In Praise Of 'Podcast Games'

by Jeff Cork on Dec 24, 2016 at 09:00 AM

For the longest time, I considered game audio sacred. If you were to suggest that I play a game on mute, I would have called you crazy. The idea of listening to something else entirely bordered on heresy. I’ve softened that stance over the past few years, listening to my own music once a game’s soundtrack grew thin, or when it allowed for custom playlists. This past year, I’ve finally embraced a way of playing that only a few years ago would have made me shake my head in disbelief: Yes, I often listen to podcasts when I play games. Let me explain myself a bit, and also provide a few recommendations if you’re looking for something new to listen to.

Before you audio-engineer types drive me out of town, let me be clear. I have the utmost respect for games that have in-depth stories or soundtracks that are absolutely essential to the experience, and in those cases I’ll leave well enough alone. But I don’t play a lot of those games at home anymore. Instead, I play a lot of open-world games or games that encourage a lot of grinding when I’m not in the office. In those instances, few soundtracks are robust enough to keep my interest for several dozens of hours. That’s when I turn to podcasts.

A while back, Sony gave away the PS4 version of Warriors Orochi 3 to PlayStation Plus members. This is a perfect example of a podcast game. Once you get over the novelty of the game’s screaming guitar riffs, you can safely turn on the subtitles and turn the music volume down without missing anything at all. I spent the bulk of that game listening to episodes of The Dollop and I Was There Too. The same went for Dragon Quest Builders, once I’d spent a few days hearing the same handful of songs over and over again. In both cases, I’d pause whatever episode I was listening to the moment a cinematic popped up, no matter how inconsequential. 

I wouldn’t consider trying to play a Telltale Game with a podcast running in the background, or anything else that’s particularly story heavy. And a game like Overwatch, which tucks a lot of critically important gameplay information such as enemy positioning into the audio, isn’t a good candidate for this approach, either. But a lot of games that feature grinding or repetitive exploration (Mad Max, anyone?) are a perfect fit for multitasking. 

What to listen to?
It seems like everyone has a podcast nowadays. Some jerks even have two! Figuring out what to listen to can be a challenge, but I’m here to help. Here are a few of my favorite podcasts, which have all helped me get through some of the longest grinds in games. (And I'll just assume that you're already tuning into the Game Informer Show every week.)

Comedy Bang! Bang!
If you’re a fan of absurdist humor, you’re probably already familiar with this one. If not, host Scott Aukerman is joined each episode by several guests for a fairly straight interview opener, followed up by some of the most consistently dumb and funny improv around.

I was There Too
Each episode, host Matt Gourley talks to people who had minor roles in some of the biggest movies around. Guests have included the lady who pushed the baby carriage in the train station in The Untouchables and one of the BMX-riding kids from E.T. It’s a fascinating, hilarious way to look behind-the-scenes of some of your favorite movies.

Song Exploder
I’ve always loved hearing musicians talk about the stories behind their songs, and Song Exploder takes that to another level. Host Hrishikesh Hirway gets songwriters and musicians to break down one of their songs layer by layer, explaining why they made the decisions they did. The episode with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo is particularly great, where he talks about his completely bonkers way of songwriting that involves yelling, Excel spreadsheets, and generally being a crazy person.

Reply All
Reply All says it’s about the internet and the people who shape the internet, and that about sums it up. PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman seem genuinely giddy about what they’re talking about most of the time, whether it’s helping people solve their online woes or investigating AdWords scams.

Sampler was given the ol’ ax a few months ago, but it’s worth running through its back catalog. The idea behind it was that host Britanny Luse would choose a theme, and then explore a bunch of different podcasts based on it with a guest. It’s a great way to hear snippets from episodes of a whole mess of shows, without having to invest too much time. I’m really bummed that it’s over, but I’m hoping that whatever Luse comes up with next is just as good.

Hollywood Handbook
This is a super polarizing show, but I’ll recommend it anyway. Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements play exaggerated versions of themselves as they hang out with TV writers, comedians, and other entertainers. They get great guests, and it’s surprising how they almost always are willing to play along with the narcissistic stupidity of it all. Comedian Tom Scharpling is a frequent guest, and his early appearances are a great place to start.

What's the Point
I’m far from a stat nerd, but FiveThirtyEight’s podcast is a great listen. Jody Avirgan picks a different theme every week, and does a deep (but approachable) dive on it with an expert guest. They’ve tackled controversial subjects like gun violence and police accountability, but they’ve also looked at things like the Westminster Dog Show and how researchers map and track bears.

99% Invisible
When done effectively, you don’t often notice good design. With that in mind, it’s fun to learn more about the objects, places, and other things that are often invisible (99 percent of the time?) in our day-to-day lives. Roman Mars helps with that every week, with his excellent podcast. He’s had episodes about airports and plaques at roadside attractions, and he has a knack for making even the most boring-sounding subjects sound interesting and praise-worthy. 

There are a million true-crime podcasts out there, but I haven’t found one that handles the subject with as much poise and respect as Criminal. That’s not to say it isn’t an entertaining listen. Phoebe Juge handles a wide array of crime, from low-stakes burglaries to murders that landed the wrong person in prison for decades. She has a knack for getting to the humanity behind it all, making it one of my absolute favorites.

Kind World
These super short episodes are a refreshing break from internet cynicism. Erika Lanz shares tiny personal stories filled with compassion and hope. I usually spread them throughout my podcast playlist as a spacer between headier subjects.