How Flash Games and Newgrounds Foretold Today’s Indie Experimentalism
The Flash games I played were creative, weird, and often incredibly subversive, not unlike our current indie ecosystem.
Above: Illustration by Dan Evans
There were a lot of passing fads at my school. We had skipping ropes, yo-yos, Tamagotchis, the weird alien goo things that apparently got pregnant if you put them in the freezer, and one year we got really, really into conkers—the playground sport where you fling hardened horse chestnuts at each other until they smash into shards. The teachers weren't impressed with that one.
But one of the most memorable fads we had was the time when we all got intensely into The Mystery of Time and Space, an early escape-the-room game built in Flash. There were 20 levels, increasing in difficulty and clearly inspired by point-and-click games from the 1980s and '90s, but with a strange, surreal tinge. One early level had you trapping a moving, disembodied head in a floppy disk case, and the plot, as vague as it is, hints at cloning, aliens and time travel.
Escape-the-room games were an early staple for me, and probably many of you, too. And, like me, it was probably your gateway to what Flash and Java games eventually became: the indie scene we have today. Weird and wonderful things became possible with Flash and Java, which was cheap, easily available and easy to learn—much like Unity and GameMaker are today, allowing people other than trained computer programmers to craft their own games.
Like me, you may have played The Crimson Room and The Viridian Room—two escape-the-room games that were bafflingly translated and difficult to understand. But that's what made them so compelling, too: We would gather round in the brief minutes of classroom bustle, when the teacher was too busy to notice, and we'd whisper hushed solutions to each other, half-remembered from a French walkthrough we'd found the night before.
"You have to light the incense first, I think. And then maybe the skeleton comes alive? Maybe? I think that only happens if you've found the last piece of paper with the symbol…"
Newgrounds was a hub for all things Flash, and a place where many modern-day indie darlings cut their teeth.
Back when the internet was still finding its feet, it was all about these tiny pockets of the online world that you'd find through word of mouth. You might remember Orisinal, a website that featured small, sweet games with simple mechanics and cute animals, all made by the same guy, Ferry Halim.
Then there was EYEZMAZE, a strangely translated Japanese site that featured the fantastic GROW games, which were all about choosing items in the right order to make the on-screen scene flourish.
You probably played Samorost—a 2003 game so popular that, not only was a third installment released 13 years later, but Amanita Design also made an entirely commercial version just for The Polyphonic Spree, called The Quest for the Rest, which was basically Samorost but featuring the members of the band. I played that game to death, despite not knowing or caring who The Polyphonic Spree was at the time. Such is the power of great game design.
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One of my all-time favorites was a game called Parapluesch, a game that I think was supposed to promote German mental health care, or something, that took place inside a hospital ward where all the patients were plush toys with some kind of problem you had to solve. There was the fluffy sheep with multiple personalities, the hippo with OCD and the sweet alligator suffering from paranoia. You had a range of treatments available, which often included some rather severe and ill-advised choices like electroshock therapy and hallucinogenic drugs. I'm now questioning what this game's purpose was, exactly, but at the end the plush toys were all better, and then, of course, you could buy them.
And, of course, there was Newgrounds, a hub for all things Flash, and a place where many modern-day indie darlings cut their teeth. Edmund McMillen—of Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac fame—tested out his perverse, subversive, body-horror sense of humor on Newgrounds' willing audience. Some of his most successful works on there—which, god, I remember playing, not at school but in my parents' office, hoping they wouldn't walk in—included Dead Baby Dressup (exactly what it sounds like) and The C Word, which was a kind of shoot-em-up, but featuring a huge, diseased, angry vulva as the target.
Newgrounds was a place for experimentation, but it was also a place to push boundaries often for the sake of pushing boundaries. To find the decent, well-made games on there, you had to sift through bad dating games, X-ray vision games, roughly ten billion stickman games, and a disturbing amount of autopsy games, which were thinly veiled excuses to undress women. Dead women. It really wasn't a great place, sometimes.
Newgrounds' relatively low barrier to entry allowed a flood of creative, weird and subversive people to make things and share them.
But, of course, the cream makes it to the top, and what I remember from my early days on the 'net is mostly the good stuff. On Newgrounds, I discovered One Chance, a cleverly designed experience about trying to cure a plague taking over the world that can only be played through once, unless, as I figured out, you clear the cache. Hacking.
There was also The Dead Case, a game about trying to solve murders and finish unfinished business from the grave that really stuck with me because of its spooky, unsettling writing. There were even quite a few games that were on there to Make A Point—games about the flu, about unethical farming practices in fast-food companies, about living in poverty. They were heavily political, and they often shoved their message down your throat. But back then, people played them anyway, because playing games was what we wanted to do.
I can't decide if these experiences informed my taste in games, or if they just fed an already existing appetite, but going on indie game publishing platform itch.io today, or looking at the submissions for any game jam, I'm reminded of those lunchtimes spent scouring the internet for good things to play.
Back then, the games I played were creative, weird, and often incredibly subversive, because the relatively low barrier to entry allowed a flood of creative, weird and subversive people to make things and share them. The current indie climate is incredibly similar, but even better—because of the internet, and websites like itch.io, people are able to share ideas, collaborate, and make things that wouldn't necessarily be commercially successful, just because they can.
The internet has made a lot of awful things possible. But it's also made great things possible, too—and gaming will continue to change and grow, to fill the space, to react to the awful things and respond with brilliance.