Horror games are a staple of the Youtuber. Between the sense of anticipation and the payoff of screams of terror, it’s been a classic stepping stone for many of the most popular online celebrities such as Markiplier. So, it comes as no surprise that the horror genre would find a home among Virtual Youtubers as well. Why mess with a reliable formula? But I do notice a difference when a VTuber goes this route: their inherently limited and artificially generated facial expressions transform the experience to a subtle yet noticeable degree.
When it comes to flesh-and-blood streamers, horror games are an opportunity for wild and exaggerated reactions. In some cases, they’re authentic, in others they’re choreographed, and there are surely plenty that fall somewhere in the middle. In essence, it doesn’t really matter too much whether they’re real freak-outs or not, provided they’re convincing enough to make it difficult to distinguish. Either you’re being genuine or you’re a skilled enough performer to seem genuine—or the viewers just want to see someone bouncing off the walls regardless of intent. The line blurs further when it comes to Virtual Youtubers. Which ones use their VTuber image as a disguise to protect their identity? Who embraces their character to be someone they’re not? These mysteries are rife with potential for speculation.
But whether or not the VTubers are being “real,” there is still an additional layer between them and us in the form of their CG avatars. Even if the shouts and shudders are authentic, they’re still being filtered through and limited by software that (as of 2020) does not capture the full range of human emotions that are communicated through our faces. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The relative simplicity of these avatars begins to take on an element of iconography by acting in the abstract and symbolic, which in turn makes it easy to read into VTubers’ expressions what we desire.
Though this doesn’t count as horror (unless you have a fear of 1990s boy bands), I’m reminded of that video featuring three different Kizuna AI models “singing” “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys. It’s based on a video of three real-life guys lip-syncing the song, but despite the obvious and intentional similarities, it still feels different. The fact that AI-chan’s “wide-eyed smirk” is more or less the same as her “angry screaming” in other videos is part of the amusement of the character.
Other VTubers often have fewer facial expressions than AI-chan, and often barely any at all when it comes to VTubers who are just starting out. Still, that’s fine. While having a static image as an avatar is far from ideal, I would argue that the opposite might be even more off-putting. In other words, if a Virtual Youtubers’ facial expressions were too human, it would start to approach the uncanny valley, and I think the whole enterprise would lose some of its appeal.
Or maybe that would be perfect for Halloween and the horror game spirit…