Session One: Curtain-Raiser

4/13/09 – 5/27/09
pages 1 – 213

A young man stands in his bedroom, and I have seen this page so many times. I’ve never had much luck with the “save game” feature, so I’ve always resorted to bookmarks or finding my place in the log. Every time I go to the main page, there’s John glancing back and forth. I’m grateful for this bit of stability actually, the constant reminder that great things come from such humble beginnings.

Our primary player character receives his name, byzantine inventory systems are investigated, a poster is hung, four chums pester and are pestered, a harlequin doll is maimed, an urn is toppled, strife occurs, a package is retrieved and a bunny is un-boxed. This is what I meant about the difficulty of summarizing Homestuck, these early pages in particular. This is a webcomic of tremendous detail and slow builds. Deciding what constitutes “relevant” is the real problem, many of these little nuances will come up again a few hundred pages down the road, only to lose their importance thousand of pages later after Act 5 concludes. Some things (like Typheus, who is making an early cameo there as John’s browser) will seem to have been phased out only to come roaring back into significance at a crucial juncture.

Nominally, all this action is taking place in the name of retrieving some packages and John’s copy of the new Sburb beta.

How can a game that’s only out in beta be game of the year? I mean, how can a game that’s not even out yet be game of the year in the pre-Kickstarter days? Never mind, we have a man with a cake to fight.

Homestuck is one of those works (in)famous for having a boring first chapter. I’m one of those people drawn to works with “boring” first chapters. (Except for Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, that one is truly dull.) The common explanation, or excuse if you’re in that frame of mind, for slow starts  is that the author/artist/creator must establish normality before diverging from it. Setup is important for any story with a secondary world setting, but it’s particularly important to this story and this setting, so let’s take a moment to think about it.

John’s world is, and is not, ours. Establishing what behaviors are copacetic to the abstract medium in which these characters dwell takes time, and I would argue is entertaining in its own right. There’s a lot going on in a subtle way here. We’re adjusting to the central narrative gimmick, that the readers are somehow “playing” as the characters (the use of the second person point of view is one of my favorite elements), and getting to know John and his pals not just through description but through their interactions in an excellent example of the old maxim “show don’t tell”. The comic is also teaching us how to read it, demonstrating to the audience that there will be sound for some animations, as well as interactive hover text and buttons to push. The pesterlogs at the bottom of the page grow increasingly more complex, readers who skip them are missing a critical piece of the experience. There are also lots of details scattered around, coming up and then lurking in the background like shards of glass loaded into a stack style sylladex waiting to become important. We have to learn to pay attention because some of these, such as the one-armed harlequin doll, are going to shape everything to come. There’s a lot to learn before we even log in to our first Sburb session. You can’t read this thing on auto-pilot.

Homestuck asks for a big investment from it’s audience, but the gradual introduction of all these pieces makes the burden easier to bare. That’s the reason for the slow builds. Readers have many pages in which to absorb concepts, and everything else hinges on this. When fans struggle to explain to their friend’s, it’s because they’re forgetting the foundation of information all the jokes are built on. We become so fluent in the story’s lexicon that we don’t even think about it. This might seem trivial, but later story lines (Alternia, the Green Sun) wouldn’t be possible without this kind of fluency.

That said, a lot of this nonsense is going to become obsolete. When was the last time somebody at the MS Paint Adventures forum cared about chum handles? I’d all but forgotten their existence and had a good chuckle when I saw John’s buddy list. Sylladexes, captchaloguing and strife specibus abstrata are the most obvious losses. I do miss them; they created the impression that this world we were entering had a methodology, or at least a handful of rules. Repeating motifs used to be much more important; I’ll discuss these (probably) at some later date. All the kids used to play instruments, which I always felt added to the theme of destruction and creation, though Rose and Jade seem to have outgrown this interest. (We see Dave working at his computer with his music files, and John at least remembers enough to play for Typheus with no hesitation. I like to think he still plays when he’s bored, we just haven’t had much occasion to see him do so.)

I still laugh at the jokes, even though I’ve read them a couple of times by now. This might have something to do with having played a few text based games (most notably the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game), and that I am the sort of person who is endlessly amused by things like the procedural name generation in Dwarf Fortress (or just being the sort of person prepared to flood, collapse, burn, starve or likewise ravage innumerable ASCII fortresses in the first place). The words “phernalia” and “abstracta” might quickly fade from current usage, but I love them just the same. Hussie has a talent for wordplay, making creative use of a large working vocabulary. The words he makes up, such as “kismesis”, feel right because they are recombinations, not quite portmanteaus, of existing words. “Phernalia” from “paraphernalia” for example. This skill will serve him well once our grey, candy corn horned friends arrive on the scene.

John is well, John. He’s not an everyman, which is a welcome treat given that this is, in an on-again off-again fashion, a coming-of-age story. John’s personality is apparent right from the beginning, everything from his taste in terrible movies (and having watched the Nostalgia Critic in the interval since my last read through I now understand just how terrible) to his short attention span. The opening pages are as much about establishing John as they are the setting. The only thing we don’t quite see in the first 200 pages, which are full of him playing cat and mouse with his doting father and teasing or ignoring his friends, is just how sweet he can be. One exchange between him and Rose (TT) consists of them agreeing they have to hurry and then proceeding to become caught up in a word game, and reminds me so much of myself at that age that it gives me a pang. I find John difficult to discuss, not because I dislike him or find him uninteresting, but because he is so ubiquitous that I run into the same “let me tell you about Homestuck” problem where I struggle to separate detail from substance. Considering what he does to himself later (much later) in the story, this makes a lot of sense. John is dorky, loyal, understanding and brave. (Though I can’t help wondering if he’s also behind the new found appreciation for Ghost Busters 2 that I’ve seen around the net.)

The rules of paradox space are in full effect. Things do not exist until we seem them in the comic, and then they have always existed. Reading the caption on page 82, the opening sequence, which speaks of an unseen riddler and an Absence makes me think of John himself, directing things from the void beyond reality. The idea fits even though I can remember Hussie, in volume one of the books, writing that this passage makes him think of Vriska. (The joke being that everything makes Hussie think of Vriska. And, if you’ve ever asked yourself “Who the Hell bought Homestuck in book form?” Well, now you know.)

Returning to the recap for a moment, we load up Sburb and the strangeness is about to get stranger. Thanks to all that running around picking up cakes and launching PDAs through windows, we are now capable of recognizing it.

This is notably stranger.

This is what is called a Mystery Plot. The main drive to keep reading is to figure out just what the heck is going on. On that note we begin to see what Sburb can do, though not what it’s about, yet. First, since we have new features to explore, more shenanigans.

The way John abjures the Sburb cursor reminds me of stuff for later.

We get three new items: the totem lathe, the cruxtruder and the alchemizer. The cruxtruder, extrudes cruxite dowels, of course. This is also the introduction of the concept of grist, an abstract Sburb construct that players spend to do and make stuff. Other than that, we’re told nothing. Also, John specifies his weapons. Well, actually he did this awhile ago but I forgot to mention it.

Back downstairs, John releases the kernelsprite and we see our first countdown, a notable occurrence given how many countdowns are coming in our future. Cruxite is extruded and we get our first inklings of what all this about, punch card alchemy. I seem to remember Hussie saying in an interview somewhere that part of his main motivation for starting Homestuck was how much he wanted to delve into the idea of punch card alchemy; it’s just so whimsical.

Also, I told you this thing would be important.

We see our first examples of punch card alchemy at work when John puts the cruxite on the alchemizer and creates some perfectly generic objects. I am coming perilously close to my (self-imposed) 2,000 word post limit, when John employs his telescope and what do we see? Why it is the plot, streaking down from the sky in all its fiery glory.

Next time, I’ll be picking up the adventure with a mysterious young lady who enjoys knitting, psychoanalysis and obscure lore.

Images from MS Paint Adventures.

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