It’s difficult to explain growing up in a small town to those who haven’t lived it. The clichés so often embraced by movies—the narrow perspectives of citizens, the yearning of youth to escape white picket prisons, the loneliness of being an outlier—are all true, but the intensity of such a place’s oppression and xenophobia is rarely captured in fiction.
In 2005, Jim and I were 16 and living in a small town dead smack in the middle of South Carolina where people openly talked about how scared they were of Muslims, when they weren’t working, playing golf or cheering on the high school football team. We had no desire to be like those folks. The two of us were part of that second wave of white kids who had discovered Straight Outta Compton (thanks to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) and thought it was the greatest thing to ever grace their ear buds.
We were young and mad and ridiculous and we craved anything that spoke to the possibility of a culture that existed outside the WASPy bullshit we were entrenched in day after day. We paid absurd amounts of money to buy special edition DVDs of artsy movies by The Coen Brothers and Kubrick to spend the afternoons watching. We listened to Bill Hicks’ Rant in E-Minor until it was scratched beyond functioning.
And then there was Newgrounds.
I don’t remember who discovered it first. Maybe someone showed Jim the site one day in the library, or maybe I found it by playing web roulette and clicking random hyperlinks on a school computer. Either way, a sort of ritual began. We’d come to my house every day after school and sit in front of my CRT monitor and just deep-dive into the site’s cartoons and games, all user-submitted, for hours upon hours, experiencing these foreign and fascinating works made by total strangers.
Newgrounds, which began as a way for creator Tom Fulp to host his own games back in 1996, was probably not the first site to allow users to submit their Macromedia Flash works—but it was certainly the first to have such an organized and popular system for both submitting creations and allowing users to play or view them. The Portal, as it was known then (and is known to this day), keeps tabs on the latest submissions, allowing users not only to access them but also to rate them as well. If a Flash submission is particularly awful, it can be BLAMMED into oblivion by enough negative user votes. Submissions that the community becomes enamored with can rise up through the ranks to a spot on the Best of the Week box and maybe even a coveted position on The Best of All Time rankings, guaranteeing that a huge number of users will play it.
The types of games and animations that end up on that list are often professional-grade, like The Animation Workshop’s fantasy short “The Reward” or the grim zombie survival sim The Last Stand. However, it’s worth navigating the minefield that is the Recent Submissions list in search of raw talent as well, almost always animators and developers tinkering with little projects in their off-hours. You could get attached to one particular artist and watch the evolution of their craft play out over the course of several years if they stuck with it (and if you stuck by them). Newgrounds was, and perhaps still is, a marvelous hub of creative vibrance and community.
This is, of course, one romantic perspective of the site. There’s also a rather ugly history to the place, which is hardly surprising when you consider it was founded initially to host games like Telebubby Funland—essentially a series of animations featuring Teletubby knock-offs smoking bongs and worshipping Satan with a cameo of casual racism in the form of a black caricature. The foundation of Newgrounds is a very particular, almost South Park-esque expression of transgressiveness, promoting works obviously expressly engineered to create controversy.
And in a practical sense, it worked, driving huge numbers of users to the site to watch and create the likes of Retarded Animal Babies and play games where the only goal was to undress poorly drawn versions of characters from animated shows. It was surprisingly common to see the site’s name appear in angry headlines thanks to games like Kaboom, which cast you as a suicide bomber killing people.
These elements of dot-com backlash against the prudishness and our-media-is-turning-children-into-monsters anxieties of post-Columbine culture, as you might imagine, have not aged well, serving more as an awkward time capsule than as a historical document.
It’s beyond embarrassing to look back, not only at the sort of kicks me and my friend got out of playing these dopey games, but at just how weak the site’s reputation as an edgy proponent of free speech actually was. For all its bark, the majority of the site’s early days involved housing goofy animations and games that made 420 jokes and dropped references to The Matrix while serving up the occasional ho-hum game whose one defining quality was its supposed-taboo subject matter. At its worst, Newgrounds was Baby’s First Rebellion all the way through to its dick-jokey core.
And yet in spite of all this, the site remains important in the history of video games.
Thanks to its lax submission policy, Newgrounds was an odd kind of frontier, especially in the later aughts, a Deadwood for developers to debut games that couldn’t exist anywhere else because there simply wasn’t a digital marketplace for them. This was long before Itch.io, even before Steam took a vested interest in anything indie. The lack of such a market often meant that creators weren’t making anything with a particular audience in mind outside of the strangers who visit the site (though developers like Edmund McMillen would go on to release well-received commercial games).
While this unfortunately played a substantial role in making the shallow, dismissive criticism that a game “looks like a flash game” (and should therefore be free) a common refrain, it also led to the creation of unconventional, genuinely interesting games. These were games that didn’t really fit into established categories, like first-person shooters or platformers, but were instead often abstract, or featured experimental narratives that you couldn’t find outside of the web. I remember playing Distance, a game about a long-distance relationship that served as a great mood piece and, as I could later attest, an accurate depiction of the sorrow inherent in being in a relationship with someone who lives far away. There was also A Night Forever, a poetic scroller game about desire that continues to vex me years later.
The Majesty Of Colors
is the one that easily left the biggest impression on me. I was home from college, having just barely survived my first semester academically, and Jim was over for the day. It felt like I hadn’t seen him in a decade. We spent the day doing what we had done for years: We flipped open my laptop, huddled around my parents’ kitchen table and played Flash games from noon to dusk. The Majesty of Colors was gaining traction in the Best of All Time stuff, so we decided to play it.
The game casts you in the role of a tentacle monster living near the shore of a town, beneath the waves. Balloons are floating overhead. You hear the monster’s thoughts (“Last night I had a dream. I was perfect, titanic, and serene”) as you reach for them with your tentacles. Eventually the monster inadvertently creates a conflict with the humans who live nearby and your choices determine how the game ends.
The game meant something. To me and him. Something vague and nebulous that left us silent for 10 minutes entranced by the game’s pixelated visuals and its 8-bit serenade, perhaps invested because we had spent the larger part of our lives feeling like social abominations interacting with people who reviled us. It was a game that resonated deeply with me, and it’s the one my mind jumps to the most when I think of Newgrounds’ place in the sphere of gaming history.
More than a virtual middle finger aimed at its many detractors or a showcase of talent, this site was a working notion of the idea that a game by anyone—me, you, whoever—could mean something to a large audience of people. A game didn’t have to be about killing people or sliding pieces around on a board until you finished a puzzle, or finding the right key to unlock the door barring your progress. It could be quiet and marvelous and poignant and even lack closure. That games could be these things and more was not a new notion. Still, Newgrounds, at its peak, embodied this ideal by creating a space for the creators who wanted to will these types of works into existence.
Creating simple, manipulative games or animations that are guaranteed to make people mad—the stuff that Newgrounds built its reputation on—doesn’t take exceptional skill, nor is it particularly memorable. If anything, it’s rather dull.
However: Giving artists a space, with nearly no restrictions, is a radical act in itself, one that can have meaningful consequences, like an artist or developer making the jump from hobby to profession—or even something as simple as introducing a work to two young men huddled around a wobbly table in the late afternoon, reassuring them that they’re not the only freaks in this strange, angry world.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.
Photo credit: Nicholas Eckhart; adapted under Creative Commons