(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized THE END.)
On April 10th, 2009, Andrew Hussie began work on Homestuck, the fourth story on his MS Paint Adventures site, after having concluded a year working on Problem Sleuth, which built from humble and rather silly beginnings to an epic conflagration and turned MSPA into a minor Internet phenomenon, which also had the effect of making him less someone who sent his stories into random directions based on people’s input and more someone who used that input to help spur the story in the direction he wanted. With Homestuck he had a story where the directions he wanted to take it were largely set from the start, and he had much grander ambitions for this story, intending to use Flash to underlie the whole thing. That turned out to be much more than he could really chew, and three days later he started the story over using regular GIFs, but nonetheless Homestuck proved to dwarf PS in its ambition and in the ways it bent the boundaries of media, and within two years it dwarfed PS in popularity as well, becoming far more popular than Hussie could have ever imagined, indeed a phenomenon perhaps unparalleled in the history of the Internet, with “Homestucks” practically taking over cons dressed up as a class of characters Hussie hadn’t even thought of when the story started.
It was in this context that I took note of how ridiculous a phenomenon Homestuck had become and decided I owed it to myself to read and review it. While I certainly found it a good comic, I didn’t see what made it such a huge phenomenon, but I was still willing to stick it out through the end of Act 5, which was just a few months away. Of course, those few months were enough to drag me so inexorably into Homestuck‘s spell that it became impossible to escape, and I continued to plow through with the comic as it continued into Act 6 (in part because no other webcomic reviewers were doing so). Even though I never quite embraced it to the degree of its biggest fans, never getting involved with Homestuck fandom the way I have with, say, The Order of the Stick, nonetheless I still waited with baited breath to see where the story was going. In October 2011, when the conclusion to Act 5 almost literally broke the Internet, there was no doubt that Homestuck was just revving into the last push towards its ultimate climax, and with how epic Act 5 had been, everyone was on the edge of their seats waiting to see just how mind-blowing Act 6 would be, what sort of climax Hussie could give a story that had somehow transcended the meaning of story.
Last night, seven years after it started, Homestuck finally came to an end (well, sort of – more on that later), and although Gary “Fleen” Tyrell (who never even really read Act 5, the act that created the Homestuck phenomenon) has a postmortem that treats it as though it’s the ending of the phenomenon it was, for those actually invested in the comic, the feeling is decidedly more of a letdown and the experience decidedly less shared than it was four or five years ago.
It’s hard to figure out where to begin articulating what went wrong, but let’s start with this: Maybe a year or so after I started reading Homestuck, I sat down and plowed my way through Problem Sleuth, after having an earlier false start. I was able to laugh at and enjoy its particular brand of absurdist humor well enough, even sort of understand it on its own terms at first. The big problem with it was that the entire last half was devoted to a long, drawn-out fight against the final boss, Demon Mobster Kingpin, that just consisted of one “awesome” RPG attack after another, interspersed with confusing plans to weaken him that took too long to play out when they didn’t end up being complete duds along with pointless sidetracks, and it just became a tedious slog to get through as I just waited for it to end already.
In many ways, Homestuck has the opposite problem as Problem Sleuth. The set-up and eventual payoff for the final battle was clunky and rushed, and ultimately failed to answer many of the questions still hanging over the comic’s head. Indeed, the final flash has Homestuck‘s own version of DMK, Lord English, at best implied to be defeated, and it’s far from clear exactly how, and you can only come to the conclusion that the main characters of the comic were even involved in his defeat at all based on an earlier spell of exposition that had considerable room for interpretation and remains one of the bigger unexplained points.
Homestuck did have a similar problem to Problem Sleuth in this sense: Act 6, which Hussie initially claimed wouldn’t be as long as Act 5, then admitted “could be close”, ended up being twice as long as Act 5, and half the entire length of the comic, in terms of number of pages, but because Hussie started taking numerous increasingly-lengthy hiatuses starting with the long wait for Act 5’s concluding flash (in retrospect Homestuck‘s high point in many ways), including one that lasted a full year, took even longer than that to play out compared to the two and a half years of the first five acts. Throughout the first four acts of Act 6 (which still managed to fit in Act 6’s first year), I complained that the new, post-Scratch kids it introduced us to, with the possible exception of Roxy, gave us very little reason to care about them as much as the kids and trolls we had grown accustomed to in the first five acts, though possibly they faced an uphill climb to begin with getting me and the fans to be less impatient for the intermissions within Act 6 where we could catch up on the more familiar characters. I also became increasingly exasperated with how much time the comic seemed to be wasting on romantic subplots and other frivolities and that all of Act 6 was little more than a waiting game waiting for the familiar characters to show up so we could actually pick up where Act 5 left off, while Hussie wasted our time exploring the cool concept he’d been waiting all of Act 5 to show us and that, I feared, he’d unnaturally bent his story to accomodate, with any actual plot advancement (and any reason for me not to bail on the comic in the meantime) limited to what we learned about Lord English (and to a lesser extent the Condesce) in the meantime.
And yet, it was after the familiar kids and trolls showed up that the real problem with Act 6 and the conclusion to Homestuck became apparent.
Like Act 6 itself, Act 6 Act 6 is divided into six sub-acts, and this time all the plot advancement is shunted into the intermissions while Caliborn, Lord English’s younger self, hijacks the narrative for the first five of those sub-acts, and badly damages the cartridge containing the actual plot of A6A6 resulting in numerous glitches in the intermissions. The middle three of those intermissions are where the problem lies. In Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 2, Aranea, the pre-Scratch version of Vriska’s ancestor, uses Gamzee to steal a ring John accidentally took with him out of the dream bubbles and that can bring one person back to life, that being Aranea herself, and begins to carry out a plan to wreck the session beyond repair and then use her powers to heal the resulting doomed timeline and make it the alpha, effectively preventing Lord English from ever being born to begin with by preventing the creation of his universe. The rest of the intermission lays out the chain of events resulting from that and setting up the flash that ends A6A6A3 and makes up most of A6A6I3, where almost all the characters we’ve grown accustomed to die, but Aranea is no more successful at her plan, as the Condesce rips the ring off her finger and kills her for good. That leaves it to John, in A6A6I4, to put the timeline back on track.
In A6I5, after Vriska and her ghost army find the treasure she’d been looking for, a glowing Sburb logo, John stuck his hand into it, which popped into numerous events over the course of the comic, before he became fuzzy and popped in and out of more events throughout the comic’s history before finally arriving in the new session. He continues to glitch in and out from place to place throughout A6A6I1, demonstrating an ability to become “unstuck in canon” and accidentally cause a doomed timeline or avert one (as well as immunity to the glitches), but unable to control when or where he zaps in or out. Even as things go to shit in A6A6I2, however, he doesn’t show up again until he challenges Caliborn in A6A6A3, and only at the end of A6A6I3 does he show up and see the carnage that’s been wreaked. After talking with the only two characters left alive, Roxy and a dying Terezi, John is motivated to go visit his denizen in hopes of controlling his newfound power once and for all, which results in more Easter eggs being sprinkled throughout the comic in the form of the oil that had been covering John’s planet to this point and that Typheus attempts to drown him with, and in John fulfilling his personal quest by playing the organ at the heart of Typheus’ lair, clearing out the clouds enveloping the planet and fixing the damage to the cartridge. The fixes he proceeds to carry out aren’t limited to grabbing the ring before Gamzee or Aranea can; with Terezi setting his agenda, he makes his presence felt in various places in Terezi’s past, some of them seemingly immaterial, others tipping her off to Gamzee’s role in the late-act-5 murder spree, but ultimately leading up to knocking out Vriska before she could take on Noir or Terezi could kill her in that confrontation towards the end of Act 5, allowing her to survive and travel with the meteor crew to the new session.
There are all sorts of problems with this development. For one thing, a pretty good case could be made that there was no other way for Vriska’s story arc in Act 5 to end than with her death, even with her ghost’s attempts to get back involved in the story in Act 6, so undoing that arguably cheapens her entire story arc. If there were any evidence that she’d learned from her near-death experience and found a way to contribute more productively to her comrade’s efforts, that might have been an acceptable substitute, but from what we see of her afterwards she’s as much of an asshole as ever, even going so far as to shame her own ghost to tears. Yet we’re led to believe that her mere presence on the meteor magically solves all the problems everyone on the meteor had and made everyone hunky-dory and well-adjusted by the time they showed up in the new session. Vriska was already one of the most polarizing characters in all of webcomics and the subject of numerous jokes both in and out of comic about Hussie marrying her; this seemed to have the effect of turning her into a complete Mary Sue. Combined with the post-retcon version of Jade having to spend most of her journey to the new session alone after John and Davesprite perished to make room for our John, it effectively means that everything in anything labeled as an intermission to this point in Act 6 – in other words, everything we actually liked about it – that didn’t involve John, Caliborn, or ghosts didn’t happen, at least not in the way originally chronicled, making all of Act 6 to this point even more of a waste of time. But in theory, it shouldn’t have affected the post-Scratch kids until the point the pre-Scratch ones entered the session and shouldn’t have affected the cherubs at all, yet both of them had numerous intersection points with the pre-retcon kids and trolls and were tightly synced with each other, raising numerous unnecessary and unexplained contradictions.
In a somewhat more minor way but perhaps most relevantly for our purposes, by wasting three whole Act 6 Act 6 intermissions on setting this up and carrying this out, Hussie left himself a grand total of one intermission to get us better acquainted with the post-retcon versions of the characters and set up and carry out the actual final battle, leaving himself a tall order to get us as invested in these characters and this timeline as we did with the one we followed for most of Act 6, and he attempted to do so with incredibly clunky, unnatural, exposition-laden dialogue that’s the complete antithesis of what people liked about the first five acts of Homestuck, which is why we know so little about what post-retcon Vriska is actually like. The result is that Act 6 Act 6 Intermission 5 reads more like a fanfic than the actual conclusion to the story, right down to wasting time teasing ships but not having enough time to actually do anything with them. Hussie has a penchant for mind-bending time shenanigans, being infuriatingly coy with details of the story and other important information, writing by the seat of his pants, and just plain trolling the readership, but in this case it had the effect of coming at the expense of good, sound storytelling. Hussie had to carry out the final battle with what effectively amounted to a brand new cast of characters and had to spend more time getting us acquainted with these characters and less time actually tying up loose ends, paying off foreshadowing (not that he’d been all that diligent about paying off foreshadowing earlier in Act 6), or creating a compelling climax. All by (arguably) derailing a character to serve as his agent to write himself into enough of a corner to justify bringing back another character whose role in the final battle, as it turns out, is exactly the same as what her ghost had been planning anyway!
There’s so much left unanswered by this conclusion, even about this conclusion, and it ultimately serves as a serious black mark on Homestuck as a whole. As the end neared I took the position that Hussie was likely to leave more unanswered or dismissed as unimportant than some of the more over-analytical fans thought, but I was still left stunned by how much remains unaddressed. It’s hard to tell exactly how Lord English gets defeated, other than that the most important character to it is someone who barely interacted with the other characters beforehand and even less in a way with any relevance to the conclusion. What’s the full solution to the Ultimate Riddle? Where did those kids who took on Caliborn, inadvertently put the finishing touches on Lord English, and ended up populating the house juju in A6A6A5 come from? What’s life like for our heroes in the new universe? What happens with the trolls, since Roxy recreated the Matriorb and Kanaya told Karkat he was needed to be the new trolls’ leader? What about Vriska and all the ghosts, what happens to them going forward? Why did we even see Caliborn break his clock at this point considering he’s not a proper protagonist and is in fact the main antagonist?
I don’t know for sure quite where Hussie went wrong, where he lost the magic touch that made Homestuck such a phenomenon in the first five acts. But something tells me it’s related to how long Act 6 took both in terms of number of pages and in terms of time. By wasting so much time on brand-new characters that could never have been made as compelling as the ones we were familiar with, especially when they were used more to shine light on the character of our antagonists than themselves, Hussie lost the connection to the characters we were familiar with, and by not only destroying the old session but forcing the pre-Scratch kids and trolls to wander through the void for three years before arriving in the new one, when everything that took place in the first five acts happened in just over twenty-four hours for the kids, he made the connection between the final battle and the rest of the story that much more tenuous even for the characters themselves. Those are the storytelling errors. But for the last two sub-acts of Act 6, a little over a quarter of the story’s total pages, to take half the total amount of time to play out, indeed for the last quarter to take three whole years to come out, we need to take a closer look at Hussie’s real-world decision making. Although the end of Act 5 was billed as the pinnacle of effort and production value Hussie was likely to put into the story, Hussie’s general trend of continually raising the stakes and topping himself meant that continuous pauses may have been in retrospect inevitable. But to explain just how prominent they became in the back end of Homestuck‘s run, we need to take a closer look at the factors sapping Hussie’s attention.
In retrospect, the beginning of the end of Hussie’s ability to even maintain the quality Homestuck had in early Act 6 was the Kickstarter for a Homestuck adventure game held in the summer of 2012. Hussie now had to divide his time between working on the game and working on the comic, and as time went on and the challenges associated with the game mounted, the comic suffered and took a backseat. Not all of those challenges were necessarily avoidable: though nothing was made clear publicly for legal reasons, meaning the full story may never be known, as far as the fandom has been able to piece together the studio Hussie originally hired to work on the game took the Kickstarter money and used it to work on an unrelated game, forcing Hussie to try to recover whatever he could of the money early in the year-long pause and start his own studio to work on the game. But at that point, it would have been clear both that Hiveswap would not be able to be finished before the end of the comic no matter what, regardless of what had been promised in the Kickstarter, and that it would demand a lot more of Hussie’s attention than he had in mind. I can understand the mindset that Hiveswap would actually be making money for Hussie’s business and Homestuck would not do so to the same extent, but the fanbase was waiting on pins and needled to see how Homestuck ended, while Hiveswap would be little more than a hypothetical until it came out. The best thing Hussie could do to maintain goodwill with the fans would be to focus on finishing Homestuck before turning his attention to the game.
But throughout Act 6, it became increasingly apparent that Hussie just was no longer that interested in Homestuck, which he originally intended to last no longer than the single year Problem Sleuth did, was perhaps even more impatient with its fans (increasingly devoting even the intermissions to self-aggrandizement and sticking it to his own fanbase), and just wanted to get it over with. For the first five acts, maybe even some distance into Act 6, Homestuck may well have been the incredibly dense yet satisfying work that, as Tyrell says, could be the subject of a fruitful graduate thesis, but as Act 6 went along it became much more shallow and inferior, much less rewarding or even consistent. It’s especially painful for me to read because I’ve actually gotten increasingly involved in a corner of the fandom that involves reliving the comic over and over, especially the early, good acts, and it’s such a letdown to go from that to how Hussie wound it up. The Hussie who wrote A6A6I5 onwards, if not before that, comes off as a Hussie that is finishing the story more out of a sense of obligation than anything else, just to get the fans off his back about finishing Homestuck (and get the monkey of leaving Homestuck unfinished off his own back) so he can concentrate on the game. I’m not all that confident Hussie even remembered all the loose ends he didn’t tie up or how he planned to do so, he was working on such a remove from the parts of the story he was actually invested in. The “edit” to the concluding newspost seems to confirm that, even with yet another lengthy pause leading up to it and virtually the entire ending consisting of guest art, Hussie had to rush to get everything put together in time, both making us wonder what got left out because of the time crunch and suggesting just how little Hussie wanted to do with Homestuck at this point.
The main thrust of that edit is to suggest that, at some point, when Hussie’s not working on as much of a time crunch, he might work on an epilogue to the story that might finally tie up some of the loose ends left untied. Unlike much of the fanbase that I suspect is desperate to salvage something from this ending, I don’t read it as him definitively committing to it. So at best, even now, even though Homestuck‘s “ended” it hasn’t really ended and we’re now sitting through another pause of indeterminate length waiting to actually get the closure we’re looking for, assuming Hussie hasn’t just begun stringing us along with false hope just to prevent the fanbase completely revolting over this ending – and even if he does eventually provide an epilogue, unlike PS‘s, it’s still likely to suffer because even in the best case, many of the loose ends it’ll tie up really should have been tied up before the climax, if it weren’t for the storytelling errors, skewed priorities, and other factors that left Homestuck with an ending far inferior to what Tyrell thinks it is and what the phenomenon it was in its first five acts really deserves. Homestuck could have gone down as the Citizen Kane of webcomics, as I suggested when the Kickstarter hit, but ultimately, what Tyrell’s post serves to demonstrate is how much it may well go down as the biggest disappointment and missed opportunity in webcomics history.