It is difficult to imagine anyone creating anything, let alone video games, for free. We are getting used to seeing games with budgets that reach a hundred million US dollars, even though people back in the day made video games with little more than lunch money. Yet, that is the reality for many people trying to live in this insufferable economy.
Everything is career-oriented. The price tag is what gives value to anything. If you are working for fun, then you haven’t encountered real work. You haven’t seen what the adults in the room are doing. There’s no way your hobby could amount to anything professional or polished.
And to a certain extent, that mindset is correct. Professionalism requires discipline and specialization, neither to be found in a hobbyist project. It is one thing to toy around in Unity and make silly assets; it is another to create a game in it while facing deadlines. I doubt anyone would disagree with the sentiment that making video games is serious business.
But suppose it is possible to treat video games without seeing it as work. Suppose you can be an unprofessional hobbyist who enjoys tinkering with game software. We would certainly be in those what-if territories — the kind of hypotheticals that clearly don’t exist: What if you’re just making a game to entertain yourself and some others who think like you? What if being such a hobbyist doesn’t hamper you in making a good game? What if your satisfaction in being a creator comes from not seeing a cent come your way but the responses on the thread of your game? What if you don’t mind breaking copyright laws here and there to complete your work?
And what if most of the games you’re making are all in the very obsolete software of RPG Maker 2000?
Enter the VIPRPG community, a subculture of subcultures that can make such what-ifs and hypotheticals come true.
To explain what a VIPRPG is, we have to go back to the beginning of internet culture and look at 2ch (now 5ch). Contrary to popular belief, 2ch is not one homogeneous entity but a web of different boards with their own niches and subcultures. For example, the famous 電車男 (Densha Otoko/Train Man) threads that spawned a multimedia franchise come from 独身男性板 (Single Men’s Board). Other boards include movie boards and news boards, one of them being the ニュース速報(VIP)板. This was created to mitigate the shitposting found in new threads (クソスレ) and divert the trolls into a new board, thus keeping the actual news alert threads relatively free. The residents of this VIP board call themselves VIPPERs because they see themselves as Very Important People and enjoy creating quality shitposting.
However, what makes VIPPERs unusual among other boards is how much “quality” they would dedicate into their shitposting. One of their most famous creations comes right after the eve of Hatsune Miku’s inception. When Kagamine Len was announced to be the second Vocaloid, people were speculating about what the third Vocaloid would be. On March 2008, a 安価スレ (an anchor thread where an arbitrary number for a post is chosen and the corresponding post will decide what will be the “trait” of a subject) came about and asked what would a shoddy knockoff version of Vocaloid would be. VIPPERs began working their brains and imagined this Vocaloid was going to be a 31 year old tsundere idol with drill-like twintails and had eyes as red as fresh blood. Her favorite things include French pastry and the country of Norway. Particularly skilled at lengthening the lifespan of rental DVDs but not good at singing, she is also quite fond of wearing military uniforms and gripping any kind of microphone. Amused by their creation, VIPPERs began making “official” art of this fake Vocaloid and one of the earliest character designers, 線 (Sen), lent their voice to the newly released UTAU “voicebank” then.
And thus, on April Fools 2008, Kasane Teto (重音テト) was born and announced to be the next Vocaloid. Fake official art and a spoof of the official website of Crypton Future Media (the URL was crvipton) threw people off the scent and everyone had a good time from the trolling. Days later, people made video captures of the threads that made this legendary day happen. Songs about her as a fake DIVA became popular and the popular EXIT TUNES placed Teto on the map with とりぷるばか (“Triple Baka”).
Through the power of consistent and high-quality shitposting, Kasane has become gained semi-official recognition by fans, Vocaloid producers, and the creators of Vocaloid. To this day, there are still people who believe Teto is a real Vocaloid (it’s just a UTAU voicebank) and has been featured in a bunch of catchy songs and the Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA games.
So it is impossible to understate the amount of “VIP Quality” and effort put into making high quality shitposts that are actually quite good. Many anonymous creators are interested in improving the craft of shitposting and also don’t necessarily feel that shitposting must mean it has to be bad. Shitposting can be something cool, constructive, and worth getting into. In the YouTubes, we certainly have a subculture that resembles this aspect of the VIP subculture: SiIvagunner is known for its so-called “high quality rips” which include in-jokes and “lore” and sometimes do make good songs with “Gangnam Style” and “Snow Halation” playing in the background.
This creative tendency to make impressive shitposts would later be a major force that would inspire the creation of VIPRPGs.
So far, we’ve looked into the “VIP” part of “VIPRPG”. But what about the “RPG” part? Certainly, the RPG here stands for the well-known genre of Roleplaying Games — stuff like your Final Fantasies and Personas. However, there’s a bit more going on in that acronym as it also stands for a certain program called RPG Maker.
Although the tradition of user-friendly game development software is quite old (see Zelda Classic and its database for examples as well as Game Maker), the RPG Maker lineup is one of the most influential software out there dedicated to making 2D roleplaying games possible. As of this writing, the latest RPG Maker software you can get is MV released on 2015. But the most popular iterations (and the ones this writer grew up with) would have to be the 2000 and 2003 editions. These two software were very influential in both the West and Japan, sparking the imagination of kids who would grew up to become today’s video game developers. Toby Fox, now famous for Undertale and the upcoming Delta Rune, used to play with RPG Maker 2000 with their brothers for example. SmokingWOLF (片道勇者/One Way Heroics and Wolf RPG Editor) mentioned in his book on independent game development that making RPG Maker 95 games for fun put him into the route of making entertaining games.
Many famous and well-crafted independent games were made in RPG Maker 2000 and 2003 software as well. Some of these games are released as free software or furige. On the English-speaking side, we have games like Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle and Oneshot made in the 2003 engine. In the Japanese side, there are probably too many games to list and most are still unknown outside the country: ゆめにっき (Yume Nikki), Ib, and 扉の伝説 (Tobira no Densetsu, see Hadler’s review) to name a few.
The ease of RPG Maker software as well as its flexibility to program almost anything the creator wishes had made it a popular option for developers to create games in. For the players, installing was almost hassle-free. And distribution is simple thanks to its lightweight size — an aspect that is extremely important but not appreciated today because of high download and upload speeds in most urban cities.
But because it’s so easy to make games with the software, people began uploading unfinished and unpolished games onto the web. Many RPG Maker 2000 and 2003 games merely reused the stock assets available in the game in a similar fashion to what has been described by Jim Sterling as “asset flips” today. While not all “asset flips” are technically bad, many players began to associate the “lazy” usage of stock assets with shoddy work.
In the case of RPG Maker 2000 games, people began to see the default protagonist Alex as a kind of parasite. But his ubiquitous presence (he is the icon to start the game) is impossible to avoid and he (d)evolved into a meme.
A meme that will inspire the dankest of memes…
When VIP and RPG thus met, it was a match made in heaven/hell. Born out of VIP threads discussing the RPG Maker software, the VIPRPG subsubculture began making high quality shitposts and linking their works into the threads. Because they were made for people reading the threads and not exactly meant to be shared outside them, these games tended to have sophisticated in-jokes and lore that could only make sense to people who were deep into it.
In this light, the もしも (Moshimo) games are VIPRPG’s greatest achievement. Literally translated into “what if” and inspired by memes from RPG Maker 2000, the もしも games became a board project with countless anonymous creators to make the best, the silliest, and the most memorable shitposts in the world.
And it all began with one particular shitpost: もしも勇者が最強だったら (lit. What if the Hero is the Strongest?, available in もしもコレクション1).
You play as Alex and is directed by the King to fight the Maou because the Maou ate the King’s beloved potato chips. Alex is only armed with a longsword and his armor is a measly cloth armor, but he has something else up his sleeves.
When he encounters his first obstacle — a dragon that greets him with a HEY YOU — he beats him and the dragon flies across the screen like this:
Countless golems chase him and mega-golems are blocking his way, but his ability to swoop enemies with one touch defeats them. The same goes with the harpies, blue dragons, and demons that stand no match to the power of Alex walking toward them.
But the three strongest members of the Maou’s army now stand before Alex: a ninja who knows 999 ninjutsu acts, a samurai who can slash through large rocks with ease, and a dark elf whose strength is equal to five hundred dragons!
Unfortunately, the three are wiped out almost immediately by Alex.
The last antagonist Alex must beat is the Maou himself, the thief of the King’s potato chips. The Maou unleashes brilliant special effects and dashes toward Alex. Alex remains unfazed. The epic climax begins.
The Maou gets wiped out. Alex feels like it’s a good day of done and decides to return. The King gets to eat his potato chips.
And all is well once again.
This classic shitpost game was inspiring to future VIPRPG creators. It played with the classic tropes of JRPGs, but it made it very silly and just plain awful. The most generous thing one can say about もしも勇者が最強だったら is that it is a silly knockoff of the Dragon Quest games. But like the genesis of Kasane Teto, VIPPERs became interested in making more games like it.
So they began asking, “What if some other character from the RPG Maker stock assets became the strongest?” What if Lilia, the default female protagonist, got into her journey of sorts to become the strongest? Or what if Gomez, the pirate with a badass beard, found a way to become the most powerful character, even rivaling Alex’s powers? These what-ifs began converging based on the tacit agreement by VIPPERs on what was the most interesting and most amusing. A lineage of games was beginning to form and, through the interactions and discourses the games were in with each other, the lore started to develop and emerge.
The best way to describe the organic evolution of もしも’s lore is to compare it to the Marvel and DC comic universes. Both comic universes feature characters that can be interpreted liberally or faithfully by creators hired by the publishers. Many works are connected to long-running series and must follow what have been plotted before. Some works may depict characters from a series wholesale but deviate toward unusual situations that have little to do with the continuity of the series; Chris Claremont’s X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills is one such case. A more radical and alternate history approach can be found in Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son which imagines a scenario where Superman, instead of being raised in Kansas, grew up in the Soviet Union. Total reimaginings like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther can pit well-known icons into a new original setting.
The もしも games do these and more without the discretion of supervisors or even for continuity’s sake. Creators could pick and choose aspects they like from the setting they’ve encountered and do something without offending any party. And as these games are usually aimed at people who know the lore and shitposting qualities, they don’t mind using copyrighted assets (Chrono Trigger is a rather popular one) and music (Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” is essentially part of the VIPRPG OST). Well-known arranges of classic RPG Maker tracks can become motifs for popular originally drawn characters. And creators are free to just make things up in the setting and end in a haphazard manner if they don’t feel like pursuing the kinds of ideals everyone is chasing after. It’s their work — their personal shitpost and contribution to the world of VIPRPGs. The audience would understand because they are just like them: individuals who see themselves as contributing knowledge to one massively growing shitpost.
Indeed, this amount of freedom and tight-knit networking has made this community subset of VIPPERs quite unique because they are as niche as hell. They are a subculture inside one subculture (some “main” VIPPERs profess their dislike toward them) and embrace how small of a community they are. They seek to create media that caters only to them without any compromises.
What if someone want to make a certain kind of JRPG that had little combat and is basically a walking sim with tons of dialog? It might be unwise from a major publisher’s perspective and most players may be uninterested in reading flavor text, but it is the kind of game this creator wanted to make. Such a game would only be feasible in VIPRPG, which should be seen as a kind of enabling environment for creators and audiences to explore their desires and wants. As the audience will share similar cravings and tastes with the creator, there will always be a niche to fulfill.
That is why VIPRPGs work. Born out of a series of :effort: shitposts, the subsubculture is able to create and tailor the kinds of cathartic experiences to themselves and find something that can transcend the usual occurrences in mainstream or even subculture media.
This little-known subsubculture did some great things. Helen’s Mysterious Castle (ふしぎの城のヘレン) is an instant cult classic with indie Steam JRPG fans and there is growing interest into VIPRPG from non-Japanese communities, myself included.
But there will always be that lingering question your professors love to ask when you write your dissertation proposals. So what? So what if you made a RPG Maker game that could emulate IIDX or shmups? You won’t make it big and you can’t make money anyway, so why bother?
Maybe the answer to that “so what?” question is “it doesn’t matter”. Subcultures don’t care about that question; they just want to find meaningful things in the most useless things.
The mainstream cultures of the world are hegemonic in the sense that they are ordering and totalizing structures. What we call good manners or fine art are dependent on the arbitrary values led by people in charge of such structures. Such ideologies don’t always capture the experiences of people who don’t belong to the elite, but it is always what we see on TV or on the pages of a book.
We know there are dissidents; yet, no one is able to say a word. We are trained after all to ignore the what-ifs that surround us. It is the only way for us to answer the “so what?” question.
But what if most people who don’t agree to these values are able to find unorthodox ways of expressing themselves? What if there was a community of outsiders who want to find unusual methods of storytelling and adhere to different principles and histories that are not found in textbooks?
Those are the kinds of subcultures I adore. Maybe I romanticize too much but I do find it powerful to see someone who could be some bozo like me make a RPG Maker game that can only appeal to one or two people. They are an important part of what we think of history and culture.
Subcultures are after all born out of what-ifs. That, I think, is what makes them empowering.