A Longreads Member Exclusive:
Forever Young, by Jason Johnson
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Forever YoungJason Johnson | Kill Screen | July 2012 | 23 minutes (5,679 words)
This week's Longreads Member Exclusive is "Forever Young," a story by Jason Johnson for the literary video game magazine Kill Screen
. Johnson tells us how he first discovered a group of Hungarian game developers who have spent more than 20 years developing a game for the Commodore 64:
"This wasn't supposed to happen. As originally conceived, my account of Newcomer, a Commodore 64 game from Hungary, had no business in a publication that hangs its hat on lengthy works of journalism. My assignment was a paltry 1,500 words. The initial interview wasn't fruitful. However, as is the case with many who've stumbled upon this fascinating lifework––now twenty-three years in the works, and counting––one thing led to another, and I was in it for the long haul.
"I was interested in profiling István Belánszky, Newcomer's torchbearer, but like so many merely adequate polyglots, István doesn't speak English very well. He was hesitant to interview verbally. I wasn't able to get to Budapest to meet him, so I interviewed extensively, both with and around István, relying on the convenience of email and instant messaging. The result was a scroll of text, some 27,918 words, the majority typed by István, with long intervals between our exchanges as he painstakingly hammered out, to the best of his ability, the ins and outs of writing software for a computer that, quite honestly, was outdated in 1992, when development on the game began. The longest of these sessions lasted for an insufferable seven hours. By the end, I was ready to cry. But every now and then, amidst the barrage of technical talk and 'b0rked English,' a morsel of information would appear in the text window so peculiar and surprising that it made everything worthwhile.
"In hindsight, I suppose I should've reckoned István would have plenty to say about a project he had spent his entire adulthood completing. On his word, we printed in issue six of Kill Screen
would be done and out the door by summer, though I had my suspicions. Almost a year after we wrapped up the interviews, the game is still missing. But, he's making progress. Occasionally, I'll get a message from my friend István, and sometimes it'll just be a link to a crude joke on some Hungarian forum, but in others, he'll detail an overhaul to the game's combat system, or give me the lowdown on the progress of his interminable debug."
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Hungary in the late '80s was one of the most volatile places on Earth. The Soviet Union was on the verge of crumbling, and with it, the Eastern Bloc. The Iron Curtain did not fall without a fight. There were scenes of revolt. In 1989, more than 75,000 protestors flooded the streets of Budapest. A year later, the Hungarian republic was formed. With it came democracy and, as they say, freedom.
What does someone do with newfound freedom? Perhaps, swept up in the spirit of change, they go into politics. Welled over with nationalistic pride, they enlist in the armed services. They see the world. The way to the West, which had been cut off by 150 miles of barbed-wire fence along the Hungarian-Austrian border, was opened. The last thing you would expect someone to do is lock themselves indoors and develop a videogame. Yet that is exactly what a group of young Hungarian men did. They started working on a computer game called Newcomer, an adventure about a man in search of—what else—freedom.
While their choice was not the obvious one, it might have been the greatest pursuit of liberty of all. It was the pursuit of free enterprise. Under goulash communism, Hungarians were required by civil law to work—usually in a field other than videogames. It was nearly impossible to form a game development studio. That would require the blessing of the state, which, for common people, was very hard to get. Their only option would be to go underground; but distributing samizdat—self-published, uncensored media—was a criminal offense.
The story of Newcomer could likewise be described as a tragedy. The amount of man-hours spent on it will surely dwarf what little recognition it will receive when it is released later this year. During my interviews with István Belánszky, the project's current lead, he told me several times how he was going into "crunch time," the prolonged periods when he'd spend upwards of 90 hours a week readying the final build. He usually seemed exhausted, having had only a few hours of sleep from working on the game. Since 2008, Newcomer has been his full-time job. Before that, he averaged around 20-30 hours a week. And that is just the work of one team member. A game tester I spoke with told me that he had been playing the game for 14 years. Since then, he said, "there was barely a day I did not spend at least one or two hours playing."
Since the decline of communism, Hungary has made a full transition to commercial capitalism. Yet Newcomer remains a relic of bygone days. It still runs on bulky, khaki-colored, plastic computers reminiscent of the Space Age. It looks like it was made in the Soviet era. Though the original creators set out in search of prosperity on the free market, the game has looped back to a socialist ideal. After decades of hard work, the game will be given away for free on the internet. While the times have changed, Newcomer never did.