rogers, who provides us with a wonderful and wonderfully long six-hour video created under the banner of his relatively new channel Action Button. Tim Rogers content is as divisive as it is fascinating, and he delivers his critique with a breathless, chaotic, wordy, tangent filled fervour. While all videos created under the Action Button banner are highly enjoyable and highly worth watching, the Tokimeki Memorial video in particular delivers a level of expertise and knowledge that you are unlikely to get anywhere else. Having lived in Japan, and being fluent in Japanese, Tim Rogers takes us through a layered, two-playthrough exploration of the Japanese exclusive, cultural phenomenon dating-sim Tokimeki Memorial. A game that, especially at the time of release, was so far removed from any sort of Western understanding that most people who consider themselves hardcore gamers have never even heard of it. I would claim that Tim Rogers Tokimeki Memorial review is one of the rare essential video game essays. His critique combines in depth analysis of the game’s mechanics, reference to relevant and important surrounding material and media (including literature and music) and provides that highly valued emotional anecdote that gives the whole piece a distinctly personal touch. Indeed, there are so many personal tangents in Rogers’ work, that it may be too much for some and they may feel that any actual analysis is overshadowed by the personality of the creator. However, I would argue that the intense, bordering on self-indulgent, prose of Tim Rogers is a defining and unique element of his criticism, that only serves to heighten and embellish his exceptionally and meticulously produced content. I guarantee that no one else on YouTube is talking about Tokimeki Memorial and if by some cosmic chance they are, they sure as hell aren’t doing it like Tim Rogers.
1. Home, Home on the Console: From Red Dead Revolver to Red Dead Redemption 2 — Noah Caldwell-Gervais
I truly believe that no one is more deserving of the number one spot on this list than the excellent Noah Caldwell-Gervais. Despite the quality of his writing, Gervais is eclipsed in production value by every single other entry on this list. In fact, it may be quite difficult to find any YouTube video essayist quite as spartan. His early videos have relatively poor audio quality, and he chooses to bely any sort of visual flourish with his video editing, instead opting to speak over raw gameplay footage with no transitions, no background music and rarely any cuts. Noah Caldwell-Gervais is, for lack of a better term, no nonsense. There are no wasted words when it comes to his analysis, almost every sentence is concise, thoughtful, and often strikingly poignant. I cannot count the number of times that Gervais has increased my appreciation for games I love (and even games I didn’t love) through his clear, elucidating prose. ‘Home, Home on the Console’ is, I believe, his magnum-opus (though it remains in tight competition with his long form analysis videos on the Resident Evil series, God of War and Neverwinter Nights). This video marries the best parts of all previous entries mentioned on this list. It has the clear expertise of Tim Rogers, with Gervais’ excellent grasp of the Western in all its genre forms. He elucidates on themes by comparing classic and revisionist Western media, all while deftly bridging the gap between video games and literature by including reference to the works of Cormac McCarthy. Gervais also makes wonderful use of his clear interest in and knowledge of the geography of the American south — his passion for the subject feels real, nuanced and wholly palpable. Mechanical analysis is very much present and helps to inform the overall critique, but it is blended beautifully with Gervais’ second-to-none literary analysis, which really elevates the material beyond the confines of what most people will just see as a video game. He treats the medium with the artistic respect it deserves and judges these games with a serious, mature, well-rounded understanding of the material. His personal anecdotes are subtle and always relevant to the subject at hand, never appearing as unnecessary, or self-satisfied. I should probably mention that this entire video is four hours long, but as with all the best things in life, it feels like it passes by in the blink of an eye. If you end up watching one video recommended by this list, I truly believe it should be this one.