Tracing the Sprawling Roots of Flash Preservation

Communities are working to salvage as much Flash content as possible—even possibly bringing the Flash player back to the web
March 18, 2021, 5:00pm
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Screenshot from 'Blue Suburbia' by Nathalie Lawhead

Flash isn’t exactly dead. At least not yet, according to Jason Scott. “There's a narrative right now that Flash is now gone forever. And it isn't; what's gone is Flash being a default part of the web,” he says. An Internet historian and archivist at the Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library dedicated to offering “universal access to all knowledge”, Scott has been working on ensuring that as much Flash content is kept freely accessible on their site as possible. Once the platform for kooky animations and experimental games, Flash is no longer a staple for weird digital art, having just completed its stagger towards its end-of-life—with the long march towards its decline finally coming to a head.

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It’s no news, of course, that Flash had been shambling for a while. Yet efforts to preserve its projects have flourished, sprouting roots from as early as seven or eight years ago. This is followed by a spurt of interest since Scott announced the Internet Archive’s plans to host Flash content on their site in November last year. “People were uploading the files for Flash to be able to keep them from sites that had already gone down, from projects people had done and all sorts of collections of data,” he adds. “By the time we got to 2020, we had many, many- thousands of these files.” Scott suggested that this early scramble to preserve Flash artefacts was also spurred on by Adobe’s hesitance over dealing with their proprietary technology. You can see this in the company’s erratic Flash updates over the years, starting with Adobe’s decision to move away from supporting Flash in mobile devices in 2011. 

Flash was originally conceived as a means to bring animation to the web in the early 90s. It emerged when the very notion of moving images online consisted mostly of GIFs; animations, much less videos, was impossible to imagine back in those days. The platform soon nurtured a thriving niche of browser games and fully interactive websites, heralding an era of abstract—and sometimes downright bizarre—creative works. One of them is the hauntingly rich digital world of Blue Suburbia, the brainwave of net artist and game developer Nathalie Lawhead. A collection of interactive poetry housed within a ghastly wilderness and twisting hallways, it’s a virtual space where you can freely roam, explore and ruminate in—all within the constraints of your web browser.

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Blue Suburbia by Nathalie Lawhead

"Flash was welcoming to experimental art. It made the craziest stuff possible, and this was even encouraged. Flash games were sophisticated and the quality to many of them still exceed HTML5,” Lawhead told me. “If you consider how easy it was to build Flash games where lots of sound, animation, art, [are] all integrated seamlessly together, to how much harder it is today to do the same in HTML5, it's difficult not to feel like we lost something special.”

The rise of HTML5, then, probably sounded the death knell of this enterprising software. Capable of delivering the media interactivity that Flash offered, when paired with CSS and JavaScript, companies and creators alike leaned towards HTML5, and started to step away from Flash. This holy trinity of web development swiftly gained traction in 2014—right around the same time when Adobe doubled their efforts to put Flash to rest, oddly encouraging content creators to move away from their own proprietary technology and “build with new web standards” instead. It was around this period when a number of enthusiast groups, made up of programmers and curators, attempted to create open source versions of the Flash player to offer a much-needed alternative.

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But plenty of these didn’t make it to the finish line. One of the most prominent open source projects then was Shumway, a media player developed by Mozilla that would have been able to play Flash files, but was eventually discontinued. “I get a lot of hope for Shumway. That was going to be a Mozilla project to do open source for Flash, but it got shut down,” Scott elaborates. “Basically, what would happen is that sometimes Adobe would write in and say, “I don't think you can do this, I think you're using our proprietary technology,” so they would send a letter. And I think places like Mozilla would just say, “Okay, this is too risky. We don't have time for this, this isn't our main goal.” At the same time, Google’s means to convert Flash files to HTML5—in the form of a tool called Google Swiffy—was also being retired

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'Canabalt' screenshot / Adam Saltsman

When I reached out to Mozilla, the team shared that development on Shumway was largely due to the gradual move away from Flash from content creators, rather than potential litigation issues. “While we were exploring work around Shumway, Adobe, Chrome and Firefox had already started deprecating Flash publicly and web developers were moving away from creating new Flash content. The need for a project like Shumway became less dire,” shares Chris Peterson, Engineering Program Manager at Mozilla, and who also worked on Flash in both Macromedia and Adobe. In another reply on a forum, Peterson also said that working on ensuring complete Flash compatibility would be impossible.

With these challenges surrounding Flash player, as well as the closed nature of the Flash ecosystem, Scott thought this cemented Flash’s eventual slide into obscurity. “Unfortunately, Adobe's control of Flash meant that it never became an open standard, so there wasn't a better player or a different player you could switch to,” says Scott. “They all had to be owned by Adobe, [and] that's kind of what killed it.”

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Lawhead believes adoption of HTML5 came too quickly, too prematurely in the first place, saying that there are aspects of Flash that still outshine HTML5. “HTML5, web assembly, and the modern replacements, are still in their infancy in many ways. Today's web tech ecosystem is very fragmented, deprecates things too quickly, and built on a model that's not friendly to backwards compatibility. It seems fundamentally unfriendly towards preservation,” they add.

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Boštjan Čadež's 'Line Rider'

“I think there's an illusion that the web is designed to last forever, and it’s not. It's designed to work efficiently if you take care, and it's designed to be playable at a large amount of places if you take care, but unfortunately, not everyone can [do so],” says Scott. In his opinion, many net artists who use Flash as a medium have a greater focus on preserving the experience of their projects at that time, rather than its longevity. This complicates how these projects can be replicated online, after the demise of the Flash player. “There are a lot of artists who chose Flash as their medium, they made these Flash that are… those are more difficult [to preserve], but I think with Ruffle and with some care, they can probably be brought back. Some of them might need their own mirrored website, different from the Internet Archive,” he elaborates. “To have it really be playable and switch between all the different- because, you know, [...] artists, especially from the 90s and 2000s, didn't focus on the longevity, they focused on the experience. Like [how] some artists will use pigments that last forever, but they're mostly focused on, “Will the pigments last until the audience sees them,” and not “Will this last 100 years?” ”

In some ways, former Flash enthusiast turned web developer Syrsly echoes Lawhead’s sentiments, saying they miss the capacity to visually calibrate every element of a project perfectly, on every device and every browser. “I never got the same level of control over websites made in HTML5, for example, as I did ActionScript 1.0 (programming language used for Flash projects), which is totally bizarre considering how long it's been a thing,” they say. “I used to make full-screen, cinematic website experiences using Flash, and it was mostly about making something eye-catching, something fun. Now, everything web-related is standardized CSS/JavaScript/HTML and is just so boring 99% of the time. Flash is probably the only reason I even got into web development.”

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Yet more teams have endeavored to keep Flash projects alive behind the scenes. One was Ruffle, a Flash emulator that was first introduced in 2018, which allows Flash animations and games to be revisited on a browser by anyone with ease, even without a Flash plugin. Years ago in 2013, Scott was, along with a few colleagues, tasked to integrate Flash emulators into browsers. With the emergence of Ruffle, this became the most obvious solution to Scott’s years-long conundrum.

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'Bloons TD 5' by Ninja Kiwi

“To my delight, in mid 2020, we found that Ruffle had matured to the point that it could definitely run. [The team behind the project was] super committed, super committed to doing a good job, make the code really clear, [and was] really focused on good project management, that it wasn't just a sideline hobby, [in] that they were doing a little bit of work on every few months and calling it a day,” Scott explains. “And so I looked into adding it to the Internet Archive system, and it took less than a day and a half because it was so well made.”

What also jumped out to Scott was another Flash conservation project called Flashpoint. Unlike Ruffle, Flashpoint is a massive software that simulates the internet, tricking Flash items into thinking that they’re being played on the original site, so they can be loaded and experienced. This means that these content have to be played on a local server proxy—a colossal component that needs to be downloaded to a player’s desktop, and which occupies a lot of disk space.

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“It literally packages years of Flash [content] into a preformed virtual machine that you have to download components for,” says Scott. “Last I checked, it was about 500 gigabytes. It's so big that there's two versions, you can either download everything—500 gigabytes—or you can download just the components it needs [to play specific games]. And then as you choose things you want to play, it goes [through] to a number of mirrors and downloads just that stuff.”

While the Internet Archive may be the most well-known organization to carry out Flash preservation efforts, it isn’t the only group doing so. Communities behind conservation projects such as Flash Games Archives and Conifer are also actively looking for and archiving long-lost Flash projects, but each takes a vastly different approach to preservation from the Internet Archive. At the same time, one of the most notable Flash portals, Kongregate, has collaborated with The Strong museum to preserve their Flash games library, with the museum archiving the digital materials of these games, including their associated metadata. Then there is Flash developer Nitrome, who is in the midst of converting their games to HTML5. Rather than a competition to see which collective can hoard the most Flash artefacts, all of these are the culmination of years of preservation efforts—each one contributing to the overarching narrative of Flash preservation in their own ways. This is a feat that simply cannot be achieved by a small, talented team of enthusiasts alone.

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“The advantage of these other places is they can focus on one thing really hard, and really write a whole bunch of beautiful, contextual thoughts on that one thing. [At the Internet Archive] we're focused on a million things, but if they're focused on one thing, they can really tell the story like, here's the beginning, and here's examples of the beginning and then here's what happened in the middle, and here you can see the changes [...], or they'll make a really good search engine that is 100% focused on that thing,” Scott adds.

What’s equally integral to Flash preservation efforts, too, is a thorough documentary of its enduring, although short, digital history, particularly among its creators and the community that experiences them. More than just a canvas for artistic expression on the net, Flash has also democratized game making, particularly for creators like Lawhead who have been overlooked from mainstream game development. While it’s a hugely accessible tool, Flash has also been frequently denounced by portions of the industry in its earliest days.

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'Blue Suburbia'

“Flash was stigmatized to such an extent that you couldn't say you are a Flash developer without people viewing that as a joke. I think this can be credited to the propaganda from monopolies like Apple, who were invested in controlling our creative outputs,” Lawhead said. “Flash was accessible to anyone. You could know literally nothing, make a silly thing, and post it online. Anyone could have access to it. With that accessibility also came lots of 'bad' work. Unity games come under similar fire too for being amateurish, but we're a lot quicker today at condemning these discussions as unfairly biased [against] hobbyist work.”

For Arman Nobari, making games on Flash was how he used to spend his days after undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma. “Flash offered robust programming, animation, and asset management at a time when it was too daunting to achieve similar results otherwise. Consolidating the functions of Flash into open, built-in standards is great for most people using most websites, and cut out the need for a whole separate program, plug-in, and skillset.”

Left out of most discussions around Flash history is also the types of people who spearheaded its burgeoning indie games movement. Lawhead pointed out that on top of this social stigma around Flash developers, early tech spaces were also hostile to many creators who didn’t fit a specific mould: that of a straight, white man. “It's hard not to see the contrasting experiences that a woman had in those spaces as compared to how men were treated,” they said.

“Nobody knew that the person behind my work was a woman. As soon as that came out, interest in my work tanked in these professional spaces. It was like getting blacklisted. That's no exaggeration [...] When people thought you were a guy you were called a 'genius' and your work was 'groundbreaking'. When they knew it was me, the conversation shifted to saying it 'had potential,'” Lawhead elaborates. 

With the ongoing efforts to bring Flash back to the web in some form—albeit without the involvement of Adobe this time round—some game developers I spoke to are hoping to see a revival of the Flash platform again. “I think their (The Internet Archive) choice to preserve Flash projects to run as emulations is smart and offers hope for some level of backwards-compatibility in the event the internet takes some huge technological swing in an unexpected direction in the coming years. It gives me hope for some gems to be preserved, even just as nostalgia,” says Nobari. 

“I'm hopeful that they'll be able to replicate all of the features of the Flash Player, including ActionScript 3.0. If we get that, then maybe we will see a small community of homebrew Flash developers making Flash games indefinitely the same way as we have homebrew SNES games, Gameboy games, or DOOM mods. I think Flash holds enough of a place in our collective nostalgia that it could become that,” Lawhead agrees. “If that happens, I know that I'll probably be making Flash games forever then. I still love the technology and toolset.”