Over the last decade, long-form video essays have grown in popularity — arguably entering into a boom all their own. Viewers can easily look up a video essay on just about any topic they’d like to, from deep dives into filmmaking, theme park history, fashion, and everything in between. With such a large offering of video essays out there, one sub-genre that has found its own footing is that of the video game culture essay.
These particular gaming videos are a style of visual essay that offers both the creators behind them and viewers the space to explore video games in new ways that extend beyond what we’ve come to expect in a video game review. That flavor of video tends to dig more into a niche topic that the creator is most interested in — be that a theme, specific character, or even how artistic choices impact the game.
These gaming essays have managed to find their own foothold within the wider world of video game commentary while maintaining a pretty even coexistence with the traditional game review format. Both offer up individual thoughts and insight on video games while actively not detracting from the other.
To better understand that foothold and coexistence, I spoke with two creators who have been making culture gaming essays. They explained what exactly drives them to share their unique perspectives through this format and what serves as a draw to both gaming essays and reviews for viewers.
The draw of the video game essay
Understanding what initially drives a creator to get started on making video game culture essays can give us insight into why they’ve found such a strong foothold in the gaming space to begin with. There’s something to be said for knowing the passion behind something. For both Maria (also known as eurothug4000) and Daryl Talks Games, the initial interest to discuss more niche topics related to video games stemmed from outside influences.
Maria, who has been creating videos on YouTube since 2018, shared that her background in studying art during her A-Levels helped serve as inspiration for the discussions around art direction and aesthetics that she has in her video essays.
“I had a very good teacher throughout those years,” Maria tells . “There was one exercise, in particular, she would make the class do when analyzing the works of artists, which would basically just be a good old brainstorm diagram. We would have the painting or photograph in the center and write anything that comes to mind as we looked at it — texture, mood, content, etc. This is something I do in my mind when looking at games. It’s just a natural process so deeply ingrained into my brain — I can’t help it!”
“Essays give both players and creators a chance to find beauty in the mundane, clarity in the intricacy …”
Daryl Talks Games initially started out on YouTube in 2009. But as a long-time gamer with an interest in psychology, he knew that he wanted to get back to making videos eventually. Nowadays, he makes “essays that center around the “interaction between psychology, video games, video game design, and life.” His inspiration came from Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit, a channel that takes deep dives into every aspect of game design.
“I was captivated by his ability to explain things I had never noticed in games and how fascinating it was to learn why games work from a design standpoint,” he tells . “I came across his channel during my last year of undergrad and since I was studying psychology, I found myself making connections between a lot of the points he was making and the things I was learning in class. I pretty much just said ‘Let me try the whole essay thing, but my gimmick will be psychology.’ Since I was uninterested in grad school and a bachelor’s in psychology pretty much only qualifies you to be a YouTuber, I just kept on making videos!”
Both creators approach their gaming essays through a new lens that gives them the ability to explore games in ways that go beyond the limits of standard criticism.
Niche topics in a not-so-new format
With the broad range of possible topics that creators can explore in their gaming essays, it’s no surprise that creators choose to look at hyper-specific things that catch their interest — such as the space in games that players encounter between a respawn point and the boss.
Niche topics offer viewers the chance to see what creators are seeing in a game that extends beyond just a cursory playthrough or answering the question that many turn to reviews for: Is this a game that I’d like to play?
“They’re just documentaries, but smaller, with more personality, and sort of, dialed-in to one very niche topic. I have a whole essay on the mental health of this one particular side character in Deltarune. Jacob Geller has an entire video exploring games that specifically save their most interesting bits for last,” Daryl Talks Games says. “I think both myself and others that do this enjoy it so much because creatively, the sky’s the limit. Essays give both players and creators a chance to find beauty in the mundane, clarity in the intricacy, and generally just a chance to enjoy games on a deeper level than if we had just played them and moved on.”
That ability to explore and enjoy games a little deeper in gaming essays certainly offers viewers another way to look at and experience the games that they’re playing, almost peeling back certain layers in a sense. Some gaming essays tend to tread into lengthy territory as a result, often going over the 30-minute mark. Ladyknightthebrave has an hour and a half look at the Last of Us series, while some of Tim Rogers’ videos are about as long as an HBO miniseries.
Maria, who originally began producing game reviews, eventually figured out that she enjoyed making this style of gaming deep-dive more.
“A lot of the time I focus on the inspirations behind certain games that contribute to their art style,” Maria says. “For example, Demon’s Souls‘ background in dark fantasy and its similarities to Frank Frazetta’s works, or the cultural aspects behind Resident Evil Village that I rarely see in games. In Kuon (PS2), even the saving mechanic is contextualized by having a small ritual involved instead of just a menu with a save button. While I love just how game worlds look, it’s really impressive to me when they can fit their mechanics into it as it makes me feel even more engaged.”
Coexistence with traditional game reviews
Gaming essays and game reviews have come to a rather unique coexistence. And while viewers and creators alike might prefer one form of gaming commentary over the other, both Maria and Daryl Talks Games honed in on the fact that both serve slightly different purposes at the end of the day — even as they both work to answer questions.
“They’re just documentaries, but smaller”
“A review, in my mind, is to inform someone whether they would want to purchase the game for themselves, or to simply see what other people generally thought about it,” Maria says. “A video essay can offer the same, but ultimately they’re about learning something new, whether that’s about the game, someone’s personal experience, or even something seemingly unrelated. A lot of my videos have got me researching all kinds of random topics. I’ve learned about Italian horror cinema, camp fashion, and even the origin of CPR dolls to name a few!”
“There are plenty of reviews for the game Kill out there, but I am definitely the only one offering a detailed analysis on how it illustrates dissociative amnesia.” Daryl Talks Game says.
That slight difference in overall purpose sets gaming essays and reviews apart from each other but also ties them together. Creators and viewers can easily pick and choose which of the two they’d like to create and watch respectively.
“We all see and play games differently which means that everyone gets their own experience,” Daryl says about the coexistence of gaming essays and reviews. “For some, the mechanics are more interesting, for others, it’s the music, for some it’s all of it! Just about any genre of gaming video will be important to someone out there and it will never be impossible for a person to only watch one type of gaming video.”
In a space that could easily have been dominated by one or the other, gaming essays have managed to find a unique coexistence alongside game reviews while maintaining their own individual draw. Creators like Maria and Daryl Talks Games find a lot of joy in the varied ways that they can discuss games in their essays, sharing special insight and discussions around topics that are important to them — all while deepening the collective toolkit we use to understand games.
Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity.