In the 1990s, computers were like portals to a fever dream. The internet was still steeped in all of its weird, early glory, coated wall-to-wall in clunky pixel art, dead GeoCities pages and unwelcome porn popups, and its unregulated weirdness was mirrored in the operating systems of the day. Maybe that’s why, more than anything, I miss the 3D Maze screensaver from Windows 95.
For the uninitiated: At the beginning of the maze — the moment your computer shudders to sleep — you, “the player,” are standing on a dirt floor. Red brick walls rise up around you on either side, and the Windows Start menu icon flutters in front of you. This notably isn’t a hedge maze, where you can peer over the rows in search of an exit — the brick walls stretch all the way up to meet a grey ceiling, giving the space a vaguely subterranean quality.
As you begin to lurch along, the maze follows only right turns, winding you through a dizzying series of low-res corridors in an attempt to find an exit. Your path is full of strange, seemingly unrelated objects: an abstract mural of a globe sitting beside an open window appears repeatedly along the walls and, deeper into the maze, a 2D rat patrols the halls, comically overlarge and with white around the edges, as if he was pasted in from another program as a careless afterthought. Collide with the floating grey polyhedrons and the maze will turn on itself so that the ceiling becomes the floor; intercept the smiley face — is it cute or vaguely threatening? — and you’ll be sent back to the beginning.
To reiterate: This was a screensaver in 1999, and not an Academy Award-winning film directed by acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro.
I can remember being seven or eight years old and sitting very still near the computer, blessed with an attention span that hadn’t yet been ravaged by later iterations of the internet, careful not to disturb the mouse as the screen on our family desktop blinked off. There was so much mystery in that weird little maze — its specificity made it feel like a fully-formed world, one with stakes and rules that you weren’t quite allowed or supposed to understand. It always felt like something important was about to reveal itself to you around the next turn, but it never did.
Screensavers, you might have noticed, are basically obsolete these days, and it’s because the problem that once necessitated them no longer exists. Although we’re spoiled today with tidy, energy-efficient LCD displays, early computers showed us images by projecting phosphor onto the screen through cathode ray tubes. If a computer was left on for too long, the phosphor would create what’s known as “burn-in” — a ghostly imprint on the glass that held the shape of whatever was being displayed at the time the burn occurred.
Thus, the screensaver was born, and for whatever reason, there was no shortage of whimsy when it came to creating them. The 3D maze offered by Windows 95 was the best and the weirdest screensaver of its day, but it wasn’t the only avant-garde option to choose from: there were endlessly proliferating neon pipes, a haunted house where the lights flickered on and off, a swarm of winged toasters that flew through the black night alongside bagels and toast.
Those toasters in particular were part of a series of computer screensaver software created by the Bay Area-based Berkeley Systems, originally developed in 1989 for the Apple Macintosh and later introduced to Windows in the early 90s. In a 2007 interview with Low End Mac, Jack Eastman — an engineer who worked on “After Dark” at Berkeley Systems — said that even as the screensaver market boomed and expanded, the stated goal of the designers was to always remain “aggressively stupid.”
The screensavers were abstract and unknowable on purpose — it was baked into their design. They were also computationally random: Rather than run the toasters on a track where the sequence would repeat itself, the images were aimlessly generated so that no two scenes would ever be the same.
“I think that was an important idea — we had these little movies, but you couldn’t predict them,” Eastman said.
These little quirks dotted the operating systems of the ‘90s: the little sunglasses that would appear on the sun’s smiling face after you won a game, the very existence of MS Paint. For something as ordered and mechanical as a computer operating system, the creativity and humour of their human designers winked at us from every turn.
I think this is the essence of why people have such nostalgia about growing up in the ‘90s. The hallucinogenic quality that early computers lent themselves to is largely thanks to the fact that content strategy hadn’t really been invented yet, so each browsing experience felt distinctly non-corporate — like slipping into a private, wallpapered room where people were earnestly posting their advice, interests, hopes and dreams, without any kind of consumer-driven agenda. Operating systems reflected the dreamy, unregulated spirit that early interconnectivity promised, and things were still decentralised enough to inject a little humour and artistry into the whole operation.
For this reason, and maybe others, the 3D Maze nostalgia is very real online; not only can you download a replicated version published in 2018 by XScreenSaver 5.39, but you can also play an independent video game called Screensaver Subterfuge, which game developer Cahoots Malone created based on the maze. (Again, we’re talking about a screensaver so good that it has its own video game spinoff — powerful stuff.)
The 3D maze plays out in an endless loop, constantly reforming and rearranging, a universe unto itself. The design is arbitrary and nonsensical, mesmerising and guileless. The 3D maze is the internet of 1998 — weird, unknowable, ever-evolving — and we are the rats, dropped into the centre of something larger than our comprehension and scrambling for a foothold. Or, to be honest, maybe we’re the flying toasters. I’m not totally sure.