(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized giant cosmic frog.)
How does one even begin to describe MS Paint Adventures?
It’s hard to even call it a webcomic – most of the individual updates are of a single image, with all the text being placed below the comic (and occasionally, in the case of the current adventure, in chat logs – sometimes massive ones – hidden behind a button below the comic), with occasional Flash animations moving the story along (again, in the case of the current story). Certainly it wouldn’t fit Scott McCloud’s definition of a comic, despite making up for its single-panel updates by usually updating several times a day. (McCloud in Understanding Comics denies “comic” status to single-panel works like The Family Circus, and in Reinventing Comics argues that hypertext is utterly antithetical to the core concept of comics while pushing his infinite-canvas idea.)
MS Paint Adventures started life as a parody of old-fashioned text-based adventure games like Zork Andrew Hussie did on a forum once. He would post an image with a caption, and then follow whatever command the next person to post suggested. Couple the sometimes-bizarre suggestions with Hussie’s penchant for absurdist cruelty, and the result was a bizarre excersize in surreal humor. Hussie eventually started a web site to house both the original adventure and any further adventures, building an interface intended to allow Choose Your Own Adventure-style branching tales, but quickly abandoned that idea when it got to be too unwieldy. He finally managed to hit his groove and attract a good-sized fanbase with the wild detective-parody-turned-RPG-parody known as Problem Sleuth.
But with his current adventure, Homestuck, Hussie charged full-on into Cerebus Syndrome.
Although Homestuck continues to use the same text-based-adventure-game interface, I’m no longer sure what it’s supposed to represent (though the same could probably be said of Problem Sleuth), especially with how much Hussie has bent the fourth wall and abandoned almost any notion of reader input, and especially since it is itself ostensibly about playing a video game. At one point a character happens upon a console in a vast wasteland and they start issuing commands to the characters, which appears as voices in their heads. The Homestuck “game”‘s second disc is horribly scratched, no thanks to a character within said “game”, and when said scratch renders the game unplayable (this is an actual event within the whatever-the-hell-this-is) the reader/player resorts to visiting another previously-established character to fix it and have the game’s events in the interim relayed to him – all of which is to make clear that the “game” of Homestuck is as much an element within the Homestuck universe as anything else.
All that’s before we even get into the aforementioned use of Flash, which marks Homestuck as a place where graphics are far more important than in Hussie’s previous adventures. It also helps contribute to the epic feeling of the story, especially the use of fan-created music, which has attracted a sizable following in its own right, all contributing to the notion that this is something special, a uniquely fantastic story you simply have to be experiencing for yourself the way its fans are.
I have to say… I’m not quite feeling it.
Don’t get me wrong. I found the story rather addicting during my archive binge, to the extent it chewed up about a week of my time a while back despite my own best intentions (so if this seems vague it’s a result of hazy memories), so it’s certainly addictive. And some parts of it are even funny in their own way. I just don’t feel the story is Lord of the Rings or even Order of the Stick caliber, is all. Part of my problem may be that, while it spent a lot of time giving the feeling of something happening, I felt that it was sound and fury signifying nothing, that the story was going around in circles without actually going anywhere. The plot does pick up considerably at the end of Act 4… so naturally the story takes a lengthy break at that point to tell the story of the trolls for half an act. Which is admittedly fascinating in its own way, but not enough to make me feel like it’s an absolute must-read. The story also is so long and convoluted it becomes rather difficult to follow, but that’s not what really bothers me either. I just feel that…
Actually, you know what the first recap made me realize (and the exposition from John’s Nanna should have)? Is just how derivative the plot actually is. It tries too hard to go for a mythological bent. There’s a kingdom of light and a kingdom of dark, and one is based on a moon orbiting a place called Skaia, and the other is based in a place beyond an asteroid belt, and there are four planets to correspond with the four players, who have “dream selves” who sleep in spires on the respective bases, and the forces of light are destined to lose to the forces of dark and start the asteroids plummeting towards Skaia unless the players can stop the dark queen and king because everyone involved takes a chess motif and there’s a bunch of other symbolism crammed in there as well and I almost want to barf at all this crap. If I had to pick a way to describe the story, it might be: Narnia with a dash of Alice in Wonderland and made ten times more awesome. And if that sounds like a good thing, then I haven’t educated you on the difference between being awesome and being good.
The players themselves are almost more like archetypes than actual fleshed-out characters, cyphers through which the story happens, who go through their own versions of the standard Hero’s Journey; the trolls, and in fact most of the other characters, are substantially more fleshed out. (Though I must admit that Dave is now one of my favorite characters in all of webcomicdom, for his obsession with “irony”, being “cool”, and his inferiority complex regarding his brother.)
I don’t mean to sound like I’m bashing Homestuck. It’s certainly good, and it’s incredible how far MSPA has come since those early adventures, it’s just not OMG the most amazing thing in the history of history. Right now Act 5 is building to its climax, and I intend to stick with it until it reaches that point, but I’m not sure if I’m going to stick with it for much longer than it’ll take to figure out where the story is going from there. Perhaps, as has been suggested, this whatever-the-hell-this-is holds up better when it’s read as it comes out; at that point, you’ve already gone through the archive binge, so each individual update doesn’t weigh down so much. It’s certainly a good experience, but I feel ambivalent about recommending it, and I certainly feel that it’s not quite for me.
So let’s end on a positive note by mentioning an interesting aspect of MS Paint Adventures‘ adventure-game format. You’ll notice that the link on the top of this post links to the first page of Homestuck, not the “current” one, however that’s defined. MSPA doesn’t have a single link to the current comic – which would be impractical for the readership given the comic’s multiple-page-a-day pace, and illogical that an adventure game would simply dump people halfway through the adventure. But Hussie takes the metaphor further: below the command to move to the next comic are links to “Save Game”, “Auto-Save”, or “Load Game”. The “Save Game” button effectively “bookmarks” your place, which you can return to easily by clicking “Load Game”; by turning on “Auto-Save”, the “bookmark” will be automatically updated as you move through the story. (“Delete Game Data” clears the cookie. There are also “Start Over” and “Go Back” links serving the purpose of ordinary webcomics’ “First” and “Previous” links.)
I’m going to be blunt about this: Every story-based webcomic should have something like this. (Komix! does something similar to “Auto-Save”, but a lot of webcomics seem to have expressly removed themselves from it and in any case it hasn’t added new comics in ages.) Many story-based webcomics have many years’ worth of story built up, which can seem impenetrable to archive binge through. Something like this would make it far easier for new readers to enjoy the story at their own pace, even if they don’t necessarily start following the current storylines right away, and thus make it easier to join in and eventually start following the comic. And if such a feature were to become more common, perhaps then MS Paint Adventures would go down as a legitimate milestone in webcomic innovation.