Homestuck, Form, and the Inevitability of Frustration in Narrative
Of Andrew Hussie’s multimedia webcomic Homestuck, which clocks in at over 8,000 pages and has been hailed as the Ulysses of the internet, reviewer Ben Tolkin writes:
All [its] most exciting moments depend so much on the wonky worldbuilding that it can’t be summarized. You can’t compare it to similar works, either, because there are none. It’s sort of like The Secret of Monkey Island as coded by Thomas Pynchon. It’s like if House of Leaves was adapted by Monty Python, or Tristram Shandy rewritten by Franz Kafka. Maybe if Borges had written A Wrinkle in Time, but was kind of drunk at the time, and was really, really into dumb memes. (“Homestuck In Review”).
Indeed, Homestuck resists summary, and Tolkin’s words will give you the best sense of it you can get without reading it for yourself. To give you a bit more of a sense, though, I will say that Homestuck is nominally about four kids who play a game called Sburb together over the internet, which winds up having life- and world-altering consequences. One of the features that makes Homestuck so unique is the way it uses metafictional strategies; it is constantly aware of its audience, the role of its author, and its status as a piece of narrative fiction. The unique evolution of Hussie’s work, up to and including Homestuck, which evokes early text adventure video games, melds more traditional metafictional strategies with newer ones; the audience is always in close conversation with the text–a relationship which is only possible in the digital age. Ultimately, Hussie uses experimental forms in order to underscore the ways in which characters and audiences alike are captives of narrative convention. It is only when the characters can literally break free of their narrative that they are able to acquire the happy ending they seek, taking readers along for the ride–but at the cost of true satisfaction.
Collaboration between author and audience is built into Homestuck’s very structure. Specifically, for the first several hundred pages, Hussie was accepting reader-submitted “prompts,” which he would then adapt into characters’ actions in the panels he drew. Turning to the first several panels of the comic, we can see how this operates. The first panel reads as follows: “A young man stands in his bedroom. It just so happens that today, the 13th of April, 2009, is this young man’s birthday. Though it was thirteen years ago he was given life, it is only today he will be given a name! What will the name of this young man be?” (1901). If we click the link at the bottom of the page, which reads “Enter name,” the next panel shows a cursor inputting the name “Zoosmell Pooplord,” which the character disapproves of with his facial expression (1902). This silly, scatalogical name suggestion was submitted by a reader; Hussie chose to go along with it for one panel as a gag, but could not allow his protagonist to actually go by such an absurd name. Note, also, that the character reacts aversely to the name suggestion; he seems to be aware of his naming. When we proceed, we see that another reader evidently suggested “John Egbert” as this fellow’s name; Hussie finds this name acceptable, and evidently, so does John himself, as we can see in his face (1903). The narrative continues in this fashion for a while–that is, readers submit prompts out of desire to explore the world of the narrative and its rules; the next prompt is “Examine room,” a suggestion which kicks off that exploration.
Although the examples I have presented are rather straightforward–the collaboration is fun and silly for author and reader alike–some moments become more adversarial in nature as the narrative continues. Take this example from just a couple pages later: a cheeky reader suggests that John “Quickly retrieve [his] arms from [the] drawer,” referencing the fact that Hussie’s artistic rendering of the character does not have visible arms. Hussie retorts, “your ARMS are in your MAGIC CHEST, pooplord!” (1905). Here, Hussie is being cheeky and evasive in return in order to delay the gratification of a successfully completed action, but this example demonstrates the tension between author and reader: it is a relationship in which the reader attempts to outsmart Hussie in order to progress, and Hussie, who cannot be outsmarted, deliberately subverts expectations in order to frustrate his audience.
The next panel I will reference furthers my point about the adversarial relationship between author and reader, and the quality of frustration that accompanies that relationship, but it also highlights a number of other salient points about the comic: first, its metafictive nature; second, its uniquely constraining narrative rules; and third, the parallels it draws between reader and character. In the intervening pages, readers were introduced to something called a “sylladex,” which is meant to approximate the inventory function many video games employ so avatars might store, and later retrieve, items found in the fabricated world of the game. In Homestuck, John must “captchalogue” items in order to store them within his “sylladex.” On this page, a reader has suggested that John “equip” the fake arms he has captchalogued a few panels ago. Hussie begins to respond to this prompt as follows: “you aren’t totally sure if EQUIP is a verb copacetic with the abstract behavioral medium in which you dwell, but you give it a try anyway” (1910). This glib, witty response acknowledges the ridiculousness of what is happening in the narrative, but simultaneously pokes at the reader further, amping up the frustration. Hussie could have easily called John’s “sylladex” an inventory; it would have made more sense, and decreased the inevitable confusion on the part of the reader. But instead he uses a strange, fabricated word and questions the reader’s use of the verb “equip”–the exact term the video games Hussie intends to emulate would use. This not only further antagonizes the reader, but also, in true metafictive form, directs the reader’s attention to the fabricated nature of the narrative and its arbitrary rules.
Turning back to the panel, the text continues: “Unfortunately, you cannot access the FAKE ARMS! Their card is underneath the one you just used to captchalogue the SMOKE PELLETS. You will have to use the pellets first in order to access the arms” (1910). Skipping down a bit, the narration continues, “Your SYLLADEX’S FETCH MODUS is currently dictated by the logic of a STACK DATA STRUCTURE. You were never all that great with data structures and you find the concept puzzling and mildly irritating” (1910). To break down the nonsensical jargon a bit, the “fetch modus” refers to the process by which an item may be retrieved from John’s inventory; the last item in must be the first item out. In this passage, Hussie invents a new hurdle for readers who submit prompts to circumvent: the items in John’s inventory are nigh inaccessible, making progress even more difficult. It’s clear, too, that readers are not the only ones who are frustrated: John doesn’t look too happy, either.
This is a good time to point out the use of the second person “you;” it’s not clear, at any point, whether the “you” refers to John or the reader. I would argue it’s fair to assume the “you” encompasses both, in this case, although the signified attached to “you” will shift at different points throughout the winding narrative. The result is that, often, reader and character are conflated; in this particular passage, the reader and John both find these hijinks “puzzling and mildly irritating.” It should be noted that archival readers will not experience the narrative in the same way that up-to-the-minute readers did, but I can vouch for the fact that the frustration remains, even when, or perhaps because, there are countless pages to be clicked through.
And now, in an entirely counterintuitive move, I will skip forward six thousand pages to finish fleshing out my argument. After multiple final bosses are created and defeated, universes are literally destroyed, many kids die, and our main cast of four teens become acquainted with an alien race not too different from their own, John Egbert finds himself on a platform in a literal void with a dead alien-spider-girl, face to face with an iconic, white, flashing house–one that looks very similar to the symbol for Sburb, the game John is playing, and for Homestuck itself. The spider girl dares him to put his hand inside it, and he does. This is what happens: John’s hand phases through the artifact, and over a series of pages, the background transforms and becomes the title card of the comic, which appeared thousands of pages earlier; John’s hand is now, retroactively, a part of it (7997-8004). What follows are dozens of panels from the narrative–also from thousands of pages back–with John’s arm added in; Hussie even went so far as to retroactively edit the hand into those pages, so first-time readers might notice John’s hand in random places and not understand what they’re seeing or why (8004-8007). This act of revision demonstrates the power of the house artifact while also emphasizing the fact that the agency of individual characters has the potential to flip narrative events on their heads. The meaning of this event is up for debate, but my interpretation is that John found a semi-tangible representation of the narrative itself, and gained access to all of it. This is something that, according to the rules of the storyworld, should not have happened; this object, a “juju” in the parlance of Homestuck, is a sort of ultimate weapon, and a character getting their hands on it could be thought of as “cheating.” Over the next hundred pages or so, amidst other storylines, readers learn that John has, to reference Vonnegut, essentially become “unstuck” in narrative time and space; he randomly and uncontrollably appears in random places throughout what we might call “canonspace.”
At first, John is unable to control these powers, but eventually he finds a use for them, and is able to decide when and where in the comic he appears. Remember, now, that the premise of Homestuck is that John and his friends are playing a videogame in order to ensure the perpetuation of reality; so, when a massacre occurs at the hands of one of the final bosses and most of John’s friends die, he is faced with the prospect of a “game over.” But there is hope: a dying friend, who happens to possess the power to see the trajectories of causality, helps John figure out a plan to use his canon-hopping powers to subtly influence the course of events to lead to a favorable outcome. Before I proceed with this point, I must emphasize that time travel is not only possible in the world of Homestuck, but is also a frequent occurrence. However, it abides by a set of rules: players must create what is called a “stable time loop,” which simply refers to an instance of time travel in which the traveler, as one blogger explains, “causes an event to play out the way it already did,” or else the timeline they have abandoned becomes “doomed” (“Aradia”). That is, it withers away, the surviving inhabitants fade from existence, and the course of events that proceed from the moment they go back becomes the new “alpha” timeline. I mention this because, when John “time travels” using his zapping powers, he is retroactively affecting causality in the pre-existent alpha timeline, not creating a new “branch,” and therefore this is a unique instance of fate-altering within the story. In other words, he revises the narrative.
Another reason this is a unique instance is because John is able to take a whole planet and a human passenger with him when he zaps out of the “game over” timeline; normally, time travelers only bring along their own bodies. In order to avoid carting a whole planet around with him as he travels to different canonical moments making his revisions, he must store it somewhere for safekeeping. That place is, in John’s words “literally nowhere”; it is outside of the narrative (9009). Looking at one of these pages, 9007, we see that the fireflies are roaming outside the confines of the panel. I should mention that these very fireflies had been trapped under the clouds on the planet John is standing on up until the moment John zaps it outside of the comic; the fireflies, like John himself, are free of what had been constraining them, and at the same time they signify to the reader with their placement that all have escaped the narrative. In this nowhere place, John is able to regroup, and then go forward with making the adjustments which will lead to his cohort of heroes winning the game that has ensnared them for literal years, and to inhabit a new reality free of the entities determined to destroy them. In a sense, the reality he escapes to is free of the tedium and frustration that has dogged him throughout his journey, and readers experience the relief along with him.
Although the ending of Homestuck is happy, online discourse indicates that many fans thought it was incredibly anticlimactic. In response, one tumblr user argues that the ending feels unsatisfying because it flouted many well-worn storytelling conventions; most notably, the “game over” timeline, which was a dark moment for characters, was erased rather than overcome (Why People Are Frustrated: A Critique”). While some attribute this fact to authorial laziness, I would argue that Hussie made this choice with purpose: even after he stopped accepting reader suggestions, Hussie was still, whether he liked it or not, in deep conversation with the fandom. That is to say, whenever he posted an update, he would be inundated with reactions, so he very much had a finger on the pulse of his fanbase every step of the way. I would like to suggest that we might read the ending as a message from author to readership declaring that they cannot, in fact, have their cake and eat it too. The choice is between a happy ending and a satisfying one–and for it to be possible, the former requires an escape from, and rewriting of, the very narrative.
Ultimately, Homestuck leaves lovers of literary narratives with the idea that to be entertained is to be frustrated: frustrated with the unfolding of narrative events, or even with the inscrutability of narrative itself. After all: if literature were simple and straightforward, none of us academics would have anything to write about.
Hussie, Andrew. Homestuck. 2009-2016. http://www.mspaintadventures.com.
Psych0p0mps. “Aradia: Explain the Time Travel in Five Minutes or Less.” 10 Aug. 2013.
Spidertrolled-mindcontrolled. “Why People are Frustrated: A Critique.” 13 Apr. 2016.
Tolkin, Ben. “Homestuck in Review: The Internet’s First Masterpiece.” Medium.com. 14
Oct. 2016. https://medium.com/@bbctol/homestuck-in-review-the-internets-first- masterpiece-989a84548767.
- For the full effect, I recommend following along on your web browser; Homestuck is freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. ↵