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Abstract illustration featuring different tuber characters in pinks and purples Illustration: Inkee Wang for Polygon

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Breaking the fourth wall with Caves of Qud’s mutant hyena mascot

A professional Vtuber interviews her creation

So many meetings over the past year have been relegated to the confines of a Zoom window or Discord chat, rows and columns of talking heads and choppy voices. I’ve seen public figures say they’re excited to see someone in person again. Not Grahu-Rubufo, the self-styled “Learned Snapjaw Vtuber.” Her likeness — a saw-toothed cartoon hyena in a brick-red hoodie and a viridian-gray dog collar — exists on the internet alone.

Caelyn Sandel: I’m here with Grahu-Rubufo, unofficial mascot and official broadcaster for Caves of Qud. Gra—may I call you Gra?

GR: You may. Thank you for asking.

CS: Gra, you are a “snapjaw.” What is that?

GR: A species of bipedal mutant hyena, I think. It’s more of a guess since we don’t have regular hyenas in Caves of Qud, and that’s where snapjaws are from.

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CS: You’ve described your own species as “the trash mobs of Qud.”

GR: Ha ha! Yep!

CS: You play a lot of Caves of Qud yourself, right? So you yourself are killing scores of your own people, if only digitally. Isn’t that troubling?

GR: Yeah, that’s all accurate, and of course it’s troubling. See, we’ve got this, uh, this... loose alliance of snapjaw warlords that’s basically just taken over the hills and vales on the West side of Qud. Thanks to them, 90% of the snapjaws a wanderer runs into are gonna be just, the worst. Gutspillers! Tot-eaters! Troubling, nothing—that’s scary. Depressing, too, when you realize how much pressure there is on cubs to be part of the pack.

CS: For sure.

GR: But there are plenty of us in the villages, too—decent snapjaw people doing their best. Good or bad, really, we’re just folk. Folk with a bite that can pulverize bone. Folk who can set fires with our brains if we try real hard.

Gra plays Caves of Qud
Image: Caelyn Sandel

CS: So is everything you just said canon Caves of Qud lore?

GR: Isn’t that more your department?

CS: It’s yours, too. Don’t break kayfabe.

GR: No comment, then!

Gra bursts into a fit of giggling. I wait the ten seconds it takes for her to calm down.

CS: So. You’re a Caves of Qud streamer mainly.

GR: Yeah! The first Vtuber to main a roguelike, as far as I know.

CS: Can you tell us what a Vtuber is?

GR: Vtuber stands for “virtual YouYuber,” a term of art coined by Kizuna AI and popularized by the imitators and innovators that she inspired. Using software that tracks a voice actor’s face and movements, Vtubers can bring animated avatars to life.

CS: You don’t look much like Kizuna AI, though, do you.

GR: No, I’m more of an Inugami Korone, but with worse manners.

CS: Sure.

GR: Listen. Regardless of who coined the phrase, Vtubing is a growing form of performance art with multiple fandoms under that umbrella. The biggest Vtubers, like the monster-girl idols streaming for companies like Hololive, are part of a whole new industry. They’re a combination of YouTube Let’s Players and Virtual Idols with managers and artists and pro-wrestling style kayfabe. It’s a fast and flashy and super-impressive production when you’ve got a whole team doing it like Hololive does, and that kind of thing has raised the visibility of Vtubing a lot.

CS: But not all Vtubers work for a company like Hololive.

GR: Such as Grahu-Rubufo, Learned Snapjaw Freelancer. Q.E.D., right?

CS: Caves of Q.E.D.?

GR: Let me make the jokes, please.

CS: Okay.

Vtubers Bakooka Bilbapot and Grahu-Rubufo team up for a stream together
Image: Caelyn Sandel

GR: There are hordes of indie Vtubers. High-quality streaming equipment can be really expensive, but simpler setups are affordable to individual streamers who don’t have a company backing them up. What’s more, you can look however you want! You can have a costumed human avatar like Tiffany Witcher, or you can be that one Vtuber who’s literally a houseplant. Since queer people often have their self-expression minimized by the society they live in, there’s a lot of appeal in that kind of radical bodily autonomy. For indie queer streamers in particular! I feel like that’s why you’re seeing more and more of us as we catch up on the trend. It lets us try out different versions of ourselves. Wouldn’t you say, Caelyn?

CS: I would say. So! How did you get into Vtubing, Gra?

Gra starts giggling again. I finish my tea as I wait for her to calm down.

GR: You asking me that question is weird! You should be answering that question.

CS: I can’t answer questions, I’m the interviewer.

GR: What if I were the interviewer? We could switch.

CS: I guess that’s true.

GR: Welcome to the Polygon Show. I have with me here Caelyn Sandel, additional writer and designer for Caves of Qud, indie experimental author, and voice of Grahu-Rubufo, Learned Snapjaw VTuber. So, Cae— may I call you Cae?

Caves of Qud Image: Freehold Games

Cae laughs.

CS: Yes! That’s fine, Gra, thank you.

GR: How did you end up working on Caves of Qud?

CS: I started playing the game in 2015 from a gift code that the lead programmer gave me. It was about one month before I started writing bits of micro-fiction about the species I’d dreamed up based on my favorite character builds. The design lead noticed my fanworks and liked them enough that he hired me to make them canon in 2017.

GR: How did you end up streaming Caves of Qud?

CS: I’d been watching Leigh Alexander’s Lo-Fi Let’s Play series on YouTube, and I was so enchanted by the idea of a video game livestream where the host didn’t shout or get mad or raise their voice. I started doing Qud chill-streams to a small audience that included the developers as often as other fans.

GR: But not officially, right? What was that transition like?

CS: I didn’t become an official broadcaster for Caves of Qud until 2020, and when that happened, it meant that my broadcasts were being shown on the game’s store page. Now, I’m a trans woman in my late thirties, an identity that a small but very noisy gaming demographic considers a punchline in and of itself, so the one time I tried using a facecam was not encouraging.

GR: Ugh.

CS: Yeah. I’m kind of sensitive, so while I shrugged it off in the moment, being insulted like that ruined the experience. One of my followers joked that I could use FaceRig to become a dinosaur, and that didn’t sound good at all. I didn’t want to be a dinosaur; I wanted to be myself, right? But then Dij, one of the Qud Discord’s moderators, let me know that her sister was taking commissions for Vtuber rigs, and a lightbulb went off.

Image: Caelyn Sandel

GR: And that’s when I burst forth from your head like Athena, as wise as I was beautiful from the moment of my glorious conception.

CS: It took a bit longer than that and hurt less, but yes. Are you the interviewee again?

GR: No, I’m still interviewing you. How did people react to you suddenly voicing a cartoon hyena lady? Did it meet your expectations?

CS: It was better than I expected. I don’t know if it’s different for Vtubers with more human avatars, but people just don’t harass you over your appearance when you’re a snapjaw. Lots of people do wander in specifically because they see the avatar and it interests them. Some folks even seek out my Twitch channel from the official broadcast, all to tell me that they like my rig.

GR: It’s a very good rig.

CS: Well, that was fun, but I’m taking the interviewer seat again.

GR: Aw. Okay, I guess.

CS: Gra! You know a lot about real-world pop culture: singing item names to TV themes, referencing news stories or community discourse. But you also talk about the cultures of Qud with the same familiarity. Where are you actually from?

GR: Yeah, that ambiguity is sort of baked into my basic concept, right? I need to be able to acknowledge the lives of the people in my audience, and I can’t do that if I’m pretending that I don’t know what TikTok is. I’m not the same kind of fictional character as the protagonist of a story or even a player character in a video game. I don’t need to have a consistent or detailed backstory and I’m, y’know, at peace with that.

Caves of Qud Image: Freehold Games

CS: Yeah.

GR: Maybe I’m actually a newly sentient being. That’d be nice and Quddish. Ambiguous, contradictory, and incomplete stories are at the heart of the game’s themes, and I’m the same way.

CS: Sort of like how it’s ambiguous whose interview this is...

GR: Exactly! Speaking of which, you said earlier that you’re a sensitive person. Your feelings get hurt easily. But then you go on to make and market games with explicitly leftist values, explicitly queer characters, and themes such as identity, self-discovery, and societal defiance. Instead of creating a confident snapjaw persona, why not just tone it down a little? Why not make “normal” stories?

CS: It’s always been my way to run toward the things that frighten me. I used to call it “screaming down the stairs,” as an analogy to the way that I would charge the monsters in the basement as a child. It opens me up to risk and possibly harm, but it also gives me the momentum I need to break through barriers that my personal courage can’t tackle alone. If I want to speak publicly or make art about things that I think are important but scary, it’s worth it. I just have to put on a brave face to do it.

GR: And sometimes that brave face is a snapjaw?

CS: Sometimes that brave face is a snapjaw.

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