The thing I miss most about pre-pandemic life is hovering at the edge of conversations, waiting for a moment to crack the perfect one-liner only to surprise and deter everyone involved from ever wanting to talk to me again as I slowly slink away and pretend to text near the snack table. Big sigh.
Zoom meetings, Discord servers, and Google Hangouts just aren't the same, so coding collective Siempre made a web utility that does a pretty good job mimicking the real deal. Online Town (opens in new tab) is a video conferencing tool that pairs the usual webcam and microphone setup with a top-down JRPG-esque room, where every participant is assigned a little sprite person they can move around freely. The kicker is that webcam clarity and microphone volume increase or decrease based on how close everyone's sprites are to one another.
ABOVE: Siempre shows us Online Town in action.
I can still hover at the edge of a conversation, my webcam a touch grayed out so I don't quite register, my mic output just quiet enough for my joke to not only miss but go unheard or misinterpreted once I pull the ripcord. What a relief.
But if you actually know how to hold a conversation, Online Town looks like a great way to socialize with remote friends. I dig services like Houseparty and Zoom, but the more people in a room, the less natural the conversations. Every big meeting I've been in is a stilted, awkward affair dominated by whats and I'll-waits and sorry-go-aheads.
Online Town offers a simple way to break up and parse those big social gatherings, though it's really just a proof of concept right now. There's no sprite customization and nothing to do but putter around and chat in every flat, featureless scene. Custom scenes and a few simple games would do well to split people up and create something like flow between groups. But what's there works plenty well for putting together a crowded online gathering without the usual barrage of cross talk.