Video games are mourning the old, weird, clunky Internet

Videoverse, a visual novel that follows the final days of the online social network for a fictional gaming system in 2003. — Kinmoku/The New York Times

Surfing the Web in the 1990s and early 2000s was a slower endeavour, and fewer people had access to the technology.

But it is still easy to reminisce about the days when it felt like a public marketplace, with high odds that someone out there had made a blog or GeoCities site about the niche topic you found interesting.

Those robust online forums have since been flattened into algorithmic social media feeds or hidden on messaging apps, a shift mourned by several video games with a shared fondness for bygone Internet eras.

Games like last year’s Videoverse, 2019’s Hypnospace Outlaw, and the upcoming Darkweb Streamer use chat interfaces akin to AIM or MSN, as well as fake websites that greet people with MIDI songs and text written in bold fonts.

Each experience has its own nostalgic lens but is a snapshot of lost expression, creativity and independence.

Chantal Ryan, an anthropologist and the lead developer of Darkweb Streamer, a horror simulation game that merges the perils of modern streaming with the ‘90s Internet, bemoaned how high-quality independent services were often cannibalised by corporate interests. She pointed to sites like Goodreads and AbeBooks, both bought by Amazon.

“It reminds me of forest clearing,” said Ryan, who studied at the University of Adelaide.

“You have this habitat with sustainable ecosystems and communities of beings living harmoniously. And then the bulldozer comes in and destroys literally everything in its path with no regard to who’s being affected.”

Ryan has spent considerable time researching past online habitats for Darkweb Streamer, which is influenced by the archives of GeoCities as well as spiritual successors such as Neocities.

She also drew from her own experiences as a popular player in the early Halo 2 esports scene.

Being in the spotlight exposed Ryan to the ugliness of the Internet. As her social media following grew, her most mundane movements, like sharing a photo, were “tracked and watched constantly” by others, Ryan said, echoing the online experiences of many high-profile figures.

Some users would make copycat accounts pretending to be her in Halo 2, as well as in forums and Myspace.

Experiences like this led the developer to leave social media for years. But it was difficult to stay away forever.

“A couple of friends I knew who were in the industry were like, ‘If you’re going to make a game, you have to be on Twitter’,” Ryan said.

Developer Lucy Blundell did similar research for the visual novel Videoverse, which follows the final days of the online social network for a fictional gaming system in 2003.

She was dedicated to replicating how people once chatted online, such as including a nose when typing out a smiley face.

One of her key resources was Archiverse, which preserves approximately 17TB (terabytes) of user-made content from Nintendo’s discontinued Miiverse.

Not everything, however, is easily accessible.

Jay Tholen, a developer for the small studio Tendershoot, said he was having difficulties finding source material for Dreamsettler, the follow-up to Hypnospace Outlaw, a web simulation game set in 1999. Flash-based content, aside from sites like Newgrounds and preservation archives such as Flashpoint, is harder to access.

“Many forums are dead, and many were excluded from the Wayback Machine,” he said. “Websites got more dynamic. If you click a link and it requires a script or a login, you can’t access it. You can go to the front page of the forum and maybe see some thread titles.”

In Hypnospace Outlaw, finding information requires additional effort as well. Acting as enforcers, players are tasked with flagging malicious pages containing activities like Internet bullying or copyright infringement.

Players occasionally receive tips via an in-game mail service, leading to a hyperlink or message board that kick-starts an investigation.

In the 1990s, search engines were not as functional as they are now. Instead, users relied on webrings and tags to find results related to topics of interest.

The sites are all fictitious, most of them mere showcases of satire and old online absurdity.

They also provide a throwback to an era where pages had free-form stylisation without external advertisements muddling the navigation experience.

Blundell said the modern Internet produced more stress and negativity than the Internet of the past, when monetisation models were still in their infancy. Now, simply finding a recipe online can be taxing.

“There are cookie pop-ups for almost every single page you access,” Blundell said. “You’ve got multiple adverts, little videos down the page, it’s a bit of a nightmare.”

These newer games are following in the path of titles like Emily Is Away, Secret Little Haven and Digital: A Love Story, which also serve as Internet time capsules.

Emily Is Away has the player explore a relationship between two high school students through an app resembling AOL Instant Messenger.

The story of Secret Little Haven is told from the perspective of a transgender teenage girl, exploring themes such as gender and community as she navigates an invented operating system.

Both Videoverse and Hypnospace Outlaw take cues from these ideas, expanding them with more complex presentations.

Darkweb Streamer will ask players to engage with a livestreaming interface, pursuing the goal of gaining hundreds of subscribers. As you gain notoriety, artificial intelligence-programmed viewers might send you a mysterious package or show up at your apartment.

In order to promote their games, independent developers can feel tied to an ecosystem that is always on: Disengaging after office hours or during weekends could result in a missed job lead or award nomination opportunity.

The developers of Videoverse, Hypnospace Outlaw and Darkweb Streamer also expressed discontent over how even the simplest tasks have become needlessly convoluted.

The increasing use of the instant messaging app Discord as a replacement for forums is bad for the accessibility of information, Tholen said.

Joining a server can be confusing to the uninitiated, and Discord has not put any preservation efforts in place.

People who stumble onto the Discord server for Hypnospace Outlaw, Tholen said, are often “looking for hypnosis sex stuff” in real life.

As a joke, they are welcomed by a user-made GIF that features the character Professor Helper, a parody of Microsoft’s vintage Clippy. “I think one or two of those people stuck around and bought the game,” Tholen said.

Other alternatives to X, formerly known as Twitter, like Mastodon and Bluesky, seem to retread old paths in a muddled Internet era where community and self-expression are becoming scarce.

“The history of the Internet is that time is short and all spaces change,” Ryan said.

“A question I’ve been engaging with a lot as an anthropologist is: What does the disintegration of a community and the diaspora look like online? But also, as someone who runs a studio or a business, where am I supposed to go?” – The New York Times

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