It’s Friday night and Sora is vibing as she streams on Twitch. She’s playing Genshin Impact with a few viewers while chatting to them about how their week has been. Pinksphere (real username omitted for privacy) playfully redeems ‘Bonk Me,’ a command that causes a GIF to appear that seems to be hitting her on the head. I retaliate by hitting three on my number pad and Sora instantly frowns. Through my voice, she sarcastically reprimands the user before resuming her play.

Sora wears a long-sleeved crop top with fishnet stockings that peek over her black denim shorts. She has dark grey hair with pink highlights and red stars in her eyes. She’s every bit the anime girl I always dreamed to create — because she is. Sora is my VTuber.

I began streaming for the first time around February this year. I’ve been an ardent gamer my entire life but I am also an introvert, which meant streaming was both something I had always wanted to try and was terribly intimidated by. To me, it sounded like a three-hour-long Zoom call with the world, except my camera would be the only one turned on.

However, the prospect of meeting other like-minded individuals who were just as passionate as I am seemed too good to pass up. Streaming pushed me out of my comfort zone and into the digital limelight. The more time I spent streaming, the more time I was also watching other streams. Then, I realized how many of them were VTubers. Every third or fourth channel seemed to feature an anime-inspired avatar talking to their viewers as they played Valorant, Apex Legends or Elden Ring.

What Is a VTuber?

“VTuber” is short for “virtual YouTuber,” a digital avatar used in photos, videos, or live streams to represent a person’s identity. Despite the ‘-Tuber’ suffix, you can find VTubers on a variety of social platforms outside of YouTube, such as Twitch and Facebook. For non-English speakers there’s also Bilibili and Niconico. Many might be familiar with the name Kizuna AI, often lauded as the first Japanese mainstream breakout VTuber star. This trend has now gone global with thousands of VTubers from dozens of countries.

The umbrella for what constitutes a VTuber is broad. Most adopt the said anime aesthetic, presumably due to the trend beginning in Japan. It’s not uncommon, however, to find other more realistic art styles and avatars of animals, food or inanimate objects. In terms of form, there are 2D and 3D models, the latter being more accessible through free software such as VRoid Studio. 2D models require an artist to create the art and a rigger to ‘rig’ it which allows the art to respond to facial expressions and body movements. ‘PNGTubers’ are also part of the fold. They are streamers who used simple pngs or graphics to represent themselves.

Creating My 2D Self

It wasn’t until I befriended Katak (@KatakK_ on Twitch), a handsome brown-haired VTuber with an adorable frog sitting on his shoulder and his wider VTuber friendship circle that I began seriously contemplating making a model of my own. Both Ryoku (@ryokucharyu) and Shin (@tetsuya_shin) had compelling backstories about being a wolf guardian and shrine priestess to Heiwa-Ai. Max Muso had interactive channel redeems, allowing his viewers to add things to his model such as a ramen bowl or googly eyes through points accumulated from watching his stream. You feel like you’re the protagonist of your own novel, manga or anime. Your viewers are then like your co-writers to your own lore that develops with each stream.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. The impetus for my first VTuber stream was a double wisdom tooth extraction which rendered me in a lot of discomfort and newly acquired chipmunk cheeks. I quickly looked up tutorials on how I could build my model which would allow me to continue streaming without showing my balloon-like face. After several hours over a few days, Sora was born.

Hitting the ‘go live’ button with Sora in full view made me nervous all over again. I still made sure I looked somewhat presentable, in the extremely unlikely scenario that the VTuber model would cut out and replace it with my actual face, but I was mostly afraid of technical issues that would make her awkward, like an eye roll becoming stuck or mouth movements de-syncing from my voice.

It didn’t take me long to get over these anxieties and to begin enjoying the main perk of having a VTuber: the feeling of being free.

Sora is always cute; my viewers love her style. She also never gets tired. Even if I’ve had less than five hours of sleep the night before, her hair and make-up are always immaculate, with eye bags never in sight. I could focus more on what I wanted to say and less on how I looked. I could laugh harder, sing louder and simply be more me when I wasn’t me.

It’s been a month and my wisdom tooth extraction swelling has long faded away. Sora still makes an appearance a couple of times a week on the days when I want to take it easy. As wonderful as a VTuber is, the limitations of my 3D model mean that Sora will never have the full depth of human expression. I also still like showing my real face and my viewers seem to like the variety that I can now offer with both myself and Sora. Starring in my own anime was something my kid-self could only fantasize about and VTubing has at least brought me one step closer.