Shortly after the release of Steam prison break hit The Escapists 2, players flooded the forums with questions. "Who are these people with weird names and funny coloured hair," they wanted to know, "and why can't I make them go away?"
The Escapists 2 is a sandbox game in which you try to escape from a series of increasingly ludicrous prisons including a Wild West train, a boat that's gonna maroon you on an island, and Space Prison. When you begin a level, the game whips up a batch of semi-procedurally generated characters to populate each area.
Players have been surprised to find that this sometimes includes a handful of popular YouTubers and streamers like JackSepticeye, DanTDM, and CinnamonToastKen. When the game first came out last week, these real people with fake names appeared a little too often for players' tastes, garnering a deluge of complaints:
Some players feel like YouTubers and streamers are just a marketing gimmick that crashes through the fourth wall and shatters any sense of immersion. Sure, they figure, it will be fun for popular YouTubers to see themselves in prison, or for smaller time YouTubers to make videos where they torment famous YouTubers, but if it comes at the cost of regular players' enjoyment, is the extra promotion really worth it?
Others feel like their inclusion is an attempt at pandering to children, who players perceive as only a small part of the game's audience.
In reality, though, it's a bit more complicated than that. For one, this isn't even the first time YouTubers have appeared in The Escapists series. A few, like Paul Soares Jr. and Jim Sterling, appeared as prison wardens in the original.
Second, YouTubers and streamers played a big role in the success of the first Escapists, cultivating much of its community and culture. This can be seen everywhere from view counts and comments on YouTubers' videos to The Escapists' Steam Workshop, where the second most popular map of all time is a YouTuber tribute simply titled "JackSepticeye."
It's for that reason, say the game's developers, that they gave YouTubers and streamers a more prominent role in The Escapists 2.
"We've had a long association with content creators for The Escapists," said a rep for Team17 in an email, "and they played a key part in helping it become a success."
Despite that, Team17 acknowledged that YouTubers and streamers were appearing a bit more frequently than intended, claiming it was "a bug that wasn't found before the launch of the game."
So it goes both ways. Some folks despise YouTubers and wish they could toss them in the actual clink, but for others, they're a major selling point. "My kids love seeing the YouTubers," wrote another Steam user in the same thread. "They're the celebrities of the new generation of gamers."
Some players, though, don't want to see any YouTubers at all, and Team17 hears them. The developer told me it will soon introduce another patch that will allow players to toggle off YouTubers and streamers altogether.
While The Escapists 2's situation is an extreme one, several other games have brought on YouTubers and streamers to do character voices to varying degrees of success, as well as some controversy. As YouTubers and streamers become even more entrenched in gaming culture, they will inevitably appear in and around more and more games.
They're celebrities, familiar faces, and no matter how much technology and media change, people will always be drawn first and foremost to people. Is that a good thing, though? The jury's clearly still out.
In TV and film, celebrities come part and parcel with whatever show or movie you're watching. They're a huge element of the production, so it's not weird to see this person you've seen in a million other places suddenly riding horses and spitting tobacco as a cowboy or whatever. Video games' crop of homegrown celebrities, though, are outsiders and middlemen who've increasingly become insiders, which has proven jarring for a lot of people.
They're also not strictly necessary to the production in the way actors are, a fact that's compounded by the nature of YouTubers and streamers' celebrity. Traditional actors are supposed to blend into the settings, while the whole appeal of having a YouTuber physically appear in a game like The Escapists hinges on them standing out.
Frankly, though, it's not all that hard for me to imagine a future in which YouTubers and streamers appear in lots of games and nobody bats an eyelash. As in The Escapists' case, they're becoming intrinsic to the communities that form around games, and TV and film have already conditioned us to be cool with famous people being everywhere.
Sometimes gimmicks fade into obscurity, but other times, they're just a preview of the new normal.