Anyone who has known me at all since graduate school will know that I enjoy reading webcomics. I was never terribly interested in ordinary print comic books, particularly not DC or Marvel, though some less mainstream titles occasionally came to my attention (including Elfquest, Eastman & Laird’s original TMNT, and more recently Neil Gaiman’s Sandman). But webcomics have stuck with me — in part because of how easy it is to access them, and the extent to which they subvert the dominant tropes of syndicated comics found in print.
I keep around 20 webcomics stocked in Google Reader, my preferred RSS feed reader, to save time checking each of a bunch of different sites explicitly; I’d guess I spend about 10 minutes a day reading them, since most of them don’t update every day, and I see some of them are no longer live. Most science nerds will recognize mainstays of the medium such as xkcd and Dinosaur Comics, but might not recognize others such as Wondermark, Dresden Codak, Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant, or Phil Foglio’s Girl Genius. Today I’m going to throw some love towards Andrew Hussie’s multimedia comic site MS Paint Adventures, and in particular the ongoing immersive fantasy epic storyline, Homestuck.
The premise of MS Paint Adventures is more or less what it sounds like, although Hussie works primarily with Photoshop. The format of the comic is meant to parody a text adventure game (with graphics) in a style which for me is exemplified by the old Sierra titles (King’s Quest, Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry and the like). You type in some text to command your character, who has a graphical representation (in this case, in the frames of the webcomic). There are nonsensical responses to nonsensical commands, Easter eggs put in by the programmers, stupid ways to die, and the like.
Hussie originally started working in this format as a way of crystallizing reader participation. In the first storyline, Jailbreak, Hussie started simply by taking the first suggestion on the fan forums, no matter how inane or NSFW (though the commands weren’t always gratified). You can imagine how this went, and after a little over a hundred panels the experiment shifted. Bard Quest enabled branching storylines more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book (or their modern crowdsourced spinoffs), where the user could click on one or more distinct commands that led to (potentially) different outcomes. Predictably, this experiment also went by the wayside and was never tied up in a tidy way. Problem Sleuth presented a more linear storyline, with only a few nubbly branchpoints where the user could choose to die stupidly; at this point Hussie wanted to tell a more linear (though still entirely whimsical) story, so rather than taking the first suggestion or taking majority rules, he would check the forums and then do what he wanted to do anyway (with so many readers, almost any suggestion at all could and did come up frequently).
And oh yeah, Homestuck. The longest storyline to date (over three years), the most intricate, and the most beloved of fans. Despite Emily’s persistent peer pressure, I resisted reading this storyline for a year and a half, since the archive was simply massive and Lord knew where I was supposed to get all that time. Then I caught a fever and was out of commission for a couple of days with nothing better to do than lie around and read comics. I now get just as frustrated as the rest of Hussie’s fandom when an update doesn’t materialize (there is no RSS feed). The update schedule is erratic, but frequent, which probably doesn’t help the compulsion to keep clicking. Em has said that Homestuck fans get an extraordinarily high level of rewards for their fandom; let’s unpack that claim below.
Without getting into too many spoilers, the plot of Homestuck revolves around a “fully immersive virtual reality game”, which turns out to be much, much more than that. All kinds of shenanigans with time travel, parallel universes, a many-worlds-like cosmology of branching alternative timelines, and deeper themes of life, death, good, evil, love, and loyalty are explored through the players’ ongoing interactions through a pan-dimensional, but strictly causality-preserving, Internet chat client. Inside jokes accumulate as the comic takes self-reference to new levels of recursion, and Hussie himself often makes appearances in the comic from beyond the fourth wall. The fans also trip over themselves trying to watch the canon unfold, wondering which of an endless train of competing theories will be validated by the latest update.
Homestuck goes way beyond the initial mostly-black-and-white, mostly-static update scheme. While animated GIFs appeared in Problem Sleuth, they are common in Homestuck, and the occasional Flash animation also appears. Music and art teams for the comic (beyond Hussie himself) now exist for these animations. Some of the Flash updates are themselves playable mini-games, parodying well-known games beyond the text adventure genre: the 8-bit or 16-bit console RPG as perfected by Square Enix (Final Fantasy or Secret of Mana), or the puzzle game Myst. With “John Quest”, “Alterniabound” and “Myststuck” having already become part of Homestuck mini-game history, it’s probably only a matter of time before “Portalstuck” shows up. The art team, mini-game programming team, and music team (yes, there is a music team writing music explicitly for Homestuck, and you can buy all the albums online at very reasonable prices) are all of course part of the fan base. Talk about crowdsourcing!
To conclude (so I can try to get back to sleep, haha good luck), there is nothing in Homestuck for any enthusiastic xkcd or Dinosaur Comics fan not to love. Make sure you’re laid up in bed with the flu for a good week before you start reading at this point, though. Your effort will be rewarded. :)