The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

A Song of Ice and Fire (1) Affect (9) Alienating My Audience (27) Animation (17) Anime (5) Anonymous (3) Anything Salvaged (15) Art Crit (30) Avatar the Last Airbender (2) Black Lives Matter (1) Bonus Article (1) Children's Media (2) Close Reading (88) comics (24) Cyborg Feminism (2) Deconstruction (9) Devin Townsend (2) Evo Psych (1) Fandom Failstates (1) Fanfiction (18) Feminism (21) Fiction Experiments (14) Food (1) Fragments (14) Games (20) Geek Culture (21) Getting Kicked Off Of TV Tropes For This One (8) Gnostic (2) Guest Posts (8) Guest: Ian McDevitt (2) Guest: Jon Grasseschi (3) Guest: Leslie the Sleepless Film Producer (1) Guest: Sara the Hot Librarian (3) Guest: Timebaum (1) Guest: Yanmato (3) Harry Potter (8) Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (3) Has DC Done Something Stupid Today (3) Homestuck (11) How Very Queer (28) hyperallthethings (3) hyperanimation (1) Hypercomics (7) I Didn't Ask For Your Life Story Sheesh (20) Illustrated (29) In The Shadow Of No Towers (2) It Just Keeps Tumblring Down Tumblring Down Tumblring Down (10) It's D&D (2) Judeo-Christian (13) Lady Gaga (5) Let's Read Theory (2) Lit Crit (18) Living In The Future Problems (6) Lord of the Rings (5) Mad Max (1) Madoka Magica (1) Magic The Gathering (3) Manos (3) Marvel Cinematic Universe (12) Marx My Words (12) Medium Specificity (5) Meme Hell (1) Metal (2) Movies (23) Music (24) Music Videos (20) Object Oriented Ontology (2) Occupy Wall Street (3) Pacific Rim (2) Paper Roundup Clambake Panic Attack (5) Paradise Lost (4) Parafiction (1) Patreon Announcements (10) Poetry (11) Pokemon (1) Politics and Taxes and People Grinding Axes (13) PONIES (9) Raising My Pageranks Through Porn (4) Reload The Canons! (5) Remixes (8) Review Compilations (6) Science Fiction Double Feature (16) Self-Referential Bullshit (19) Sociology (11) Spooky Stuff (27) Star Wars (2) Steven Universe (2) Surrealism (8) The Net Is Vast (19) Transhumanism (4) Twilight (4) Using This Thing To Explain That Thing (105) Watchmen (4)

Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

[READER,PLAYER].DIE();: What Kind Of Media Is Problem Sleuth?

Problem Sleuth, Bard Quest, and Jailbreak may not be as renowned as Andrew Hussie's magnum opus Homestuck, but they helped put him on the cultural map, and they have a lot to offer anyone interested in the current boom of Hypercomics, comics that make special use of their digital platforms. But is Problem Sleuth really a comic? Or is it a game? Or a hypertext? Or is it something else entirely? 
This piece is the first of a series of hypercomic reviews appearing in A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities: Essays on Homestuck and Form, coming on November 28th to my Patreon backers. Subscribe at the $1 tier to gain access to the full text, or the $5 tier to download the text, as well as my previous three books, in illustrated ebook form.

What: Series of reader-driven parodies of adventure games

When: 2007-2009


Influences: Adventure Games

Formal Techniques: Loads

Technology: HTML, CSS, Animated Gifs

If we are in the middle of a kind of Hypercomics renaissance, following the almost total collapse of the medium in the mid 2000s, it's worth going back to the experiments during that period that helped pave the way for a new generation of hypercomickers. I'm talking, of course, about the first works of MS Paint Adventures: Jailbreak, Bard Quest, and Problem Sleuth. 

What are these comics? Well, for one thing, they're not necessarily comics. Certainly there's some confusion inherent in whether this is more like a game or a comic. Are we more like readers or players of Problem Sleuth? Are we playing, reading, watching or something else entirely?

These comics were already in existence, with Problem Sleuth nearing its end and transition into Homestuck, by the time I started researching hypercomics as a weird little undergrad, but it's not hard to see why they flew under my radar. I was, during that time, working heavily from Scott McCloud's theories on comics (so was everyone else in English-language comics theory, for that matter). This background actually puts up some not insignificant barriers to considering Problem Sleuth as a comic.
Consider McCloud's definition of comics: juxtaposed pictorial or other images arranged in deliberate sequence to convey a narrative or information. It's a solid working definition, but the sequentiality of Problem Sleuth is a little tricky to navigate. After all, primarily what we're getting isn't juxtaposed images--not images put next to each other and visually interpreted next to each other--but typically single images with text accompaniment. We're not reading the comic across a gutter but in separate, connected web pages. For McCloud, comics reading is characterized by "closure": the filling in of gaps between panels, the reader occupying the gutter on the page. The early MSPA works, in their heavy reliance on text, can feel more like a picture book, and the somewhat awkward inset action panels early in Problem Sleuth suggest, if anything, an awkward relationship to comics proper.

Of course all of this isn't to say that closure isn't hugely important in the early MSPA works, just that it's not surprising to me that Bard Quest didn't cross my radar as a hypercomic. In fact, there's even instances of Problem Sleuth creating undeniably comic-based effects on the page. Take this page:

We get a schematic representation here of the three rooms that character Ace Dick has access to, which functions in a sense like a set of three panels. Additionally, we have the image repeated below as the three rooms are rocked by an explosion of a distillery that AD is using, allowing us to perform that cross-panel closure that's so important in McCloud's model. In the bottom set of panels in particular we get a kind of right-to-left traditional comics movement as we read the explosion passing from the distillery through the middle room out into the office: another kind of closure.

Then later we get these pages:

Here we have the same kind of schematic representation, so we're invited to recognize the parallelism there, and then on the next page we have a broader schematic that shows a whole other part of the building which the explosion affects coincidentally, allowing the other characters to progress. We read this in a comic-like way: we make connections here between different panels in order to establish the parallelism of the joke, which is about the escalation of violence here. It's a good gag because it's one of many gags in the comic that involve things escalating in sillier and sillier ways. And it's one that uncovers the deeper multi-plane reading that theorists like Thierry Groensteen proposed in contrast to McCloud's model: instead of just performing closure with panels next to each other, we perform them hundreds or thousands of pages apart, connecting far distant pieces of visual information.

Let's grant, though, that while Problem Sleuth, Bard Quest, and Jailbreak are doing comic-like things, it's not totally pedantic to argue that they might not technically be comics. What are they then? Are they, perhaps, games?

Well we're not really playing Problem Sleuth if we're experiencing it in archive form, right? The text has already been set, and it's not really possible to "lose" Problem Sleuth, except temporarily for certain gags. And Andrew Hussie has noted that due to the number of suggestions and his decision to take the ones that worked best for him narratively, it was easy for him, as author, to select the optimal one to progress the narrative. So if play involves a kind of agency, there's not a whole lot of agency on display.

And yet, depending on how you define it, a solid majority of Problem Sleuth is taken up by one epic, lengthy boss battle. Even in the context of a comic about games, that's pretty extreme. I mean that is a LOT of just fighting. (Is Problem Sleuth, perhaps, a Shonen Anime?) It's undeniable that games, their mechanics, and their aesthetics are deeply integrated into the fabric of these works, even if the much-touted agentic choice of games isn't apparent.

Beyond that though, part of the experience of reading these comics is a kind of perplexity. Perplexity is sort of the Andrew Hussie calling card, really. Reading them involves both keeping track of what the hell is happening at any given moment, and of how the particular game mechanics work. There are some consistencies in the game world: weapons tend to transform into other objects when used, which is weird, but this weirdness becomes predictable over time: if you want to make use of a thing, call its opposite. Whether or not you, personally, enter the command is largely beside the point. Being able to progress in the sense of following the narrative without getting lost demands mechanical mastery. Manually entering commands is largely superfluous.

In this sense, there is a sort of play to Problem Sleuth: there are concrete rules that one can learn and one can parse out more of what's happening in the story, one can gain access to more of the comic, in a sense, if you pick apart those rules. All of the MSPA works are designed, to an extent, to overwhelm human working memory: so much is going on that it's functionally impossible to make all the connections that are available just from a visual standpoint, let alone in terms of the rules of the "game." 

Sometimes this results in full on structural collapses. Bard Quest is a failure both in terms of readerly engagement and in terms of the author's own ability to navigate the text. Hussie is brutal in snipping short branching paths in Bard Quest, and it's easy to see why: the number of possible paths quickly becomes impossible to keep up with both for reader and writer. In looking at Bard Quest, though, we can see some ways in which Problem Sleuth was more successful: Problem Sleuth is much more constrained and driven by Hussie as an author, and this allows him to throw more weird shit at the reader without Hussie himself getting overwhelmed by the writing process.

Let's put aside the ways in which these works might be game-like, though. They might not be hypercomics or hypergames, but they're surely hyper- something. Remember, I've chosen to define hypercomics not as comics that can't be printed out, but as comics that will be deeply altered in their possible experiences if printed out. There are undeniably elements of the MSPA comics that would be altered significantly if printed. If they're hyper, then, are they hypertexts?

Not really, according to Ben Tolkin, who ascribes these limitations to an inability of authors to think in terms of branching narrative:

"[T]he Web is built on hypertext, and for a time there was great hope that the technology would redefine storytelling as we know it. Futurists of the ’90s eagerly awaited the new frontier of hypertext fiction, envisioning a world where stories would no longer be linear narratives, but worlds to be explored.

That flood never came. As it turns out, authors think in single narratives, and even if they wrote many paths through a story, there was usually a preferred one."

I don't disagree with his history but I do take issues with his historiography--but more on that in a moment. Is Tolkin right in asserting that the MSPA comics aren't really hypertexts? Jailbreak and Bard Quest experiment with branching, but both are unfinished, and both are pretty brutally efficient in snipping extraneous narrative strands. Problem Sleuth and it's followup Homestuck don't have choose-your-own-adventure narratives, and they're better for it. So sure, if that's how you define hypertext, undeniably these are not hypertexts.

But why should our understanding of hypertext be so narrowly prescribed by choose-your-own-adventure novels? I'm not a fan of bashing new media into the ill-fitting frames of old media, and I think historically what we see in the history new media is a concerted struggle to move beyond existing convention. In cinema, for example, we see the struggle against theater-derived storytelling techniques (though Jared Gardner argues in Projections: Comics and 21st Century Storytelling that cinema ends up being subsumed by novelistic storytelling). McCloud's three book project is predicated on the notion that comics are not just words and pictures but have their own vocabulary (which is what makes "graphic novel," that savvy marketing term, so irritatingly terrible--comics are much, much more than novels with pictures).

Tolkin hints at this with the notion of hypertexts as "worlds to be explored," and Problem Sleuth certainly is that! Snapping back to this CYOA default understanding disguises the fact that even if the branches or hyperlinks in Problem Sleuth are used for single gags, that still makes it a hypertext. Something isn't a movie only if it aspires to be the next 2001: A Space Odyssey! Night at the Opera is also cinema, and William Shakespeare and Jack Prelutzky are, equally, poets. Problem Sleuth undeniably makes use of the medium to alter how we navigate the comic, sometimes resulting in an experience that, yes, is more like exploring a world.

So, wait, haven't we, in trying to narrow down what Problem Sleuth, Jailbreak, and Bard Quest are, arrived at a place where they are simultaneously comics AND games AND hypertexts, and probably a bunch of other stuff besides... except maybe not? This hasn't exactly made things clearer.

But that's the nature of the form. To discuss Problem Sleuth, and to a lesser extent Jailbreak and Bard Quest, I think it makes some sense to use the term "hypercomic" but we might also think of these things as "assemblages." This is a word that can mean two sort of overlapping things:

In art, an assemblage is a kind of three-dimensional collage, often composed of found objects. Problem Sleuth might be entirely virtual, but I think the term in art sheds some light on how it's composed: Problem Sleuth pilfers freely from all over pop culture in order to produce its narrative, and jostles together different stylistic elements in a collage-influenced way, creating a dense world to be navigated by the reader.

In philosophy, without getting too deep into a complex sort of theoretical framework, an assemblage is a fluid collection of interacting, heterogeneous parts that combine together into a complex system with somewhat indeterminate boundaries, one where the pieces affect and are affected by each other. It is a whole that never subsumes perfectly its parts.

Where exactly does Problem Sleuth begin and end? It's a little tricky to draw a hard boundary. Problem Sleuth, because of its tendency toward visual and narrative collage, tends to be connected to multiple other works, some by Andrew Hussie, others not. There are crossovers with both Jailbreak and Bard Quest, crossovers that seem to suggest the three comics take place in the same universe, and there's a constant ambiguity to whether or not Problem Sleuth takes place in the same setting as the later Homestuck. It seems to exist as a narrative in Homestuck, but then, so does MS Paint Adventures itself, weirdly. (And where does Homestuck begin and end? Is Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff a part of Homestuck? What about Humanimals?)

Formally, "hypercomics" is a relatively acceptable term for Problem Sleuth, but it doesn't necessarily encapsulate all the things that the "comic" can be. Rather, Problem Sleuth is a kind of narrative assemblage that in the course of its storytelling might take on comic-like properties, or game-like properties, or illustrated-prose-like qualities. It assembles many elements together that don't ever necessarily cohere into a single definable art object. For all that it is recognizable as part of an MSPA style, it is still heterogeneous, where the boundaries between different formal elements jostle against each other in complex ways.

What's more, MSPA as a whole is an assemblage that incorporates its audience. In this, I'd agree with Tolkin's central assertion: what makes Homestuck a masterpiece of the web is the way it is constantly engaged in a complex circuit of creation with its audience. While from a reader response perspective all art is inherently an assemblage between work, author, and audience, MSPA hypercomics expand this dynamic in pretty radical ways, to the point where Homestuck arguably dissolves entirely at its borders, any attempt at circumscribing the "canonical" Homestuck rendered totally arbitrary.

The results of this complex assemblage structure, in which the narrative can cross over a wide variety of media and jostle in complicated ways with itself and its readers, are as bizarre as they are wildly successful. This should strike us as kind of strange. If you were to go to a hypercomicker of the early 2000s and tell them, "look, I know why you're not doing well: you're just not being confusing enough," I suspect they would think you were crazy. Certainly you could never describe some of the best early hypercomics experiments are easy or straightforward. Nevertheless, Problem Sleuth introduces a new kind of affective dimension to an already common experience of bafflement in early hypercomics. Here, rather than trying to create an intellectual experience of difficulty, we see difficulty used to generate humor--humor at the expense of the audience, the author, and the game idioms that the early MSPA hypercomics are responding to. There's a lot of weirdness in Problem Sleuth not just narratively but formally--things like game resets, dramatic animated sequences of stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense, and so on--but the fact that Andrew Hussie is good at telling jokes makes a huge, huge difference in whether or not readers are willing to follow along with that weirdness.

Problem Sleuth's weirdness also is within the context of narrative idioms drawn from games. The hypercomics that I'll be covering in the other reviews in this book share, to a large extent, a focus on gameplay as metaphor, adopting systems from games without necessarily becoming games themselves outright. This is a huge, huge part of the contemporary hypercomics renaissance and it really starts here. Part of what allows Hussie to get away with so much stuff is the framing parody of Adventure Games first and foremost but also all kinds of other games as well. He can piggyback off of familiar understandings of the way game constructs operate in order to tell his story without necessarily having to explain things too much because readers can be relied upon to parse things as just more "weird puzzle shit."

For example, "Besides, you don't have enough MANNERCITE SHARDS in your ETIQUETTE MONSTRANCE for a polite request" is gibberish, it's totally meaningless. But it's gibberish that feels roughly equivalent to the way games tend to do things: you can't just politely request something, you've got to check this ridiculously ornate menu that has a particular skill tree on it and test that against the challenge rating to see if you can succeed. It's nonsense but it's nonsense that feels hauntingly familiar to anyone who's ground their way through enough role playing games. Much of Problem Sleuth's success can be ascribed to an audience's willingness to accept that all the weirdness is just part of the joke, and the next logical step that we see in Homestuck, where the Internet itself becomes raw material for narrative, allows for an even greater expansion of possibilities.

The wild gags of Problem Sleuth, predicated as they are on particular web technology, are of their time, they are dated. Whatever the negative connotations of those phrases, this isn't a judgment, just a simple statement of fact: Hypercomics by their very nature, and these multimedia assemblage hypercomics in particular, are tied intrinsically to the technological realities of their time. If Problem Sleuth is a kind of assemblage that affects and is affected by its readers in complex ways, this is made possible in part by the rise of social media and larger web communities. An experiment like Problem Sleuth wouldn't have been problematic for the early web just in terms of the limits of imagined possibilities for a new medium; it would have been problematic from the perspective of raw infrastructure.

This is the thing that I think writers have most missed in the story of MSPA's rise and the current hypercomics boom: the vast diversity of current offerings, even within the field of comics related to Homestuck that this book focuses on, is possible because of fundamental changes to the technological infrastructure hypercomics can make use of.

Problem Sleuth, among other things, is dependent on high speed internet, no doubt about it. Its heavy use of animation later in the comic, for example, is really only feasible within the context of people having access to higher speed internet than the earliest experimenters with embedded media hypercomics did.

Moreover, Problem Sleuth might not use something as advanced as Flash (though Flash itself, as we'll see in later chapters, is itself an outdated technology that was holding hypercomics back) but it's still way, way beyond what was possible for early hypercomickers.

I mean, look, in the early days of hypercomics people were putting panels into individual cells in tables. I... cannot express just how appalling early HTML--the code backbone that determines the structure of web pages--was, for a host of reasons. Early hypercomickers were working in an environment in the late 90s and early 2000s when it seemed reasonable for the W3C to release a version of HTML that was optimized for framesets, which basically allowed you to just sort of embed a bunch of web pages next to each other, and which typically looked... terrible. Basically imagine that you're trying to produce a comic in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet where each cell is its own Geocities page. Oh, and each paragraph or image has to have its color and background and border set manually because, whoops, Cascading Style Sheets, which let you affect the visual rendering of many page elements at once, weren't really implemented fully or without crippling bugs until the mid 2000s! This is the world in which the first brave experimenters in hypercomics attempted to operate. Scott McCloud's "Hearts and Minds" is a good example of this: peeking under the hood reveals that the whole comic has been composed in a giant, cumbersome frame set, and visually the comic has the low-res look of so many early webcomics, necessary to get anything to render. It's not bad, but it is absolutely a product of its technological time.

To really give you a sense of this history: the <DIV> element, which is pretty frequently used now to structure web pages in complex ways that can do things like overlap or run beside one another, is described in HTML3 thus: "The DIV element is used with the CLASS attribute to represent different kinds of containers, e.g. chapter, section, abstract, or appendix." This is a little esoteric but what I really want to convey here is that the creators of HTML were thinking of web pages as PAGES--these were documents, like books on the web. The McCloudian conception of the webpage not as a page but as a WINDOW into an infinite canvas, one that could have any kind of shape or readerly path, just wasn't really there yet, and technology like the CSS z-index--basically, the thing that tells the browser which of two overlapping page elements should be on top--took quite a while to be implemented.

Andrew Hussie arrived on the hypercomics scene with a fundamentally different technological set of tools than people working even five or six years earlier had access to. Early hypercomickers were fighting not only against audience expectations and a nonexistent marketing infrastructure, but a nonexistent creative infrastructure as well.

By 2008 when Problem Sleuth starts, though, we have this shit nailed down for the most part. Where Problem Sleuth is still limited technologically, though, is in the fact that it still emerges before a bulk of CSS3's innovations, before HTML5 (2014), before widespread use of javascript and its various libraries like jquery to replace the expensive, buggy as shit software necessary to creating Flash animations... the world that Hussie started writing in is dramatically different technologically speaking than the world in which Homestuck concluded.

If we're trying to understand how a boom in hypercomics is possible now we need to look to what Problem Sleuth is doing both in terms of narrative, and where it's positioned in terms of historical development of technology. The fundamental technological differences between 2008 and 1998 are breathtaking, as are the differences between 2008 and now, for that matter.

What we're going to see in the reviews that follow is the development of stuff that parallels the development of Homestuck in that it takes advantage of advances in technology, and that uses familiar materials as a familiar idiom in order to help lead the reader into a new experience. What we're going to see as well is that as these things develop we're going to see a continual pushing of boundaries as what seems like static and straightforward idioms become much more complex and diverse. Hypercomics as they are produced now are produced as assemblages, not as things we can draw concrete lines around as comics-on-the-web. What makes them what they are is their diversity of influence and their ability to rapidly transform from one medium to another, and in the collapse of "hypercomics" as an easily defined discrete category the renaissance of hypercomics takes form. 

Look for A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities: Essays on Homestuck and Form on November 28th. Become a backer today to get access to already released exclusive content including additional reviews, podcasts, and original artwork!

Which Wicked: Castle Hangnail and Navigating Fantasy Narratives

Ursula Vernon's Castle Hangnail, about a 12 year old girl striving to become master of an ancient magical castle, shares a tradition of humorous and somewhat self-aware fantasy with modern authors like Terry Pratchett and early fantasy writers like Edith Nesbit. Exploring those connections can help us see the way Vernon's book explores ideas about consent, narrative convention, and the vulnerability that comes with being strange. In a world of witches and sorceresses, what does it really mean to be "Wicked," and is it really the same thing as "Bad?"

Populism Politics People and Superpeople

Luke Cage is a narrative drawing heavily on popular antiracist politics, so why is it so suspicious, narratively, of populism? And how did the Democratic ruling class's own contempt for populism cost them an entire election and usher in four to eight years of proto-fascist stoogery? This article's two interwoven threads explore these questions and freely allows Perfect to be the enemy of Good, because sometimes "good" doesn't translate to "good enough," and god dammit, there's a whole lot of things that just aren't good enough anymore.

Awful Hospital: Seriously The Best Ever?

In this review, part of the review series for A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities, I explore the way Awful Hospital follows in the footsteps of MSPA in creating an assemblage experience... and perhaps goes further by mirroring that form to a narrative that is all about jostling, radically different, mutually entangled, gross, body-fluid-drenched entities interacting together to form bodies that are more than the sum of their parts.

Sleuth And His Problems

In this StIT Podcast, I ramble in dazed fashion about Problem Sleuth and get distracted by researching the entire history of HTML development.


Here's the finished cover painting for A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities. If I ever threaten to draw something in extreme perspective again just clock me with something heavy instead. Click through to read more commentary and download the original painting!

Jostling Curiosities Reviews: Alastere

For A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities I'm planning to do a bunch of shorter reviews of hypercomics that exist alongside Homestuck or were directly influenced by it. The first of these happens to be of the comic Alastere, which is really all about that JRPG feel.

A Bodyless and Timeless Persona

A Bodyless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme covers four previous essays from Storming the Ivory Tower exploring everything from Gnostic themes in Homestuck to the way the comic makes use of difficulty. Additionally, the collection features an exclusive triple-length article, "Is There A Text In This Classpect?," which explores all the different possible answers to the question "just what is a character in Homestuck?"

At the end of Homestuck's seven year journey, this collection aims to be a starting point for anyone interested in delving deeper into the meaning of the comic and its complex and rewarding mythology, symbolism, and narrative experimentation.

A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities

This collection features articles on Homestuck's experimentation with comics and hypercomics as a medium, and the uniquely experimental fandom that these experiments spawned, as well as an all new exclusive series of reviews spanning the range of hypercomics that Homestuck inspired. This collection will be the first pop-academic look at Homestuck's place within a wider history of the comics medium, and will be available to $5 backers of the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon.

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