The simple joys of podcast games

There aren’t many things I can say that I was into before they were cool, but podcasts are definitely one of them. I’ve been listening to podcasts since 2005, long before they became yet another way for celebrities to extend their digital brands. Hell, I’ve been listening to them since before the ‘pod’ in podcast stopped actually making sense. And my love of the medium has remained with me to this day.

The problem with podcasts? They’re time consuming! My stats page in Pocket Casts (my podcatcher of choice) tells me that since 10 September 2016, I’ve listened to 5,085 hours of podcasts. That’s a lot of hours! Back when I commuted to work and back five times a week, podcasts fit quite neatly into my life. Ever since the start of the pandemic and the dawn of hybrid working, though, it’s been harder to keep up with my backlog.

That time commitment is something that podcasts have in common with games, then. It’s no secret that for the last decade plus, games have been getting bigger and bigger. I put 80 hours into Horizon Forbidden West. I’m 90 hours into The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, with no apparent end in sight. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that demands on my time have increased significantly. I don’t even have kids but between friends, family, work, and trying to keep my house from looking like a hellhole, I just don’t have as much free time as I used to.

So what’s the solution? To me, it’s obvious, but it might upset some purists. The answer, my friends, is to embrace the podcast game.

Show notes

Podcast games are exactly what they sound like: games I play while I listen to podcasts. I’ll turn down the game’s music volume to 0, or sometimes I’ll mute the TV altogether, and then pop in my earbuds or play a podcast over my speakers. With leisure time at a premium, how else am I supposed to get my gaming fix and also clear out my podcast queue?

To be clear, though, not every game is a good podcast game. So what makes a viable candidate? I’m glad you asked, and I have some criteria for this:

1. Podcast games are mostly open world

I’ve written plenty of times before about my growing unrest with massive open world games, and the sheer amount of content developers keep stuffing them with. A game like Horizon Forbidden West is as full of monotony and drudgery as it is with beauty and wonder, and it’s not always clear which of those you’re going to get when you turn on the PS5.

So to combat that repetitiveness, I’ll throw on my favourite movie podcast Blank Check while I kill robot dinosaurs for scrap parts. This works even better if you can find an in-universe justification for your podcast listening. In a game like No Man’s Sky (potentially the platonic example of a podcast game), you’re constantly looking for signals from distant planets. Who’s to say that one of them isn’t broadcasting the excellent video game show Triple Click?

Podcast games being open world isn’t just a preference, it’s something of a necessity. Why? That leads me onto the second rule…

2. Podcasts should never interfere with story

My rule of thumb is that I’ll never listen to podcasts during the main narrative of a game. Now, narrative in games takes many forms. Sometimes it’s a cutscene, a literal mini-movie where you have no control. Other times, it’s a phone conversation with another character as you make your way through the world. Sometimes narrative is expressed through killing a boatload of demons. Whatever the case may be, if it’s part of the main story, I’m not listening to podcasts during it.

Obviously this rules out linear, story-driven games from ever being podcast games. But it presents some grey areas with open world games too. Are side quests fair game? Annoyingly, the answer is ‘sometimes’. Games like latter day Assassin’s Creed are bursting with missions labelled as ‘side quests’ but they don’t amount to much more than killing 20 of a certain type of enemy, or stealing a precious gem from a palatial estate. During missions like these, I have absolutely zero compunction about focusing my mind elsewhere while my hands go through the motions on the controller.

3. Multiplayer is fair game

It’s not just open world world games that make for good podcast games. You’ve also got your multiplayer shooters like Fortnite or Call of Duty. These are effectively the Groundhog Day of games, where you play and replay essentially the same chunk of gameplay ad infinitum. Perfect, then, for putting on an episode of the deliciously catty Celebrity Memoir Book Club.

Does this affect my performance in these games? Sure! You wouldn’t voluntarily cut off your sense of hearing if you were fighting in an actual war. But my performance in these games was never great to begin with, and besides, I’m not super competitive. I play these games to relax, not to win (which is just as well because, as I say, I’m really quite bad at them).

Dead air

Are there any downsides to podcast games? Of course. For one thing, it inherently feels like I’m treating games with less respect than I would any other artistic medium. When it comes to movies, for example, I’m something of an absolutist. To me, every single frame of a movie is potentially important. A quick look between characters or even just a slight change in facial expression can completely change your understanding of a scene or film. So when I’m watching a film at home, I’ll turn on do not disturb or switch my phone off completely to avoid being distracted.

So why do I consider it disrespectful to check my phone during a film, but fine to mute the soundtrack of a game and play a podcast during it? It’s a good question, and it’s one I’ve not quite figured out the answer to myself. I suppose it comes down to the consumption model being completely different. Once you start a film, you know it’ll be over in the next two to three hours. Whereas a game, as we’ve established, can stretch on for dozens if not hundreds of hours. That’s a hefty amount of time to ask for your audience’s undivided attention.

Take Ghost of Tsushima, a game I played last year via the PS Plus Game Catalogue. It’s a stunning game, with a soundtrack full of painstakingly crafted details. The whistle of wind through trees, the gentle babbling of a stream, the satisfying clink of steel on steel. And that’s not even touching the gorgeous score. But crucially, I also spent around 60 hours in the game. That’s 2.5 full rotations of the earth on its axis. After 30 or 40 or 50 hours, can’t I assume that, well, I’ve sort of got the point?

I certainly see it that way, and so I happily listened to podcasts while I finished side missions and chased foxes and dutifully completed all of Ghost‘s other open world busywork. But the developers of the game probably don’t share my view. By muting their work in favour of the food comedy podcast Doughboys, you could easily say that I’m not only disrespecting their work, but also watering down my experience of it. If I’m being honest, I’m probably watering down my enjoyment of my podcasts too. It’s hard to concentrate fully on bitter arguments about Big Macs when you’re fighting 20 samurai at once.

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What it all comes down to for me, as I said before, is time. We get a very limited amount of time on this planet, and an even more limited amount of time to relax. If there’s a way to make time to pay 100% attention to 100% of the things I enjoy, I haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe one day I will! But in the meantime, you’ll find me happily podcast gaming.