darkwebSTREAMER is a streaming sim and horror RPG that puts the player in front of the camera. Inspired by the strange cultural zeitgeist that has resulted in the emergence of parasocial relationships between streamers and viewers, the game explores how far people will go for fame, fortune or friendship.
I spoke with Chantal Ryan, the lead developer of darkwebSTREAMER to chat about how the game explores the nature of streaming culture and utilizes procedural generation and AI in a way that has never been seen before in video games.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What inspired you to make a game that explores human psychology and internet culture?
It was percolating my entire life. All roads led to darkwebSTREAMER.
I was doing a BA of Arts Advanced, Anthropology and English and I was just elbows deep in academia, horror, existential crises. One of my friends and I had been playing World of Horror and Phasmophobia together. We had been talking about how they were really fun but we felt they missed a deeper meaning. Beyond mechanics, going to the why of the game.
I specialize in identity and personhood, so it’s all about what makes a person a person, what makes you ‘you’, what makes me ‘me’, what makes us different, what makes us the same, and really importantly, why do we care about each other? Phasmophobia really highlighted the sense of emptiness that I get in a lot of games. They rarely recognize that you, as the character, are actually having experiences. They don’t acknowledge the past and the summary of the things you encounter in the game.
darkwebSTREAMER is your first game, how did you learn about game making?
I had never made a video game before. I went to my friend who had also never made a video game before and I said “I have the best idea for a video game EVER.” And he goes, ‘let’s do it!’ And we were like, well, we better figure out how to code! So neither of us knew how to code, neither of us had ever made a video game and we literally just started putting one foot in front of the other.
We started in Twine. About 2 hours in we realized that was not going to work. This game was already much too complicated. We had been playing World of Horror so I looked at that. I knew that World of Horror has this modular storytelling ability that’s able to do RPG mechanics, so what did they use? I read about Game Maker and it’s advertised as this engine for people who are new to making games.
It really started out as a personal passion project. It was just two friends being like ‘I wonder if we can make a video game?’
Was there any specific media that inspired the game?
I was watching a B horror movie, alone, in the middle of the night called Dybbuk Box: The Story of Chris Chambers. It’s a found footage film about a youtuber. I was really intrigued because it’s about this guy who buys a dybbuk box; this haunted, sealed box from the dark web, and does an unboxing on his YouTube channel.
He gets the box, and starts recording himself to make the youtube video. But as he’s engaging with the box, he’s actually getting actively uncomfortable and disturbed. You can see his survival instincts are like: ‘this is bad, this will kill you, don’t open the box, but I’m making a youtube video and it’s gonna get me a lot of views and likes and subscribers, so I’m just gonna keep doing this thing that I think is going to hurt me’.
So this inspired the idea of streaming and constant content creation in the game?
Absolutely. I’ve always been fascinated by social norms and how we as a society and as individuals will often harm ourselves in order to do things like pursue social credit, fame, etc. I had all these ideas forming in my head and in one flash of insight when I finished the movie, I literally saw the entire game in my head. I booked it to my computer and just started making this little graphic. It’s the image of darkwebSTREAMER just coming to life.
So it had this 1-bit, scratchy kind of idea in my head and I was like ‘this is the vibe, I can get down with this.’
It’s so amazing, especially hearing that a lot of the inspiration was from your anthropology background and from media. I love how weird the internet is. It’s my favorite human invention.
In our pitch deck we actually call this game our ‘love letter to the internet’. Basically to reference the memes and virality and strangeness and communal adoration of weird things that the internet has had since its inception.
How much of the game was inspired by—and reflects—the dark web?
So, one of the direct influences we have from the dark web today is you can only get to a website if you have the URL address, which is the same for TOR. You have to be given a link in order to access a site because there’s no formal network. So that’s a mechanic we lean quite heavily on in the game.
You might need something or need access to a site and someone on the internet has to give you that link. If you want to order a doctor to your house or you’re trying to hunt down an occult ritual to banish a demon from your home, you actually need to ask around.
You can also surf the web in the game by putting a random address in the browser and it’ll give you a procedurally generated website. But you can’t pick and choose, you really need to find them. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and find something that is helpful. Sometimes you won’t.
Speaking of your internet in your game. It’s the world’s first infinite procedurally generated internet. How did you do it?
So basically we made a fake internet in the game using procedural generation techniques. You’re never going to get the same website twice. There are so many potential combinations of art, positioning, text, names etc. that it’s infinite. And every time you hit the ‘surf the web’ button the game will invent a brand new web page on the spot.
As for how we do it. A lot of sneaky techniques that we’ve developed. We gave modular elements to the webpages and allowed the game to randomize the positioning of the text, font choice, font size, the colors, the images and crucially, the text itself. The internet is primarily a text place, so that was the difficult part. Of everything in the game the hardest part is the procedural text and procedural narrative that we have designed. Everything in the game crutches on it and that’s where everything shines and potentially stumbles, so I had to come up with a way to generate organic sounding language. I taught myself to code in order to basically theory craft and theory test my dynamic AI language text generation.
Our AI is built completely in-house, utilizing only what is needed within the realm of the game.
We don’t use any of the popular text AI technology you see today (Chat AI, GPT, etc) which is computationally nuts to run and requires an internet connection. Our game is (perhaps ironically) entirely offline and, for now, has quite low computational demands and can be run on low-end computers.
Having AI in a game is so different to it just existing on the internet. The fact that you’ve coded this to work a specific way within a game and to respond to player input is really amazing.
I also feel that way. You know, it is getting there but even today, the AI that we’re seeing people play with now is still not equipped to meaningfully interact with the player within video games. Especially not reliably because the text’s changing so rapidly. When I was young there were some amazing, magical games like Creatures and The Sims and some chatbots that made me feel like the future of gaming was truly AI.
It was being able to interact with characters and the characters interacting back as if they acknowledge you as the person. I kept waiting for the deeper emotional connection of characters in games to come and it never did. The visual tech kept getting better but the spiritual, mental and intellectual connection never really did.
I can still point to you the most innovative AI game of all time and it came out in the early 90s. To me, that’s Creatures. That game was actually kind of my inspiration today in terms of pushing the envelope. People told me we couldn’t do the things that we set out to do in darkwebSTREAMER and we proved them all wrong! I look at what was accomplished 20 plus years ago in terms of AI and it was all creative thinking and creative programming.
We’re very daring. And this being our first game actually helps us a lot because we don’t have preconceived notions of what we can and can’t do. Everything is possible because we’re too dumb to know it’s not. Nothing seems too unreasonable because everything seems unreasonable. When you know nothing, everything is daunting, so nothing is more daunting than anything else, so it’s like, ‘what would be amazing?’ Okay, we’ll spend our time trying that.
In terms of procedural generation, what else in the game utilizes it?
We have procedurally generated crafting and rituals! We haven’t really advertised that yet because we’re still implementing it but we do have the systems done and theory tested. We don’t want people to be able to google things, so it’s a roguelike. We don’t want it to be easy, you have to suffer for your rituals.
Everything’s hard coded so it’s really just systems we’ve come up with in code that are just intelligently designed and applied but there’s no particular thing in Game Maker that brings an AI to life. I know there’s been some brute forcing from our programmers in terms of Game Maker. There are some things it wouldn’t normally allow you to do but they’ve kind of figured out how to get past these roadblocks and do it.
There are limitations to what would ordinarily be easier in something like unity or unreal, but it’s also a really flexible language, so we’ve found that we haven’t really come across anything we haven’t been able to do with some creativity and grit, even a few things we had assumed we wouldn’t be able to do, we actually just brought a Game Maker expert onto the team and he’s got everything we discarded working, so even when you can’t, chances are you can. You just need a fresh pair of eyes or more knowledge.
You have AI driven NPCs who can talk back with their own unique responses and language patterns, how many AI NPCs are there? Is there a limit on how many you can have in the game? Or are you able to do it infinitely?
Infinitely, technically. So every single time you open up a playthrough, you get a whole new series of NPCs, we call them NPPs over in our studio non player person. In each playthrough there’s x amount of NPPs that will be generated and they’re the people in the playthrough. They have their own names, you can find their websites, they’re the ones who are gonna join up in your stream and chat with you.
They might be selling things on the internet, and every single day you live in the game, they also live the day and they have their own experiences alongside you as time progresses. Their stories are also changing and sometimes they’ll communicate that to you, and sometimes they won’t, but it’s always happening.
I think character implies this trap of one dimensionality that it’s easy to fall into, whereas when we call them non player persons we try to remember that they can be treated as if they have meaning and value in their own stories and that’s a thing we’re really big about. Every character in the game has their own backstory, their own history, their own personality, their own opinions, their own vocabulary and language style, they have their own looks, and a whole bunch of stuff.
They have these big life stories. They could be married, have kids, or have a crush on someone. Maybe they live with someone. You can even find out who their best friend is. Every single person in the game has their own world. They’re extremely fleshed out.
In terms of parasocial relationships—something that happens with real Twitch streamers—is that something that’s possible within the game?
This is actually a big component of our game. In a lot of ways, darkwebSTREAMER is kind of like a psychological study of this cultural phenomenon. We couldn’t leave it out. You have relationships with the people you meet in the game and those relationships can be cultivated.
Friendships can go awry or some people might just be fundamentally deranged. We literally have a deranged character generator. We have these different triggers and categories. You can make best friends with a character or you can make enemies. We even have stalkers. Someone can get obsessed with you on your stream and might start sending you a lot of emails or packages to your door and one day you might find that they show up inside your house because they’ve broken in. We’re confronting that head-on.
The game is like an encapsulation and amplification of these social relationships that we have because they’re shoved in such a small little bubble and then put out there for everyone to watch. You can go into a Twitch streamers stream right now and observe these social relationships and this hyper-objectification of people. They’re not really persons, but instead objects to be invested in.
What would you tell someone who wants to make a game but has no experience coding?
My parting advice is I always hear people give this shitty advice that, don’t make your first game big. Don’t make it the one that you really care about. That’s the message. I hear that advice given so often, even by established people in the industry. I can tell you that if I had listened to that advice we would not be having this conversation today, I would not be in the games industry today, I’m the kind of person that needs to absolutely love what I do or I won’t be invested. The best games probably come from the people who are really really passionate about what they do.
We didn’t even know how to code when we first started and now we’re doing groundbreaking AI shit a year and a half later purely because it was an idea we were that excited about.