Wednesday, April 27, 2016

On Homestuck, Part 1

Note: This was originally going to be one article, but I rambled on even longer than usual and there was a lot of what could technically be described as “research” involved. As a result, it’s been split into two parts. The second half will go up on Friday. For those of you viewing from the mystical portal of chronology known as the future, you’ll find that it’s already here.
...and also here. Future me didn’t warn me this would be a three parter.

Two weeks ago, after exactly 7 years of updates, a comic called Homestuck finally ended. I’m here today to talk about it.

I rarely talk about anything personal on this blog. I rarely talk about anything unrelated to video games. I rarely talk about my opinions on wildly popular topics. Today I plan on breaking all of these trends, in observance of my biggest unwritten rule: “I write what I feel like.” However, this would be nothing without my second biggest unwritten rule: “Don’t suck.” Inspiring wording on that one. Point is, even though this article is outside my usual wheelhouse, I’ll endeavor to keep the quality similar, like that of a wheelbungalow or at least a wheelshanty.

I’m also aware that Homestuck has something of a...baggage behind it. This immensely popular internet sensation brought in millions of fans from every corner of the digital realm. Based on the content of the piece and the culture generally seen around it, it’s a safe bet that most of them were teenagers or the recently teenaged. Combined with the fact that Homestuck itself is very strange and heavily memetic, and it’s no surprise it frustrated those outside its fandom. Hell, sometimes it frustrated those inside it. So if you don’t like Homestuck, I have good news for you! The final seal on the ancient wizard’s curse I used to force you to read all my blog posts has dissipated. You don’t have to read this. I won’t take offense. In fact, I’m literally unable to take offense, as my readership is so small ambient google noise is indistinguishable from a dip in views.

Pictured: Traffic after a cat rolls on a keyboard and accidentally visits Genericide.

Those who haven’t leapt over their computer chair and fled the room, foolishly forgetting they can just close the browser tab, fall into two categories. The first are those who have read Homestuck, or at least some portion of it. You’re here to fill the void after its recent ending, to see an alternate viewpoint on it, or something similar. The rest of you can’t tell a Sburb from a Skaia, yet you still remain for some reason. Maybe you’re curious about what all the fuss was about now that the rabid fandom has faded. Maybe you’re just really bored. Maybe you hang onto every piece of prose I produce with rapt attention, stroking your computer screen and secretly fantasizing about romancing and cannibalizing me behind a 7/11. Whatever floats your boat.

This article will be written with the newcomers in mind. There will no spoilers on anything specific, which is fine since I don’t have much to say on specifics anyways. Instead, I’ll be focusing on my personal feelings towards Homestuck and the impact it left on me. Because make no mistake, Homestuck had an impact on me. It’d be hard to read a work of over 8,000 pages and 800,000 words and not be impacted. But it goes beyond that. This one webcomic was a huge part of my life, and influenced me in all sorts of ways. Homestuck has affected me more than almost any not-a-video-game I’ve ever consumed.

We’ll start with a simple question: Why?

Let Me Tell You about Homestuck

Years in the past (but not many), a man named Andrew Hussie had a fun little experiment on an internet forum. He wrote and drew a comic called Jailbreak, but the contents of each update were determined by user suggestions on the forum. It was a goofy jaunt parodying text-based adventure games, and though extremely different from his later works you can still see bits of his humor shine through, such as a fondness for screwing with the reader and self-referential running gags. After Jailbreak trailed off, Hussie started a new interactive story called Bardquest on his freshly minted website MS Paint Adventures. Beyond the phrase “groincobbler”, it was mediocre and left hanging even sooner than its predecessor. But as they say, third time’s the charm. Enter Problem Sleuth.

Over the one-year running time of Problem Sleuth, Andrew Hussie pumped out an impressive 1,700 pages of updates. What started as a simple quest for a private eye to escape his room became a multi-dimensional quest of massive proportions. It parodied all sorts of tropes, especially game related ones, and remains an enjoyable read to this day. If you’re interested in something a bit less massive than Homestuck or with less focus on drama and character dialogue, I can definitely recommend it. But this isn’t a post titled “On Problem Sleuth” so I’ll leave you to investigate it on your own. It’s high time we got to the meat of things:

What is Homestuck?

And why does it seemingly have so little to do with homes?

Homestuck is a webcomic, but with vast walls of dialogue, animated gifs, and occasional full-on animations or interactive portions accompanied by music. The spoiler-free plot (beyond early reveals that are necessary to spoil to give you any idea of what happens) is as follows: Four teenaged internet friends play a video game that turns out to magically affect reality and involve them in a massive war between the forces of good and evil. That’s it. As you might expect of an 8000 page epic, there’s more to it than that. But complex though it may eventually get, the base premise is actually remarkably simple. So really, this side steps the more interesting question:

Why is Homestuck good?

The Not-So-Secret Recipe

Homestuck Worked Fast – I’ve yet to see anything that updated as quickly and consistently as Homestuck, let alone for so long. The quick and clean artstyle typically relied on basic shapes and edited photographs, and its big animations were heavily supported by other artists and musicians of the rapidly growing fandom. As a result, Andrew Hussie didn’t have a set update schedule. Rather than update the comic on certain days, he updated it every day. Multiple times a day. For years.

It is hard to explain just how irregularly, ridiculously high this rate of output is. It wasn’t just a few tiny panels a day, either. Updates were frequently animated gifs, series of images, or series of animated gifs. The text output also varied wildly. Text was given in narration or dialogue shown below the image rather than in word bubbles, so it could be as lengthy as it wanted. And sometimes, for better or worse, it was really lengthy.

On top of this were occasional big animations or interactive segments accompanied by music. There are 163 pages in the 8000 post run with sound. Though not huge proportionally, these were often several minute affairs with a lot going on in them, and their introduction? Completely seamless! For the first few years of the comic, there’d be no delay for Hussie to work on an animation. Through assistance, forward planning and willpower, he somehow managed to create multiple daily updates and then once a month or so throw in big animations without missing so much as a day. If Homestuck got its claws into you, then it would always be there with new content, every day.

Homestuck Was Modern and Memetic – When you put aside all the world-hopping, large-scale conflict, Homestuck is mostly just teenagers having amusing conversations. The result, if I could pull up my suspenders and wave my cane for a moment, “appealed to the youth of today”. I should know, since I’m one of the youths in question. Homestuck is technically a comic, but it’s a comic that makes no effort whatsoever to imitate print comics, and couldn’t if it tried. It features wildly varying walls of text, a constant flow of tiny animations, temporarily branching story paths, interactive portions, music, and a big nebulous network of vaguely canon fanworks.  None of this would be possible outside of the internet. The writing is also very casual and modern, such that conversation closely resembles how people talk online.

I also mentioned that Hussie’s earlier work was self-referential. Much like everything else, Homestuck cranked this attribute up to eleven. You have an army of running gags that pop up over and over and constant visual references to earlier scenes. There are enough brick jokes (WARNING: TV Tropes link) to produce a city’s worth of building material. I’m surprised anyone can see three feet ahead of them through all the foreshadowing. And just when you think you’ve got all the references figured out, they’ll invert what you expect, or twist it, or viciously lampshade it, or double reverse invert twist it with a hint of lemon, because this comic has a complex and confusing relationship to irony.

Unrelated, but have I mentioned it’s really hard to find relevant images without spoiling anything in 7 years of updates?

The focus on internal references rather than external, combined with the impressive variety of ways they’re presented, keeps things fairly funny the whole way through. Though self-contained running gags keep popping up, they cycle through at a rate that nothing ever becomes as tired as the popular memes of the internet at large. Of course, as much as this is a recipe for hilarity, it’s also a recipe for the irritating fanbase that Homestuck accumulated. The internet quickly grew sick of these seas of rabid fans constantly spewing opaque references and, well, doing what teenage fans on the internet do with everything. I can totally sympathize with outsiders finding this frustrating, but I maintain that the style of writing that caused all these annoying memes is funny within the work itself.

Homestuck Aspired to More Than Just Humor – There are some amusing moments in Jailbreak and Bardquest. Problem Sleuth was a satisfying epic of ridiculous nonsense coming together for some fantastic humor. But Homestuck added two important things to those previous works that really changed its dynamic. I’m not talking about the animations or the improved art style, nice though those are. I’m not talking about the music, though I’ll come back to that awesome subject later. The two most important things Homestuck added were dialogue and drama.

No one spoke in previous adventures. Hussie would narrate people discussing without quoting their words directly, and these exchanges tended to be brief. Whereas these were tiny moments that conveyed only hints of personality, Homestuck is almost nothing but long, in-depth conversations between the various characters. Said characters were orders of magnitude more engaging than the fun-but-flat avatars explored in the previous adventures. This new investment in characters was then used for a much more dramatic narrative.

This was about as close as Problem Sleuth got to interpersonal drama.

A series becoming more dramatic as time goes on is nothing new. It’s a well-documented phenomenon (WARNING: Yup, another one) which can sometimes lead to great new drama but sometimes leads to a mess. The interesting thing about Homestuck is that it never stopped being silly and funny. I’m not just talking about in the general sense, where sometimes the drama eases off and throws comedy a bone. Homestuck continues to be goofy and weird right smack-dab in the middle of the drama. Relationships come and go, stakes climb ever higher, and a large number of people die or are seriously injured. Yet through all of that things remain silly, often even the horrific villains doing the murdering. It’s a fairly bizarre balance of humor and seriousness, and I’m still not sure of what to think of it in certain spots. But it does keep the tone from dipping too low and when the contrast works it’s a comedy brick to the head.

Uh, a brick to the head in a good way, which exists for the purpose of this metaphor. Imagine that you have some type of bizarre disease which makes concussions feel awesome. And, er, your gaping head wound bleeds like, chocolate sauce? Damn, I am not making this sound any better, am I? Look, it’s cool sometimes, okay? And, perhaps most important of all, it’s unique.

Homestuck Had Something For Everyone – Homestuck is a work of fiction not quite like any ever seen before. Andrew Hussie has a very distinctive writing style and the style it’s presented is unusual. But despite being a defined, singular work all the way through, it’s like a tentacle monster with no concept of personal space: It gets its hands on everything. It parodies, references or discusses just about every artistic medium and personality type that can be found on the internet. Whether you like video games, tabletop games, webcomics, anime, bad movies, relationship drama, narrative deconstructions, superhero stories, pop culture jokes, psuedo-philosophical ramblings, snausages, or epic galaxy wide conflicts? It’s all there. We can haggle on how significantly each piece is involved in the narrative, but Homestuck covers a hell of a lot of ground in terms of subject matter.

This is also reflected in the characters themselves. Most characters in Homestuck are first introduced as vivid stereotypes of certain personality types or subcultures of people you can find on the internet. I’ve said before that starting from stereotypes is a good way to write characters, and Homestuck is a prime example. Some characters get more spotlight than others, develop as people and go through believable arcs. Some less so. But being written this way means that, even if plenty of characters don’t turn out to be fascinating, multi-faceted or complex, they’re all memorable. Despite Homestuck containing a ridiculously enormous cast, I can instantly recall the basic gist of everyone involved.

For example, I remember that [YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER] is terrible and stupid in every way and how could anyone ever like them you must be a huge tool.

This, combined with the previous points, meant that Homestuck pulled a number of very different people into the fandom who normally wouldn’t have interacted with one another. Spring-boarding off of this, I think it’s about time I talked about what Homestuck meant to me specifically.

Personal Experiences

I was in High School when Homestuck first came out. I have no idea how I first came across MS Paint Adventures, but somehow I found it before any of my friends. I read though Problem Sleuth and loved it, jumping straight into Homestuck while it was still just several months in. I found that a friend I’d already made that year had also stumbled upon the comics, and we started discussing them. Within a year or two I’d been introduced, from chain reactions of friendship mostly originating form that single person, to a group that to this day contains some of the best friends I’ve ever made. Homestuck was not the reason for these friendships, but it cropped up around the same time and quite a number of the people I knew read it. There’s a power to that nostalgia.

Indeed, when it came to my larger circle of acquaintances, Homestuck was the most common thing among them. My closest friends had plenty of mutual interests, and not all of them read the comic. Yet often times I’d be introduced to some friend-of-a-friend and it would be the only topic we could instantly discuss. Its popularity and appeal drew in a really diverse crowd of people, all of whom were various levels of obsessed. Some were casual readers who liked talking about their favorite characters now and then. Some were way into the art and fan communities. Some were self-proclaimed theorymancers who pored over details, constantly combing through old pages to separate the countless innocuous jokes and references from foreshadowing and hidden meaning.

You can feel the deeply concealed plot developments in every page.

One year, a group of these people and I were heading to a gaming convention and decided to cosplay as Homestuck characters. Cosplay has never really been my thing, and I’m not much for physical arts and crafts. However, I did own the t-shirt of one of the characters. And thus, when a friend tossed me a pair of aviators worn by said character, my extremely intricate ensemble was complete. I didn’t even share the same facial hair or color of the character, but I wasn’t about to let things like putting in effort stop me. Those shades are still sitting at the bottom of a nearby drawer to this day, ready for the next time destiny demands I perform a quarter-assed metamorphosis into a fictional cool-dude fast approaching half my age.

Homestuck does have faults, which I’d say are mainly related to struggling under its own weight as time went on. Once upon a time I loved it, now I merely like it. Back in the day it was a massive juggernaut of cultural influence, now it’s merely a cool thing that happened. Yet no matter what opinion of it I hold in the present, Homestuck was significant. So much so that it’s difficult to encapsulate in just one blog article. I won’t try! Psyche!


...oh wait, if I make this multi-part I’ll have to note that in the title. Curses! Foiled by my scrupulous tendency of accurately representing article headers! I retract my previous psyche, counteracting it with an un-psyche. Which I guess would just be a really predictable outcome. Maybe I helpfully remind you that the sky is still blue? If any of you require some sort of psyche counseling or reparations, please let me know.

Join me next time for music, fan adventures, and some manner of conclusion.

No comments:

Post a Comment