Tuesday, February 16, 2016

What's all the fuss about Andrew Huss?

           For those who have spent time away from the real world on the wondrous and frightful realm of the internet, it is not unlikely that you may have discovered  the faint echoes of a webcomic called Homestuck. Although its popularity has diminished significantly over the past several years, it has proven to be a significantly influential work of internet culture. Much has been written about Homestuck, most of it of little or no value, and I do not intend to write about it at any length here, partly because it is exceedingly complicated in its scope and depth, and partly because explanations of it to the uninterested are infamously tedious.

Pictured: the typical layman's reaction to Homestuck

          No, the reason I bring it up is  prime example of a work which I think is much more significant, the medium itself: the Microsoft Paint Adventure (MSPA) Format. I say this because it seems to me to be one of the first  media of art native to the internet, one which has the ability to combine the sequential art of a comic with complex dialogues, animation, music and interactive storytelling. There is a term for a multi-media work of art such as this, Gesamtkunstwerk, or "totality of art," originally used by Richard Wagner, used to describe the operas he strove to produce. It seems to me that, like Wagner's operas, the MSPA format is a medium separate from previous media, which is able to take full advantage of its native platform, the internet, to create a Gesamtkunstwerk.

        Before I begin, however, I would like to take a moment to take a glance at our creator a man named Andrew Hussie. Hussie is a rather enigmatic figure, and is careful to not reveal much about himself, and as such it is rather difficult to do a detailed analysis of his upbringing in the same manner as the creators in our readings. Hussie is a gifted writer quite comfortable with precise, eloquent language and with a knack for obscure vocabulary. His storytelling style is abrasively sardonic and can be quite absurd, taking as much delight in endlessly frustrating his audience with abrupt cliffhangers, seemingly pointless tangents, and ridiculous twists.* Likewise, Hussie is fascinated by the concept of "Irony" as is used in the contemporary sense, and simultaneously employs it in his work and mocks its use as either insincere or stupid.  Hussie draws from a wide range of artistic and literary traditions, from Gnostic mythology to video games such as Earthbound, the Sims and Spore. Likewise, Hussie is greatly influenced by the Sciences, especially Computer Science, in which he received his formal education.

It's unclear who is Andrew Hussie in this picture, but leading scientists say that it's the cat

*When Homestuck first began in 2009 and Hussie was far more active in the online community, the term "trolling" would have been appropriate to describe his style, and often was. As the term has since evolved into meaning anything from being mildly irritating to malicious and relentless bullying, it is no longer clever or useful to employ it

         The Microsoft Paint Adventure format is a style of webcomic derived from quest-threads, a sort of forum thread wherein the original poster sets up a situation to roleplay, and the other forum posters play out the situation on a first come, first serve basis. The nicer ones will have quick illustrations provided by the OP.
Hussie's quest threads were inspired by point and click adventure games, providing the abstraction of a "command" link to communicate which command was being followed. The illustrations were crude, no more a quick scrawl in MS Paint (hence the name),  and the content puerile, as the story was generated either by the audience of anonymous forum posters, or by Hussie, who was doing his best to frustrate them. The best example of these is preserved in Jailbreak (fair warning, the content is Not Safe For Work), a crude, absurd tale of a man attempting to escape from a prison cell. At this point, audience participation was tit for tat: every command was given by a forum poster, and every panel was a response to that command.

This is the sort of hard-hitting storytelling we need

          Jailbreak was never finished (the last several dozen panels were a later addendum), and Hussie moved onto a new project Bard's Quest. Even more directly inspired by adventure games (especially the absurdly lethal cult classic King's Quest), Bard's Quest was an experiment with the MSPA format, attempting to replicate the branching choices of the games. This quickly proved to be extremely unwieldy, especially for the "fast and loose" style that the MSPA format worked so well with. As a result, Bard's Quest lasted maybe a couple dozen panels, hardly enough time to develop any story at all.

          Where the MSPA format started to hit its stride artistically was with its third work Problem Sleuth. In terms of media, it was still limited, with short .gif animations being more of a natural extension of the illustrations than a truly new medium, the simplicity of its style enabled an extremely flowing reading experience. Unhindered by a cumbersome format, Problem Sleuth blossomed into a story both absurdly intricate and intricately absurd. It's basic story is of a stereotypical Film-Noir detective, Problem Sleuth, attempting to leave his office. In order to do so, he must navigate through an arbitrary and byzantine series of puzzles, most of which seem to dig him even deeper into his own captivity. In any other medium, the story would fall apart. A purely text based medium would bring the reader to tears just trying to comprehend what is happening, while a more labor intensive illustrative medium such as traditional comics or animation would be extremely labor intensive and, most importantly lack audience participation. The reason that Problem Sleuth is so readable is that, even after it has long since concluded, there is a constantly delayed catharsis, a longing desire to beat the author as if he were a sadistic game-master, deliberately antagonizing you with ridiculous situations.

This is about as straightforward as it gets

          While Problem Sleuth was the first successful MSPA, it was still largely a niche format, targeted only to the same audience which had pre-existed it. It was Hussie's fourth MSPA, Homestuck which launched the format into notoriety. Hussie continued to experiment with the format, increasing the complexity of the illustrations and even attempting to illustrate it entirely in Adobe Flash. The latter proved to be untenable, and after one false start, the first panels of Homestuck were released on April 13, 2009. likewise, direct audience participation in the form of commands was eventually dropped, as both the rapid growth of the audience and Hussie's storytelling ambitions made commands extremely cumbersome. Audience participation was still a major driving force in the story's writing, but it was a much more subtle influence than before. One of the major innovations to the MSPA format that Homestuck originally provided, however, was the "Pesterlog," more generally known as the Textlog. The addition was simple: an expandable window with dialogue mimicking an instant message chat, colors and different typing styles representing different speakers. This innovation is a dramatic shift from the speech bubbles transplanted from paper comics to web-comics, which had always been limited by the space of the panel. Dialogues in traditional comic format were either terse by necessity, or required multiple, labor intensive panels. The textlog, however, by separating the text from the illustration, allowed Hussie to create his truly gargantuan dialogues without being restrained by the tradition of his chosen medium. In fact, he has not been sparing in this regard. By word count, a staggering 812,424 words, it is the third longest single work of fiction in English (or fourth, depending on which count of Women and Men by Joseph McElroy you use) and is still ongoing at the time of writing.
An example of the .gif animations from the first panel of Homestuck

            However, animated .gifs and several novels worth of dialogue do not a Gesamtkunstwerk make. Throughout the development of Homestuck, Hussie continued to push the boundaries of the MSPA format. Although Hussie abandoned the use of Flash animation for the daily panels, he still employs regular use of them, along with sound effects and original musical scores, each of which are used to add further depth to the narrative. Unlike the simple two or three frame .gif animations introduced in Problem Sleuth, these animations can be works in of themselves, and are often used to convey a rich amount of narrative detail, which would otherwise could have taken weeks or months to convey using the regular MSPA format.* In addition, Hussie also occasionally employs simple Flash games to provide a more non-linear method of storytelling. While not rivaling purpose-made games in any significant artistic way, it does demonstrate that games can seamlessly be integrated with the rest of the narrative in the MSPA format.

*The longest animation to date, "[S] Cascade" is thirteen minutes long, longer than many short films. For an example of these animations without spoilers, you can watch this one.

            Possibly the most innovative use of the MSPA format, however, is the use of the website and hyperlink medium to provide depth to the narrative. Homestuck regularly employs metapoetic devices and symbolism to convey meaning, including using a white text on a white background to demonstrate the duplicity of a character, changing the appearance of the website to demonstrate a change in narrator, corrupting the textlog to simulate in-story corruption, and retroactively altering panels and hyperlinks to represent the affects of later events (including the addition of a password system to prevent later readers from seeing plot-significant changes before the appropriate time). All of these would not be feasible in other media, but are easily achieved for the MSPA format, providing a unique experience unattainable by other media.

          While the MSPA format is still in its earliest stages of use, Andrew Hussie is not the only artist to employ this medium for original storytelling. In addition to many Homestuck fanworks and translations, the website MSPFan Adventures, has several original works in the MSPA format, including Superego and Godquest, by user Jovian, and A Beginners Guide to the end of the Universe by user Crippledvulture. While these stories are technically simpler than Homestuck, they do demonstrate that the format has potential to thrive outside of the eclectic mind of Andrew Hussie. There is one MSPA format comic that appears to be striving for a level of multi-media integration similar to Homestuck, though: Neokosmos, collaborative work by the artists Shelby Craig and Amber Rodgers and Animator Adrienne Garcia. While this comic has only recently begun about three months ago, it already has used a sounded and scored animation, and is just getting started. It remains to be seen whether it will be as successful and as artful as Homestuck, but it is a promising beginning.

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