This week, the Digg staff is celebrating the humble web game. Given that we're in the final throes of summer — when everyone is seemingly on vacation and things seem a little sleepy — there might not be a better time to revisit the Golden Age Of Internet Time Wasting.
I have a flashbulb memory of the first time I saw the game: I was in the computer lab of the Boys and Girls Club, standing on my tiptoes with a hand perched on the back of the office chair the other kid was sitting in, trying to get a good look at his screen. There, running in a web browser was "Gorillaz Final Drive," featuring the cartoon band in their GEEP buggy doing flips and loop de loops in full 3D glory. I was in awe.
Looking back at footage of the game on YouTube, the game does look exactly how I remembered it — a simplistic recreation of Gorillaz's "19-2000" music video running at a less-than-great framerate — but that doesn't diminish how cool it was at the time. I remember countless hours spent in that same computer lab after school, watching Neil Cicierega animutations and playing various 2D Flash deathmatches against other kids, always two to a keyboard (one on WASD, one on arrow keys). That was all business as usual, as we were all in the perfect age range to know just enough about browsing the web to keep ourselves out of trouble with adults while also keeping ourselves thoroughly entertained. That stuff was just, y'know, a Tuesday. Seeing a 3D game running in a browser for the first time? Totally different.
So, I've always looked back on "Gorillaz Final Drive" fondly, even as other can-you-believe moments in my life spent extremely online have come and gone. When the idea for Digg's Web Games Week was hatched, I immediately knew I wanted to write about "Final Drive," but I wasn't sure how to approach it. I thought about looking at the game as an evolution of "advergaming," like a "Chex Quest" but for a catchy single. Perhaps I could put it in a larger context of video games about bands (where does it sit on the spectrum between "Green Day: Rock Band" and "50 Cent: Blood on the Sand)?
Then I realized: I had no clue who made "Gorillaz Final Drive." Beyond knowing that the game was officially sanctioned in some capacity — it used to be hosted on the band's site and was also included with an official DVD release — there were no credits and, to my dismay, nothing I could easily find online.
This is the case with so many web games. Free Flash games peaked in an era of gibberish usernames and independent websites. There's a good chance you know the creator of "Flappy Bird" is Dong Nguyen in part because the game blew up on the iOS App Store, earning boatloads of cash and spawning countless copycats, but I dare you to tell me who came up with any of its free ancestors. "Final Drive" wasn't cloned umpteen times, but if you find it online today it'll be on one of dozens of copyright-skirting Flash game websites. These sites have both helped and hurt the archival process, preserving games in playable states (provided the necessary plugins haven't completely deprecated) while routinely stripping them of attribution if they had it in the first place.
Every preservation effort is imperiled and every history is incomplete, but I wanted to push back against the eroding tide. For every web game that can have its history reconstructed, there are surely dozens that are already gone. At least with a game attached to a popular band, I figured, I had a slim chance of nailing down its origins.
My search started in earnest with MobyGames, a video game database that predates Wikipedia. It's as deep as it is accessible: pulling up information on a war simulator designed by Raytheon in the sixties is as easy as pulling up the credits for "Bioshock." Unfortunately, as I suspected, if there was anything concrete on MobyGames I could have used it would have turned up in my cursory Googling. Though the site doesn't exclude browser games from its listings, there's no entry for "Gorillaz Final Drive." The closest I could find was an entry for another Gorillaz tie-in game called Gorillaz Entertainment System. MobyGames lists three developers for that game: Mr.Goodliving Ltd, Universomo, Ltd. and Zombie Flesh Eaters (who will come up again later).
Next, I tried reaching out to the band's label representative and to Pete Candeland, who directed the "19-2000" music video. At a several points in the video, the GEEP and the band are all 3D, and I suspected that the model used in "Final Drive" might actually be the same one from the video in lower-detail. Alas, though I did get a response back from the band's publicist promising to see what they could track down, these efforts went nowhere.
Without the good fortune of having Damon Albarn's phone number, the best option left to me seemed like the longest of long shots: asking the fans. I knew that plenty of Gorillaz fans had fond memories of "Final Drive" (there are lots of Reddit posts about it), but the well-maintained fan wiki didn't have much on the game beyond a mention on the page for the GEEP. I figured that if anyone cared deeply enough about the game to know who made it, the information would already be out there… but there was nothing left for me to do but ask.
Turns out, I should've just started by going to the fans anyway. I reached out to Reddit user and r/Gorillaz admin Jessori, who advised me to join the subreddit's active Discord channel and ask for help there. Within minutes I had my lead. Nobody knew for sure, but the most knowledgeable users online at the time guessed that "Final Drive" was likely made by Zombie Flesh Eaters. Though the MobyGames page for the group is disappointingly empty, the Gorillaz fan wiki page is not.
Zombie Flesh Eaters was the group behind much of the creative work for Gorillaz in its early days, including the band's website and the DVD that "Final Drive" was included on. At this point, two possibilities were clear to me: either the game was made in-house by members of Zombie Flesh Eaters, or it was an outsourced job that almost certainly passed through them for approval. Already, I had about as good an answer as to who made the game as I had hoped to get — if the band's super-fans didn't know more, then how could I do better — but the wiki had the names of Zombie Flesh Eater's old staff. Why not pursue the whole story?
There's no good secret to finding people online today; do a lot of searching on social media and you'll likely find whatever you're looking for (but for the love of God, don't be a creep). With the help of the two platforms I almost exclusively use to reach out to sources now — just guess — I found Mat Wakeham, former senior creative at Zombie Flesh Eaters. Putting on my best "I'm a real writer and not some weirdo" tone, I messaged him asking for help and crossed my fingers. Then:
"Yes, no problem Mat. I most certainly can help you. Especially as you know how to spell Mat."
We're not at the end of the story quite yet. "I'm just the start of your trail I think…" Wakeham messaged me, not knowing about the time I'd already sunk in figuring out who to contact. "I was certainly involved, I had a hand in all the early work," he continued. "Really, my job was to make sure everything was on brand/strategy and telling the same story, and coming up with new ways to expand that world. Generating ideas and making sure it stuck to Jamie [Hewlett]'s overall design and intentions so that he could keep drawing, designing and directing uninterrupted."
Wakeham went on to tell me that "Final Drive" ("the GEEP game — that's its name") was built by Zombie Flesh Eater's senior in-house designer as an experiment. "Most of the stuff we did was like that," Wakeham explained. "He'd come across the engine for it somewhere and wanted to see if he could make it work. We periodically released games to entertain the online fan base and this one was particularly fun."
Wakeham told me he was reaching out to the designer on my behalf, so I basically sat on my hands for half a day and thought over what it took to get this far. Four different social media platforms, three different crowdsourced databases, another guy named Mat and a boatload of good will — Wakeham wasn't obligated to respond to me, and neither were the users of r/Gorillaz — and now I could (and did) ask Wakeham to tell me the designer's name. I was this close to corresponding with the guy himself. Thankfully, I didn't need to wait long.
"Matt [Watkins] sends his regards," Wakeham messaged me the next day. "He's somewhat of a digital recluse these days after his years spent at the cutting-edge digital front, forging Web 2.0 for the kids."
Shortly thereafter, I emailed Watkins and learned everything I ever wanted to know about "Final Drive." This whole wild goose chase actually led somewhere. Here are Watkin's own words on the game:
The original Gorillaz website was made with Macromedia Director by a company called Get Frank before I started working with Jamie as a designer. I wasn't particularly familiar with Director but I knew my way around 3D Studio Max so when the Havok physics engine plugin for Shockwave came out I seem to remember it came with some sort of driving sim code that we experimented with. I think Flash wizard Dom Skinner helped battle with the Director side of things (He also helped make the Noodle platform game for the "Clint Eastwood" release). I used some of the 3D assets from Passion Pictures' 19/2000 video but had to reduce the 3D polygons a lot to get something running smoothly. I incorporated some of the textures, built the road, put the half pipe in there and it seemed to work well. As the website user base had to have the Shockwave plugin for the Gorillaz website it was worth releasing. It was a time when the internet was more of a platform for experimenting. The record company were funding the website development so we just aimed to make things that were fun for people.
When I set out to look for the creator of the GEEP game, I really didn't think I'd get very far at all. At worst, I thought I'd be trying to glean individuals' contact info from dead companies with defunct websites, shooting emails off into the void. At best, I imagined this piece would end up being part of a longer process — that maybe, having come up short, someone in-the-know would happen across the article and send it to Watkins. I expected that the bulk of my article would be dedicated to holding up examples of other games whose histories have been all but lost to time, games that don't have a chance in hell of having their stories unearthed and told.
Now, I'm not so pessimistic. Yes, a game attached to a popular band and made by a creative studio whose alumni still name it on their resumes is way easier to dig up info on than others would be. The incompleteness and unreliability of wikis cannot be remedied in every case. Those sketchy Flash game websites will die off, plugins will stop being updated and games being released today will eventually be lost. That's all still true, but there's no use in crying over it. Maybe one day all this history — games, videos, articles, status updates, the entire internet — will be lost. If there's something you care about enough to try and keep a record of, no matter how small or inconsequential, you might as well try. It worked this time.
If time's elimination / then we got nothing to lose / please repeat the message / it's the music that we choose
Matt Watkins still works "with audio projects, projected images, film and artist Lucy McLauchlan." His portfolio can be found at matt.beat13.co.uk