The ideas, the journey, and the practical stuff... (And PDFs...!)
The very foundation for PLAYING COMMANDO! possibly, no almost definitely, originates from the late 80's / early 90's when one of my biggest (And the only realistic.) dreams was to make a Fanzine. So out with the paper, typewriter, scissors, and glue. If I remember correctly, I made around five or six issues between 1988-1990. Strictly limited editions of one copy, since I had no way of copying them. The last, and best one, the April 1990 issue, was a co-op with Ansil, who also named this book. (My working titles were absolute shit!) It's a play on the expression "Going commando", but the game Commando also sort of "cemented" everything - Both the early C64-memories, and how it represented the computer audiovisually and spiritually.
But with the advent of the Amiga, that Fanzine-dream eventually shifted towards a disk magazine. In that utter and disgraceful failure of an "Unnamed" Demo group that I was the trader for, I attempted to produce a disk mag together with the organizer of the group - The result was the dreadful A.F.W. (Amiga Frontier Watch) It was a chaotic mix of nonsensical ramblings, articles, game- and demo reviews, rumors, charts, and severe attitude problems. (No wonder why the group disintegrated without going anywhere.) The first issue was released in October 1991. The second and last issue was finished some time during the summer of 1992 when the Demo group was dead and buried. (Before the short-lived resurrection in December 1992. At that point, I was no longer interested in anything else Amiga-related than Demos, and decided not to join. I mean, I didn't even have a "role" anymore after I sold my U.S. Robotics HST 14.4k modem.)
But that Fanzine dream never went away completely. Years later, when this thing called the Internet had started growing for real, I met the aforementioned organizer of the Demo group and we talked about resurrecting A.F.W. online. This was in 2001. But just like many other things, this turned out to be nothing more than just talk. Ideas came and went, and never really manifested themselves as anything real.
Flash forward to another era. I wrote the articles for GGGames.se in 2015 and 2016, and felt more and more that the Fanzine about C64-games was still on the too long bucket list. And the great and functional emulators, the Raspberry Pi, and the fact that nearly all games could be downloaded (Plus they work!) - All these things effectively formed the catalyst. But the project started growing quickly, and had to be done under control instead of "on the fly". There had to be a set goal. And soon enough, a Fanzine was a format that "it" would never fit in. And with that realization vanished the "hope" of releasing it on paper.
So how was this whole thing done? Since it took 358 days from start to finish (Minus four days when I didn't do shit.), it's safe to say that there were some "milestones" / phases, and, some genuine fuck ups that knocked the production back a couple of weeks. (Around two months in total.) But it all started that evening before Christmas, December 23, 2016, with me waiting for a family gathering while going through the Gamebase64 and blasting SID-classics on the Tube. (It is Christmas-music if you play it around Christmas...!) Anyway, there was no deadline to speak of yet. I just wanted to have a personal "Top 1000" since this would be more like a 250 page book instead of a magazine had there only been a "Top 100"... Which has been done many times, I guess. I wanted it to be something else. "Top 500" felt okay, but 1000 felt better. Said and done.
After the list was compiled, I had about 1600 titles in it. Which was followed by a process of excluding the "least good" ones. And after the list was corrected and sorted, there were approximately 1200 games or so left. At this point, I didn't know which one should be in the final list, but it was time to start playing games! I figured that I could always scrape together the proper "Personal Top 1000"-list later on. I decided to play around three games per day and spend at least 30 minutes with each. That plan fell apart when it came to RPGs and the more demanding games. But on the other hand, some of the truly abysmal ones didn't need ten minutes of playing. But the joy of nostalgia kicked in at full force and propelled this whole thing into overdrive. (Entire evenings were spent playing way more games than three. Not to mention the weekends.) I wrote a 200-word paragraph on each game that I played - Good or bad. (Because 200 sort of felt like a realistic boundary = 200.000 words altogether, like a "real" book.) It turned out to be mostly "good" as the idea was to focus on the positive aspects... But the bad ones ended up in their own chapter. 50 of those, to be exact. That's where patience ran out about six months later. Along with the excessive gaming and typing, some games were added, others were removed. But removing way over a hundred games from the list to make it a "Top 1000" suddenly didn't feel good at all... Hence the "1100+" that went into it. And the constant challenge was of course to maintain some sort of balance that probably isn't even tangible in the final product. I had also realized a long time ago that this can't and won't be a printed publication. Which sort of opened up some possibilities and removed several obstacles. But then again, it was never intended to be anything else than a fan-production.
In the late afternoon on August the 20th, I played the last one of the 1165 games that ended up in the book. (The five C128-exclusives were played and added in October. But shit happened around that time, which forced me to take a break from "everything".) While there was this text document with 235K words, I was already working on the layout. (Based on horrendous doodlings.) That part was the god damn nightmare... First, to make the pages look like I wanted them to look. Down to the millimeters and pixels. It felt like I was getting stuck in a time loop with the tweaking and adjusting, and it looked like it was never going to be finished. Imagine that 200 words can fill a text block that's 124 millimeters high, but also 102 millimeters... It should be something that everybody could guess, but no... It became a fixation like no other. To at least try to reach some kind of uniform appearance. A big chunk of my vacation (And the fall evenings... And more weekends...) was spent fucking around with the layout. It took at least ten times longer than I had planned, mostly because of lack of experience. And that almost made the project grind to a halt. Especially when so many things had to be done and re-done again.
Because the screenshots and blocks of text of course had to be CTRL+V'd on the pages. And the text needed so much work, still. Parts of it didn't "sound" right. Context was missing here and there. That elusive flow felt like it was slipping away. I needed way more synonyms for certain repeated words. (Well, there aren't even a handful for "multi-directional", "scrolling", "flip-screen", "adventure game", etc... But... Whatever... It makes me want to start drinking heavily on a Monday night just thinking about it... Cheers!)
There were around 650 planned pages initially, but it somehow ended up at 784. Because stuff. That Appendix-chapter started to live a life of its own and didn't merely end up as a reference-chapter. There were still so many features in various games that I wanted to mention. And even more screenshots. Because visuals.
The process of layouting turned even worse at one point, and took most of August / September and the entire October to finish. And the Appendix took at least two full weeks. This was a descent into the abyss. It was like existing in a machinery - Wake up, go to work, go home, start editing-- Oh, shit it's way past midnight and I have so much left to do, sleep. Repeat. Why am I doing this again? It's not fun anymore, and hasn't been for ages-- Oh, yeah! The C64. I have to play some classics to light that spark again... Hell, yeah! Works every time...! Once the Appendix was done, I could start concentrating on typing the reference index while checking the text for as many spelling- and grammatical errors as possible. (I know there's still a bunch in there. Not to mention god awful "Swenglish grammar"...!) It was the home stretch, but it was still a tedious and slow process as there suddenly wasn't anything to aim for more than getting the whole thing finished. So while the first months were the funniest and the most nostalgic thing I've ever experienced, the last ones were horrendously boring and irritating. The last days of layouting in early November... I think I just sat in front of the screen and did very little apart from swearing...
About those technical issues, then... The
I'm the total anti-fan of compromises of any kind.
The whole idea was to do this project on Freeware stuff on a Linux machine. By myself. Without hired guns or any obligations. The "free" part mostly included this desktop publishing software called Scribus. I think it's an excellent program and gets the job done in the end.
But there were some "conditions", as it turned out...
The thing that drove me even closer to insanity was the PDF-exporting function and the PDF-files. And how Scribus (doesn't) handle a file with 784 pages - With over 2500 blocks of text and 1500 images, the whole program almost committed suicide and attempted to take the computer with it. Something (possibly unrelated) happened at one point, which crashed the entire OS. (Just when I was adding even more pages to the Scribus document.) ... If I were into self-harming, razors wouldn't have sufficed. This was on a chainsaw-level...
Because the PDF-format turned out to have way more disadvantages than actual advantages - At least on the system that I'm using. And then, there were those dreaded file sizes. And the errors. And the compression. My brother helped me to get the color profiles working and stuff, but the exported pages just looked absolutely horrendous in my opinion - Layer-effects didn't work at all, the gradients looked all wrong, that slight "background blur"-effect was pixelated, the font that I used looked slightly different, unaligned, and even smeary on some screens. And the PDF itself was slow as all hell, even on a not-slow-as-shit-computer. (AMD Athlon II X4 Quad-core with 8 GB RAM.) Scribus just wouldn't co-operate anymore. The file ended up at around 450 MB without too much lossy image compression. (The screenshots from the games had to look good.) But to load the PDF took so long that I had the time to take a piss and make a mug of coffee before it displayed the front page. (But no thumbnails! And when jumping to a page, it loaded for at least 15 seconds - If not more.) And to reload the 45 MB file into Scribus again... That took minutes, i.e., an eternity... And then the text editing more or less ground to a halt. It was so slow that I could type one word, raise a kid and then show it in its late teens how the letters magically appeared on screen...
So. I had to split up the book in two parts. Then four. And finally seven. This made it possible to get back to working on the layout and the text again.
Any sane person would probably think what I didn't think: "I must have done something wrong on the way..." But... I think I tried "everything". I just couldn't get it to work. The slight annoyance turned into an infuriating wall that was impossible to get over. This is where the decision was made to release the book in CBZ-format. It's simply a zipped archive of images, but it's handled like a graphic novel by the various Comic Book Readers on all platforms. I tried out some of them, and the pages look identical on all screens - Even on a smartphone from World War II. And the laptops that I use at work. Same contrasts. Same color-schemes. Gone was the ability to add chapters, search for text, and other stuff, but now it was becoming "like" an Old School book. If you want to look up something, you have to flip pages in an index, jump to the correct page, or add bookmarks. And that also meant that proper indices were going to be needed. So that was at least 30-40 more pages added. But I'd rather have that than having a computer struggle with PDFs that just look like a big unwanted and unwelcome compromise. Out of the question. I'm sure this would have worked just fine on InDesign, but... I'm not buying that. (And I don't even have a Windows-machine at home.) This also meant that there had to be a couple of different versions with varying image quality. No problem. The lowest quality version looks decent on a smartphone, and the 200 dpi-one looks equally decent spread out across one or two 24" screens. And even in zoomed mode, the text and images look like I wanted them to look.
And as I mentioned elsewhere: When this whole project now is finished, it's available for downloading. Like I said, this isn't a professional publication, and it wasn't funded in any way. Plus I don't have the time, will-power, or energy to do anything else with it now. (Except maybe correct the most horrendous and awkward errors. Some time.) It started to feel like a never-ending and ineffective therapy session towards the end (Like the last three-- What the hell, is it mid-December already?! So, yeah, three (of twelve) months.), and that kind of stuff always overstays its welcome. This project was something that I just wanted to get out of the system before I turn into a zombie or something... But time is the main issue. There basically won't be "this kind" of spare time in the foreseeable future.
("Raventown", December 18, 2017)
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