Jason 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 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hammered out, to the best of his ability, the ins and outs of writing software for a computer that, quite honestly, was outdated in 1992, when development on the game began.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 that Newcomer 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.
* * *
Newcomer was born in 1990, the same year as the Persian Gulf War. It goes without saying, but the development cycle didn’t go exactly as planned. As proof, here I am, playing a pre-release version in 2012. The game’s history has been a perpetual series of setbacks, reboots, and delays. Newcomer was first released in 1994 for the Commodore 64 to miserable sales. The team, unhappy with the end results, reopened the game. Instead of making a sequel, they continued development until 2001, when they quietly released an expanded edition called Enhanced Newcomer.
By now, the original team members are pushing 50 years of age. All but one has abandoned the game. Belánszky, the youngest member of the old guard—the newcomer, so to speak—has taken the reins in the past 10 years. Though he started out as a beta tester for the 1994 edition, he has since become Newcomer‘s driving force. Unsatisfied with the game they made, he forged ahead, muscling through the forthcoming final edition without help from the original creators. Belánszky assures me that Ultimate Newcomer will be completed soon, but the first question that comes to mind is: “Why would anyone remain devoted to this?”
Although 22 years have passed in the interim, Newcomer is still very much a late-’80s-era computer game. Set in a penal colony gone rogue, it is a role-playing game with an emphasis on player choice. You could think of it as an 8-bit version of Mass Effect. The graphics are utilitarian, and the game takes place in what looks like a giant maze. Here’s my stab at describing it: It’s like walking through an elaborate series of office cubicles after quitting time. Newcomer‘s world is one of gray walls, perfectly square rooms, and boxy architecture built of ragged shapes.
Besides that, you don’t see things. To be precise, you don’t see the objects you interact with onscreen because of hardware limitations. In order to look at a picture hanging on the wall, you face the empty wall where the picture should be, press the Return key, and a description appears in purple text: “Very nice landscape drawing.” The game’s cast of characters—made up of militants, sleaze-balls, and jail-yard priests—are invisible also. When you move onto a square where someone is standing, their black-and-white mugshot—drawn in large pixels—appears in a window below.
The places you explore are perfectly motionless. Moving around feels like clicking through slides on an overhead projector, as opposed to the fluid motion of film or watching television. There is no sound, except for the plod of my own footsteps as I move forward, one frame at a time, by pressing the “I” key. Turn left or right, with “J” or “L,” and the screen jumps 90 degrees. Turn left four times and you pivot in a complete circle. The “K” key, the Enter key, and the Spacebar, given the specific situation, can all mean “Yes.” Though the interface is outdated, the creators aren’t twiddling their thumbs. It’s just that instead of smoothing out the rough edges, they are piling on lore.
Cases such as Newcomer‘s are uncommon in the game industry, but not unheard of. Publishers generally have the business sense to cancel projects before they slip into obsolescence. Embarrassments are mostly avoided, but sometimes, shit happens. The most widely publicized train wreck was the long, strange evolution of Duke Nukem Forever. After Duke‘s development team squandered 15 years playing catch-up with the latest tech, the publisher was forced to take legal action to get the game out the door. When it finally arrived in 2011, Duke was deemed a massive flop by critics and players alike. One publication called it “barely playable, not funny, [and] rampantly offensive.”
Newcomer is a different beast altogether. The first distinction is size. Newcomer is a big game. How big? Even Belánszky admits that he doesn’t know the game’s full extent. According to his lead tester, it “is almost beyond computability.” The game’s website says it takes 60 to 280 hours to play the first time through. To put this in perspective, Duke Nukem Forever takes approximately 10 hours to complete. The longest solo games, like Persona 4 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, can take over 100 hours.
Second is scope. The difference between Newcomer and a game like Duke Nukem Forever is that Newcomer has expanded laterally, not vertically. Whereas Duke‘s tragic flaw was a severe case of technological penis envy, Newcomer‘s fault was that, for four console generations, it ignored the changing times and focused strictly on content. The team kept adding more stuff: 150 additional characters weren’t enough. They wanted 180. A word count that matched that of Crime and Punishment seemed inadequate. They threw in another novella’s worth of reading. A good portion of the development time was spent adding what is appropriately called the “Long and Complex” mode. Whereas a branching game like Mass Effect has multiple endings, each of Newcomer‘s three modes has multiple endings.
The problem is that the game industry doesn’t wait around for designers to pen a work equivalent in length to In Search of Lost Time. If videogames are art, then they are the most fickle kind of art. In other media, a lengthy delay isn’t necessarily detrimental. After 44 years, Brian Wilson was able to piece together the Beach Boys’ lost album Smile. Spend too long making a game and the hardware won’t be around to play it. Case in point: Newcomer is a Commodore 64 game. But since the actual Commodore 64 has been out of production since the mid-’90s, it must be played on a C64 emulator that runs on modern computers. (Belánszky’s Ultimate edition will be getting a very limited release on 5 1/4” floppy disk, however.)
This means you are playing an authentic Commodore 64 game, complete with all the hang-ups. Belánszky counts it as a blessing that the pixel-art style of retro games has made a comeback. The writing is a disaster, dealing with characters with names like Dogcatcher and Axel and Jackal, second-in-command of a gang called the Marauders. It avoids direct comparison to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, the B-movie to end all B-movies, only because few games are regarded for their script. Worse, it is necessary to keep notes, jotting down hints that you are given during the game. This way, when you talk to someone like Ruth, a victim of sex trafficking you can sleep with for 500 bucks, you can choose “Tell me about…!” in the menu, then fill in the blank. Such aspects make playing Newcomer feel like running into a brick wall. In fact, I did run into the wall several times, fumbling with the controls, as the word “Ouch” scrolled repeatedly in the dialog box.
The game begins inside a compound that looks like a Syrian prison. I’m trapped in a maze of dilapidated sandstone patrolled by guards with uzis, punk rockers, and wild dogs. I get into a fight with the dogs, and it goes like this: I push “F” to fight, “A” to attack, and “Y” to confirm that I want to attack. Then, I shoot the dog for 1,200 damage points. I do this seven times in a row and the dog dies. As usual, there are no graphics to illustrate this violent conflict. It all occurs in a menu. I feel like a quality-control inspector on an assembly line, pressing the pass button each time a can of soup is slid in front of me.
Because of episodes like this, there is a disconnect between the game I see and the game described to me. Newcomer‘s original designer Zoltan Gonda told me that he is prouder of the game than anything he has ever done. Belánszky, his protégé, said what drives him is “the opportunity to take something that was promising, beyond what [he saw] in other games, and make it even better.” Once, he told me the inspirational story of a man who had played a previous edition of Newcomer in 2002. The man had lost his job and his wife, and was living alone in a flat. In his despondency, he started playing. After six months of not doing much else, he reached the end. The man then wrote the team a letter of gratitude. He said that Newcomer had helped him regain his self-confidence, and by playing it, he managed to pull his life together.
* * *
István Belánszky is tall and has a fairly slender physique. His head is shaved bald, and his features are pointy. He wears a bushy goatee, with no mustache. Shaven, his chin would be as prominent as Jay Leno’s. His goatee extends far in front of his face, as if you were viewing in profile the Man in the Moon. When I first contacted him over email, it took him a few days to respond. When he did, he explained that he had been checking me out—making sure that I was a writer, and not some Newcomer fan trying to glean unannounced information.
To put it bluntly, and it may be an understatement, Belánszky is obsessed with his game. When he sent me a copy to play, he encrypted the file and gave me the password over a secure chat client. This, he told me, would prevent the game from falling into the wrong hands, in case his network had been hacked. It felt like we were turning keys at the same time in order to arm a torpedo on a submarine.
Belánszky lives in old communist public housing in Budapest. His apartment is nestled in a wide, gray, boring building that was erected, along with many exactly like it, in the 1960s and ’70s to house the working class. He says its stairs are good for workouts. Belying his image as a programmer, Belánszky is also a bit of a health nut. Our conversations frequently began with small talk about hemp shakes, Omega fatty acids, cardiovascular training and stretching, and the benefits for lacto-vegetarians of building muscle mass with goat-milk whey protein.
He has not always been this health-conscious. However, as he spent the past decade primarily sitting in front of a computer, he developed a serious heart condition and Type 2 diabetes. To finance Newcomer, he began working for hire, doing odd jobs in the games industry: quality assurance, voiceovers, and localizations. He worked on Newcomer during his downtime. The result was a constant cycle of programming that eventually took a toll on his body. In 2008, he had to give up the side jobs because of his declining health. He weighed over 250 pounds. He was literally working himself to death.
Now Belánszky is healthy again. While Newcomer didn’t take his life, it did rob him of his youth. He turned 40 this May. Most of his adulthood has been spent living and breathing Newcomer. This fact is outlandish even before you consider that, strictly speaking, it isn’t his game. Belánszky joined up with the original team members in 1994, when the first edition of Newcomer had nearly been completed.
Taking over development on Newcomer may have been his destiny. Belánszky dropped out of high school in his senior year. He wanted to work in information technology, and the school he attended was ill-equipped to teach it. The best the Hungarian educational system had to offer were “horrible DOS PCs.” So he landed a job writing a monthly column on tabletop role-playing games for Guru Magazin, one of the first gaming magazines in Hungary. It was there that he discovered the game that would consume him.
In the spring of 1994, he had a long conversation in the editorial room with Zoltan Gonda, the creator and original designer of Newcomer, who occasionally wrote reviews for the magazine. Newcomer was in its final stage of development—or so they thought. Gonda was in need of another playtester who could give him feedback. According to Belánszky, “he pitched it to me as a computer role-playing game that was more like a tabletop role-playing game than anything else. Given my other main interest was computer geekery, I was sold on the idea.” He eagerly accepted the invitation, and with Belánszky’s assistance, the team wrapped up production on the first edition of Newcomer.
* * *
Gonda had assembled a team of three that included a coder, an artist, and himself as the game designer. Together, they envisioned a game in the same vein as Interplay’s popular titles, such as Wasteland, a post-apocalyptic fantasy that inspired Fallout; and Neuromancer, which was based on William Gibson’s famous cyberpunk novel. The plot, at least at the outset, is similar to the TV series Lost. A group of strangers with questionable pasts find themselves stranded on a mysterious island. Only these strangers are convicts, and the island is a prison. At the start of the game, your character wakes up on the island, confused from amnesia. His only memory is that he shot and killed his wife and the man she was sleeping with.
Like its main character, Newcomer‘s development started off on the wrong foot in 1990. Gonda had planned to complete the game in two years, but the team quickly ran into snags. No one had worked on a videogame before. Gonda likened the process to “walking in a 10-miles-long, pitch-dark tunnel with a tiny lighter in your hand.” The problem was that they didn’t have the hardware they needed to produce a game of the caliber of others on the market. They went from developing on MS-DOS, to two Commodore 64s linked together, to an Amiga 500, but Newcomer proved too much. It took too long for their underpowered computers to process information, so they purchased a compiling tool from the U.S. in order to speed things up. However, the code it produced didn’t work. They tried writing their own compiler, but it was too slow.
Eventually, they found a powerful-enough computer. By then, the initial two years had passed, and they were just getting started. Regardless, they were determined to make Newcomer a reality. They believed it could become a commercial success. In fact, some of them still do. As recently as a few years ago, Gonda shopped Newcomer around for a high-definition update. But, even in 1994, success was not to be. Half a year before Newcomer was finished, Commodore went bankrupt, the Commodore 64 went out of production, and the market for its games collapsed. The original Newcomer sold an underwhelming 1,500 copies. It was considered a local success in Hungary.
* * *
Belánszky tells me his Ultimate Newcomer is the far superior edition, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. When you ask him why he does it—why he continues to dedicate his life to a game that was dated the first time it was released 18 years ago—he will say something like, “For the hell of it!” or, “Ask those guys who first made it up to Mount Everest.” But the truth is, he does it because he has faith in its system. By the system, I mean the massive body of code that connects the game in the same way that twisting, disorienting streets connect Istanbul.
Newcomer is designed so that it can be explored for a lifetime. Most of the active testers have completed it more than 50 times apiece, and they still have not seen every encounter with rabid dogs, nor discovered every plot twist within its crumbling walls. Their job is partly an archeological excavation. Recently, the lead tester discovered unknown content that had existed for over 15 years, and was buried deep within the game. This is all the more impressive considering that Newcomer is story-driven. Unlike a sandbox game, where the designers create a host of variables and let them run wild within a system, every choice in Newcomer was handwritten.
The great paradox of Newcomer is that, despite its severe technical limitations, it allows you to do so many different things. If you can think of something to do, there is a decent chance you can do it. Sure, it has all the normal conventions of role-playing games. There are turn-based battles to fight and experience points to gain and spend. There are bartenders to drink with and merchants who sell shotgun shells. You may form a team of the unlikeliest of heroes. But you can also cheat at gambling, pickpocket, blow things up with dynamite, rip off jukeboxes, have sex, learn the gift of guile, wash dishes, specialize in cryptology, wear makeup, work in a field, and look at a porno magazine.
According to Belánszky, Newcomer‘s distinguishing trait is “the way the narrative is triggered by the actions the player chooses.” Newcomer was designed to give the player an extraordinary amount of freedom—something Belánszky has not always had. As a child, he watched the “commie regime” use the threat of physical violence to suppress differences of opinion. As an adult working in a Second World republic, he has felt the sting of being on the wrong side of outsourcing. He was overworked and underpaid. He complains of unfair labor practices in his country. “We had to play by the Soviet rules back then. Now we are expected to play by neoliberal rules,” he said, referring to the limited opportunities he sees within Hungary.
As if to compensate, Newcomer is full of choices. “This level of flexibility and nonlinearity is still very, very rare in computer games,” Belánszky told me. The player’s actions make ripples through the game. If you get into an argument with a merchant, you can freely take his life—that is, if your stats are high enough—but the consequences are greater than missing out on the double-barreled shotgun for sale. You will also lose the chance to make friends with a creep named Sancho. And should you kill the Snake Charmer, you won’t be able to convince Anna Verkaik to seduce Wilder, in order to infect him with an STD. Yet this could allow you to seduce him yourself.
What you see of the prison camps and wilderness and space stations and virtual reality caves is largely determined by an incredibly long chain of events. To keep up with the massive amount of choices the player makes, there are more than 2,050 script packages that run in the background. These scripts evaluate situations. They calculate who is alive and who is dead, which characters have joined your party, and what skills they have gained. The scripts know how much time has passed, and what game-changing events have occurred. There is even one that keeps tabs on when the walls are sprayed with graffiti. These systems come together to create a world that not only evolves, but revolves around your every whim.
In addition to an unprecedented amount of agency, Belánszky and his teammates dreamt up a ludicrous amount of backstory for the game’s 180 key characters. Because many of the characters are inmates, he saw fit to give them psychological profiles. For instance, the android Percival (serial number: 143) is a male spy built in the year 2058. His cybernetic body is made of Steel-Titanium-Molybdenum. He has a sense of duty, he acts thoughtfully, he’s non-autodidact, and he has a built-in AI link.
Belánszky spent a solid three months at the library in Budapest, cooking up a reasonable pseudoscience. “I wanted the tech journals and descriptions to be solid,” he told me. He researched subjects such as criminology, behaviorism, and psychiatry, and then merged them with cyberpunk tropes and conspiracy theories. The result was details—lots and lots of them. Sometimes, during our many long conversations, Belánszky would give me lists of seemingly random prison records he had written:
William Blake—Emotion retarder v0.736.
Paul Van Kryg—Loyalty v0.9 (failed).
Fabricio Cerioni—Loyalty v0.9 (failed).
Peter Waarden—Emotion retarder v1.0b.
Seamus O’Connor—Emotion retarder v1.0z.
Louis Arbey—GEAS v0.8.
The team also hid daunting secrets deep within the game. For instance, David Peabody, a young British thug, is a secret character that you probably won’t run into. But let’s say you do. Whether he lives or dies; joins your crew, or gets a rival gang to kick your ass; knocks you out and steals your money, or helps you rob a vending machine; commits murder, or deals in kidnapped hostages; all depends on the way you treat him. Other secret characters include a former porn star, an alien, and a guy who, according to Belánszky, “likes to kill himself.” However, the domino effect isn’t limited to new recruits. It goes all the way down to the smallest detail, such as how long a used condom will remain on the ground.
According to Ben Samuel, a software engineer at UC Santa Cruz, this type of design is called scripted narrative, where “the player interacts with the story at points that are specifically authored by the designers. You have a space of play that is cleanly and clearly denoted.” Newcomer may be the most ambitious scripted narrative ever designed. Belánszky told me it was “an experiment to see how far the complexity could go.”When I asked him how many of these scenarios were in the game, he didn’t know. “Hundreds? Thousands?” he said.
* * *
The lion’s share of these extravagant scripts were added between 1997 and 2001, during the second phase of development, when the game was known as Enhanced Newcomer. It was during this time that Newcomer went from being a fairly straightforward role-playing game to a godlike attempt at granting free will. In 1996—two years after the original edition of Newcomer was released—Belánszky, Gonda, and the rest of the original team had reunited. Their hopes of breaking into the game industry renewed, they formed a small software company. Before long, however, they had revived Newcomer.
The plan had been to create new software and sell it to publishers, but that never happened. The only thing they sold was a game that was an advertisement for Electrolux, a company that makes designer household appliances, and 400 boxed copies of Enhanced Newcomer. Most of the team was still living with their parents, so they didn’t have to worry when a project fell through. As Belánszky put it, “when you don’t have to pay the bills, you can cut being pragmatic some slack.”
Belánszky’s generation was the first in Hungary to step outside the order of Living Socialism, where employment for everyone was a strict policy. It seems like the Newcomer team were relishing in the fact that they didn’t have to go to work. They were developers without a cause. And they weren’t alone. Thousands of other young Hungarian über-geeks, a term Belánszky uses to refer to himself during this time, had grown up using Commodore 64s, and they took a keen interest in creating computer graphics, pixel art, MIDI music, and even games for the defunct computer. They were part of the demoscene, a grassroots movement among hobbyist developers that centralized throughout Europe.
According to Poison, a well-known graphic artist within the Hungarian scene, people were drawn in for two reasons: One, because it is art. “You don’t explain why you do it. Doing it is the explanation,” he said. And two, because it is competitive. The reason demosceners restrict themselves to using outdated hardware is because it levels the playing field. Another reason is the wow factor. “If someone breaks the known limits, it makes for a really nice surprise,” he added.
With these tenets in mind, Belánszky and company started kicking around new ideas for Newcomer. This was followed by a period of unbridled ambition, in which they threw in everything but the kitchen sink. They added a plethora of letters and diaries, a pair of loaded dice, walkie-talkies, a high-tech cigarette lighter, monk robes, a useful tube of super glue, gang memorabilia, neural implants, intelligence modules from outer space, a mysterious super-weapon, and items that are too confidential to be revealed here. (Belánszky is a stickler about spoilers.)
* * *
If making Enhanced Newcomer was the afterparty, then what came next was the hangover. In 2001, at the end of the expansion, the team made around 1,200 euros in royalties and donations from the Enhanced edition. Newcomer inspires a cultish following among a very few. An anonymous post made on the game’s website in 2001 read as follows: “To this day, Newcomer is one of my favorite games. I bought it in late 1994 or early 1995. I was forced to discard my old C64 a few years ago, but the game still rests inside my desk drawer, and has been waiting for some time to appear on my monitor.”
By that point, the team members weren’t in it for the money. Yet a small loyal fan base wasn’t enough to keep them together. Reality was beginning to sink in. After four years of reckless abandon, Newcomer was still in a shoddy state, and so was the team’s so-called software business. It had been a hell of a ride, but the party was over. They couldn’t go on making a passion project forever. One by one, the members went their separate ways. Gonda left to work on other projects in the game industry. The original coder quit making games altogether. The original artist now works on high-budget first-person shooters.
Belánszky was the only man left standing. He considered it his civic duty to finish Newcomer the right way. He felt betrayed that the original members had abandoned the game. He wasn’t ready to give up. In 2003, he assembled a new team to undertake the Ultimate edition to be released this year. At first, they didn’t plan on expanding the game. Newcomer was already mammoth. They were just going to make it friendlier to play. (Up until then, it had to be booted from floppy disks.) They thought they would knock it out in no time. They were very, very wrong.
When the newly formed team began to update the game, they were horrified by what they found. It was infested with bugs. Nothing worked right. Characters that were crucial to the plot would suddenly forget what they were supposed to do. Characters that were dead would return to life. Belánszky found himself in the peculiar situation where a work of fiction will sometimes parallel its author’s life in ways that cannot easily be accounted for. It is fitting that Newcomer is set in a penal colony. For Belánszky, repairing Newcomer‘s many problems has been a 10-year sentence of manual labor. As he put it, “Sartre said, ‘Hell is other people,’ but to me, ‘Hell is other people’s code.'”
Belánszky, who had been a game designer on the Enhanced edition, found himself playing a new role: exterminator. What followed was the debug session to end all debug sessions. The more bugs Belánszky fixed, the more he found. By 2008, he had fixed 350 bugs. By 2010, the number had risen to 550. At last count, it had surpassed 700. The project nearly collapsed several times: once because of Belánszky’s failing health, and another from exhaustion. But he persevered. Giving up is not something that Belánszky does easily.
* * *
For Newcomer‘s fans, Belánszky’s tenacity has been the cause of what seems like an eternity of waiting. Guzslován Gábor, who first played Newcomer in 1995, told me that Belánszky is “lost in the details,” and that he should “forget the hunting of the bugs.” When I asked him whether Belánszky was a perfectionist, crazy, or simply obsessed, he agreed to all three. Near the end of the robust clean-up, Ultimate Newcomer received one last gasp of new material, delaying it by another 15 months. At one point, the release date was set for February of this year. It’s now May, and Belánszky tells me the weapon upgrade system needs to be revamped. (As of publication the game is still unreleased.)
Those who question whether it will ever be finished have a legitimate concern. However, Belánszky is confident it will be released soon. (Once, he told me that there were only four bugs left.) The reason is that after 18 years, he is tired of working on it. Newcomer has changed him. He finds himself drifting away from his preconceptions about games, gradually losing the naïve outlook that they are intrinsically good. “I have lost both my faith and interest in games,” he told me.
After Newcomer is done, Belánszky says he will take a few months off to recuperate. His health has begun to decline again during the final surge to complete the game. Then, he says he won’t continue with Newcomer, or any other project. The colossal amount of effort it took to build the game of his dreams, together with his frustrating experiences working in the game industry, has left him weary and fatalistic. He thinks that the majority of games make players worse human beings. He believes that the industry has been ruined by commercialization. He is convinced that games have psychologically conditioned their audiences into not thinking—into mindlessly craving more of the same thing. He says, “Gamers may be beyond saving.”
The people who play Newcomer will doubtlessly be few. Belánszky takes pride in that. He has taken the road less traveled. He went in the opposite direction of the draconic industry. He finds sanctity in Newcomer‘s lack of commercial appeal. “It would tear my heart out to gut Newcomer by lowering it to the lowest common denominator—just to add eye candy and turn it into a cash vehicle,” he said.
In his mind, Newcomer has remained pure, while the rest of the industry has fallen. Although he still believes in the potential for the good in games, and in the spirit that swept him up in software development almost 20 years ago, he admits that it might require too much effort to achieve it. “Pure potential is nothing,” he told me. “There would have to be some huge cataclysm on the market—one that changes everything—for that potential to return.”
Belánszky might say the same of his country. In the 22 years since Hungary became a republic, his ideology has shifted. Cynicism has replaced his youthful optimism, and his doubt has spread to his view of freedom in general. He questions if Western society is really free, or if freedom is undermined by capitalism. “The consumerist culture and condition that is supposedly about personal freedom in fact just turns people into zombies,” he said.
He wonders whether Hungary was better off before democracy. “It implies something very bad when I sound as if I preferred then to now. I totally hated it back then—but also now,” he said. “What has befallen this region is just suppression of a different kind, and is more subtle and harmful.” Though he has spent his life in pursuit of freedom, he finds it a troubling proposition. It is easy to visualize, but elusive, and hard to enact.
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Originally published in Kill Screen, July 2012.