After seeing Homestuck mentioned here and there for a few years now, I finally decided to give it a try back in January. It took me about three weeks to get all the way through the archives. During those three weeks, reading Homestuck was pretty much all I did when I was at home. In particular, it consumed the time that I would have otherwise spent playing games. It seems to me that Homestuck displaces games particularly easily. It scratches the same itch, because of the various ways it’s connected to them. I’ve never seen a work in any medium whose relation to games and gaming is so multi-faceted.
Before delving into that further, I should explain just what Homestuck is. It’s usually classed as a webcomic, but that’s misleading: much of the story is told through lengthy text passages, animation (usually simple animated gifs, but with the occasional longer Flash-based movie with musical accompaniment), and even interactive sequences, with no separation. But it’s definitely a work of serialized fiction, written by Andrew Hussie (with sporadic collaboration on art, music, and code) since 2009 and still ongoing as I write this. The story concerns a group of teenagers playing a videogame called “SBURB” that affects their reality, and which turns out to be major part of the cosmic cycle involving the end of the world and the creation of a new one. Although greatly given to rampant silliness, it’s got very good characterization and a twisty, turny plot that pitches wildly from heartwarming to slapstick to horrified “OH MY GOD” at the drop of a hat.
So, just from that description, the most obvious connection to games is in the premise: this is a story about a game. It goes further than that, though. Gamishness pervades the world of the story, and fake videogame user interfaces are just part of the way that world is presented. The characters struggle with obtuse inventory systems, have JRPG-style battles with family members, and gain experience levels before they’ve even started playing SBURB — if they can ever truly be said to be in such a state; in a sense, we later learn, they’ve been part of the game for their entire lives. (You may think it’s hinting at an obvious just-a-dream-style twist ending where the entire story and all its characters turn out to be just parts of a larger game, but honestly, that wouldn’t even be a twist at this point. The twist is the uneasy fusion of game and reality; simplifying that would be an untwist.) It’s not just videogame imagery, either: there are entire plot structures and groups of characters organized around card suits, chess, and pool (to one-up Carroll).
Secondly, there are those interactive sequences I mentioned. This flows from the game-centric plot: when you read about a game, it’s only natural to want to play it — so much so, in fact, that the fans’ craving for a Homestuck-based game resulted in one of the canonical highly successful Kickstarter projects. But even before that, Homestuck contained multiple games, or game-like things, as part of its narrative, in a sort of inversion of the usual game/cutscene relationship. Now, understand that these are still games more in presentation than in function, hinting at the presence of mechanics you can’t actually use while really just providing an alternate frame for dialogue: walking a sprite around a map and pressing a button at people to trigger canned conversations. But then, consider how many actual games try to get away with essentially the same thing, modulo annoying random encounters. In Homestuck, at least it’s completely clear from context that any interactive elements are subordinate to a linear story. Also, by virtue of its episodic format, Homestuck gets to keep experimenting with the pseudogame systems, or even completely replacing them. At one point a character explores a long-dead world, and the minigames adjust appropriately: instead of a tile-based RPG imitation, you get a short but fully-functional Myst-like.
Even if the gameplay in the interactive Flash parts is driven by plot, the plot on a broader level has been to some extent driven by gameplay. Probably the most prominent game element in Homestuck is the command prompt: pages are linked, one to the next, with simulated text-adventure commands addressed to the characters. Although this is just a stylistic quirk today, for the first few chapters these commands were a form of audience participation, chosen from suggestions submitted to the website. Not that this put the audience entirely in the driver’s seat. As Hussie explains on the site, “When a story begins to get thousands of suggestions, paradoxically, it becomes much harder to call it truly ‘reader-driven’. This is simply because there is so much available, the author can cherry-pick from what’s there to suit whatever he might have in mind, whether he’s deliberately planning ahead or not.” Homestuck inherited this mechanism from the three previous projects that it shares the mspaintadventures.com website with, and those previous projects were much more reader-driven: in the first such experiment, Jailbreak, he simply picked the first suggested command at each juncture, which inevitably produced a story mostly about poo and dismemberment. In Problem Sleuth, the story immediately preceding Homestuck, Hussie was exercising choice, but also quite clearly didn’t have a lot planned out at first and used the suggested commands for ideas, kind of like in improv comedy. For example, at one point early on, a reader suggested building a fort out of the Sleuth’s broken office furniture, and Hussie immediately started spinning pseudo-game mechanics around play forts of this sort: sitting in a fort provided access to an imaginary but objectively real world, but only if your Imagination stat was high enough, although if it wasn’t, you could get a temporary Imagination boost by drinking alcohol, etc. Although much about the overall structure of Homestuck was planned out before it even began, some the details came out of this sort of give-and-take.
Now, I actually read Problem Sleuth for a little while when it was still ongoing, and only learned of its connection to Homestuck shortly before starting to read Homestuck. I gave up on PS when it was about halfway to completion, at a point when it shifted its focus from fake contrived adventure-game puzzles to extremely long fake JRPG combat sequences. (Homestuck is closer to the latter register from the get-go, but somehow it’s held my interest better. Possibly because it starts out in that register.) But at its best, it left a strong impression that the author had managed to invent an online crowd-playable version of Mentalia.
“Mentalia” is the name that some friends of mine gave to the pseudo-tabletop-RPG that they played sometimes, although I imagine other people have come up with the same idea independently. It works like this: Like in D&D, there is one GM (Mentalia uses the term “Madmaster”) and one or more players; the players control the actions of specific characters, while the GM controls the world. However, the world runs on whim. There are no outright rules other than non-contradiction. If you say your character can fly, then your character can fly, and no one can tell you otherwise. There is, however, one very strong guideline: that simple, straightforward solutions to problems should never work, and if the reason they don’t work is absurdly implausible, so much the better. (This attitude in particular is all over Problem Sleuth.) So, for example, directly attacking the fearsome beast guarding a passageway would probably just break your sword. You’d have more luck with an indirect approach like, say, getting the beast on your side by converting it to Christianity — which would doubtless require sub-quests like fetching books on theology for the beast to peruse. A really off-the-wall approach like replacing the beast with a statue, and doing it so quickly and stealthily that not even the beast itself notices, might work without further complication simply because it’s amusing in itself. A lot is up to the Madmaster. Now, I’ve been in good Mentalia sessions and bad Mentalia sessions. The worse ones are the ones where the participants just treat it as a way to show off how wacky and off-the-wall they can be individually. But at its best, Mentalia involves everyone building off each other’s ideas, collaboratively inventing not just a story but a set of assumptions that allow a story to take place. The story starts from nothing, flails about randomly for a while, and then somehow coalesces into structures and goals that you can follow towards a satisfying conclusion. And that’s what Homestuck is like.
Even in its post-collaboration phase, this is a story that keeps revealing more and more of its underlying rules. Partly this is because the author keeps on inventing new rules, but partly it’s because it’s to a large extent a story about people figuring out how their world works. For example, there are long sequences of pages devoted to showing the players experimenting with the game’s crafting system, making ridiculous weapons by fusing the essences of ordinary household objects. One player even writes up a strategy guide for GameFAQs! This sort of figuring-out is of course a big part of the gaming experience — according to some theories, the joy of learning to master a complex system is the core of what makes games fun. And yet, it strikes me that it’s something that very few works of fiction concerning games have tried to depict. Homestuck, to its credit, depicts it quite a lot. As the characters learn the ins and outs of the game, the readers learn alongside them, getting some of the game-fun for themselves. And even when the story isn’t focusing on the characters figuring stuff out, there’s stuff for the reader to figure out about the story. Major revelations come in forms that you only come to understand gradually, after noticing repeated patterns, or callbacks to things that appeared hundreds of pages ago. Or, as one reader put it, “[I]n Homestuck, answers are freely revealed while the reader has no idea that it is an answer to anything or what sort of question it could be answering… When the question is finally revealed later in the story, the reader is reminded of the answer being presented to them way back when absolutely nothing made sense, and the entire plot begins to fall into place.” In short, the story is a kind of riddle, a ludic element in itself.