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Extended Compass ramble

This document has spoilers for the entirety of Compass! If you do not wish to be spoiled, turn back!

Hi, I just wanted to say thank you so much for reading Compass. People's responses in the first 10 hours have been glowing, to a kind of surreal degree. It's definitely gotten me excited that this might be more than just a once-off project that'll disappear off the radar once the post has stopped circulating. Maybe I might share it with some of the people whose work inspired it? Pitch it to hypercomic archives? Try and get it some academic attention? Who knows.

Anyway, I wanted to make a document in which I ramble about the gruelling 4-year process of bringing this project to life. Because, boy, has it been a Lot. And maybe someone out there is interested to read all this. I guess I see this section as sort of like the "bonus commentary" segment you get on some DVDs. The idea of leaving things unsaid is vaguely lost on me, and I mean, I've sat on this comic for 4 years.

Strap in and get ready for CJ in infodump mode.


Compass has been a part of my life since 2010. The comic that you see on this website was first begun as my final project for my bachelor's degree in 2016, but before that, it was actually a short story I wrote in 2010. Said story was, shall I say, a surreal, poetic, half-nonsensical ramble inspired by various Owl City songs, especially Umbrella Beach.

OK, here's where you can read it. Be warned that I wrote it when I was 16.

Don't get me wrong, the comic is almost unrecognisable as the same story: Thalassa did not exist in this version and the tone was much lighter; it was just a fictitious travelogue really. But some aspects of it have not changed, particularly the main characters Marin and Cielo (though their personalities have changed), the tension of Cielo suspecting that Marin is keeping secrets, and the idea of a looping journey at the core of the story.

I also attempted to make a visual novel adaptation of Compass in 2013, but never got past the first scene. Not a lot of art from it survives, but to the left is a sample of a background, in case you're curious; that is Cielo's home's dining room.

Basically, this story has taken many forms over the decade it has existed. It simply would not leave me alone, a tale of sailing, maps, compasses, nautical travel, time loops--all themes that I have long been enamoured of (hence also my online handle Circlejourney).

Making a hypercomic.

So, Compass was short story, and then a VN--but I wanted to make a hypercomic.

"What's a hypercomic?" It's a perfectly valid question to ask since not a lot of people use that term. I believe the term came from a portmanteau of "hypertext" and "webcomic", and that's exactly what it is: a comic with hyperlinks.

Well, kind of? Many smarter people have written on the subject in detail. I tend to go back to Sam Keeper's definition: a hypercomic is "a comic that can only exist within the confines of a digital environment. In other words, it can't be taken from the web and printed out unless you fundamentally change the core experience." She's far from the only hypercomic theorist whose writing I read in the process of making this, but I think I owe the greatest debt to her, for introducing me to the concept in the first place.

Anyway, Keeper has written a great deal about a comic that I am very fond of and have created mountains of fan content for (and also a track on an official album!): Homestuck. For good reason, Homestuck is widely seen as a ground-breaking for webcomics: it has interactivity, branches and multimedia out the wazoo, and more importantly, these things aren't just included willy-nilly: they work to underscore the story's thematic elements. Look, I could go on for ages about Homestuck, and it's one of the chief reasons I decided to go into making comics, but I'll boil it down to this:

At one point in 2015, a character named John stuck his hand through a magical retcon-capable house-shaped portal, causing his hand to appear all across the comic. What happened then was that the actual comic pages, from as far back as 2009, were updated to feature his dismembered hand in the background. It was a satisfying payoff to a gag about John having no arms (John now has all the arms), but it also had repercussions on the story, as John was soon able to reenter past comic panels to change the course of events, causing a new timeline to branch off from canon events thus far.

I always saw that as a sort of performance art, where the experiment lives in the performance of webcomic publication, deviating from the conventions thereof. Hussie went back and edited the pages, and the resultant change was part of the plot. But the comic itself fundamentally did not change for me; I started reading Homestuck post-hand-retcon, which meant that I did see these hands in various panels; I simply did not know of their significance. Which was cool as fuck in itself, if not quite time-variable in an absolute sense.

Likewise, there were some branching portions in Homestuck, like when you're faced with a character select screen like the one on the left, and can choose to read these conversations in any order. But none of them really branch consequentially. You would always arrive back in the same spot, and then carry on forward in linear fashion. (Homestuck has since introduced a consequential branch, namely the two epilogues, which offer two not-endings for the story which further the story's thematic aims. But of course, I didn't know this was going to happen back in 2016.)

Then came Undertale. I think this game has become emblematic of games with branched endings, with how deftly it employed that conceit. It takes a simple moral dilemma--do we murder indiscriminately because game conventions demand it, or do we see dignity in all life, even the lives of random-generated mob spawn?--and makes it the backbone of its branched structure. You can only construct Undertale's thematic argument from connections between all three endings: that is, all of them are necessary in order to understand what it's trying to say.

In a similar way to Homestuck, game conventions themselves are given weight: it's implied that "determination" is really the player's ability to save and reset the game, which is what makes humans appear invincible to in-game characters. This was another thing that made me go, "whoa I really like that, now I want to try making a story that takes that technique and does its own thing with it."

Ever since I read Homestuck and watched the original Madoka Magica series in the span of a year, I have become very aware of how much I adore time travel fiction. Madoka in particular executes a brilliant twist/reveal and payoff in the span of just 12 episodes, with a time loop that appears futile but inadvertently creates the conditions necessary for the solution to emerge. I yoinked that aspect for my then-brewing hypercomic concept.

At first, Compass' plot was going to be only the very last loop (yes, like Madoka). Eventually, however, my supervisor and I talked about how we could make the interactivity feel consequential. And that's when it fell together. The choice the player makes would be between a false and happy reality in which they repeat the journey in perpetuity, and a true ending that would require both Marin and Cielo to let go and allow their souls to be consumed with no promise of another repeat.

And then, to sell that sense that each read is a slightly different iteration, the text is randomised, and the player gets to choose ports in any order they like. On some iterations, they don't even reach the point where they talk about what's happening. On others, they get as far as the confrontation, but then Cielo doesn't take that leap of faith to make it end. That's what the questions represent (though I admit I'm still ironing out the execution of that) he needs to commit fully to that decision to make the loops end for once and for all.

As it evolved, Compass naturally came to incorporate all these hypercomic traits: it changes as the reader is reading, it branches into endings that are all essential but incomplete parts of a whole story, it renders the physical act of traversing the narrative a part of its storytelling.

Overambition: still my greatest enemy.

Anyway, I finished what was supposed to be the full working version in April 2017. Like I mentioned, it was for a degree project, which meant I was working under massive time pressure. Before drawing started, I spent about 4 months pitching concepts to my supervisor (Compass was only one of four concepts, I can tell you about the other three another day), writing the script, running it by my supervisor and fine-tuning the dialogue until it was ship-shape. Then while my friends were doing visdev for their animations, I did the same for mine--concept art, colour scripts, character sheets. You can see them here.

And then, I drew the entire comic in four months. Sketches to painting. The comic has 550 panels, so you can imagine I was sketching, colouring and painting 5 panels a day for 4 months straight. To save on time, I started to throw out a lot of the details in the rendering towards the end, particularly details in the hair and fabric. Here's a side-by-side comparison of a couple of panels from the 2017 version vs. the 2020 version, just for an idea of what I mean:


The art was the main sticking point when it came to declaring the comic "done". By all rights, the comic was readable, it had the basic time loop + true end coded in. But the art was absolutely not up to my standards. And yet, once I was done with those 4 months of extended crunch time and had my degree under my belt, I wasn't very keen to revisit them.

Aggravating the situation were the storytelling ambitions I had. Back in 2017, I had all these plans, to make alternate comic scenes for every port (after it was brought to my attention that you could visit them more than once, I decided to make this bug a feature) and to write alternate text for every single line of dialogue in the game. This was, you guessed it, a lot of work. It was work I had no real reason to do. So I put it off.

Most webcomics can be released partially, or serially, so that even if the comic never gets finished, at least some of it gets seen by the public. I couldn't do that with Compass, because structurally, it is a lot more like a game than a comic. It can't be subdivided because of all the interactivity and conditional paths. And I just didn't want to post a half-finished comic.

All this contributed to the 3 years of procrastination that resulted, and my growing certainty that I'd just never finish.

Well, I eventually figured out that I would never have the energy to draw two comic strips for every port, so I ended up turning those into the scrolly text-chat-esque bits that you see now when you visit a port twice. I think it actually works better like this, because you're seeing the same place but through a different layout, and that gives it a sort of texture and variance.

Somehow, through these past four years of dawdling between periods of bruteforcing the unfinished art to a serviceable state, the comic's final form gradually took shape.

But honestly, at least 70% of it happened in the past week, 10 - 17 June 2020. Makes me wonder why I procrastinated for so long when it took me literally 7 days once I put my nose to the grindstone.

Technical details

The whole of Compass was drawn in Paint Tool SAI, programmed in vanilla JavaScript (though I added jQuery last week just to simplify the process for myself), and functions largely through a 600-line JavaScript programme running on a single webpage.

I think this entire comic is very much built around some novel tech demonstrations. I'm hoping that these are subtle and don't broadcast themselves as "oh look I did a cool thing," but I still want to talk about them since I feel like what's cool about some of these things is entirely below the hood. First...I think this comic probably does the most interesting things with time-variability. E.g. the way the comic "remembers" how many times it's been read, not just by the individual, but by everyone as a collective whole. When it was first released, Thalassa would have told Marin she's come here 217 times. But every time someone (not just you!) completes the story and reaches this page, this number will go up by one. It's like Thalassa has spoken to and remembers ever single time this comic has been read. I don't know that people will know that this is what's happening without me explaining it like this.

The idea of a story that is changed collectively by every single person reading it, that's pretty cool in itself. But implementing it in a way that means something to the plot? That's what I'm all about! Incrementing a number is the simplest possible implementation, and I know there's so much more that I could do with it. I'm excited.

The comic is also multicursal: You can read through the comic once and potentially (in fact, definitely) not have seen portions of it, so getting to all the content would require multiple reads/plays. It's very fun stuff, the backbone of hypertext fiction (which I also love and have also made) and here I am so glad I found a way to make it happen in a way that kinda added to the plot.

I feel like a lot of this is really not that innovative on a technical level. I mean, most video games are just time-variable and multicursal by probably the only really striking thing is that it's a comic and not a game.

The complexity of the thing necessitated that I put the entire story on one page, just so I could manipulate variables the player progressed. Well, I didn't have to, but having it over multiple pages would have involved extensive use of the local storage, and I know that many people don't even allow those to be saved in their browsers.

Each page of Compass is housed in its own HTML page, retrieved when that page is accessed and dumped wholesale in a "panels" element on the page. This created some interesting issues when it came to styling and formatting. But with the page layout changing so much, sizing elements and text was a nightmare and a half, and probably still the aspect of the comic I'm least pleased with. I do know that certain pages (especially the one where Marin is showing Cielo his cabin) are ridiculously misaligned on some browsers. It's very disappointing, but I suspect that the problem comes from the fact that everything must be on one page.

There were just so many moving parts to this thing: getting the pages to display and resize right, the question system, the port order system, saving things to local storage so they would be remembered between sessions, the horizontal scroll script, the disappearing panel script, the music that fades in and out as you scroll, the randomly flickering text, the randomised dialogue lines on the third+ run, the POST requests that increment the number of loops on a common file on the server...

Yes, I coded all these from scratch, because I would have had no idea where to copy them from. I'm pretty sure I consistently underestimate how long programming and bugtests took, with my tendency to focus on the art. But it was Long.

Compass music...from way back in 2012.

So that soundtrack. I'm very glad that people seem to enjoy the soundtrack, because it has a whole history of its own.

As mentioned before, Compass has been around since 2010. It has been taking up a huge slice of my brain for just as long. And that Lots of it. I mean, my first album on Bandcamp is literally titled Compass. Four pre-comic tracks made it to the final comic soundtrack: Compass, Love on the Doldrums (retitled to Solitaire), Marin and The Horizon. Additionally, Something Forgotten was in it till like, 3 days ago...

Actually, I'm gonna give you a full list of every single track that was secretly about Compass all along.

By contrast, the newest track on the soundtrack is Memory of the Sea; I made it maybe three days before release, to replace Something Forgotten which, while I have always been fond of it, is too disconnected thematically (i.e. in terms of melodic motifs) from the rest of the soundtrack to be an opener.

Essentially, composing this soundtrack has taken place over the course of eight years. A lot of these tracks are very modal, like I could go on for ages about this, but some part of me suspects that that is too boring even for this already excessively long ramble. Compass, Harbours, Mucevher and parts of The Horizon are in Dorian mode; Fontana is in the kumoijoshi scale; Musdahm and Belowdeck I are in Mixolydian mode; and basically everything else is just in a simple diatonic major. Oh and Belowdeck II...I'm not sure how to describe it harmonically, tbh.

Of course, since my technical skills have grown a great deal since then, I couldn't just throw the original tracks into the comic. Though I will say that I did put many of these tracks wholesale into the 2017 version of Compass.  Definitely back in 2017 there was a period where I sat down and went, "okay, so how many tracks can I just reuse since I have literally 4 months to finish," and 5 made the cut, and that later got brought down to 4.

I spent a great part of the past week bringing each and every track up to my current standard with fancy new instruments, and also cleaning up that reverb fog. Oh boy, the number of times I probably almost set fire to my laptop because I was maxing out its CPU and RAM with all these aforementioned fancy instruments...I'm just glad it survived to allow me to produce this post.

Oh, and, one more thing. You know that creepy howling/screeching noise that comes in when Cielo revisits the storeroom with Marin? I have a very dark secret to share with you. It's Smash Mouth's All Star slowed down to something like 8% its original speed.

I'm so sorry.

Some freeform thoughts and bonus facts

Sailing. 90% of people probably don't care about accuracy in a story like this, and let's face it, a ship that sails itself isn't exactly "realistic". But I did put thought into making sure that the sails were set correctly based on the wind direction. This is most prominent in the true ending: when the Horizon turns around, the sails also flip around from a close reach (sail almost parallel to ship body) to a run (sails perpendicular to ship body): they're sailing against the wind at first and when they turn, they're sailing with the wind behind them.

Characters. It always surprises me when I remember again that Compass really only has three speaking characters (not counting unnamed characters who appear for one panel). Like, it certainly doesn't feel like it's a story with only 3 characters to me. (No, I'm not counting Oliver even though he had a name and one spoken line.)

Marin and Cielo were both definitely designed to appeal to my aesthetic tastes, and I definitely found myself thinking of Cielo as nonbinary the whole time I was making the comic. It's entirely up to people how they want to read the characters though.

Logo. It's an ambigram, meaning it looks the same when you rotate it 180 a compass! I spent ages tweaking it so that it remained readable but it's still not 100% so unless you know what word it says, I think. Little touches like the anchors and the arrow-like protrusions on the P tie it back to the nautical theme of the comic.

Names. So, clearly, Marin is derived from various words and names that mean "sea" (and of or relating to it). Cielo is literally just "sky" in Spanish and Italian. (I never did decide which way I preferred to pronounce it but I tended to pronounce it the Italian way when I talked about it because the animation department had an Italian tutor and I didn't want him to come for me like "that's not how you pronounce it") So...the Horizon? First off, that's the name of Marin's ship. It's just a silly play on words because, you know, it's where the sky and the sea meet.  The track The Horizon, however, isn't titled for the ship; it's really 100% a short story thing. There was this whole thematic deal about how the horizon is thought to be the edge of the world, but Marin and Cielo learn by sailing towards it that the horizon doesn't exist because the earth is round, that they can keep chasing it forever and they'll only find themselves back where they began. And so their journey comes full circle (yes.), and they part and forget and their story loops, just like the sky and the sea cannot meet because the line is imaginary.

It's funny how, probably for many people, this also brings the story of my username "full circle" because yes, "Circlejourney" is definitely partly a nod to this story and all the themes that writing it got me interested in.

Speaking of thematic words, the word "destination" was definitely a motif in the short story. So it's funny that the lines "My destination? I've already found it." weren't actually in it; it had a much more prosaic, and kinda tell-not-show-y, way of expressing the same sentiment. Anyway I won't go on about the short story anymore lol.

Music motifs. I didn't actually think overly hard about what each melody means, but I had a few loose ideas. The main theme, Compass, is referenced in The Horizon. Simple bookending that tells you "yes the story is over." The melody found in Memory of the Sea, Setting Off, Stargazing and Circumnavigation is probably about the journey looping in perpetuity, travelling forever with no end in in sight. The melody found in Marin, Solitaire and parts of The Horizon (and also very subtly in Memory of the Sea) is Marin's theme and I tend to use it to imply intimacy or silence. And the primary melody in The Horizon (the one on strings), a secondary melody in Solitaire, is a theme for the story breaking out of the loop. I don't know why it's in Solitaire tbh. Kinda like it's the melody that plays when Cielo first leaves his home. Oh, and also, the chopped up samples in Circumnavigation are actually Memory of the Sea.

Colours. The idea with this story was always to use colours as shorthand for places and I was hoping that you could just recognise a place and its atmosphere from its colours. Like whenever there's a spark of glowing yellow-green, you know that that's related to Thalassa, or when you see lots of red-brown hues you know it's under the deck. This isn't an easter egg so much as a fun fact I suppose.

References. Compass as a whole was kind of inspired by and a reference to a line from Owl City's "If My Heart Was A House""If my heart was a compass, you'd be north." The frog statue in the storeroom: probably definitely giving a nod to Homestuck, I just really like frog statues after reading that comic.

So, is this ramble done? Honestly I'm not sure. I might keep adding things to it as I think of them;  there's a lot I'm deliberately leaving out too, because I want to leave people the room to interpret it how they want.