The Existential Terror of 2000’s Game Maker Games

David R. Howard
7 min readMar 21, 2023

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Screenshot from Seven Minutes

The year is 2007. For eight years Dutch computer scientist Mark Overmars has been working on the entry-level game development toolset Game Maker. While a number of forums surrounding the software had cropped up, there was not yet a centralized portal for Game Maker games in the same way that Flash games had sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate. This changed with the acquisition of Game Maker by Dundee-based YoYo Games and the creation of the YoYo Games Sandbox, which was operational from 2007 to 2016. Though the Sandbox has long since faded away, the site was luckily archived in 2014, giving us indispensable insight into the works of young game-makers in the era just before and during the indie game boom of the late aughts.

MORTALITY

In December of 2009 Puerto Rican game-maker Alexis Andújar González aka Alexitrón released And everything started to fall to GameJolt and the YoYo Games Sandbox, later porting the game to Flash. The game is a vertical-scrolling platformer where the player ascends through different periods of the protagonist’s life–from an infant to a child to a teenager to a labouring body to a middle-aged man to an elderly wheelchair-bound man to death. The obvious comparison here is Jason Rohrer’s Passage from 2007, with González describing the game as “A pretentious attempt at making art trough [sic] play mechanics”.

For me And everything… perfectly encapsulates Elizabeth Freeman’s concept of chrononormativity, as the protagonist of the game does not merely age but experiences the life events expected by cisheteronormative society, such as getting married and having kids, all before the looming image of a literal ticking clock. The only time the player is presented with a choice is in their teen years–a binary fork in the road between studious achiever and drug-addled slacker. Interestingly, both paths are made visible regardless of which one the player takes, and both lead to the same result, entering into the workforce. There is truly no alternative here, as capital is quite literally in the water that the player must swim through to progress.

It’s hard for me not to wonder why And everything… didn’t receive as many accolades as Passage, especially given Rohrer’s heel turn into abhorrent politics that were always sneakily present in his work. And everything…’s difficulty and more conventional action game design may be a factor in minimizing its accessibility, but I think perhaps by 2009 it was already an expectation that indie games required a certain level of polish to be taken seriously. Yet, while And everything…’s Game Boy-style graphics are simple I also find them quite effective in conveying emotion, especially that of nostalgia when the images are repeated, flashing back before the protagonist’s eyes in the moments before death. My favourite sprite in the game is probably the one of the teenage protagonist spray-painting the word “ME” on a wall.

RESURRECTION

And everything started to fall was hardly the first Game Maker game to explore themes of death however. Take for example Psychosomnium, released in January of 2008 (and later ported to Flash as well) by Swedish game-maker Jonatan Söderström aka Cactus, who would go on to make Hotline Miami and its sequel. The game is a flip-screen platformer, but similarly to And everything… is more like a series of vignettes. The game takes place within a “dreamworld”, however within the first few screens the dreamer, Jimmy, dies after jumping into a wall of spikes. From there the game makes a series of avatar swaps from Jimmy to Tom to Mitch to a bee to a gunman. The gunman then embarks on his quest to kill “the magician”, however he himself is killed by the magician who is revealed to be the castle the gunman is inside of. This chain of avatar death and resurrection is finally broken as the game cannot heighten any further (what would it mean to play the castle?) and the credits are shown.

Despite its brevity and comedic tone, Psychosomnium would go on to inspire Finnish game-maker Tuukka Virtanen’s Seven Minutes, released only a month later in February of 2008. Also a flip-screen platformer, the player controls a nameless black square who enters into the temple of a vengeful three-eyed god. This god tells the player that they have seven minutes to live, taunting them as they make their way through the temple, which is filled with spike traps, falling blocks and misdirects. Fascinatingly all three of these games, despite being about unavoidable deaths, use the act of respawning in their design.

As the player makes progress, the god’s face begins to periodically flash to a satanic skull. Upon reaching the final room the player is told that they made a mistake simply by leaving the first room of the temple, and that there is nothing here for them. The blocks in the room dissipate to black and the game ends. To get the true ending of the game and the credits the player must wait all seven minutes in the first room, after which point the three-eyed god reappears and grants the player “ultimate power”, turning them into a god.

Something has always troubled me about Seven Minutes, and it’s not simply the horror aspect or the tense soundtrack. The game presents two endings, one “bad” and one “good”, that represent nihilism and “enlightenment” respectively. However, to get the “good” ending for the majority of players they must first experience the “bad” ending–to be told that “there is nothing” only to be given an escape hatch via restarting the game. According to Seven Minutes the key to obtaining enlightenment is sheer obedience–yet it also sends mixed messages, as to even start the timer that ends the game the player must first disobey the voice of the three-eyed god. Also, who is to say that becoming an immortal deity is not as equally terrifying a prospect as mortal death?

CONFUSION

The last Game Maker game I wish to discuss is the oldest but also the most obscure, amassing less than 500 downloads from the YoYo Games Sandbox. People Hate What They Can’t Understand was released in 2007 (though some sources say 2006) by New Zealander game-maker Jordan Browne. The game was created for Kafeithekeaton’s “Open Surreal Game Challenge” and Browne describes it thusly:

“In a world beyond the compelling desire to magnify the very essence of mediocrity in the void of existence, a solitary protagonist stands up to challenge the thoughts and emotions of the idealism bearing down upon these tortured times. Answers are for interpretation and the message is for those who can comprehend the magnitude of illusions that will lead to destiny and the battles against those foes who oppose accomplishment. But in the closing stages, people will always hate what they can’t understand.”

Unfortunately, the version of PHWTCU I was able to download will not run on my current OS and there is no playthrough on YouTube either. Luckily, MobyGames has a gallery of screenshots with descriptions that approximate the play experience and help to fill the gaps in my memory.

The game begins with a screen depicting a series of cryptic symbols with a swirling galaxy of particles in the background. We then enter upon a scene of the protagonist standing by a crudely-drawn house with text floating in the air that reads “welcome to this world…good and bad are here…find the truth in lies…grasp your destiny and give life meaning”. If I recall correctly PHWTCU is not a platformer but more of a “puzzle” game presented from a side-on perspective. The protagonist is a nondescript white humanoid in a creepy-on-purpose Tim Burton-esque style, the sort of aesthetic that has only grown more prominent in children’s media with the rise of Internet creepypasta.

Moving to the left, the player comes across another humanoid figure dancing to music being played on a radio. When the player approaches the radio it breaks, causing the dancing figure to become distraught. While this comes off as a sort of trick on the player, I read it more as a parody of the limitedness of collision-based gameplay, that videogame protagonists tend to destroy everything they touch. Somehow this interaction leads to the player being struck by a meteor and sent to a sort of purgatory before being resurrected into a new scenario. From there my memory of the game becomes hazy, and the chaotic yet uneventful screenshots don’t serve to clarify much. In one screenshot we see more larger meteors and the word “confusion” appearing all over the screen at different angles and transparencies. What I do recall is that right as the player is about to be crushed yet again the screen cuts to a title card and then the game ends anti-cathartically.

My recollection of the response to PHWTCU is that it was polarizing. Some thought it was a work of genius while others, as the game itself predicts, hated it. Some forum commenters even said (problematically) that the experience of playing the game was what they imagined it was like to be on drugs or mentally ill. I personally loved the game at the time, but in retrospect I can see the effortfulness being put into the game where before it felt more enigmatic. Through the game’s description and in-game text Browne seems to genuinely be grappling with whether or not his work (or indeed life itself) has meaning to it. Though it may not be the sort of understated gallery-piece that Passage is, People Hate What They Can’t Understand is my sort of art game–unapologetically weird for weird’s sake.

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