It would be overly cynical to say the death of Flash Player at the start of 2021, along with the decline of websites like Newgrounds, Armor Games and Kongregate, represents the end of weird games online. Indie gaming has arguably never been more accessible, with platforms like Steam, Gog and itch.io offering a cornucopia of eccentric and inventive games.
Still, there is something to be said for the gaming environment that Flash permitted. The software gave any user with grit the ability to create animations and games, and the sites that hosted the subsequent media were largely free of the quality control and content restrictions that come from sites with a modicum of gatekeeping and hand-holding. That was probably nowhere more obvious than Newgrounds, which showcased both the no-holds-barred allowance of the young web and primitive media editing software, and added the drama of jamming all the interested parties together in one place. To a get a sense of it, this blog recommends watching some Newgrounds retrospectives by the let’s play channel OneyPlays.
It’s not fair to say that the death of Flash will kill indie gaming, but it seems fair to say that a game whose concept is to kill TV legal personality Judge Judy with stick figures, or a “Guitar Hero” rip-off whose purpose is to get a bar bimbo to sleep with either Jesus or Satan, would probably not gain a lot of traction on Steam. Such was the manic freedom Newgrounds in the 00s.
Another side to this “everything the traffic will allow” attitude was a flourishing of oddball art games. While the normies were waiting for the polish of traditionally released titles like “Braid” and “Limbo,” those of us without disposable income or a reasonable connection to the outside world were blazing through browser based platformers and puzzle games like “Company of Myself” and “Every Day the Same Dream,” “Eversion” and “From Primordial Egg,” even spilling into “No One Has to Die” and “My Father’s Long, Long Legs,” as well as pretty much anything by Gregory Weir (what were your favorites, tonstant weader? I liked “The Majesty of Color” and “Babies Dream of Dead Worlds”). Those were games whose attention to atmosphere and melancholy themes often left them sitting somewhere between avant-garde and weird horror. Which is precisely the kind of game I want to talk about today.
“Coil” is a 2008 game by designer Edmund McMillen and programmer Florian Himsl, the duo who’d go on to make “The Binding of Issac” once respectability caught up with them. I will also mention multi-instrumental musician Kaada, whose contributions are every bit as vital to the final game. To gain some perspective on the Newgrounds mashup of art and edge, the trio also released the fixed shooter “The C Word: A Game About Love” later that same year. It sported a stylized spinning penis blasting Art Nouveau vaginas with STD-related powerups, all to disjointed doo-wop music.
This game, “Coil,” is something different.
“Coil” is a point-and-click puzzle game, which is both as good and as bad a description as one can get. The game appears to trace the gestation, birth and sexual development of an extraterrestrial life-form, but be warned. “Appears” is about as solid as one can get with describing “Coil.” Everything in it appears to be rather than strictly is, and relating the game’s alien visuals, psychologically confounding writing or curious soundtrack might not help. When the narrative is so weird and purposefully broken, it’s hard to say you’ve given away anything by revealing everything.
What follows is a sort of phenomenological appraoch to “Coil,” a transcript of the gameplay, narrative and music of the game. That narrative will be presented like poetry below. Note that it was in all caps to begin with, but this blog doesn’t want to look like it’s shouting at you. Regardless, that means some words that should have been emphasized might not have been. We’re trying to play fair. You’ve been warned, tonstant weader.
“When she awoke from the coil / time didn’t wait for her / it just watched her whimper
As it / crushed / her ego
Cracking her / just enough / to reach inside.”
Immediately following this message, players take control of what looks like a sperm seeking an egg. Upon beating out (sorry) the other sperm, one enters an egg and witnesses cells split from one into many. The color palate is simple, blue and gray The music, an expansion of the start menu music, is melancholy and murky, all muted horns and harpsichord notes in a minor key.
“He whispered / as she was divided
This will make you remember / that I’m part of you
Each cell is marked by my name / you can’t ever leave me / I’m all that you have.”
The next puzzle has us sorting jumbles of cells by color – red, green and blue. The cells never stray far from the translucent orb in which they’re contained, but they gravitate toward the middle and shudder as we approach them.
“When he released her / she could feel his wet hair run through her fingers / as she descended into the darkness / his face, distorted by their distance, faded into the night.
She was alone
Yet she could still feel him inside her / the feeling was comforting and familiar / but his presence scared her
She knew he was still there, watching her / just out of the light / waiting.”
The next puzzle features a lot of firsts. It’s the first time the music has changed. It’s the same musical theme, but the sounds are cleaner and clearer now.
It’s also the first time we’re on the multicellular level. We’re in an aquatic environment rather than an embryonic one, and we’re controlling what looks like a wad of pink chewing gum with red eyes nestled in a transparent orb. We’re plunging though an increasingly dark depth to a seabed, and the challenge lies in guiding our wad down past the alien jellyfish and amoebas that are fighting to go up. We can be pushed up, but not infinitely – there is a top and a bottom. Once we reach the latter, our wad embeds itself in the sand.
“She would find herself reaching out to others / taking small pieces of them with her as mementos / these are the things she felt were important, / the things that made these people significant.
Every aspect of her being was composed of others. / Her arms grew stronger with every embrace / and lips grew fuller with every kiss.”
On the sea floor, the chewing gum has apparently settled down. We control a spaghetti strap tentacle emerging from its bubble. Two other creatures, which resemble the offspring of a jellyfish and a rib cage – with H. R. Giger for the midwife – flit about. We are in competition for balls of jelly that look a bit like fish eggs or frog eggs, and fall from above.
“She would lead them to him
Watching as his hands reached / out to pull them away, their essence / consumed and nothing remained.
She would fantasize what it was like / to feel his hands on her body / penetrating her and draining / her into nothing”
The next puzzle is an odd one mechanically – even for this set up. The screen is split. On the top is the pink blob, looking larger and more complex, still inside its transparent bubble, except now the bubble is off the sea floor and has sprouted short tentacles to propel it through the water. The lower screen displays a somewhat symmetrical collection of fantastic organs – kidneys, intestines, perhaps even a womb.
By stimulating the organs in the lower screen, we can manipulate the organism in the top. We guide it through the water and angle it so it can consume small dots floating around it. With each one we consume, a new bubbly blob – apparently containing a smaller organism that looks very familiar – appears in the hollow of the “womb.” If it sits too long, it will be absorbed.
“But time did pass.
They fell into one another at first glance. / Their fingers intertwined as they walked.
This wasn’t what she was used to / but from here on things wouldn’t be the same
And even though the longing lingered / for once in her life she forgot about him”
The music shifts once again to the clearest rendition of the theme. Interestingly, this is the only version of the track that will not repeat if you let it play out.
We control one of two creatures that resemble the organism from the top screen from the last puzzle. They are airborne, clumsily bobbing through a cloudy yellow sky. They shoot tiny projectiles at each other, and perhaps it is coincidence, but the projectiles look like tiny arrows; when they hit their targeted creature, they subtly exploded into playing card hearts. With each strike, the creatures inside the bubbles grow bulkier, like they’re sprouting armor, and their “eyes” disappear.
“After the dust settled / and everyone had moved on / once again she was alone / and she only had herself to blame
If she had of just embraced her feelings when they called to her / maybe she wouldn’t have taken in so many / of the things she later grew to hate.
And maybe it was time to change
So she closed her eyes, / pushing out every aspect of everyone she’d take in / back into a world she never asked to be part of.”
The final puzzle has us control one of the creatures from the previous puzzle, still flying. It is now night, and the surface of a massive body of water is below. What was a shrunken pink thing before is now eyeless and squashed against the skin of the bubble. As the creature flies, it expels something small and circular into the still water below.
“She could feel him in the room with her / her eyes darted around searching for movement / in the darkness frantic and confused
Her breathing became fast and shallow / as her eyes welled up with tears.
He was here, and there was nothing she could do to stop him.
She was scared
Scared of all the things she would be leaving / scared of how she would be treated / scared of what she had done
“As the room grew dim / she could feel his hand reach out for her / touching her / in a way that was comforting and familiar
She was leaving
As he picked her up he pressed his cheek to hers. / ‘From here, there is nothing, just as it was before'”
The final line is hard to make out. The black tentacles that have framed the screen throughout the entire game have risen slightly, and they obscure the text. It is possible that phrase repeats below the swirling decor.
And that’s it. So what was “Colil” about? Time? Death? Assaut and sexual abuse? Good old fashioned alien babies? It is hard to say, which is no doubt the point. “Coil” is a game that is designed to get players thinking, and that isn’t defensive hyperbole. The lack of any kind of instruction or guidance – even on how to enact a new game, let alone play it – suggests that players are supposed to explore and think things through. Notably, it’s impossible to lose “Coil” from a gameplay standpoint. Since practical completion is a given, psychic victory is presuably found somewhere else.
And there are so many avenues to explore. The name of the game is coil, and loops, spirals and constraints are featured in gameplay. Likewise, the story seems to relate a repeating pattern. Colors seem important too. Dull to primary to golden sunset to chilly night. If nothing else, they suggest a journey.
Certain images and concepts appear throughout the visuals and narrative, like evolution and memory, progression and regret, constrictions and divisions, eyes and understanding. Is it a spoiler to say that one fulfills the second puzzle by dividing to continue? Perhaps it reveals something mechanical about the game, but the puzzle is designed in a way that feels organic to the gameplay. It might spoil something narrative, but even that might depend on how you interpret the story. Check out some comments sections about the game. Given some of the discussion on it, there seems to be an interpretation for every player. Those interpretations range from head-scratching to disturbing, a reminder that whatever you think “Coil” is about, it’s likley a more uncomfortable subject than those typically found in traditionally released games (although not impossible to find).
Is it even correct to call the individuals puzzles “puzzles”? They are a bit simpler than classic puzzle game puzzles, but it feels wrong to call them levels. Perhaps minigame is the most appropriate mechanical term, but it loses something in the way of depth. There is nothing like traditional characters or a coherent story in “Coil,” so although we might be meant to see a commonality between the playable sequences, they are connected by atmosphere and association rather than by narrative. Is the creature in any one puzzle the same as the one from the previous puzzle or the next? Not necessarily. It appears as though the events are happening sequentially because that’s how we play them, although it’s arguable they’re happening simultaneously instead (recall how the dots ejected by the organism in the final puzzle correspond to the dots from two puzzles prior). For all we know, they’re happening a thousand years apart. It’s an interesting stretch of what we, as players, are willing to consider and put up with.
And that really is the key. Make no mistake, “Coil” cryptic and frustrating, and I would not want all games to play like “Coil.” However, I am glad “Coil” exists, in part because I enjoy its experience, but also because it shows what a game can play like if it chooses to. I’m happy to put up with any number of routine or cliché games for an interesting one, even if it’s a bad one. “Coil” is not cliché, routine or bad. Rather, it is a fascinating example of what designers can put together when they have the freedom to explore the games they want to make, and it remains one of my all time favorite indie games.
The death of Flash has not made “Coil” inaccessible. The game is still available through McMillen’s “The Basement Collection,” a grouping of his flash games on Steam (although notably “The C Word” is absent). Besides that, all games on Newgrounds are still technically available, although they require an extra download and browser extension, itself a form of gatekeeping by time and effort.
Regardless, it is worth noting something. In an era so expectant of trigger warnings and spoiler alerts, a game like “Coil,” which gestated in the Wild West days of Flash, would have lost something from the extra layering. Those trigger warnings might actually be spoilers – unless they aren’t at all. It would depend on the interpretation of the completed product, the finished game. Arguably a full spoiler of the esoteric gameplay – like this blog post, for example – spoils less than a trigger warning. A game like “Coil” is not about its narrative or gameplay, but rather about its seamless marriage of images, sounds, mechanics and player interpretation. An unmarked spoiler tells you what happens in a game without the experience, so that experience is still waiting for you; a warning or a marked spoiler – another form of gatekeeping – feeds your expectations, assumptions and biases. For better or worse, the experience has already begun, and for some players, already ended.
The final product of a game is a collaboration between designer and player. What we as players think about a game – and what a game gets us to think about – are as much a part of the experience as the mechanical limitations of platform or gameplay. Some of the experience is also found in how we approach a game. In this case, not only its off-putting content, but an impressionistic reading of “Coil” could be lost on platforms that don’t allow the singular crudeness and eccentricities that Newgrounds, Flash, and the deleted and rapidly forgotten web did.