Homestuck as a Case Study in New Media Narrative
It is very telling of the nature of Homestuck, webcomic by author Andrew Hussie, that perhaps one of the most prolific in-jokes told both within the comic’s readership and used outside the readership, sometimes derisively, is the floating punchline “Let me tell you about Homestuck.” Beginning on April 13th, 2009 and ending (save for a possibly forthcoming epilogue) April 13th, 2016, with a post-script credits roll on October 25th, and updating on average over the course of it’s run over three times per day, the sheer scale of Hussie’s work is but one of the hurdles one must overcome in attempting to discuss Homestuck. Homestuck is long, dynamic, complex, and unapologetically “internet.” This has, unfortunately, stymied critical discussion of Homestuck. What has been written about Homestuck generally assumes that their audience hasn’t read Homestuck and boils down to “just trust me, read it.” In one such example, written in Lilian Min’s article for The Atlantic “A Story That Could Only Be Told Online”, she writes
The easiest way to understand Homestuck is to read it. Once upon a time, that might’ve been a reasonable suggestion, but now, to catch up from the beginning (April 13, 2009) is no simple task. The length and depth of its run is not the webcomic’s most impressive feature though: Rather, it is defined by relentless, aggressive destruction of the notions of time-telling and time-keeping, both inside and outside of the story. (Min)
This tact is understandable, though also regrettable. There is so much effort being put into getting people to the point where they can contribute to the critical conversation surrounding Homestuck that the critical conversation itself suffers. J. Yelowlees Douglass expounds on this issue of surface-level survey of interactive fiction, which is not limited to Homestuck.
Only a handful of critics on either side have read more than one or two examples of works in the new medium. Fewer still appear to have performed what could pass for a close reading on even a single interactive narrative before arriving at pronouncements about the medium’s value and future potential—a bit like deciding cinema could never yield a work of sophistication of Citizen Kane or The Godfather after watching Fred Ott’s nickelodeon-era (sic) short The Sneeze. (2-3)
This problem certainly extends far beyond the one work, which is the subject of this paper, every monumental problem must be approached at some point from some direction. While Homestuck’s unique nature may pose a challenge to the uninitiated, it is an important case study in the opportunities and challenges unique to storytelling in the medium of the Internet.
Mordecai Knode notes in his article “Homestuck is the First Great Work of Internet Fiction” that “Homestuck is a story told by Andrew Hussie using the full breadth and scope of the tools the internet provides, both technologically and culturally,” (Knode) and this may be the biggest underpinning point as to what makes Homestuck a piece of media worth study. Web comics have been around for well over a decade but have by-and-large avoided straying too far from traditional formats. Though three volumes of Homestuck have been published in print, they serve more as curiosities than effective adaptations, with several points in the story literally just summarized with URLs for full viewing.
From moment one of page one, Homestuck makes it’s unorthodox intentions clear, with what would otherwise be a single panel static page shown using an animated gif to give the character of John Egbert something of an idle animation. Though this detail is small, it is indicative of the direction the work takes as a whole. What starts as a mildly amusing tale of a young man in his room trying to navigate around his father’s exuberant attempts to celebrate his birthday so he may play a video game becomes something much, much different. Homestuck evolves into a sort of creation myth wherein games, not just video games but the very concept of games, are part of the DNA of a universe and the protagonists are task with being the shepherds of the world to come after our own. While much of the story could be adapted to a traditional comic panel format, Hussie shows no attachment to the constraints of traditional formats in exploring his stories. All of the works on his website, mspaintadventures.com, are told, beginning at least, from the conceit of being old adventure games. Homestuck does not stick as closely to this conceit as previous mspaintadventures.com stories, but games, both adventure games and games as a broader concept, are still a major thematic component of the story.
That said, it is important to note that, though Homestuck is interactive fiction that borrows many ideas, archetypes, concepts, and themes from video games, it is not a video game. The events and narrative of the story are largely independent of your input and progress is not gated by the reader’s skill or choices. Though a strict definition of where video game ends and other forms of interactive media begin is to this day a hotly debated topic (Kain), Homestuck makes no motions towards that gray area. It instead exists in a unique space far closer to comic than video game.
Homestuck is also perhaps the clearest example to date of a hypertext fiction. Though many have pointed to Ulysses by James Joyce or House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski as more prominent examples, Astrid Ensslin, in her book Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and Constructions is critical of this oversimplification.
Hypertext is by definition un-printable, for such an act of material linearization would disrupt its characteristic underlying macrostructure. Due to its nonlinear macrostructure, the hypertextual reading process is multilinear. In other words, there are multiple possible reading paths through a hypertext, which, due to the temporal and spatial sequentiality of decoding language, have to be transgressed in an essentially linear way, but which defy the macrostructural monolinearity and hierarchies of the majority of literary print media, as the order and selection of text units varies from reader to reader and from reading to reading. (5)
This is to say, true hypertext fiction cannot exist in print because, by virtue of having the physical pages ordered one after another, you are implying a set order that the reader must at some point choose to break.
Homestuck, on the other hand, has places where the narrative forks. There is no clear single “next” option, and no option presented is wrong. Oftentimes these multiple paths are representative of simultaneous action being taken at different places, different times, or at the same place and time in differing timelines. Manipulation of time and space is another major theme in Homestuck, and the ability to twain, splice, braid, and merge narratives through the use of hypertext transfer protocol (http) is a unique strength for Homestuck in a subgenre of fiction somewhat renowned for weakly held together narratives.
Now, all this is not to say that Homestuck is perfect. One of the hazards of pioneering new grounds is being the first to make new and exciting mistakes, and the grand experiment that was Homestuck is no exception.
One such concern is that Homestuck is already encountering archival concerns that may in the long run put Homestuck at higher than normal risk of being lost to the ages. Being a piece of media that only truly exists online, Homestuck’s continued existence is reliant on hosting. Though there are services that exist to try and preserve web pages that have lost hosting, such as The Wayback Machine, they rarely do a perfect job of preserving web pages, giving a look at something recognizable, but not quite the same, as the original page.
More pressing, however, is the archival concerns surrounding parts of the comic that are more than words and images. Flash animations and games have been a part of Homestuck since the first chapter. Unfortunately, Flash has stopped being the gold standard for animation on the internet, and support has begun to flag for it. In 2011, even Adobe began to focus their support more on HTML 5 over flash as the mobile market grew and Apple dropped support for flash entirely. (Collins) This puts Homestuck in the unenviable position of having to grapple with the idea of their content being too old to be properly viewed by modern browsers in the near future, to say nothing of what may be required to read Homestuck a decade from now.
Towards the end of Homestuck’s run, Hussie sought to head off some of this problem, along with hosting traffic issues that had begun to crop up as the audience, reaching critical mass, pounded at the comic’s server each update, by instead converting and hosting new video content on YouTube. Though this approach certainly offers some major benefits, it also introduces further complications. Now, Homestuck is reliant on hosting for not one, but two web sites. Right now this is not a major issue. No one foresees YouTube as going anywhere any time soon. But, it does add one more failure point in the framework holding Homestuck up, and failures in this sort of infrastructure are not something completely foreign to Homestuck, historically speaking.
One of Homestucks larger flash animations, known by its page name “[S] Cascade.”, is hosted on the flash animation page Newgrounds.com. There was a rather unfortunate incident wherein Hussie, originally seeking this hosting to help deal with an expected rush of viewership due to the animation being the culmination of several highly anticipated plot points at the end of an act, requested the management at Newgrounds make necessary preparations for the traffic. Newgrounds staff did not expect the readership of some quirky webcomic to have any appreciable effect on their hosting capabilities and did not take the warning to heart. The end result was that on the day of the update that included the flash, the entirety of Newgrounds.com was brought down by the crush of traffic all clamoring to watch that one video.
It is unlikely that Homestuck will encounter similar problems in the future now that is has made it’s run, but it does go to demonstrate the vulnerability of being a piece of media that exists solely on the internet. Where other webcomics have, due to their more traditional formatting, gotten full print runs to compliment their online presence, Homestuck will never be able to have that. Even if it were to be compiled onto physical media, it would still be subject to the limitiations of compatibility with future operating systems and browsers. It is possible that preservation of Homestuck will require significant effort in remastering animations and games into new formats for new generations of readers if Hussie and his gathered team at What Pumpkin want it to continue to be available.
Of course, Hussie’s team is, in fact, the source of another one of Homestuck’s shortcomings. Though Homestuck started off primarily a one man show, it has always had some level of contribution from others. Hussie is an artist and a writer, but the wide variety of media that comprise Homestuck require mastery of a wide variety of disciplines. The earliest examples of this cooperative effort was largely limited to music, the earliest example of which is a little more than a week after the comic started with “[S] John: Play haunting piano refrain”. Hussie would go to his forums seeking contributors, which proved easy enough to manage back in the early days of Homestuck when it was still a small oddity enjoyed by a niche corner of the internet. By the time we reach “[S] Cascade.” we have seventeen other visual artists and five different musicians all contributing to a single animation.
At its best, this approach gives Homestuck some of it’s most vibrant and dynamic moments. But, Hussie is an artist first and foremost, not a manager. There are times, particularly late in Homestuck’s run where you can start to see the seams show on the collaborative efforts, and it leads to some of Homestuck’s weakest moments as a holistic work. “[S] GAME OVER.” on October 25th, 2014 is an excellent example of this. It, like “[S] Cascade.” was a collaborative animation, but, in addition to running longer in production than planned, is not nearly as cleanly produced. The art styles of different contributors clash garishly as different characters interact with each other while being drawn by different artists whose art styles do not line up well. The end result looks sloppy and rushed.
This is also, quite possibly, part of the reason for Homestuck’s controversially unclear ending. It is clear that towards the end of Homestuck’s creation, the What Pumpkin team and Hussie’s attention were split three ways. There was one team working on the comic serially as it was progressing towards it’s conclusion. There was a second team that was working on the conclusion, which was to be a highly ambitious hand-drawn animation project. Yet a third team was working on a Homestuck video game that had been kickstarted years previous but whose original developers they had falling outs with over failure to meet development goals. All three of these teams also required Hussie’s direct involvement, which meant the creator was both being pulled in three different directions and having to delegate management of his vision to two different teams.
While it is unclear if this had a direct affect on how the comic ended, it is undeniable that Homestuck ended with many questions left unanswered. Hussie, in the news post attached with the final update, “[S] ACT 7”, even addressed the fact that at some point in the final weeks he realized that an epilogue would be in order and assured the audience that one would come at some point, but not immediately.
Finally, there is one, smaller, but nonetheless important shortcoming in Hussie’s work that results from his varied approach to storytelling. While Hussie is an excellent storyteller, he is not, unfortunately, a good game designer. Most of the time this is not an issue. However, during the moments when Homestuck comes to most resemble a video game, Homestuck can also be it’s most poorly paced and designed.
The most egregious example of this can be seen in a series of three interactive Flash games titled “[S] ACT 6 ACT 3”, “[S] JANE: Proceed.”, and “[S] Jane: Cautiously approach.” The three flashes play out in the manner of an adventure game from the early CD-ROM era, such as Myst, but do so poorly. The slow, solitary nature of these sorts of games clash heavily with the pacing of the comic up to this point and the attempts to inject humor into them often fall flat. What results is a bit that neither takes advantage of what those sort of games did well nor what Homestuck does well. There are other less egregious moments of this sort of game design misstep, but this is the most stand out.
Hypertext fiction is a field of writing with ground to still be explored. Second, the use of true hypertext fiction really matches up well for certain sorts of narratives, particularly those that deal in non linearity. There are perils involved in this sort of pioneering, both in reliance on technology for archiving and reliance on others for skills you as the author don’t have. There are people on the internet pushing the boundaries of narrative and, quite possibly, doing some of the most important work in exploring the bounds of literature. These efforts will not always look like what we look for in great works of literature, but that doesn’t make it any less important that we look for and study them.
Ensslin, Astrid. Canonizing Hypertext: Explorations and Constructions Bloomsbury Publishing. May 9, 2007
Douglass, J. Yelowlees. The End of Books—Or Books Without End?: Reading Interactive Narratives The University of Michigan Press. 2001
Knode, Mordicai. “Homestuck is the First Great Work of Internet Fiction” Tor.com September 18, 2012. http://www.tor.com/2012/09/18/homestuck-is-the-first-great-work-of-internet-fiction/
Min, Lilian. “A Story That Could Only Be Told Online” The Atlantic February 24, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/02/a-story-that-could-only-be-told-online/385895/
Collins, Keith. “How Adobe Flash, once the face of the web, fell to the brink of obscurity—and why it’s worth saving” Quartz. December 29, 2016. https://qz.com/863467/how-adobe-flash-once-the-face-of-the-web-fell-to-the-brink-of-obscurity-and-why-its-worth-saving/
Kain, Erik. “On Walking Simulators, Game Journalism And The Culture Wars” October 5, 2016. https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2016/10/05/on-walking-simulators-game-journalism-and-the-culture-wars/#5aaae2302376
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