This post is the transcript of the talk I gave for the MacKenzie Art Gallery and their “Gone in a Flash” livestream series about Adobe Flash and digital art archiving.
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My talk is going to be about my work but also the historic context, in terms of digital culture, that all this falls under.
It’s about Flash games, early Flash work, and how that movement informed what we have in indie games today…
The early web was a hurricane of creativity, innovation, and people trying to figure out what a website is and what having one even means.
When I got into this stuff, as something that I wanted to do with my life, I remember I still had to explain to people what the internet is and what a website is.
It wasn’t common knowledge, email was more or less new to many people, the dot com boom was going strong and it was a very interesting type of gold-rush of “visionaries” trying to get companies to invest in the internet.
When we talk about that era we talk mostly about the business side of things, the economy, the crash when the bubble burst… we don’t really go over what that era meant for digital art. I think very interesting things came out of that, especially for the artistic expression being explored.
I think “early websites” were an interesting era to examine for how artists tried to take hold of the space too, and explore art using the new platform “internet” and the medium “website”.
For example, net-art was a beautiful concept; the idea that you could use iconography & anything native to computer culture, to create art so unique it would confuse people that looked at it. All this was really alien to people at that time.
There was no “baseline” for what this was. Not everyone knew what the internet was, which made this really singular… a bit “out of this world”.
I remember, at that time, if you were a net-artist, or did any type of art based around websites, you would also have to be a salesperson of sorts and be really good at explaining why you’re even investing time in doing something so awfully weird.
This is also the type of internet era where Flash really took hold. Flash pushed websites further, letting us dream up what we really wanted the web to look like.
As early as 1997 people where making experimental Flash websites.
I posted a more in-depth summary of that scene here, and you can read that to learn more about that space.
But this, the late 90’s and early 2000’s, is when I developed a serious interest in digital art as something I wanted to do with my life.
At the time (from about 1997 into the mid 2000’s), websites were being touted as the “ultimate new art form”.
You could be a total nobody, and host your work online, and anyone in the world could see it.
You didn’t need museums or galleries. You didn’t need anyone. You had all the power to put yourself out there for everyone to see. All that, along with the interactive format, made it very compelling unexplored territory.
Interactivity meant my work could be something people not only looked at, but also experienced… either way, that was the appeal that really stuck with me.
The early Flash website scene had a strong interactive language. Conversations on “why interactivity” and combining that with animation were pretty abundant.
I know today Flash (and as a result most of that work or scene) has a bad reputation, but at the time a lot of this work was viewed as revolutionary.
It shaped many facets of today’s digital culture, in ways that we don’t really acknowledge.
I think Flash was always interesting because it started as an animation tool (Future Splash) and eventually grew into an interactive tool.
Because of that very broad combination of things it did well (animation mixed with programming), made it a very accessible tool for artists.
Even by today’s standards, you’ll be hard pressed to find a substitute that does that so well (the convergence of an art tool, animation tool, AND a development tool, that’s also cross platform, AND backwards compatible with older work, all in one). Flash wasn’t just a tool. It was a creative philosophy packaged with a strong development philosophy.
It allowed pretty much anyone to participate in this ongoing creative discussion… what websites even are, what they can do, and what they mean as an art form.
It allowed us all to ask “what should the internet look like?” and give our answer in our own way.
I think the “what a website means as an artform” part of this is important, and kind of an exploration that we lost.
Link from slide: BlueSuburbia.com
My first serious Flash project was born out of a conversation that I had with my mom about “how would you illustrate poetry?”. My idea was that the poetry should be animated and react to the person reading it.
This is when I created a website called “BlueSuburbia” which was a collection of animated and interactive poetry.
I launched the first version while in highschool.
It was kind of a cathartic project too because my family had just moved to America during the bombings and war in the Balkans — my family’s history is mired with labor camps, fleeing homes to escape the camps, the breakup of Yugoslavia, kind of that type of political drama… my parents worked with refugees so I grew up with these discussions, stories, and that background.
That’s the type of history, or narrative, that I was very used to hearing when I was growing up.
We moved to the US with nothing, and slowly worked to build a life here.
The culture shock from coming from that, and being dropped off straight into American high-school was a lot and working on this “art project” became my way of coping.
This type of art was my way of making sense of the world and finding my place in it.
The themes of the poetry dealt a lot with being a refugee, war, poverty, and conflict.
I advertised it as “being a commentary on the American public school system” because I didn’t think American’s would understand or be able to sympathize with the themes.
The idea behind BlueSuburbia was that each poem was based in its own unique, very animated, very interactive, environment.
My aim for the quality of animation was to be something like Disney’s Fantasia meets Edgar Allan Poe meets Tim Burton (I was a high-schooler, that was my idea of cool)… so the project was kind of built around all that.
I’ll show you some of it to give you an idea…
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A video recording demonstrating BlueSuburbia. Animation reacts to whatever the visitor does. Text changes and morphs with mouse position, or visitor interaction, poetry is fully integrated with animation so it’s not “just text” but illustrated through interactivity… The sound work is integrated with interactivity, but it’s all one very coherent piece…
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The first edition of BlueSuburbia was posted in 1999. The thing took off like wildfire. It was pretty big and enjoyed a cult following.
People talked about it, larger art publications wrote about it, featured it, people reached out to me asking if they could showcase it, a few institutes asked me if they could include it in their curriculum, and really impressive people sent me their resume because the work impressed them and they wanted to work for whatever studio was responsible for it…
It was a lot for a highschooler, but this is why I fell in love with this type of work.
I think the spaces where it was really embraced were fascinating. It got some nice recognition in net-art circles. People used words like “literary hypermedia”, net-art, “interactive poetry”, “hypertext poetry”, “e-poetry”… to describe it.
This project grew out of that.
Flash made this type of expression possible in ways that aren’t really doable, or embraced, on the modern web anymore.
I think we experienced an interesting shift to the “modern” web from things like this. It was normal to expect this from a website. Today we don’t.
The internet, as a platform, doesn’t really lend itself to such work anymore. At least not as coherent and seamlessly. Sound and animation don’t play well together in such a sophisticated way with modern web solutions…
It’s a good example to use for how natural and easy it was to do stuff this complex almost 20 years ago, as contrasted to how hard it is today.
I think it’s interesting how the web has changed to support certain work, but completely reject other.
BlueSuburbia really took off. It had a passionate cult following.
If you look at old jayisgames comments to this, you can see that interest in this lasted years. I still get emails about it today.
The internet gave me anonymity.
Working on this project was my secret identity. I enjoyed being “the secret artist” that made it, enjoyed its success, and nobody really knew that it was just some goth teenager that made it. My teachers didn’t understand it, and My friends didn’t know that this was something i was doing either.
I enjoyed the idea that professors were showing this in colleges, like I actually had value and people could learn from what I was doing.
This was what I wanted to do with my life, so I pursued web development and interactive art on the web…
When I was looking at going to college none of the places really taught stuff like this. Most of the professors told me that I was wasting my life with this, and that the internet is just a niche that’s going to die, and that if I was to continue I would ruin my creativity… this type of tension lasted a really long time.
Just the concept that this work has value worth embracing is a pretty recent thing.
BlueSuburbia stayed with me for a long time. I worked on this project from 1999 and stopped in 2005.
I made a lot of weird and wonderful “art websites”… here’s a few saved examples of some of it…
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alexis.alienmelon.com was a collaboration between me and my sister. It was an interactive FMV breakup letter to a toy moose. You are the moose.
At the end it forwards you to this fictional girl character’s blogspot (the one that wrote the breakup letter) and you explore her online space. She would vlog over youtube. The further you explored, and the more you got into her youtube, things started to become more weird, darker, and just obsurd. It was dark comedy.
haiku.alienmelon.com was interactive and animated haiku. It generated random music and animation as you explored the haikus. Haikus randomly displayed out of sets of three, based on each of the themes (moments, lost, or time).
http://nathalielawhead.com/metal/ was my showcase of my welded metal sculpture work. It was meant to show the sculputres dimensionally (not just through photos), so it featured stop-motion animation of the sculptures and let you look at them from different animated angles. It also featured interactive sound because all websites had to have sound be intrinsically part of the experience.
http://alienmelon.com/2004.html was my old portfolio website that kinda functioned like a tiny interactive music video in which you explored my work.
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…So all that gives you an idea for how older web work looked.
I think it still holds up today, and it’s a great example of how sophisticated Flash actually was and the breadth of work it empowered people to put out there.
I had websites where sound was fully integrated with animation, and visuals, and text was treated as more part of an animation than it was “just text”… It’s a TYPE of website we had space for.
Admittedly this kind of thing wasn’t suitable for commercial sites, where you would not want to have it act like art, but it was something that existed in the mentality of the internet… Websites leaning more into being art themselves than just sites.
There was terminology that existed to describe this type of website too like “Flash websites”, “rich media”, “immersive experiences”, “rich internet applications”…
There were some interesting transitions that took place with the internet, and how we relate to websites, around the time that social media appeared.
Starting with the growing popularity of Facebook self-hosted sites became less popular. As a result “the Flash website” or “the art website” started to become a bit more rare.
The way we “surfed the web” changed when social media became the norm, so people’s interests were streamlined from consuming this type of content (finding and sharing websites), to consuming stuff from social media (finding and sharing discussions, videos, images… localized on social media).
I remember talking to someone that wanted to build an ARG and he joked that it was rare to find someone that still did work like this, because most of his peers that built these sites moved on to making games… I think that captures where a lot of people that did this type of work went.
It’s interesting to note too that many discussions surrounding “the Flash Website” (coming out of the “websites are art” crowd) involved discussions about interactivity,
how interactivity makes art more impactful,
how that can make you empathize with the themes more intimately because you’re part of the piece,
and how these websites were what developers loved doing because they merged all the other arts… you had to be good at sound, coding, art…
Discussions like this were extremely similar to discussions that we have in indie games today, but that happened almost 20 years ago with Flash websites.
With Flash games, if you look at the type of studios that shifted interest from web development to game development, you see some amazing work having been done.
The mentalities that went into making immersive Flash websites were redirected to Flash games.
I feel like a lot of that just changed into being games, like these discussions just shifted into the game direction…
For example, Amanita Design did incredible work with Samorost (~2003). Their work is still available, and gives you a good idea of the level of caliber that you could expect from Flash games…
Around this time, BlueSuburbia started to get shared in different circles.
The gamer crowd picked it up, and I think that signified an interesting mentality shift for how my work was treated.
Discussion around my work changed from “wow this is an amazing piece of art” to “lol this game is weird”.
I won’t get too much into that, but it was really interesting to see how just changing the label from “net-art” to “game”, brought in a lot of confusion and hostility.
Eventually, because of how BlueSuburbia was being labeled a game, I decided to start making games, but ones that were extremely non-game like, kind of rejecting games while still being able to call them games.
in 2008 I started Tetrageddon games.
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The original Flash site is still up too.
Among the game crowd, my work was faced with a lot of hostility.
The idea of what a game is and should be was still pretty puritan then, with (if you do anything different) it could garner harassment.
Links from slide:
* A “10 years of experimental work” retrospective: does being a gamer automatically mean toxic fandom, and can anything be done to break away from that?
* My Full Indie Summit 2018 slides & talk transcript (Art Games & Speaking Your Truth)
For context, this is the type of gaming experience that generally formed people’s expectations when they interacted with this type of art, or engaged with games…
I talked about it a lot. If you’re interested, in the slide are links to more discussion on that…
My work was extremely polarizing when being picked up under that “game” term.
Largely because BlueSuburbia was about reading and JUST exploring, not about actually doing anything game-like (like defeating or solving things).
I think it’s an interesting note to make that early Flash games did a lot of similar innovation that we see in indie games today, that we think is new.
In some ways, you could say that Flash games were the indie games successor.
By all accounts, BlueSuburbia was just a really early walking-simulator… before we even had concepts of “walking simulators” and that games can be just about meandering.
For better context, in terms of how browser games were growing, I think it’s important to examine how the professional Flash game scene looked like, acknowledging just how big it was at the time…
The “casual game” industry grew out of online Flash games. The term “casual game” was kinda coined by gamers because these games aren’t “real games”, they’re just casual.
Either way, these games were big enough to inspire discussions about what “real” games are.
This was a huge industry that started to become something to take serious for the amount of money it was making.
A LOT of people played these games. Sites like AddictingGames.com served as portals. we know of Newgrounds, but portals for hosting Flash games were a dime in a dozen and many even payed for them.
Links from slide:
* Gamasutra: Where’s The Cash For Flash?
* Gamasutra: The Flash Game Business: Making A Living Online?
* Gamasutra: You Should Be Making A Premium Flash Game
* Flash Love Letter (2009) Part 1
* Gamasutra: Going Games: From Web Development To Game Studio In One Project
* MyGame Partners With MochiAds
I sold a Tetris clone to AddictingGames.com for $5,000, just so they could redistribute it.
It was easy to make money with this type of work, especially if you were willing to sell sourcefiles. There were sites like FlashGameLicense.com where you could sell that. Things were steadily growing.
In the slide are links to old Gamasutra articles discussing making money from this work. What I think is novel about these old articles is how high the revenue estimates are, just being casually thrown around.
It’s also interesting to note the pushback Flash Games (casual games in the browser) had from “gamers proper”, with gamers complaining that these were not serious or real games, but people engaged with them the same rate at which they now engage with mobile games.
Sites like JayIsGames.com curated the most interesting Flash games and even helped set the stage for legitimizing this type of “indie” game. There are a lot of correlations for what we have in indie games today that are similar to how curators worked to legitimize and curate Flash games.
I think another interesting observation to make also (especially if you go reading through the links in the slide) is that Flash games were a very saturated market, but people still easily made money from them, as compared to current conversations about the “indiepocalypse” and how indie games are “too saturated and that’s why money is not being made”.
Flash games were able to grow into an industry despite saturation (in my opinion it was easier to make money from them as compared to today’s indiegames), so I think these problems go deeper than saturation.
I think by getting rid of Flash games, and especially the browser based Flash game model (or “industry” for a lack of a better term), we shot ourselves in the foot.
Mobile was not a good substitute, and I think it’s important to examine why, as well as what the shift from browser to mobile did.
You can argue that this space moved to mobile, and now mobile stores are saturated, being very hard to make money from mobile, but the controlled nature of mobile is exactly where the issue is.
We had a very thriving, very “wild west” space on the internet, and that got shoehorned into two stores (Google Play and the AppStore) where things are extremely controlled.
There are no “alternative” mobile stores. Everything either goes through Google’s storefront or Apple’s storefront (the AppStore).
Without the alternative spaces, or alternative storefronts, and alternative communities for distributing this type of work, more life and innovation cannot grow.
The mobile space is not allowed to grow outside of the restrictions of these storefronts.
Mobile devices are way too controlled, way too monopolized by the platform holders, to allow for any of that.
Browser games, that entire industry and all the creative freedom we enjoyed, was basically forced into these two storefronts… and because of the loss of the Flash Player (plugins in general) in desktop browsers, all that pretty much killed the type of momentum we once enjoyed.
HTML5 was not able to accommodate that transition, especially if you look at how inconsistent HTML5 support is between the mobile browser and desktop browsers. In many ways it simply didn’t live up to being a complete technical substitute to Flash. I think that, and the shift in control that the internet experienced with mobile, is a big reason that we lost this industry.
For something to thrive you need LOTS of storefronts and lots of communities and for a platform to stay extremely friendly and accessible to hobbyists.
Without that, you lose the momentum and cultural relevance.
I talk a lot about this in my blog post here, which is really worth reading if you want a history of that change including how HTML5 failed many of these use-cases…
Either way, that’s the context for Flash games…
It’s also worth pointing out that, with the death of the Flash player, all these sites just died. Online browser games are a shadow of what they once were, and so is that industry. It would almost be a joke to call it an “industry” at this point since it’s no longer anything major where you can make a living. Not the way it used to be.
I think it should speak volumes that, instead of this industry just transitioning to HTML5 and growing out of that, most of these portals closed or went under with the disappearance of the Flash Player.
The type of creative momentum we saw with hobbyist, and small indie game development, largely shifted to Unity and the desktop.
Places like itch.io and GameJolt are similar to how Flash game portals where, but the majority of this is taking place “out of browser”.
I discuss a lot of this in my post in this slide, but I think HTML5, the modern web, and the loss of Flash has failed browser games.
When I talk about this, I’m often told that “browsers are just not meant for games anymore” which I think is a sad loss. HTML5 was supposed to be better, not “kill” this once thriving scene.
When we talk about indie games, and build a history about who innovated with them, and where the “breakthrough” indie darling titles happened, we rule out Flash work in our discussion and focus more on the Unity era as THE era where “games as art” fully emerged… Which I think is a mistake.
Flash developers and artists are responsible for a lot of innovation in laying the cultural groundwork that eventually evolved, or transitioned, into our current indie game movement.
Flash work is unfortunately never really talked about, definitely not as something legitimate. It’s largely ignored when building our contemporary history. It is responsible for so much of it tho.
It’s good to examine how things have shifted from then to now, with the way art games have grown in their popularity.
A lot of people that used to (fairly violently) oppose work like this have embraced it along with these quirky “not-a-game-games”, the “games don’t have to be fun” games, “autobiographical art games”, “vignette games”… are pretty normalized now.
This evolution from “websites being art”, to weird experimental web games, to experimental games now being much more embraced, is an interesting one to track, especially if you look at it as a single line instead of separate unrelated movements.
I think Flash has actually done a lot for what we have now because of how accessible it was. These ideas grew very fast, and they were shared much more easily with your everyday computer user because the Flash Player was so common in every browser.
The way walking sims received blowback was very similar to how my experimental work received blowback.
I think, in context, it helps to understand all this if you view Flash as being (for a lack of a better term) “the predecessor” indie game movement.
Like I keep saying, Flash set a lot of the groundwork for what indie is today, and how accessible we expect developing games to be…
Even in the early version of a walking sim that work like BlueSuburbia was, what played out later with games like Dear Ester, or Gone Home, seemed similar to me.
Stuff like this works in reiterative cycles, where the same idea eventually catches on and finally sticks.
I think the way these experimental digital art models (like “the art website”) found their way into indie games today, is an important tangent to follow for how these things never really go away, they just find different spaces and terminology to exist under.
Today I still view websites as capable of art, something also meant to be experimented with.
I think we lost something vital when we standardized the web and kind of stigmatized that type of experimentation in websites.
These mentalities; that a platform belongs to everyone and should be accessible to anyone’s vision for how it can look, behave, and what it can be for, are important.
For example, you can argue that Unity is proprietary too, but most of our art games movement is built on it.
What would happen if Unity suddenly made very bad decisions and was singled out for deprecation by larger corporations interested in pushing their own solutions so they may “control” a platform?
The same arguments used to attack, criticize, and “kill” Flash, can be used on Unity too (any platform really)…
For example, Unity is a proprietary technology. The engine is closed source.
It does not run well on everyone’s machine.
It is made by a commercial entity, and not non-profit or open source.
You could complain that many Unity games are buggy, and “look ugly”, and there’s a potential security risk if you’re willing to go that far… if Unity were used for banner ads, then it certainly would come under that fire.
Too many games use Unity. The majority of them look “amateurish”…
No. I don’t believe any of this or that it should be held against Unity, but these are arguments we readily make about Flash without really thinking about the implications of what we are saying.
You can say all this about a lot of tools or technologies.
You could basically slander Unity, and as a result, our hobbyist game movement to death.
With how readily we repeat stuff like this, it would not be hard to stomp it out in such a way that it would not even be worth preserving or remembering, because “it’s just so bad”…
The subtext here is that “game development should be left up to bigger corporations capable of making good games” the same way as we now view websites.
The exploration is gone. it’s about following a certain set of standards that you do not deviate from.
Being welcoming to amateurism matters for a lot of reasons.
What happens to a tool when it’s very accessible and everyone can make things for it?
How does it make a tool look when anyone can create and so easily put stuff out there?
It will get a bad reputation for being a certain way, when that should be attributed to the technical shortcomings of the developer, not the tool.
Many misconceptions about Flash were a result of developers not really bothering to implement things like disability concerns, usability concerns, designing for search engines… but this is because of lack of technical knowledge, or because developers didn’t care to make that work.
Flash did have a set of standards that many followed. The platform is haunted by misconceptions and negative PR.
If a tool and platform is free to everyone, and becomes so popular, it will eventually suffer from misconceptions about “how bad it is” because of the poorer quality of work.
I don’t think this is something you can control, or really should standardize either.
If everyone has a right to create for a platform like the web, then you will have bad work. The internet should support all the varying types of creativity and voices.
There will always be a push and pull, but it matters that space is held for amateur work, and the power is not completely surrendered to monopolies (or larger commercial entities).
A space cannot be run, or controlled, entirely by “big players” otherwise the creativity dies.
This is basically what happened to what we once had with Flash.
Websites have become very mundane templated things where, if you step out of design rules and do something different, you will get lectured on not being user friendly.
We’ve become so stale we don’t really expect more, or allow them to be more than just a pattern.
I think it’s important to look at that for what it can mean for games today.
It would be similar if we suddenly saw a technical shift in indie games, with accessible tools coming under fire because the underlying technology of the desktop was shifting.
Would we let the narrative change to “games should only be made by professionals”?
Would we forget the thriving creative space that we once had because we convinced ourselves that “games are not meant for this platform”?
For example, if we removed a platform’s accessibility to everyone, and swallowed the pill that “not everyone should make games”, that games should only be made by professionals, we surrender creative freedom.
computers are not just meant for consuming entertainment, they’re not just outlets for consumption. They are also a space for artists to create weird, amazing, or horrible work. Technology belongs to everyone.
I think we should really learn from Flash’s history and not let what we have today with indie games fall to the same fate. The type of “gentrification” that happened on the internet has cost us a lot, and we don’t really remember it for how we failed to preserve it.
We need to protect the idea that platforms (like the desktop) should be open to hobbyist developers,
there should be many storefronts,
alternatives are good,
write our own history (outside the mainstream and capitalist narratives) so we don’t forget what we have and get pushed into a more controlled direction for how our expectations got lowered,
and that amateur work absolutely belongs. It should be given a space of respect, and acknowledged for its importance.
When we remember Flash we remember it for the bad PR, the memes about it blowing its security exploits or vulnerability out of proportion, the negative hype about it that came from Apple…
It’s worth acknowledging its contributions to digital culture too.
Flash was once a thriving cornerstone to many creative movements on the web.
It had reach and was accessible to anyone.
Its accessibility was a big reason for the momentum of early internet art and why so much of it caught on.
It empowered anyone to make beautiful things and served as a beginning for a lot of creators…
and it shaped much of the modern web.
It’s important to remember that.
Flash was special. It made the internet better.