Many people who grew up with the internet had formative experiences in communities that no longer exist, or at least no longer exist as they once did. In my case, it was the GameSpot forums of the early 2000s. There, I found people I could share my love of games with, as well as get into deep discussions and sometimes heated debates about the state of the world. It was a place where I could explore myself in ways that I couldn’t in the “real world,” and for a period of my life, it was essential to my existence. The new game Videoverse takes place in a fictional online community in late 2003, but creator Kinmoku Games (who were also behind 2016’s excellent One Night Stand) imbues it with so much authenticity and character that it feels remarkably alive. If you once found a home in just such an online space, I suspect Videoverse will resonate with your memories of the internet as it once was. And if you didn’t, there’s enough tenderness and humanity to Videoverse’s world to make it a worthwhile glimpse into experiences you never had.
Videoverse takes place almost entirely within the titular online community, a collection of message boards frequented by owners of the fictional Kinmoku Shark. As you navigate Videoverse, you’ll spot details reminiscent of Xbox 360-era gamer profiles, as well as ads that feel true to the spirit and style of early 2000s video game advertising–always energetic, occasionally embarrassing. The in-game Videoverse draws on a hodgepodge of influences, but its closest real-life parallel is probably Miiverse, the now-defunct online community Nintendo created alongside its own ill-fated Wii U. Like Miiverse, the fictional Videoverse sports communities for different games, and text posts that people write exist alongside art drawn and submitted for the approval (or derision) of their fellow users.
And indeed, the Miiverse parallel feels apt as well because Videoverse users increasingly suspect that the service’s days may be numbered. Kinmoku has recently launched a new console, the Dolphin (I see what you did there), and there’s a feeling, growing stronger with every day, that the console maker is likely going to pull the plug on Videoverse soon, encouraging fans to upgrade to the new device and its online community (which, unlike Videoverse, requires a subscription fee).
In the midst of all this, you play as Emmett, a teenager who lives in Germany and has aspirations of becoming a video game artist. The Shark may be on its last legs (???) but it’s going out with one last hurrah, a blockbuster called Feudal Fantasy. Yes, its name is an obvious homage to Square Enix’s similarly named series, but Feudal Fantasy is also very much its own thing, and throughout the course of Videoverse, you’ll witness key cutscenes in this Japanese-history-inspired epic melodrama as Emmett plays through it.
Naturally, one of the most active boards on Videoverse is the one devoted to Feudal Fantasy, a place where Emmett and other players not only passionately discuss the game but also share fan art. Much of this art aims to capture the game’s iconic characters in moments of heightened intensity, but I particularly appreciated the more playful fan art, like those that good-naturedly ribbed the game’s lack of historical accuracy or its sometimes-awkward localization. One drawing, by Emmett’s friend Markus, shows Feudal Fantasy hero Hanzo holding a chocolate bar and asking, “This is feudal Japan?” while another character’s contribution shows a hamburger labeled as RAMEN.
These are fictional details about a fictional game, of course, but they feel precise and authentic, making it easier for us to fully invest ourselves in the world of Videoverse and to understand the experiences of these players, even though we only view them through the window of these message boards. And Videoverse is full of such details. Kinmoku (the real-life devs of Videoverse, that is, not the fictional in-game console maker) know this cultural territory inside and out, and do an exemplary job of crafting a believable online space here.
But an online space is nothing without the people who populate it. The center of Videoverse’s story involves Emmett’s connection with a mysterious newcomer to the boards whose own Feudal Fantasy fan art leaves him awed and intrigued. As he and this person, who goes by the handle Vivi, communicate and open up to each other, Emmett learns a great deal–about his own privilege; about what he hopes to do with his future; about how much the connections that Videoverse allows him really mean, and what an impact they’ve had on his life. Kinmoku is working with themes that will resonate with many who formed meaningful online connections in their youth, and then saw the spaces that enabled those connections disappear as the internet evolved.
That central storyline is compelling and builds up to a poignant conclusion (or at least it did in my playthrough–I think there are a few possible endings depending on the choices you make). But it’s the supporting ensemble of names and faces you encounter all over the boards, and the little heartwarming exchanges, the silly bits of chit-chat and video game in-jokes, and the fierce disputes they all engage in, that really make the game sing. More than once I was struck by revelations or personality clashes I witnessed that made me feel like I’d stepped right back into my own bygone forum days. Sometimes, a person will offer up a hint of some trouble happening in their home life or some other struggle they’re experiencing, and I really felt for them.
Online connections can be strange, can’t they? The way you can feel simultaneously close and distant, understanding that what appears to you as just a name on a screen is a person with their own life and their own hardships, all of which exist beyond the bounds of the space you share. You can tell that the makers of Videoverse really gave some thought to who each of these forum posters are as people—they each have their own voice, their own interests, and sometimes their own challenges, which you can respond to with sensitivity and support, or disdain if you prefer.
You shape Emmett’s personality by choosing possible responses to posts on the boards from a few different options. I never felt too limited by this–there was usually an option that mirrored my own reactions closely enough, and when, in certain interactions, a choice was unavailable to me because my Emmett was “not cocky enough,” I always felt, “Yep, that’s right, my Emmett definitely would not say that!” You can also interact with the boards by doing things like customizing your avatar, and reporting posts that exist just to attack and antagonize other users.
And, of course, there are some real jerks on Videoverse, as there usually are in such spaces–people who spout sexist crap or other repugnant nonsense. As Emmett, I took some satisfaction in reporting them and trying to keep Videoverse safe and welcoming for everyone. Doing stuff like this does net you some neat little in-game rewards, like new options for customizing your Videoverse avatar and new color themes for the message boards, but I was mostly motivated by the fact that Videoverse felt real to me and I just wanted it to be a place where people would want to spend time. I don’t know how deep this goes, but I definitely got the sense that how you choose to moderate the boards and how you treat others can have an impact on how Videoverse evolves over the course of the story.
Perhaps my favorite Videoverse poster is one who goes by the handle UncleFromKinmoku. A clear nod to all those rumors that seem to come from someone having “an uncle who works at Nintendo” or wherever, UncleFromKinmoku loves to drop vague, ominous predictions on the boards. Is he just yanking everybody’s chain, or does he really have the inside scoop? Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that trying to figure out his whole deal was very enjoyable, and the results elegantly served as another thread in Videoverse’s thematic concerns with the passage of time and with what we sometimes lose as companies “improve” their products and make things obsolete.
Supporting all this emotional and thematic texture are the game’s engaging visuals. Naturally, as a game set on an early 2000s message board, Videoverse is hardly pushing state-of-the-art graphics, but what it does have is beautiful, authentic-feeling visual design. The aforementioned ads and fan art you see around the boards are bursting with personality, and each artist posting to the boards has their own art style, just as each person has their own distinct voice. Additionally, Emmett and his friends have a nifty accessory for the console called a Shark Cam, which often lets us see their faces as they text-chat. Kinmoku once again displays the same knack for expressive artwork that they showed off in One Night Stand, and seeing Emmett break into laughter or furrow his brow in concern as he chats with Vivi or other friends lends the text exchanges more emotional life.
Everything ends. But we take something from the times and places we’ve left behind and carry it with us as we move forward in life. I know that the countless hours I spent on forums in the early 2000s weren’t time wasted but a crucial part of my development as a person. I probably wouldn’t be here right now if it hadn’t been for those experiences. Videoverse is a beautiful exploration of how the online spaces we inhabit and the connections we form in them can shape our lives as much as anything.