Investigating The-N.com’s Disappearance and How I Discovered ActionScript

Investigating The-N.com’s Disappearance and How I Discovered ActionScript

A few months ago I suddenly recalled the former existence of The-N.com, a website I used to frequent pretty much every day as a teenager. This would set me on a desperate and unyielding search for any content from the shut-down website that I could dig up on the internet, and for a definitive reason as to why the website was shut down to begin with.

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For those who are unfamiliar, The-N was a television channel that aired Degrassi, along with a lot of other great shows geared towards the 14?18 demographic. It became my favorite channel very quickly, and I watched it almost all the time. Their website was probably the first website I remember using that combined videos, discussion forums, and super fun games and quizzes, some of which had nothing to do with their specific shows at all so it just felt like a hang-out website for kids my age.

Some of the most popular games on The-N.com include Avatar Prom and Avatar High, which were basic simulation-based Flash games.

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The premise of Avatar High was basically The Sims but in high school. You controlled ?avatars? and made them study, go to classes, go to lunch, etc. and planned specific mandatory social events (basketball games, finals, prom) to unlock the graduation event, at which point you would win the game.

Avatar Prom was similar in that you controlled the avatars and had to perform a certain number of social interactions successfully so that all your attendees would have a good time. If everyone was cheered up, you won the game.

These were the two games I was mostly interested in, only because it sparked my love for The Sims franchise that still carries on to this day.

Before I started this journey I had no idea how Flash games worked, and I only kind of understood how computers worked on a higher level. I had always been interested in computers and felt comfortable with the technology, probably because I was lucky enough to have owned a computer from a very young age.

My first stop on the ?where did these games go???? train was to simply Google the title of the games and hope that something would turn up. I found a bunch of flash-game aggregator sites, all which claimed to have ?hacked? versions of the games that anyone could play at any time.

This was a lie. In fact, absolutely NONE of the sites I visited had working versions of the games.

Out of desperation I Googled ?what happened to the-n.com games???? Almost all of the results were from equally upset people posting in several different forums, wondering why these games aren?t available anymore.

This was when I realized the people on the internet wouldn?t be able to help me and I?d have to take matters into my own hands.

I remembered the Wayback Machine and thought, ?If all I?m looking for is a simple Flash game that runs in the browser without redirecting you anywhere, surely I?ll be able to play it this way!?

The Wayback Machine is a digital archive of webpages started in 2001 by Brewster Kahle and Bruce Gilliat. They disliked that entire websites and all its content would just vanish if the website was changed or removed. From Wikipedia: ?By the time the Wayback Machine launched, it already contained over 10 billion archived pages?As of September 2018, the Wayback Machine contained more than 25 petabytes of data.? I can?t really visualize what a petabyte is, but it sounds insane. The software is written in Java and Python and ?crawls? webpages to download whatever it can.

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With some easy guessing I found some archives from ?The-n.com/games? from 2007, which is when I remembered using the site heavily.

Image for postWhat the website looked like on May 21, 2007

The especially cool thing about the WayBack Machine is that clicking on links on an archived page actually works, as long as the following page was also archived.

Image for postThe page for Avatar Prom

This is where my dreams came crashing down again: to play the game, you had to be signed into your account, which first of all, I don?t remember, and second of all, I doubt it would work even if I tried.

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I inspected the page and didn?t find anything useful except for a weird link that included some reference to this website including a ?swf object.js?. After some Googling I learned from Wikipedia that an SWFObject ?is an open-source JavaScript library used to embed Adobe Flash content onto Web pages,[1]which is supplied as one small JavaScript file?. At this point in time I had no idea what any of this meant. I had only started to look into going to a coding bootcamp and although I had started learning some coding, this was way beyond my scope.

I decided the WayBack Machine wouldn?t be as useful as I had originally thought.

I went back to the Flash game aggregator sites, thinking back on how all of them had embed links, and I wondered how an embed link would work if the game was not playable. It was here that I had an accidental breakthrough, when the game actually booted up on one of the sites!!!

Image for postI?ve never felt so alive

However, once I finished naming my high school and my students, I discovered the game wouldn?t load any of the avatars and wouldn?t let me interact with the features at all.

Image for postWhere is everyone???

I had come so close!

I inspected the page once again and discovered something very interesting.

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There was this weird kind of link I had never seen before that seemed to be the source of the game. The link ended with ?.swf?, and I later learned this was short for ?shockwave flash?.

I decided to copy and paste the link into my browser to see what would happen.

As soon as I pressed enter, nothing happened on the page but I automatically started downloading the .swf file. I was super suspicious of this and it took me a couple of minutes before I decided the possible reward was greater than the risk and opened the file. However, I couldn?t download the file until I had the right application with which to open it, so I downloaded a Flash player.

The game wouldn?t load at all with the player, and then I had another idea: what if there was a way to extract all the code from the file I already have?

For that, I?d have to look more into exactly what Flash games are made of and how they work. A quick Google search taught me what ActionScript was:

?ActionScript is an object-oriented programming (OOP) language that is designed specifically for Web site animation. Originally released with Macromedia Flash 4 and enhanced for Flash 5, ActionScript is a sophisticated version of the script language introduced in Flash 3.?

Now that I?m further along into learning to code, I understand a lot more about ActionScript than I did at this point. For one, it uses a lot of the same datatypes that Ruby uses:

  • String ? A list of characters such as ?Hello World?
  • Number ? Any Numeric value
  • Boolean ? A simple binary storage that can only be ?true? or ?false?.
  • Object ? Object is the data type all complex data types inherit from. It allows for the grouping of methods, functions, parameters, and other objects.
  • Date ? Allows access to information about a specific point in time.
  • Array ? Allows linear storage of data.

It also has some more complex datatypes, of which a few seemed specific to languages used for creating games (don?t quote me on that):

  • MovieClip ? An ActionScript creation that allows easy usage of visible objects.
  • TextField ? A simple dynamic or input text field. Inherits the Movieclip type.
  • Button ? A simple button with 4 frames (states): Up, Over, Down and Hit. Inherits the MovieClip type.
  • XML ? An XML object
  • XMLNode ? An XML node
  • LoadVars ? A Load Variables object allows for the storing and send of HTTP POST and HTTP GET variables
  • Sound
  • NetStream
  • NetConnection
  • MovieClipLoader
  • EventListener

There?s a ton of interesting information on the Wikipedia page for ActionScript that, reading through now, makes me wish I had started this weird journey knowing all of it beforehand: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ActionScript

In my navet, I downloaded a program called SWF Quicker that allowed you to create ActionScript games and edit ones you already had.

(Adobe actually has an awesome resource on creating Flash games here: https://www.adobe.com/devnet/games/articles/getting-started-flash-games.html)

For someone who had no idea what they were doing this program was actually very difficult to use, to no one?s surprise. I was eventually able to access the ActionScript code and copy and paste it into my text editor. This code was 10,889 lines long!!! I was surprised that something as simple as a Flash game that didn?t have many bells and whistles could use that many lines of code to run.

I looked through the code (not sure why, seeing as how I didn?t know this language), and I did see some things I did understand, like while loops:

Image for post(There was a lot more to this loop)

and some code that was fairly readable and easy to understand implementation-wise:

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As interesting as this all was, I still didn?t know what I was looking for and didn?t understand why, if I had all the code, the game wouldn?t work. Eventually I came to the realization that this was probably just one piece of the puzzle.

Because I don?t know the ActionScript language, I realized I might only be looking at the frontend code and not the backend code. There might have been a server that this game was connected to that doesn?t exist anymore. There was no way for me to know for sure, considering I didn?t really get a straight answer from Google on how or if Flash games use backends.

By this point a few days had passed and although I had made some progress, the realization of a possible non-existent (is that an oxymoron?) backend dampened my spirits considerably. I did something that I?m still kind of embarrassed about but I was desperate: I emailed the creators of the game.

I found the website of the team that created the games, Thup Games. Nowadays they seem to mostly focus on educational games for small children, although they did have a section that mentioned their Avatar games and admitted that one of their games ?created the largest traffic spike in the history of The N. It remained one of the most popular destinations on their site, and years later we still receive fan mail from players.?

I sent them an email titled ?a nostalgic inquiry on the Avatar High/Prom games? and described, in detail, my desperate attempts to try and find a way to play these games. I even apologized for having downloaded and manipulated code that didn?t belong to me:

?I tried to decode why the game wouldn?t load past a certain point. I figured it was making requests to some kind of backend that doesn?t exist anymore, and after hours of trying to make it somehow work I gave up. (Sorry if that?s illegal)?

I definitely sounded unhinged throughout this email, and my desperation was palpable. I expressed fears over this game haunting me for the rest of my life.

After a few days, I got an email back from one of the creators of the game, Peter! I was super excited but also nervous to read his response so I didn?t open it for a few minutes.

In his response, he thanked me for the thoughtful email and broke the news to me that Viacom/TeenNick had bought the rights to the game and they?re the ones who would have to decide to bring it back. This made me extremely angry. What?s the point of buying out someone?s work and then just leaving it to collect (virtual) dust? By a company that is described as a ?multinational mass media conglomerate?, no less? Sounds super evil, if you ask me.

It?s just crazy to me that somehow we still have access to Barbie.com?s ?Let?s Baby-sit Baby Krissy? and not to the many amazing games on The-N.com.

Image for post?yes, I did play this recently.

It?s situations like these that the Wayback Machine was made for, for when people who have fond memories of certain websites can go back and revisit them, and I guess it?s just a fact of the limitations of technology that we can?t go back in time and play around with fully-functional games.

After getting closure (kind of) from one of the creators themselves, I put the matter to rest. I?m just glad I got an answer from someone who wasn?t a rando on Yahoo Answers. I still have the code saved on my computer and I have far-fetched dreams of someday getting it to work, but until then I?ll just baby-sit Baby Krissy.

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