Thanks for playing: the weird legacy of ‘Homestuck’

Culture Literature

This story was originally published by The Other Press, Douglas College’s student newspaper, on May 4.

It has been analyzed as a modern epic, a work of philosophical genius, and over 9 000 pages of garbage. For the past seven years, the interactive webcomic Homestuck has carved out an entirely unique niche of Internet culture for itself, impacting the online arts community at large. Inspiring both fervent adoration in some and frustration and irritation in others, the bizarre comic concluded this past April 13 with a nine-minute flash animation that left many questions unanswered.

What started as a simple comic that had a plot driven by questions asked by the author, Andrew Hussie, to be answered on forums by fans, rapidly evolved into a sprawling story that, for a long time, seemed too vague and complex to describe. It is, essentially, a kind of creation myth in which four kids play a computer game that brings about the end of their universe. If they manage to win the game, their reward is the creation of a new universe, where they can live as gods. However, this game has been played before, and both the heroes and the villains from the last session spill over into the new game, threatening to destroy the new universe before it ever has a chance to be created.

It sounds simple boiled down to three sentences. However, it’s worth noting that there are over a hundred main characters in Homestuck, as well as many alternate timelines and universes to keep track of. The narrative sends the reader back and forth and sideways in time, raising questions that are answered so far down the path of the story that you’ve forgotten you had a question to begin with. It’s confusing, dizzying, and the first couple of acts are downright tedious. Still, the comic has amassed an enormous community of heavily devoted fans, including Scott Pilgrim author Bryan Lee O’Malley and actor Dante Basco.

In terms of medium, Homestuck combined simple, static panels with gifs, flash animations, music, and interactive portions where the reader guides the character around like in a computer game. The art style ranges from simple sprites, to stick figures, to fully coloured scenes and beautifully detailed panels. The comic is anything but constant in its style, which could explain how so many were able to slog through the first couple of thousand pages of set-up and backstory.

The tone of the comic is ever-changing, from simple slapstick comedy to abject nihilism and despair. Characters are gleefully killed off, brought back, and killed again, to the point where it becomes hard to keep track of which characters are still alive, and which are not. Many characters have multiple versions of themselves running around, both alive and dead. It certainly adds to the confusion of your average reader, though it provides an infinite amount of cosplay opportunities to the dedicated fan.

Though the source material itself is incredibly impressive, the lasting impact of Homestuck lies in its legacy, much of which expands far beyond the comic itself. A spin-off comic series, Paradox Space, has been running since 2014, a collaboration project between many artists and writers who’ve added their own stories and ideas to the series. A game based on the comic is set to come out soon, funded by a Kickstarter that amassed over two million dollars from readers worldwide. Many musicians and artists who contributed to the original comic have gone on to find success in their own original works outside the series.

Most notably, one of the lead composers for Homestuck, Toby Fox, created his own computer game while working on the comic. That game, Undertale, has become incredibly successful since its release last fall. As a nod to this, there was a brief tribute to Undertale’s battle system in one of the last flash animations of Homestuck.

Love it, hate it, or utterly confused by it, Homestuck is a significant achievement in modern storytelling. Fans who were left unsatisfied by the comic’s ending will be glad to know that Hussie is planning on releasing an epilogue . . . at some point. For better or for worse, it is unlikely there will ever be another comic quite like Homestuck, and it will be interesting to see what Hussie is going to work on next.