The first chapter of Videoverse took me right back to the early 00s last night. I can still remember sitting at the family PC in our living room, begging my parents for more internet time because I wanted chat to my friend on MSN Messenger. We had to buy hours of internet in those days, and between my young teenage self and my three brothers, we absolutely devoured those meagre weekly limits, always pleading for more, more, more as we became absolutely captivated by this new world of the online.
Luckily, Emmett doesn't have to contend with such antiquated restraints in Videoverse, as his portal to the internet is built right into his enormous Nintendo DS-like home console, the Kinmoku Shark. As well as using it to play games reminiscent of old 16-bit classics, there's also a Nintendo Miiverse-esque social network on the Shark that Emmett uses to chat to his friends, post fan art of his favourite game, Feudal Fantasy, and feel part of something bigger. What hasn't changed since those early internet days, however (or indeed, the internet today) are the types of people he interacts with - there are trolls, of course, but there are also plenty of nice people here to support him, and the emergence of seemingly new user (and budding fan artist) Vivi quickly becomes the main subject of Videoverse's current free demo that's available as part of Steam's Storyteller Festival.
Like Hypnospace Outlaw before it, Videoverse sees you navigating between online forum pages, scrolling down and reading comments, posting your own from a selection of fixed responses, and having the freedom to dole out clicks of the like and report buttons as you see fit. But Videoverse is a lot more earnest than Hypnospace, wearing its heart on its sleeve as Emmett occasionally interjects with thoughts and fears of his own based on what you're browsing through at the time. He's a shy lad, recently discouraged from posting any more of his artwork after some negative comments he received, but luckily he's got two mates, Markus and Zalor, who cajole him back into it. You chat to them occasionally through the Shark's messaging portal, and there's even a detachable camera you can switch on to transform yours and their Mii-like avatars into expressive pixel art character portraits as you fire text messages back and forth in classic MSN style.
It's a real time capsule of how I interacted with the internet in those early days - Videoverse is set in 2003 - and the way developer KinmokuGames captures the nervousness Emmett feels working up the courage to post his artwork, not to mention the resulting elation when he gets a few likes, is absolutely spot on. Characters speak in their own kind of slang, disregarding any semblance of punctuation (as you do when chatting online), and even the proto memes of the era (remember Weebl and Bob?) are on point as well.
But even in this 30-minute slice, it's clear that Videoverse isn't just regurgitating 20-year old (lawd) internet in-jokes and calling it a day. Take the Feudal Fantasy community, for example. While clearly a play on the real-life Final Fantasy games (I see you, Final Fantasy VIII opening scar references!), the way it fuses together anime and a more historical setting makes it feel distinctly its own thing, putting you right into Emmett's shoes as you continue digging into this cool new thing you've just discovered. Plus, alongside those more obvious early 00s memes being bandied about in the Off Topic pages, there are still plenty of posts that either don't have any real-life references, or are ones I'm simply not aware of, making its monochrome threads still feel like a new and mysterious place that has plenty going on beneath the surface.
As Emmett explores the newly formed Feudal Fantasy community, there's another user that catches his eye as well - the aforementioned Vivi. With their blank avatar, Emmett wonders if they're a new user to the Shark, particularly as he hasn't seen them around before, but he's also instantly captivated by their lovely artwork. Sadly, other trolls in the community instantly slap it down with horrible comments, prompting Emmett to do something about it. I instantly reported them in my playthrough (as is only right when there's a clickable button), but Emmett's own thoughts on the subject revealed he would have led me down that report path anyway.
It's not yet clear how much the story will guide you in this way further on in the final game, but you do still have a fair amount of freedom in how you engage with Videoverse otherwise. You can be a jerk, you can be sweet and supportive, you can play the middle ground, and the tone and general vibe of the community will morph and adapt accordingly, the developer has said, so I'm intrigued to see how this all works in the final game. For now, though, your message of reassurance to Vivi results in them eventually sending you a message, thanking you for your support and a like from them on one of your drawings. Emmett is beside himself with joy, but just as he decides to log off Videoverse for the day, the demo comes to an end, leaving me on tenterhooks as to what's going to happen next with his newfound friend.
Fortunately, I won't have to wait too long to find out, as Videoverse is currently set to launch sometime between July and September later this year. There's also still a day to go on its free demo if you'd like to give it a try for yourself, so head on over now before the Storyteller Festival comes to a close tomorrow on April 1st.