Long before I perfected the precision gunplay of Counter-Strike or the spell-casting chaos of World of Warcraft, I had Bowman — a minimalist game where you, controlling a stick figure with a bow, try to kill another stick figure by shooting an arrow at them, one at a time.
Bowman barely had any mechanics to speak of; you could click anywhere in the game’s plain white window and simply drag the cursor to adjust the direction and power of your shot. It felt nearly impossible, at first, to maintain the same trajectory of the arrow on each alternating turn. Then I figured out that you could shoot the same shot, and adjust it precisely, by pulling the bow from the same exact spot on the stick figure’s head and pulling the cursor to a specific set of numerical coordinates.
This one simple realization unlocked years of Bowman supremacy, and the option to play against friends, right there in your internet browser, effectively killed hours of my school life overnight. By 2004, I was already in love with PC video games. But nothing captivated me as elegantly or diversely as the universe of Flash games: miniature, in-browser works that ranged from copies of classic titles to the most unusual creations I’d ever seen in gaming.
You’ve probably been hearing for a while now that Flash is dead, with its remains slowly but surely being transferred to the digital boneyard after a dominant run in the 2000s as the software for embedding and running video, animations and games on a website. That’s mostly true: No one’s developing anything for Flash in 2020; most devs have moved on to faster, more efficient, safer platforms like modern HTML5. Now, with publisher Adobe pledging to discontinue support for Flash altogether at the end of the year, it’s got me wondering: Is this the end of Bowman, too?
Turns out, a number of other people are pondering the same thing. Their solution? Just preserve and store every single Flash game they can find, collecting them in a single portal for future generations and digital historians to mine. It’s a massive task, but something that 26-year-old Australian Ben Latimore is spearheading through an archival project dubbed Flashpoint. His squad has collected a stunning 38,000 games in the last three years, tinkering with code in order to ensure everything will run fine a century down the line.
“Adobe Flash (then Macromedia Flash) is arguably the largest treasure trove of unpreserved gaming history today,” Latimore wrote in a Medium post two years ago. “Spanning literal tens of thousands of games over a period of 20 years, the library of Flash games, breadth and depth, outlives any other game console on the market.”
In its heyday, Flash allowed literally anyone to begin composing animations and simple games and publish them to the internet, with little to no barriers standing between the content creator and the audience. Every site could run Flash, so everyone used the open-source software. And from that nexus flowed forth an endless stream of web games — some terrible, some amazing, but all free and easy to access. There were takes on classic games, like the blunt rip-off Super Mario 63. There were silly shoot-’em-ups that enthralled 12-year-old me, like Bullet Time Fighting. There were deeply creative and deceivingly complex puzzles like Line Rider and the appropriately titled The World’s Hardest Game.
For a kid with little money to spend on actual console and PC games, the universe of Flash titles kept me dedicated to gaming. It also provided a critical way for young developers of the early internet to hone their craft.
“With Flash games, you threw something out there and people liked it or didn’t like it,” developer Brad Borne, who made the Flash game Fancy Pants Adventures in 2006, told Wired. “It’s a very pure relationship between the developer and the audience. There’s no microtransactions, no ads. It’s just, ‘Is the game good?’”
I spent far too much time each week trawling for the best and newest little games on sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate and Addicting Games, hoping I wouldn’t click on a virus or spam porn and ruin the school’s network. For a while, it was hard to imagine the internet without Flash. And then Apple despot Steve Jobs came along, noted the inefficiencies and security holes within Flash software and basically declared war. In 2010, Flash was banned from Apple’s iOS operating platform. Just a year later, Adobe gave up on supporting mobile development altogether.
The gradual death of Flash has an upside: It’s provided time for Latimore to attract more than 7,000 contributors to the Flashpoint project, which today can be downloaded in its entirety as a massive, 240-gigabyte torrent file. Elsewhere, the Newgrounds Player lets you play Flash games that don’t work in-browser via a desktop app, and Addicting Games is transporting its greatest hits to HTML5. But, to be honest, it’s not even remotely the same feeling to revisit these titles for nostalgia’s sake. What I mourn today isn’t the death of Flash, so much as the death of a development community that felt more cutting-edge, quirky and free than anything that had come before.
The ease, speed and sandbox nature of working in Flash led to some truly creative turns, whether it was in the form of cartoonish gore (like the overstimulated, bloody Meat Boy) or something as simple as a ragdoll figure that you can mess with in every way possible. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that influential absurdist cartoons on Adult Swim, such as Harvey Birdman and Home Movies, were initially built in Flash. The punk-rock DIY ethos burned bright in this bizarro corner of the internet, helping nameless young programmers grow into true indie successes. I can see the influence of Flash games in everything from 2017’s disturbing (and acclaimed) side-scroller Inside to, well, pretty much every game that exists for mobile today.
But, to Borne’s point, while the influence is obvious, the culture isn’t changing back. Mobile gaming, for one, is today dominated by corporate forces and garnering huge debates about ethics and safety, whether because of addictive microtransactions or new technologies that blur the lines between digital and literal reality. Even without such existential questions, it’s obvious that the internet is more fragmented than ever before. “The true death Flash’s slow decline has foretold is the death of a coder’s dream: The ‘write once, run anywhere’ software platform is dead. The sheer numbers of different interfaces currently rising reveal just how out of reach that dream has traveled,” Anastasia Salter and John Murray, co-authors of Flash: Building the Interactive Web, wrote in the Atlantic. “A place radically open to amateur creativity has been quietly replaced by proprietary platforms such as Apple’s App Store and Steam.”
I’m glad that I don’t have to mourn the loss of all these games, thanks to the archival efforts that continue each day. But I can’t help but mourn — mourn the loss of era-defining software, of a subculture, of an ethos that cannot be replicated today. Such is the nature of the ever-shifting internet, I guess.
If you’ll excuse me, though, I have an hour of Bowman and Line Rider to play right now.