The End of Flash: As I Lay Dying!

With Adobe ending support for Flash in just a couple of days (!), I’m finishing up my series on the Flash games I’ve developed today with As I Lay Dying! The previous two articles can be found here and here.

As I Lay Dying! was a radical departure from my previous games, and that wasn’t an accident. After spending more than a year working on Xaat Disi, I was burning out on it and looking for another project to work on. As I Lay Dying! filled that role nicely. It’s a puzzle platformer with a morbid sense of humor and ended up being a lot of fun to develop.

Play As I Lay Dying! (keyboard and traditional mouse strongly recommended).

Origin Story

Before I start, I really encourage everyone to try to play the first level of the game. Most of the game’s story occurs there, and I think it’s more fun to play it rather than read me describe it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

…Ok, shall we get started now?

As the name suggests, As I Lay Dying! was inspired (loosely) by William Faulker’s novel by almost the same name. If I recall the inception correctly, Christie and I were hiking. I don’t remember how it came up, but we started talking about adapting other media to games. I said that it’s more important that a game captures the spirit of a story than the details, and for some reason I used As I Lay Dying as an example.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, As I Lay Dying is about a poor family in the American south right after its matriarch dies. The family decides to transport the woman’s body to her home town, but along the way encounters many hardships, including struggling to protect the body from the elements and race to beat the natural decomposition process.

To me, capturing the spirit of this story was struggling to travel with a body, fighting the elements. Though Faulkner’s story is humorous in its absurdity and tragedy, I imagined more of a slapstick version where the player was forced to watch the body fall apart and actually use it to make progress.

Why did I make the body in the game my own? Well, for one thing, I thought it was really funny. For another, I was inspired by other indie developers at the time, especially Jason Rohrer, who sometimes made autobiographical games. (If you really want to play an autobiographical game of mine, try Birds of a Feather.) Finally, my good friend and kind-of-publisher Oliver ran a website called Dig Your Own Grave and it only seemed appropriate to post a game there about my own death.

Needless to say, the concept stuck with me, and I started seriously working on it. It was a refreshing departure from Xaat Disi, which by that point felt very bogged down and frustrating.

Development

One of the biggest differences between As I Lay Dying! and my previous games is that I used a framework, Flixel, to develop it. This was a popular Flash library at the time and helped me get started on a genre I hadn’t developed before, but also involved learning about and working around limitations of a system I didn’t build myself.

Another big difference was that, by the time I started working on As I Lay Dying!, I was in the game lab at UC Santa Cruz and was surrounded by other people who were as enthusiastic and knowledgeable about games as I was. This meant I got great feedback and encouragement on the game. I still remember sitting at a table with several other students at a game conference, all working on our game projects together.

One particularly fond memory I have of the game’s development was when I first presented it to my peers in an experimental game class. I’d worked hard to get the first couple of levels ready, then sat back to watch my friends play it without any explanation. As I heard giggles and groans from around the room, I knew the game was really coming together. In response to the game that day, one friend said with a smile that “funny is fun”, a mantra I’ve tried to live by in many of my subsequent projects, most notably Corporate America.

Gameplay

As I Lay Dying! is a puzzle platformer. In it you play as Christie, who runs around a little like Mario. But she can also pick up and throw objects, which is important for solving many of the puzzles in the game, which often involve weighing switches down or hitting them with projectiles.

The other axis to gameplay is keeping my body intact. You’ve got to carry the body across the finish line of every level to make progress, but every time the body is dropped or thrown it takes damage. And leaving it unattended is just asking for ravens and vultures to make quick work of it. Many of the puzzles are designed to force you to deal with these very challenges, though, so there’s no escaping them.

Reception

The reception for As I Lay Dying! was decidedly lackluster. A few folks seemed to really enjoy it, while others hated it. I remember receiving scathing messages from people who were offended by the very concept of the game. I remember one in particular that used the word “cadaver” excessively, in my humble opinion.

Despite the extremes, it seems like most people just didn’t notice or bother with the game. I think it was probably too weird for a lot of people. Even worse, it probably just blended into the background. Puzzle platformers were a popular genre in those times, and despite As I Lay Dying! having some unique aspects, I’d guess that a lot of people just passed it off as one more clone game.

Retrospective

As I Lay Dying! wasn’t as good a game as Arachnophilia or what Xaat Disi could have been, but it was a much needed, refreshing change for me. I was getting into a rut when I started working on it, and it gave me the juice I needed to keep going. Even though it’s not a perfect game by any means, it’s a fun, original idea and I’m proud of it.

That said, if I were to remake it today, I’d definitely change some things. Its biggest flaw is the conflict between the dexterity aspect of the game and the puzzle part of the game. Many people who were capable of mastering the game’s controls simply weren’t interested in solving some of the puzzles, and some of those who enjoyed the puzzles couldn’t move their fingers fast enough to execute the solutions. The overlap between the two skill sets was too small and those lacking one or the other would get frustrated or bored with the game.

This mismatch came down to a common problem for independent digital game creators: I was my own main tester. Seeing that I was capable of making it through the game, it was easy to assume that the game was balanced. But I’m an outlier, and by designing to the outlier I ended up alienating a lot of potential players. Or maybe the game was just too dark.

After As I Lay Dying!, I worked on a few small Flash games, but none of them were completed. My attention soon drifted from digital games towards board games, where I would always have many playtesters and wouldn’t have to worry about balancing a game too much to my own skills. And I’d be working on games that were very different from anything I’d done before.

Thanks for joining me on this trip down memory lane. I know that in the grand scheme of 2020, the end of Flash is a pretty minor tragedy. But it’s been both nostalgic and fun for me to take some time to look back at this stage of my life. Here’s to a brighter 2021! Who knows what the future will bring…

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