After two decades, Gorillaz has grown far beyond its original purpose. Created by Blur’s Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998 as both a send-up and redefinition of the “manufactured” band, the virtual experiment has ascended into a musically robust headline act. Now, characters Murdoc Niccals, Noodle, 2-D and Russel Hobbs occupy the same stages as the biggest, and more earnest, titans of pop.
Between the genre-hopping albums and iconic artwork, the story of Gorillaz is also defined by technology. Their early live performances saw holograms rub shoulders with Madonna and De La Soul, while 2005 hit single ‘Feel Good Inc.’ was briefly synonymous with adverts for Apple’s iPod. Crucially, their existence coincided with the world wide web boom in the late ‘90s, which gave Gorillaz another platform to pioneer their virtual existence.
This digital push was led by Mat Wakeham, who worked with Hewlett on the comic strip Get The Freebies for Face magazine. In 2000, he was given an “impossible” brief by Hewlett and Albarn: to build a Gorillaz website in step with developer Capcom’s infamous horror games. “They said, ‘We want it to be like [walking] through Resident Evil,’” Wakeham tells NME, referencing Capcom’s ground-breaking third-person horror series. “This is 2000, there was nothing like that on the internet whatsoever, so I had to think about what that meant.”
Wakeham’s version of Resident Evil’s infamous Spencer Mansion was Kong Studios, an interactive tour with “static pages that gave a feeling of moving through something”. Inspired by his upbringing with the ZX Spectrum and Atari 2600 consoles, the website was also pitched as an interactive hub filled with bitesize games.
The first “game” Wakeham brainstormed for the experience would become the site’s mixing tool, 5-Track, where players could remix Gorillaz tracks with adjustable sliders and toggles. “I pitched the idea to [Albarn] of taking stems from all of the tracks he was writing and have fans be able to remix tracks within Kong Studios. He loved that idea,” he recalls. “He loved being able to hand stuff over and fans being able to do stuff with his music. There were stems to tracks that weren’t released, that weren’t part of the albums. That was a way for you to get a little feeling like you were part of the creative process of the band as well.”
Development on Kong Studios began with an outside company, but the desire to implement ideas on the fly led to the formation of Zombie Flesh Eaters: an in-house studio assembled by Hewlett, named after the 1979 horror film by Lucio Fulci. Established next to Albarn’s own Studio 13 in west London, Zombie Flesh Eaters became a base of operations for the visual side of Gorillaz; where a small team created artwork for promos, voiced characters in press interviews, and kept up with the website’s expanding scope.
Ahead of the band’s debut album in 2001, brothers Matt Watkins and Tim Rockins were brought on for their web design and graphics expertise. They led the charge on building the site’s first incarnation, where fans could peek through rooms occupied by the band members, interact with objects like Murdoch’s bookshelf, watch music videos in a designated ‘cinema’ area, and chat with others through message boards. At a time when online promotion and social media were in their infancy, Kong Studios was as ahead of the curve as Gorillaz themselves.
The first game released within Kong Studios was Noodle Fight: a 2D side-scroller mash-up between Capcom’s 1985 run-and-gun Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and the visuals from ‘Clint Eastwood’’s music video. Many of these games reused animation assets from music videos and retooled them for Flash and Shockwave players. Final Drive, a goofy driving simulator using “Geep” from ‘19-2000’, has become a beloved part of Gorillaz history — even with (or, perhaps, because of) its wonky physics and primitive graphics. In 2020, Final Drive was honoured with an Out Run-inspired driving game to promote the track ‘Aries’, which also featured the band’s iconic vehicle.
“Matt Watkins found this driving simulator engine and he had the 3D model that Passion Pictures had made of the Geep,” says Wakeham. “He was like, ‘God, can we do it?’ Like a lot of developers, he was just doing it to see if he could. When he first built it, it was impossible to drive and the physics were all off. It was just funny. Nobody had done this stuff before. It was just a load of creative people together, given time, resources, and a good platform to see what [we] could do.”
While many of these experiments existed to promote singles, the Kong Studios platform was reactionary. Additions sprang from off-the-cuff ideas to feed fan message board speculation or, in one instance, a chat with hip-hop royalty. During a promotional tour for the first album, Wakeham, Hewlett and Albarn met with Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, who had invited Gorillaz to perform at his Tibetan Freedom Concert. As the band were still fine-tuning their live setup, Kong Studios allowed for a different kind of solidarity.
“We made 2-D a supporter of the Free Tibet campaign,” Wakeham explains. “We changed his room [in Kong Studios] to represent all his support of the campaign, and we did a G-Bite animation as well. That age of hip-hop was really formative to me, and getting to meet him one-on-one and talk about doing something creatively with him was dream come true stuff.”
As Gorillaz evolved with their second album ‘Demon Days’, so did Kong Studios. The number of games ballooned thanks partly to Mike Robinson, who was brought on for his experience with Flash. Like most who worked at Zombie Flesh Eaters, Robinson’s job wasn’t clearly defined. “At one point it was Senior Technical Developer,” he tells NME. “But I’m pretty sure that was just ‘cause one of the studio managers realised the acronym was STD.”
Game ideas sprouted from Hewlett’s drawings, and absurd gags batted around the studio. Murdoc’s Operation was a riff on the classic board game Operation, only players were replacing the bassist’s rotten organs with 2-D’s healthy ones. Potato Peeling and Apple Bobbing, games as straightforward as their mundane titles, were inspired by the quickfire micro-games found in Nintendo’s WarioWare titles, while Shooting Range stemmed from a love of 1994 arcade shooter Point Blank. Gorillaz Entertainment System, a collection of four mini-games, was even released as a standalone mobile title.
While development was largely propelled by this small team, the close proximity to Albarn’s recording studio spurred a collaborative environment. Cass Browne, the band’s live drummer until 2010, often wrote character dialogue. James Coore, who primarily worked on videos, was wrangled in for animation on the website. Elsewhere, Robinson shares that Albarn also provided music, including a tune on a “little keyboard” for the Bowling game, while the ‘Plastic Beach’ era saw comedian Harry Enfield voice a basement-dwelling “engineer that wanted tea”.
“We were always just a glorified bedroom, to be honest,” Tim Rockins told NME. “It was basically like we were in Jamie’s bedroom except we were producing stuff that was going all around the world, that was being lapped up. Really creative stuff. But we’re not a professional outfit. It was a bit all over the shop but we had a lot of fun.”
For Tim, his legacy with Gorillaz now extends beyond the virtual. He became the face of track ‘White Light’ in the CD booklet for ‘Demon Days’, where he’s seen drinking a can of booze named after the track. Hewlett nominated him for the “tramp” role because, as Rockins admits, he had “a big beard, long hair and just general tramp vibes”. This became the basis of a music video — which has since become the background visual whenever the track is performed live. “I was literally down by the canal swigging this White Light can. It was a brilliant gig,” he says. “I didn’t want to show my mum [though], it felt like some sort of prophecy.”
Unfortunately, there are fewer lasting mementos of his work. Those looking for remnants of Kong Studios and its games — including the more ambitious Plastic Beach site — will have to dig through compilation DVDs, some of which have been uploaded to YouTube and internet archive sites. Recently, external developer Matmi, who created 2010’s Escape To Plastic Beach with Zombie Flesh Eaters’ backing, boosted a viral fan campaign calling for the games to be made playable today.
Despite fan demand, the investment and rights required to make these games available on modern devices is no minor hurdle. The official death of Adobe Flash Player in December 2020 was, in some ways, a scrubbing of the early web’s infancy; a time when Newgrounds dominated internet culture and pioneered creativity from a whole generation of game developers.
Of the Zombie Flesh Eaters alumni, Robinson perhaps feels the most concern around game preservation. Since leaving the studio, he’s pursued a career as a game developer, working on titles like Hohokum, Pool Panic and upcoming multiplayer title Flock from Annapurna Interactive. “I do think it’s a shame,” Robinson says. “[It’s] something that all sorts of industries aren’t paying attention to at the moment, especially with video games. It feels like stuff just vanishes and it’s too complicated to get back.”
While his later projects are more polished and layered experiences, the multi-year development cycles of modern games leaves Robinson nostalgic for the less demanding, shoot-from-the-hip creativity of his early work with Gorillaz. “I do miss the quick turnaround of web games and how fun it was,” he explains. “You can spend a couple of weeks making a really fun thing, it can be one of your favourite bits, and it hasn’t really killed you.”
Zombie Flesh Eaters was disassembled after ‘The Singles Collection’ in 2011, ahead of what would become a six-year hiatus for Gorillaz. Today, like most artists, the band’s digital presence feels like a necessary strategy over a free-wheeling creative vessel, with only occasional nods to the past through one-off games like Penalty Shootout. It’s emblematic of how the internet has evolved into a mandatory tool, where online marketing rules have largely been written.
If anything has lingered from the Flash era, it’s the sense of a game well played with fans who have remembered, and archived, these experimental early works from Gorillaz history. That, and sage advice for office life. “One takeaway towards the end was: never let anyone know that you know how a printer works,” Robinson said. “You’ll be fixing printers all the time.”
Phoo Action: Silver Jubilee, a collaboration between Mat Wakeham and Jamie Hewlett, will be available next year. Tim Rockins has founded fashion brand Rockins. Flock, developed by Hollow Ponds, is expected to be released later this year.