Archive for February, 2013

Let me tell you a little more about Homestuck

One thing I neglected to mention in my previous post about the gamelike attributes of Homestuck: sometimes Homestuck is difficult. Sometimes just reading it is a challenge. That’s not just because it’s a sprawling and complex work with a lot of characters to keep track of. It’s also because the text is often obfuscated in some way.

Most of the story’s text is in the form of chatlogs, and quite a few of the characters have “typing quirks” of some sort, such as leet-style letter substitutions, which somehow carry over into their speech and even sound effects. The simpler and more consistent substitutions are easy to get used to, but then you get contextually-variable ones, where the same substitution has more than one meaning. For example, one character uses “8” for both “B” and the sound of the word “eight”, or sometimes even for just a long “A” sound, and when she’s upset she just starts sticking 8’s into words where they don’t make sense at all. Occasionally the quirks become incomprehensible enough to baffle the other characters.

There’s one character who speaks in white text — the website’s background isn’t quite the same color, but it’s still most easily read by highlighting it. The effect is sometimes that you see other people’s reactions to what he said before you see what provoked those reactions. There’s an infrequently-used alien alphabet, stolen from the Elder Scrolls games. There’s a character who’s a firefly, who’s completely mute and communicates (or tries to communicate, anyway) by blinking in morse code, transcribed for the reader in dots and dashes. There’s a brief appearance by a character who speaks solely in bad Japanese. It all becomes a sort of gesture of amiable hostility on the part of the author, who knows that anything he does to thwart his readers will be decoded in short order and posted online by the more dedicated ones. And that adds up to another bit of gamishness: even outside of the interactive sequences, people are getting to the full content by looking up hints online.

Let me tell you about Homestuck

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 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.


Antichamber is distilled essence of Portal — by which I mean, it’s got the same underlying components, but with the flavor replaced with a chemical tang. It’s purged of impurities like plot and humor, abandoning any pretense of setting, leaving just a gun for manipulating the environment in novel ways and a labyrinth of stark white corridors, illogically-connected and rendered in a deliberately non-photorealistic style to enhance the sense of unreality. The strongest way it differs from the formula established by Portal (and followed by Qube and Quantum Conundrum) is that it isn’t a linear series of puzzles. It’s a network of them, with obstacles you can’t overcome the first time you encounter them, Metroidvania-style, and enough loops and branches that you can actually get lost.

It only takes a few hours to beat, leaving aside optional collection for completists. It strikes me that there’s a particular design problem to providing a sense of finality in a thoroughly abstract and unexplained environment; Antichamber manages it largely through a longish final animation that communicates “massive forces unleashed”. Browsing forums afterwards for stuff I missed, I came across an interesting question from someone who hadn’t played the game yet: “Is Antichamber scary?”

I’ll say right off that the answer is “No”. But it’s an interesting question because it’s a reasonable one. This is a game whose basic premise is that the world doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to. That alone can be very nervous-making. The last game I played along similar lines was The 4th Wall, which I found extremely frightening. Not everyone’s in agreement about that, mind you; comment threads about T4W tend to be split between people completely creeped out by its disorienting alienness and people who it completely left cold. (There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground. It might be interesting to compare the gaming habits of the people on either side.) But T4W at least tries to make things feel unsafe, pulls tricks like having things that chase you, punishing you for ever standing still, even while you’re still trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. Antichamber never really punishes you, except with puzzle-solver’s frustration. Even when the floor crumbles and vanishes under you, and you fall down a very deep pit, friendly signage at the bottom reminds you that what you’ve really done is find a hidden passage.

For another thing, the “doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to” aspect doesn’t really last the full length of the game. It really only has so many tricks, and once you’re used to them, well, it’s no longer the case that it doesn’t work by the rules you’re used to. There are portals, of course, but we’re definitely used to thinking in terms of those by now. Some portals are obvious and highly visible, but one of the basic ways it disorients you is with inconspicuous one-way portals, or possibly just silent teleport triggers that send you to a place that looks exactly like where you teleported from until you try to go back the way you came in and realize it isn’t there any more. But that’s a trick as old as Wizardry; once you know it’s something that can happen, you just get into the habit of checking your tail once in a while. Then there are innovations in the use of look-triggers: not just where you are, but which direction you’re facing can be important. A more realistic game might use this to control NPC behavior, making enemies dodge when you aim at them and the like, but in the Myst-like solitude of Antichamber, it either controls more of those unnoticeable teleports I just mentioned, or affects the environment in more direct ways. Early on, for example, there’s a door that slams shut whenever you look at it, and which you therefore have to walk through backwards. Then there’s the relatively trivial matter of walls/floors that appear or disappear as you near them. And that’s basically it as far as violations of physical law go. The opening area has some stair-stepped walls that hint at an Escher-like variation in the direction of gravity, but that never happens.

So what does the game spend its time on once you’ve got a handle on its limited repertoire of space-manipulation? Block puzzles, mainly. It’s not quite what it sounds like: the blocks are cubical, maybe fist-sized, and completely immobile, even if suspended in midair, unless affected by your upgradable block-manipulation gun, which, in its simplest form, just lets you pick the blocks up and place them elsewhere. Some doors can only be opened by solving a self-contained block-manipulation puzzle in a panel next to it, which seemed at first like soup-cans design (although I’d hesitate to call anything a soup can in this game; it’s more like the whole complex is one massive soup can), but in at least some cases, the panels are really tutorials in disguise, teaching block-manipulation techniques applicable outside the panels. It reminds me of something pointed out in Portal‘s developer commentary, how they put a checkerboard pattern on the floor wherever the “fling” maneuver was useful, but only up to a certain point in the game, after which you were expected to be able to think of it on your own. I do have a complaint about the block gun, which is that using the more advanced powers — such as sending a group of blocks moving along a vector — requires moving the mouse while holding down the middle button (that is, the scrollwheel), which is especially awkward on my trackball. There’s currently no way to rebind controls in-game, although apparently you can do it by editing .ini files.

So basically this is a confusingly-laid-out 3D puzzle game, mostly about blocks but themed around counterintuitive spatial weirdness. It’s still a pretty good game, with satisfying puzzles based around slowly realizing what your capabilities are, but I feel like the surrealism aspect has been exaggerated, because it’s the most obvious thing about it at first glance.

New directions for 2013

Year 6 of this blog came to a close in one of those long dry spells. I’ve come to think of that entire year as a kind of early sabbatical, at least from the Oath, but it looks like that’s drawing out into an entire lazy weekend of years. I’m not going to attempt the annual summary post, because it would be extra-difficult this time around: so much of my gaming in 2012 went undocumented here that I would have to be working mainly from memory.

And, realizing this, I definitely want to get out of this slump, of playing games without writing about them. One of the inspirations for starting this blog in the first place was Adam Cadre’s rationale for his book and movie write-ups: “posting about these things assures that I’ll actually think about them”. I don’t just want to think, I want a record of my thoughts that I can look back on. Through a combination of business and laziness, I’ve been cheating myself out of that. I said that the original Oath was a failure due to interfering with clearing old games off the Stack, but that was never really the primary purpose of the blog. It was pretty good at getting me to post.

That said, what next? I have two posts I’d like to write right off: one on Antichamber, which I purchased and played to completion this weekend, and one on how I spent most of my leisure hours in the month of January instead of playing games (and why this is relevant to a gaming blog). After that, I want to finish doing the alphabet. I’m up to D now, which means I could try to finish Deus Ex, but given my previous sluggishness at getting into it, I’m actually kind of inclined to pick something fresh off the Stack (and I think I know what). Now, although it wasn’t part of the original plan, I have so far been doing two games for each letter: one that I have on physical media, which gets the full one-post-per-day treatment, and one that I don’t, which gets one post only. I may bend that further — I don’t want to limit myself to one post if I’m inclined to make more than one — but it’s a pattern I’m willing to follow further. I might even extend it to include a work of IF as a third game per letter. I haven’t really been touching IF on this blog lately outside of the annual Comp, and that isn’t where the really interesting stuff has been happening lately.

At any rate, the distinction between stuff I own on physical media and stuff I only have as downloads is one that I’d like to formally acknowledge in the new Oath. It fits with the aim of playing older games: in my stack, the games on physical media are the older ones, because I basically don’t buy games on physical media any more. Which also has the consequence that the physical sub-stack isn’t growing, and is thus in theory completable. So, from now on, these games are the ones that really count, as far as my self-imposed rules go. You know what doesn’t count? Bundles. Humble Indie Bundle, Indie Royale, Bundle in a Box: as far as I’m concerned, if it’s on a pay-what-you-want basis, it has the same status as all the free stuff on Newgrounds. This decision alone cuts the size of the Stack by about a third. I’ll be updating the Oath to reflect this new understanding shortly, and then start abiding by it again.