You Can Never Go Home to GeoCities Again

The new video games Hypnospace and Wrong Box offer up complicated nostalgia for the internet of yesterday.

Stills from Hypnospace and Wrong Box.
Stills from Hypnospace and Wrong Box.
No More Robots; Molly Soda and Aquma

In The Internet: A Philosophical Inquiry, published in 1999, Gordon Graham pondered his book’s certain, swift irrelevance. “Anyone who undertakes to write about [the internet] in a reflective vein, however, must accept that both the technology and its use are sure to alter considerably even while such reflection is taking place,” he wrote. “The result is that writing about the Internet … faces the risk of being out of date even before it reaches the bookshops,” an observation that ironically manages to resonate, two decades on.

The continuous, often imperceptible transformations to our digital lives since the book’s publication are impossible to catalog fully. Quantitively, the explosion of the web is obvious, with the number of internet users growing from just 5 percent globally in 1999 to more than half of the world today. But qualitatively, the story is much messier: Alongside its rapid adoption around the globe, we’ve also seen countless platforms collect millions of users in short periods of time, only to be abandoned within months or years, pushed aside by something new and shiny promising an even better way to connect to the world around us.

The cycle of adoption and abandonment, and the ways in which our virtual lives have been formed by this engagement in the past several decades, is integral to two new games that seek to memorialize shuttered virtual spaces. With Wrong Box, released in February, and Hypnospace Outlaw, published in early March to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, players are transported into manifestations of the digital past, referencing web platforms popular during late ’90s and early 2000s. By revisiting vanished versions of our digital worlds, both games serve not just as simple gateways to a nostalgic past but as a reminder of the virtual lives we’ve continuously left behind ever since.

Hypnospace Outlaw, developed by game company Tendershoot and runner-up for three awards at the recent Independent Game Awards, pairs a pre-Y2K web experience with many of the more unsettling attributes of today’s internet . Players are introduced to Hypnospace, a GeoCities-like web hosting platform in which users can make homepages and surf the web in their dreams. (“Witness the dawning of a new world, where sleep time is no longer downtime,” promises the intriguing, hopelessly Utopian introductory video.)

But rather than just exploring this dreamlike space in peace, players serve a far more nefarious role: enforcers. The mostly harmless “outlaws” of Hypnospace include an elementary school teacher whose student drawings of “Gumshoe Gooper” violate copyright law and angsty teenagers waging cyberbullying battles on lonely homepages. In working to enforce strict, seemingly arbitrary boundaries imposed from above, the game channels the authoritarian impulses of early-2000s record labels cracking down on music piracy, or the work done by PTSD-afflicted Facebook content moderators today. It serves as a reminder that web users have constantly been in tension with the websites they call home, pushing their boundaries while running up against the indifference of the platforms and their operators, who maintain ultimate control.

“To try to do any good becomes more difficult as you play through the game,” Jay Tholen, lead writer and game designer, said. “You are sort of wrestling against the system, and in my imagination there’s some unpaid intern on the other side who’s clicking the box when it comes up that doesn’t really care.”

The internet of Wrong Box is slightly newer, coming primarily from the experience of game creator and internet artist Molly Soda’s high school years in the mid-2000s, just as Facebook (rendered in the game as “Facepage”) was supplanting Myspace (or “MyPlace”). Much like in Hypnospace Outlaw, what’s distinct in this fantasy version of a now-forgotten web is a sense of friction, for good and bad, driven by the colorful play of texture and color that Soda and co-creator Aquma have created.

An animated still from Wrong Box.
Molly Soda and Aquma

The player is tasked with carrying out a number of small searches around a variety of virtual spaces, from a re-creation of Soda’s teenage room to an imaginary AIM chat session to a number of three-dimensional environments leaden with glittering fairy sprites and spammy image GIFs. These spaces aren’t simply there for aesthetic purposes: They represent a period in Soda’s life that’s at once central to her development and yet challenging to document today. Soda’s real teenage diaries are even viewable inside the game, documenting pubescent crushes and her aspirations to be an “emo girl.” Returning to digital environments that are only 10 to 15 years old wasn’t just an emotional challenge, though—it was also a practical one. She had to re-create the places where she grew up.

“When I go back and look at those things, it’s not always pleasant, but it’s nice to be made aware of who you were and the experiences you were having,” Soda said. “It was only until I gave myself enough space from that age when I was able to go back with a clear head and be like, ‘OK, I want to look at this,’ but by then it was too late.”

In that sense, both games are tied together by a complicated sense of nostalgia. Depending on your age, the immediate bursts of color and texture may invoke the simple pleasures of remembering one’s first encounters with the early web and its uncertain but hopeful promises for the future. But the games aren’t meant to easily glorify a Utopian past, betrayed by today’s corporatized, homogenized social media platforms. In Hypnospace, for example, the presence of scammers can lead to the user’s screen being infiltrated by disturbing, hard-to-dismiss floating images, a reminder that the internet has always been home to con artists, malware, and suspicious, anonymous lurkers.

“For as much as I miss when things were less homogenous, the internet wasn’t as useful,” Tholen said. “I think in an everyday-living sense it was healthier, because those systems weren’t designed to take all of your time, but I don’t know if it was inherently better.”

Soda put it even more bluntly: “The internet has always had the capability of sucking.”

The reminder of the early internet’s flaws also casts new light on what ruins the internet today. Indeed, while both games lean into aspects of the early internet that may seem clunky or outdated in the present, their absence in today’s web nevertheless triggers a recognition of just how much we’ve lost along the way.

For one, both games are rife with the feeling that the internet has gradually narrowed into simpler, less engaging common spaces. Even as Facebook groups and Reddit channels on niche subjects have proliferated, enabling subcultures to connect, the repetition of unbending technological interfaces underpinning every single subgroup makes it harder for each space to feel substantively different. Contrast that with the homepages on Hypnospace or the MyPlace page in Wrong Box: Each speaks to specific, deliberate decisions made by their fictionalized creators, a testament to a time in which the rules for how digital space should be used were far less obvious, making each user’s engagement more subjective.

“Back then, there was no particular function of a webpage,” Tholen said. “Some people put recipes, some people made little games out of it—there weren’t little boxes to put your name, age, interests, and friends.”

More than anything, both games serve as a reminder that what’s popular today may not stay so tomorrow, and that the fleeting fate of websites falling out of fashion and shuttering forces us to leave pieces of ourselves behind if we’re not careful to preserve them. In a zine accompanying Wrong Box’s release, Soda describes the sensation of preserving a 10-year archive of 30,000 Tumblr posts, describing the loss of her former digital self as “a lonely feeling, like walking past the house of a former partner or best friend.” While the continuous forward motion of the web has effectively obliterated the most popular iterations of still-functioning sites like Tumblr or Myspace (which recently lost 12 years’ worth of user-uploaded music), with former users siphoned into the streamlined, regulated realm of Twitter feeds and Facebook walls, it’s the same possibility of abandonment that made it impossible to prophesize the internet in 1999 that now makes it so difficult to look back on our digital pasts today.

“Instagram can be deleted in a second, and then I would be like, ‘Wait, what the fuck was I doing on Instagram in 2013?’ ” Soda said. “We entrust so much of our lives onto these spaces, and if we didn’t record it online, it didn’t happen, and then if the website goes away, then it didn’t happen.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.