LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT HOMESTUCK
Correspondences Between Adaptive Change and Complex Stories
By Reuben Lack (25)
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Table of Contents
Executive Summary Introduction a. Methods b. Paper Structure
III. What is Homestuck? a. Story i. Format ii. Premise iii. Growth and Complexity b. Plot Structure i. Acts I-IV ii. Act V iii. Act VI IV. Implications for Management V. VI. Conclusion References
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Landscapes in Homestuck
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I. Executive Summary Correspondences are found between the complex nature of web-comics, like Homestuck, and dynamic systems in the environment, from which we can discover implications for environmental management practices.
II. Introduction Chaos theory presents itself as a way by which dynamic systems can be understood by some formulation of rules. Natural systems (if not all systems) are vastly complex—the amount of bears in one side of the forest may very well affect the amount of a certain fruit in the other. Environmental management practices must adapt to this complexity or risk being woefully inoperable. But for us to gain an in-depth understanding of dynamic systems in practice, we need to look at a different context altogether; only then will the connections and rules make sense when we turn back to the real world. I decided to apply this to one of my more unique interests—my love and appreciation of the webcomic called “Homestuck.” This is not only something I feel is “accessible” since it‟s far from the numbers-based model analysis some reports can get into; but as the potential to appeal to a broad audience of college students and teenagers who use the internet every day. My journey with this report began over a year ago when I got into the story. While I‟m not what you would call a “gamer,” I am a fan of reading and good stories more generally. With this report, I aim to share with you this story as a way to develop correspondences between the complexity of webcomics and the complexity of nature. Webcomics are unique in that they aren‟t written all at the same time. In other words, the author updates a page or two every few days. It thus develops over time and so becomes a dynamic system all unto itself. Homestuck specifically is noteworthy over any other webcomic
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because of its length and immense story structure (which I‟ll talk about more later). But don‟t get me wrong: when any system works under a „build on top of what you already have‟ model, it will be prone to analysis using an adaptive change model. Methods For this project, I did four central pieces of research: first, I re-read through the entire webcomic as a basis for explaining the connections I‟ll write about later; second, I went through Google Scholar and Lexus Nexus as a way to find scholarly material to supplement my initial findings; third, I kept the idea of adaptive change in mind when watching other stories, trying to see whether, for example, the dynamic change principles I find in Homestuck also apply to movies (e.g. Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Ender‟s Game). Fourth and finally, I publicized the idea of this project on my personal tumblr page as a way to gain community insight on where I should take the project—especially in terms of making the research more accessible.1 Incubation time in considering the bulk of information I went over for this project was an absolute necessity. I needed time to sit down and just think about other things or even just muse about the project itself in abstract terms. I feel the nature of this project is unique in the connections I‟m trying to make and so working out a way to explain this without losing you is key. For me to succeed in this project, I need to convey not only the perception, but the reality that the webcomic Homestuck is a dynamic system. I‟m confident I‟ve achieved that. Paper Structure I hope you will excuse the structure of the paper, which I made at an early state of the project, for what I feel is the most understandable way of comprehending my thesis. Nevertheless, I have included what I feel is a results section—in terms of my discussion going through the story—and
My personal tumblr is kankri-is-triggered.tumblr.com though nearly all the material there is not related to this project; only a few posts.
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the conclusion I have at the end. The only thing I have in my appendices is the full text of an interview with the author of Homestuck, Andrew Hussie. In it he discusses his creative method, which may be of interest after going through this paper. My only references outside of Homestuck itself will be the scholarly articles themselves. III. What is Homestuck? Perhaps the simplest way to describe the popular webcomic Homestuck is to call it an interactive, multi-media story presented in a mock video game format that describes the “It's a brilliant deconstruction/reconstruction of adventure gaming, RPGs and internet culture… under the outer candy shell of gaming… Homestuck covers ground like the nature of self, [and] the existence of freewill…” – online commenter on Wired.com
adventure of four kids who just wanted to play the newest computer game. But alas, things are never that easy (especially in the world of Homestuck), and by installing the game on their computers, they trigger a series of events that cause the end of the world. The only way to save humanity is to go into that very game and try to win. What is your prize for success? The ability to create a new universe. Pretty cool, huh? And we‟re only just getting started. Story Format Before we delve into the enormously complex story that is Homestuck, it‟s important to understand how the comic is actually structured. If you go to the website the story is hosted on (mspaintadventures.com)2, there are a few things you‟ll see (follow along with the example in Appendix A). First, you‟ll see an image. That‟s the „panel,‟ the artwork for that page. Sometimes below it will be a dialogue box of things the characters are saying to each other. Other times, it could be narration.
Homestuck is hosted on MSPaintAdventures.com, though all the artwork (called „panels‟) are created via Photoshop.
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On the left-hand column, you‟ll find a list of the most recently published pages. For a new reader, you should not click on those. Since the story was started in 2009, you may spoil yourself or get overwhelmed if you try to start from the back-end or click on something newer; because the story is complex, skipping things is a really, really bad idea. While about 95% of the comic is presented simply: a picture and dialogue, there are sometimes Flash animations, or actual Flash games you can play to guide the characters. The former has been used as a mechanism to tell a lot of plot quickly—i.e. a flash animation is like a „minimovie‟ and so lots of images can tell you a lot of stuff in a few minutes. These Flash videos also have music to accompany them, which just adds to the immersive experience in reading the comic. In fact, the music has become so much a part of the story as anything else, that a dedicated crew of music specialists helps the author of the comic, Andrew Hussie. Yes, while the comic is written, plotted, and designed by a single person, it takes a whole team to put together the extra pieces that really make it special. Let‟s go back to the actual process of reading the comic. Below the image and narration and/or dialogue, you‟ll see a link. On the first page, the link is “Enter name.” Because Homestuck is a parody of „choose your own adventure‟-style video games, Andrew Hussie has designed it in such a way to make it seem like you have a choice. You don‟t. But that trope is played frequently throughout the comic. Clicking on those blue links below the dialogue or narration is how you go on from page 1 to the next, and to the next. Premise3
Because Homestuck is built chronologically, i.e. Andrew Hussie develops the story as time goes on, it is difficult to describe story concepts. Nevertheless, I have done my very best to make this as understandable as possible. The comic updates every few days or so, contributing to the depth of information I have to share. Just another reason Homestuck is the absolute perfect metaphor for a complex environmental system.
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A new video game is going to be released, called “SBURB” (pronounced like suburb). The four protagonists—two boys and two girls (their names and character design are at the beginning of this paper)—each get a beta copy of the game. When they install it though, they quickly realize that they‟ve made a huge mistake as a countdown timer appears on the computer. Meteors start raining down from the sky, threatening not only their own homes, but everyone around them. The only way to escape is to break an artificial object that appears in their house, created by the game. If they can break it, they can escape into the game. When all kids manage to break their objects and get into the game, we learn that the game is not a “game” in the sense we might think. In other words, they‟re not „in the computer,‟ but rather have been transported to another dimension that serves as their game board. Here, they have to prove themselves worthy through a complicated web of tasks in order to get to the middle of the board—a planet called “Skaia”—and claim their prize: a new universe from which to save humanity. Of course, it‟s not that easy. Surrounding Skaia are two planets, Prospit and Derse, which are in an endless war that is bound to implicate the quests of our four heroes. Even more, the kids are contacted by strange individuals who want to guide them through it. Are they to be trusted? And what game isn‟t complete without terrible monsters to face down? It only gets worse from there. Can the kids succeed in their quest or will they succumb to their own personal failures and the difficulties of the game, and die? They may be just 13-years-old, but the literal fate of the world rests on their shoulders. Growth and Complexity Many aspects or story elements evolve over time in a way that is unique to Homestuck. Andrew Hussie has explained (see Appendix B) that only the basic premise and ending of the
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story were in mind when he began. A significant amount of world-building took place as the comic was written as a response to ideas he embedded in the earlier pages. In this way, he would do what he calls “retroactive foreshadowing” where he decides to include something that connects to a past event or character, giving the illusion the connection was planned all along. From this, we already see the web-comic working as a micro system that has adaptive change. The stability of the story, in both comprehension and in terms of whether our four kids survive, depend on the challenges they face. As Professor Gunderson has explained in the context of a raft metaphor for resiliency theory, “The eventual fate of the raft will depend on the physical characteristics of the raft, the environment in which it is deployed, and the social and political structure in which it is embodied.”4 Replace the word „raft‟ with „four kids‟ and the correspondence is clear. The success or failure of people against foes depends on the changing environment they must battle those enemies. What are some examples of these changes to the story environment? The first is the introduction of the god-tier system. As in most video games, when your character dies, you get a few more chances before you completely lose the game. With Homestuck, this is no different. If a character dies on a certain spot on the game board (the planets I talked about earlier), then they will “ascend” to god-tier; you can think of this like leveling-up. And like nature, the timing and rules for this process are rather complex. When the first of the four kids dies in the story (this kid is named John Egbert), the reader of the webcomic is stunned. You just killed off the protagonist! But… as anyone who understands a dynamic system will tell you, just because one system ended doesn‟t necessarily preclude its rebirth. Though I just gave it away, that is precisely what happens. John Egbert ascends into the sky and is promoted (in a sense) to “god-tier.” Now, John is immortal and has special powers. He
Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, Gunderson & Holling, pg. 16-17
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can still die under a few limited circumstances (if he is being bad and his death is considered just or if he dies while doing a heroic act). In this respect, we find that John has literally undergone two stages in the adaptive cycle: a release event, his death, and then reorganization, his ascension into a new level of being. I consider this to be an important anecdote for the idea that adaptive change models exist in practically any setting.5 Along with the story elements that build up the complexity of the story are the wide array of sub-plots that interconnect. The video I showed in class—part of a Flash panel called “Cascade”—is the culmination of many of these mini-stories. In respect to your need to read many reports and to my time, I won‟t discuss in detail the many, many things going on outside of the kids and their adventures in trying to win the game. So, I think it would suffice to bullet-point the sub-plots, just as a way of visually seeing how much is going on. As explained in one of the works I reviewed, “we recognize the need for the human mind to simplify the rich complexity of organizational data.”6
Main Subplots in Homestuck Political in-fighting on Derse The adventures of the kids‟ parents The game session of the trolls Doc Scratch and his plans Wayward Vagabond and his revolution The travelers in the future The fourth-wall breaking of Hussie
Plot Structure Acts I-IV
We can also connect the idea of “god-tier” to the multiple intelligences discussion we had in class. Different characters in the story get assigned different “powers” that relate in some way to their personality. John Egbert, the kind and silly person, gets the powers of wind; while his friend, Rose Lalonde, a very nerdy and bookish person gets the power of Light (i.e. she has powers of knowledge). 6 Burke & Litwin, “A Causal Model of Organizational Performance and Change,” Journal of Management, 1992, Vol. 18 pp. 528
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The story begins relatively slow with basic introductions of the characters and their interactions with each other. With hindsight, this chunk of the web-comic is there to give the reader a feel for how the story will work (including the inclusion if it‟s rye, sometimes fourth -wall breaking humor), in addition to the personalities of the people we‟ll be following. But an element of unpredictability is thrown in (a common principle of chaotic systems) with the entrance of the computer game SBURB. The kids install it and quite incidentally chaos ensues. The kids must rush to get into the game. Once they do, their home and some land around it is transported there. You may be wondering why on Earth does a video game cause the end of the world. The answer to that shows another connection between dynamic systems and the plot of Homestuck in particular. Let‟s lay down the basics: in the center of the game-board there‟s an entity called “Skaia” that houses a literal chess-board. As an in-game timer, a set of meteors will eventually fall towards it; and because Skaia is the one place the kids must get to in order to claim their prize, they need to get there quickly. But Skaia, as would anyone, wants to protect itself, and so puts up a defense shield that transports the meteors back in time and space. In what we could call a feedback loop, starting the game thus inevitability causes Skaia to send meteors to your home planet. It seems inescapable; it‟s a never-ending loop which forces the kids to go on. Such a unique feature of a story can‟t be found anywhere else. Even in the Hunger Games movie or Ender’s Game there is no similar circular puzzle. With the understanding that they must win the game in order to save their planet, the kids decide to venture on, facing down all kinds of threats. Act 4 then introduces some off-screen characters who seek to influence these kids (we eventually learn they are aliens who played the game themselves and failed). In a series of order and disorder, the kids are taken off then back onto their original path by the aliens who try to
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manipulate the kids from the future. In terms of story complexity, this is the addition of twelve entirely new personalities, all of which Andrew Hussie keeps distinct and interesting.7 Act V Act V is the longest chunk of the story and contains the most revelations of connections between aspects in plot. Specifically, we have an example of the „butterfly effect,‟ something we see in chaos theory. The kids‟ journey into the game itself—though the reader doesn‟t know this until this part of the story—is actually the reason those aliens I mentioned earlier failed in their game. In the kids‟ “version” or “session” of the game, several actions led to the creation of an indestructible, time-traveling monster, which it seems went back in time to mess with the aliens. So one action, the inserting of a CD into a computer, caused a chain of events which led to massive change on a cosmological scale. This part of the web-comic ends with lots of different developments—which can be expected for the complexity of the story I‟ve explained before. The bottom-line is, the kids tried to destroy their worst enemy by getting rid of his power source, only to have realized that their actions created his power source in the first place. Act VI The last and most-recent part of the story (in terms of it being written over the last year or so) has maintained some of the storylines that the story began with, with not many new “elements” being introduced. In one sense, all the pieces are set for the final climax to take place against the newest and worst enemy, but the system has stabilized in preparation. The previous five acts
Because most of the story is done through inter-character dialogues, for Hussie to keep together literally hundreds of personalities in mind is probably the most breathtaking achievement. This includes the personality of a fish princess (Feferi), a 13-year old girl (Jade), a ‘cool-kid’ loner (Dave), a crazy clown (Gamzee), and a blind alien who likes the color red (Terezi).
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have built a foundation for moving ahead, and even though the foundation itself was built from disorder, it‟s now branched off into a calm stream all its own. In Act VI, the kids plan to defeat a character called Lord English, who possesses mass power and for whatever reason wants to destroy the universe. Between you, me, and everyone else in the story, that‟s probably a bad idea. And thus, the adventure has shifted. IV. Implications for Management All this discussion of the web-comic Homestuck is interesting, I hope, for both drawing links between chaos theory and dynamic systems and change in the environment. The most important thing to note from all this is the way the story is adaptive. When a character does one thing, the rest of the story must necessarily shape itself moving forward to take that into account. This is easier to see in a complex story than a simple one (i.e. Harry Potter) because there‟s so many seemingly-disconnected things going on; for any one thing to affect another in a way that makes sense in the story, it needs to have already been built-in. And that‟s where I get the main principle we can learn from Homestuck that is usable in the real world: structural integrity. Earlier in the paper, I explained that Andrew Hussie uses “retroactive foreshadowing” to make its seem connections between old and newer parts of the story were always planned; in one way, we can think of this as a „forced‟ connection that makes him seem intelli gent, but so long as the connection makes logical sense, it‟s actually adaptive. In that sense, Hussie has adapted the “present-day” context of the story based on newly-fleshed out understandings of things in the past. The question then is raised: was that always there, just prowling in the depths of his imagination? I would argue it was. Stories have structural integrity deep in the mind of the author. Even if he or she doesn‟t fully know what‟s going to happen, the connections are ready to be made.
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From this I argue, that if the premise that dynamic systems share common features is correct — which most environmentalists seem to agree on8—then the environment should share a sort of interconnected structural integrity that stores have. You could even call this resilience. In essence, the idea that nature is adaptive to change, that it will either try to survive against disruptions or will possibly change its state altogether is an inherent quality of the environment. Just like complex story connections maintain diverse elements through hundreds of pages and still make sense, this interconnected resilience should be seen through wide-ranging time periods in nature. As we see John Egbert die and become a new type of human in Homestuck, so too do we see fire and death bring new life to forests. No matter what, the environment will maintain itself. The only question is „what will it look like?‟ V. Conclusion The take-home message from this paper should not simply be that resiliency theory makes sense as applied to other sorts of dynamic systems. Rather, it should be that the ideas we learned this year regarding change in the environment are not just applicable to the animals you see outside or the national park you visit during Spring Break. Instead, we should be on the look for change in all our experiences, in everything we enjoy taking time in. For me, that‟s this wonderful web-comic, but for you, it may be the stock market or weather forecasts. In the future, I want more people to find correspondences between even more seeminglyunrelated things. Can we describe a debate team as a dynamic system? Or what about the change in rules for national basketball? Maybe even in study habits over the year? Theories are strong because they can be used in many different contexts. And if environmental scientists can demonstrate that their models (which already have huge implications for the world) make sense
Holland. “Complex Adaptive Systems,” Daedalus, Vol. 121, No.1 (Winter 1992), pp. 17 -20
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in an even more nuanced and multiplicative way, then perhaps people would be more receptive to the lessons they want to teach us.
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Primary Sources Hussie, Homestuck, http://www.mspaintadventures.com/ Hussie, “New Reader,” http://www.mspaintadventures.com/?viewpage=new
Scholarly Works Boisot & Child. “Organizations as Adaptive Systems in Complex Environments: The Case of China,” Organization Science, Vol. 10, No.3 (1999), pp. 237-252 Burke & Litwin. “A Causal Model of Organizational Performance and Change,” Journal of Management, 1992, Vol. 18, No.3, 523-545 Dooley. “A Complex Adaptive Systems Model of Organization Change,” Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1997 Gunderson & Holing. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, pg. 16-17 Holland. “Complex Adaptive Systems,” Daedalus, Vol. 121, No.1 (Winter 1992), pp. 17-20 Janessen & Vries. “The battle of perspectives: a multi-agent model with adaptive responses to climate change,” Ecological Economics 26 (1998), 43-65
Online Articles Frauenfelder. “Is Hometuck the Ulysses of the internet?” Boing Boing, September 5, 2012, http://boingboing.net/2012/09/05/is-homestuck-the-ulysses-of-th.html Rigney. “What the Heck is Homestuck, And How‟d It Get $750K on Kickstarter?” Wired, September 6, 2012, http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2012/09/homestuck-kickstarter/
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APPENDIX A Example of a page in Homestuck
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Interview with Homestuck Author Andrew Hussie9 (edited for size) BRYAN LEE O’MALLEY: The general premise of MSPA was, initially, making fun of the dumb silliness of text parser adventure games. But those largely stopped being made in, like, 1989. So for me, the big cognitive dissonance at first was: here’s a story presented in a text parser format attracting a massive audience of teens. Most of these kids literally could not have been born in the era when text parser games were even a thing at all. So… what are your readers taking from this? Are they just investing themselves in the meat of the story and kind of glossing over the presentational/meta stuff? Do you think they even know or care that the text parser is an archaic gaming interface — is it now just a “Homestuck thing” to the younger readers? ANDREW HUSSIE: The commands and mock-text parser stuff were concepts in much better alignment with the story and website in early Homestuck and in the stories before it, when the readers would submit those commands and I would pick one and draw the response — where I was literally functioning as the text parser myself. As Homestuck went on, and the user submission system was retired (quite necessarily, about a year into it), the text command system has become a little more esoteric. A lot of the commands started getting a little lofty or abstract, or tied to no character in particular (like “Descend.”), or just a blank “==>” when all we really need to do sometimes is turn the damn page. It‟s funny how the invisible action of turning the page is something that requires no consideration from the author of a typical book, but it always needs some thought in this case. In a way these commands really do start becoming “just a quirky Homestuck thing,” even if that‟s all they ever were in the minds of very young readers. A lot of the time the commands to me seem to serve as a simple title for a page. Before Homestuck, I think the site really did tend to attract more people in [their 30s] or a bit younger, due to a much more clearly telegraphed parody of text adventure games and those people would dig it for that reason — the nostalgia and novelty surrounding that particular storytelling mechanism. But Homestuckadded a lot more elements, more engaging story and characters, very much in the vein of young adult content, and as such has attracted many very young readers. For most of them, I do think the text adventure elements were either lost on them or were just something that had no appeal other than something that is an acquired taste — things they eventually learned must be embraced as part of the overall “Homestuck experience.” But at the onset, that archaic gaming parody stuff, and the slow, peculiar pacing it entails, tends to just be one of the many, many barriers to overcome in engaging with this and learning how to enjoy it. I couldn‟t even count how many times I‟ve read something like “OK I‟ve tried to read this thing like five times and just never really got it. But the sixth time, oh man, I finally pushed
Comics Alliance, “‟Scott Pilgrim‟ Guy Interview “Homestuck‟ Guy: Bryan Lee O‟Malley on Andrew Hussie, October 2, 2012, (http://comicsalliance.com/homestuck-interview-andrew-hussie-bryan-lee-omalley-ms-paintadventures/)
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through the early stuff somehow and now I am A Homestuck.” And then all successive posts on their tumblr seem to be nothing but photos of themselves wearing horns or something. So in response to the general question you asked, how I feel about that, it‟s a combination of being highly amusing and quite amazing. Once that conversion happens, it often seems to be absolute. Like the things that were once impediments to becoming invested in the story seem to now be fully embraced, and even celebrated whenever those elements resurface. Maybe it‟s that the harder you have to work to figure something out, and the more concentration you have to apply, the more devoted you become once it all finally clicks and you get it. O’MALLEY: I guess the next topic that grabs me is “Internet Friends.” The four main characters inHomestuck have the most relatable internet friendships I’ve ever seen in fiction. It’s a new kind of relationship that you capture really accurately. The characters are best friends, but they haven’t technically met, and they only ever interact through this chat medium. And this is all presented via communication interfaces that feel much more 1999 than 2009. I mean, “Trollian” the chat client is I assume a riff on Trillian, and Pesterchum feels more like ICQ than anything. It brings me rushing right back to my earliest days online. What was it like to start writing these characters in 2009, and how much of the early chat logs grew out of your own online relationships? HUSSIE: The instant messaging style definitely draws from 1999 more than 2009. AIM and ICQ rather than Skype and whatnot. This too is a bit of a technological throwback, like so much of the gaming satire. But that said, even though the apps are all different and conventions have morphed, there isn‟t that much that‟s changed about talking to friends on a computer via text. It‟s a type of interaction which has given rise to some totally distinct kinds of social relationships, blossoming out of nowhere in the late ‟90s, early 2000s, and they have actually become the defining types of relationships for so many young people today. It‟s almost unbelievable to consider how many young people there are now who consider their best friends to be people online, who they‟ve never met. That is I‟m sure a major feature of the story that has resonated with many readers, that it reflects those types of relationships somewhat accurately. It‟s a quirky kind of friendship, ones built mostly on text exchanges. Those relationships, especially for those who don‟t feel very socially dynamic in real life, can develop more quickly and can often feel stronger than real life ones. Maybe because it‟s easier to find people you connect with better from the internet pool, or that conversing this way diminishes some of the social barriers that real life interaction involves. Whatever it is, it tends to create some pretty strong bonds, and that‟s become standard these days. But the other defining feature of those relationships is, unless you live somewhat nearby, obviously you never get to actually be around that person. So these friendships, while strong, can also be primarily characterized by an inevitable sense of long term separation and alienation. The
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fact that meeting is not practical or sometimes impossible, especially with the very strong friendships, kind of turns into the elephant in the room for that relationship. When will they get to meet, or will they ever, can become the operative question and a source of frustration. I‟m sure that element in these relationships has led to the various themes of alienation found throughoutHomestuck, contributing to some of the more melancholy material. Meetings between the kids do not happen for quite a long time, and it‟s fairly significant and usually feels special when they do. There are a bunch of frustrating near-misses. All that stuff just keeps reminding people what it‟s like to have such relationships. The domestic situations of the kids are also very isolated and kind of empty. When they get in the game, they continue being isolated on their own planets and keep corresponding through the internet. You find themes of alienation wherever you look and it all points to what it feels like having your most important relationships conducted through the internet. The trolls are a larger group and their dynamic is a little more “modern internet” than the kids, I think. In the early days of the internet it was more common for internet relationships to be only like those between the kids, but that was before the Facebook explosion and all that, which completely tangled real life socialization with the internet as the cultural norm. So you have some trolls who are friends with trolls who live far away and they‟ve never met, but also some who are neighbors or live nearby, but they still all communicate with each other on the net as one big group of friends. It‟s a much more contemporary sort of internet clique. It is also maybe a little more realistic, with respect to the size and age of the group, in that it generates much more drama and emotional theatrics. I have experience with internet friendships from back when they were a little more new to society, like late ‟90s to early 2000s. When I was 13, obviously all this was pure science fiction. I somewhat draw from my experience with how these types of online relationships and social interactions universally work, but also it comes from observation of how others engage with each other online, those younger than me or in different situations than I ever was. Mainly my experience guides the rhythm and feel for this sort of repartee, the jokey, rambling, casual quality to it all. And that style became responsible for the genetic makeup of how the entire story was built, how the vast majority of the story‟s text reads, how characters are shaped and info is revealed and the plot is advanced. It‟s one of the things that make the story a winding road. It‟s an outcome that‟s self-evidently encoded in the premise when you say, “Time to make a story where character interactions are driven exclusively by rambling, true to life chat logs.” O’MALLEY: How did you come to this format? What prompted you to do a story about internet friends told in this internetty multimedia format? It looks simple and elegant from here, but was it stumbled on or was it hard-won? HUSSIE: It was a major, long term case of one thing leading to another, all very organically. Homestuck was just: Problem Sleuth plus a little more of a story, try adding a dialog
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system, try adding Flash animation, see what happens. There was also the different premise; where Problem Sleuth was “detectives in offices,”Homestuck was “kids in houses.” When people asked me what I was doing next, that‟s how I would put it: “Something with kids in houses.” A lot of things about it were preconceived, like the four kids and what they‟d basically be like, some game rules, house building stuff, creation myth stuff. But just as much if not more arose through the process, like the trolls, carapace people and dream selves and god tiers, points of execution like huge flash movies which I never thought I‟d do, playable games… the list is endless. So yeah, a story about kids on the internet, that is told in a way that is like, made of pure internet, is something arrived at pretty organically and not something I can say I envisioned before starting all at once. Making something that really feels like it belongs on the internet, something that seems to actually understand it exists on the internet, involves doing quite a lot of things. The media exploration is part of it, but also the self aware elements I think, where the connection between the reader/fandom and the story is always alive and palpable. O’MALLEY: To recap, Problem Sleuth was about a detective stuck in his office. Homestuck starts with a kid stuck in his house. And for the first couple hundred pages that’s all it seems to be — but then it grows and grows. There’s a whole world in there. It gets big and weird and intense. Reading it a second time, I start to see the seams of where stuff was probably made up as you were going along, but on a first read through, the big reveals not only blew me away but seemed to have been in place from the first page. I think this mostly means you’re a great writer of serial fiction and you think well on your feet. HUSSIE: Thanks for saying so! Dexterity is possibly part of the answer, but the whole subject of “what was planned when” is very tricky. Do all authors have every single idea totally hammered out before they begin writing a novel? Of course not. Some things like keystone ideas are planned well in advance of the first page. Others emerge organically from the process. Anything that is introduced spontaneously can be smoothed out and heavily disguised with the luxury of an editing phase, but this here is essentially glass box storytelling. You‟re seeing how it‟s being made as I go, and every single decision is committed to absolutely once it‟s on the site, with no retconning ever. Nothing is ever written or drawn in advance; there‟s no “buffer,” only a mental outline of ideas and key plot points to cover which is all executed little by little. So when people look into the glass box and the next thing that comes out makes them say “holy s***, was that planned?” the answer is almost always, “that‟s a complicated subject.” When did the idea need to take shape for it to be considered planned development? A month in advance? A year? How exactly do we profile the genesis of an idea? Do we draw a tight circle around a particular “eureka moment?” Or is it sometimes a much wider circumference? Could you circle an entire year, and say, “There. That‟s when I had the idea.” Sometimes I find myself
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likening the birth of an idea or a vision to a slow gathering of storm clouds. They accumulate, they brood in the distance, always getting closer. It‟s ominous, something you can‟t escape from rather than something you‟re actively trying to precipitate. Then it‟s finally there, and you have no choice. You have to do it. That cloud accumulation often is the planning process. And it happens while you‟re building a story just as often as before you begin. Maybe more often. Sometimes those little clues at the beginning, or repeated themes that mount throughout which all scream foreshadowing for certain payoffs, those were actually artifacts of the accumulation which lead to the full realization of the idea. It‟s not really just “retroactive foreshadowing” either, though that can also be a device in play. It‟s more like listening carefully to the marble of the story and determining how it wants to be carved, when I was also the one who created the raw slab of marble in the first place. Less abstractly, there were definitely a lot of things nailed down before page one. The concept of the game as a creation myth, a lot of the game rules, stuff like that. So even though there‟s plenty of thinking on my feet, and allowing other major elements coalesce as I go, there were still always some huge plot beacons I was always marching toward in some way with every page. The fact that there‟s clear order driving the most major revelations at the heart of the story probably strengthens the illusion that every other bit of it is just as maniacally calculated as well. Working on something like this borrows somewhat from the art of being an improv comic. You probably go into the act with some major, high level guidelines for the performance no matter what people want you to do, but also have a lot of room and dexterity to adjust to the specifics, and it‟s a whole discipline unto itself knowing how to make those adjustments in a way that seems natural or even planned and rehearsed. O’MALLEY: I identify strongly with your “gathering storm clouds” metaphor for ideas coalescing. That’s a very evocative way of putting it. I was going to ask how much time elapsed between the end of Problem Sleuth and beginning ofHomestuck, but I just checked the logs and it was under a week, which is nuts. Were you just brimming with ideas for the new story during the last weeks/months of Problem Sleuth? I know I’m constantly coming up with big plans for the next story when I should be finishing the current story. HUSSIE: I began Homestuck on 4/13, but I began the Homestuck Beta on 4/10. That was three days afterProblem Sleuth ended. A huge part of the MSPA exercise has been to just throw myself into it no matter what, whether I‟m “ready” or not, and then just never stop. The challenge is always to take whatever idea I have for what‟s next, do it now, and somehow make it work, even if it‟s kind of stupid or just totally nuts. Even though there was almost a nonexistent gap between Problem Sleuth and Homestuck, there was still definitely a planning phase for Homestuck going on at the tail end of Problem Sleuth. It was much more like that slow accumulation of storm clouds I described earlier. It all kind of
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coalesced very ominously over the final months of Problem Sleuth, then it was over, and it wasn‟t really a matter of hopping over to the next fun story casually. It was more a matter of having no choice, and then beginning the climb on a new monstrous project that was undoubtedly going to take over my life and that of many others in ways I couldn‟t quite imagine, but still basically understood on some level. O’MALLEY: What about pacing? It always feels very deliberate throughout. I think on multiple occasions you tease us with fragments of a character literally hundreds of pages before fully revealing them. The buildup always feels very measured. Are you buying time to make new stuff up? Or do you have stuff made up and just take your time spooling it out? HUSSIE: I try to put myself in the shoes of readers a lot when making it, especially ones who approach it [via the archives]. Probably because the majority of people who will ever read it will read it that way (including most current readers, who have had to catch up through five acts before following along.) So when I make decisions on how to pace certain things, when to show payoffs and big reveals, what points to foreshadow and how heavily, I usually do all that with an eye toward the experience of someone reading “archivally.” I think the whole thing gels together better when read that way. Novelty of everything stays fresher throughout, certain plot points and details stay afloat in your mind better, all that helps catalyze a quality impact for the more striking sequences and surprising reveals when they do happen. It sounds like these factors may have benefited your experience, which is always nice to hear. I honestly think this is one reason why it‟s exploded. Large amounts of people are finally catching up with the whole thing I pictured it would be, receiving all the crazy s*** as one massive shot of adrenaline, confusion and media titillation, and responding well to it. I still throw plenty of bones to serial readers, though. On a day-to-day basis, even if we aren‟t blasting off to plot resolutions as quickly as serial readers will often demand, there‟s always something funny or entertaining going on, like gags, fun character interactions, various shoutouts to things emerging from the fandom which then become woven into the fabric of Homestuck lore, and so on. Advancement is always present in subtle ways, sometimes concealed inside blocks of casual banter, or lurking passively in a visual. We learn a little tidbit here, find another little clue there. It all adds up and keeps it slowly ticking everything forward. When read archivally, it all adds up faster. The bottom line on pacing I think is: I am very patient. Possibly even to a fault. But if you seek to tell stories that involve intrigue, particularly which involve highly combustible payoffs, I think it‟s better to err on the side of patience. There is always a right time to reveal something. O’MALLEY: This seems like a good segue into process. I want to start with the basics: What is your day like? What is your week like?
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HUSSIE: I think in the last year or so it‟s fair to say I‟ve kiiiiiind of eased up on the nonstop grind. But I‟ll rewind the clock to, say, 2010, when I was definitely in the full throes of Homestuck‟s silly climb. There just isn‟t an answer to the question that isn‟t “literally every waking hour” creating this thing. The day was like this: I‟d wake up. Read some emails, see what people are saying about the story here and there, then just get to work. This most often involved writing first, either a pesterlog or the little sub-panel blurbs. I‟d stack up the writing for all the panels I wanted to make for that batch, then I‟d draw them or mess around with an existing art file to quick-and-dirty something out. The faster the panels were made, the more I‟d post in a day. If panels were coming quick, that could have been a 10-20-page day. If the panels were simple, but very text-heavy, then fewer. But the shortcuts and time saved were always immediately reinvested into further work on the story. Like, a lot of days there would be update batches, like the early evening batch, then I‟d eat or something, then work on the late night batch and post all those at 4am or something. The bottom line is there were never daily quotas or milestones or anything like a schedule. It was just: get as much done as quickly as possible, post it, then almost immediately begin working on more. Which sounds ludicrous, but that regimen was always inseparable from the product in my mind. It also helped that for the most part, any given slew of panels is relatively easy for me, embodies a bunch of entertaining ideas I‟d been wanting to bring to light often for some time already, and serves as an esoteric form of personal entertainment when you factor in the dialog between the work and readers which the instant output precipitates. The only type of work I‟d ever call “hard” was Flash work, and often that‟s putting it really lightly. Those were usually days, or a week, of not posting anything while working twice as hard as usual, a lot of times actually sacrificing sleep which I never tend to do otherwise, just to get the f***in‟ things done. This isn‟t recommended. Actually, none of this is recommended. O’MALLEY: So would you say the dialog is basically stream-of-consciousness from story beat to story beat? HUSSIE: It was always fairly stream of consciousness, which initially resulted from embracing chatlog style repartee. It‟s actually very useful from a “just get something on the page and go from there” standpoint. There is a bit of refinement sometimes, deleting some blocks, adding a line here and there. Usually it‟s pretty close to prime-time-ready from start to finish. Some dialogs are more taxing and require serious thought if they‟re more plot critical, revealing stuff in just the right way, or involve gymnastics with internally consistent timeline bulls***. Sometimes I have to go back and add troll quirks, which can be terrible [note: the troll characters all speak/type in distinctive hacker-style lingo]. For some characters I really quickly took to using a fan-made troll text conversion app.