Before Their Time – After Dark Screensavers

Flying toasters. Hapless daredevils. Strange eyes. Bad dogs. And maddening, addictive, little games. All these – and more! – tracked, flew, blinked, dug, and ate untold hours of my childhood. All of them were modules from the screensaver suite After Dark.

If you’re under a certain age you probably don’t remember a time before flat-screen LCD computer monitors. Before LCDs became cheap and ubiquitous, computer monitors were bulkier. This extra depth accommodated the cathode ray tube (CRT) which displayed images on the screen. You had to be careful not to let a single image display on a CRT monitor for an extended period, because any image displayed for too long would “burn in,” tattooing a shadow image onto the screen. So screensavers were invented to prevent burn-in. 

The collection of screensavers that would come to be known as After Dark originated with a program a Ph.D. candidate named Jack Eastman wrote for his Mac in 1986. He shared a copy with Patrick Beard, a friend who had helped him build it. One day Beard’s boss passed by while it was running and expressed an interest in bringing it to market, and After Dark was born. Berkeley Systems – probably best known for the game series You Don’t Know Jack! – released the Macintosh-only Version 1.0 in 1989. Four years later, in 1992, Version 2.0 followed for Windows and the software rapidly became a hit.

After Dark deployed a range of techniques to move your pixels, but most of the modules belonged to one of three styles. The first replaced your desktop entirely with an animation. The suite’s iconic module featured winged toasters, majestically soaring (and toasting) across your screen. Some animation modules played out more subtly, like the twinkling city skyline occasionally illuminated by a flash of lightning, or the black screen that filled slowly with the blinking eyes of nocturnal creatures. Several were outright cartoons, like the middling daredevil who punctuated his less successful stunts with a deadpan “Ow.”

The second module type left your desktop intact and let an animation act on it. One would overtake it with squiggly worms. Another sent it spiraling down a drain. My favorite variant of this concept was a mischievous dog who tore up your desktop, leaving piles of dirt everywhere and zapping himself when he yanked at wires.

The third style was unexpected, when you consider that the purpose of a screensaver was to prevent image burn-in while you were away. After Dark included several playable games. There was a quiz game called You Bet Your Head, but the most addictive game was Rodger Dodger, a Pac Man-like game with surprisingly varied maps and lethally catchy music.

But After Dark was defined by more than its pixelated ‘90s whimsy. What set it apart from its competitors was customizability and randomness. For example, you could set the toast doneness of the flying toasters, which never flocked across your screen the same way twice. You never knew when lightning would strike, or if Daredevil Dan would land his next jump. This randomness was added partly out of necessity – to ensure no part of the screensaver stayed put for too long – but also to guarantee the screensaver was never boring.

Between 1994 and 1996, Berkeley Systems released three more versions of After Dark, each incorporating new modules. But Microsoft and Apple eventually caught up to their users’ needs. As operating systems started shipping with built-in screensavers, the programs receded from creative expression to quotidian utility, and After Dark’s market dried up. Now that operating systems allow users to exercise granular control over when their displays sleep and modern displays are nearly immune to burn-in, the golden era of the screensaver is likely gone forever.

Although After Dark screensavers survive today only as one of YouTube videos (it’s a nice rabbit hole if you have some time to kill), I like to think its goofy aesthetic and simple but addictive games persist in contemporary apps. Rodger Dodger or Rock Paper Scissor would be right at home on my phone, although I admit I’m still trying to find a use for the flying toasters.

ODDS & ENDS