There’s a silly webcomic by a guy named Andrew Hussie that you might’ve seen if you spend much time around /co/ or Tumblr. (I don’t, but I’ve heard complaints). It’s called Homestuck and it’s a fascinatingly meta take on RPGs and youth. Though famous more for its formal gimmicks and odd sense of humour, there’s a deliberateness in the structure that points to certain themes. The comic operates well as parody for parody’s sake, but spend tens of hours reading through it and you’ll start to see more. If you’re willing to brave minor spoilers, read on.
First, a summary: Homestuck is about a group of teenaged internet friends playing a video game to save the world. But this isn’t the Matrix–reality and fiction don’t coexist. Logging into the game triggers a downpour of asteroids that destroys the Earth’s population just before the protagonists can escape. Yes, they escape into the game. Their goal is to “beat” the game and find a way to revive their planet.
Interestingly, the game doesn’t become the equivalent of reality. The characters are aware that it’s a game (and that it’s bizarrely structured like a tabletop RPG campaign). The game is still a set of rules, filled with its own ridiculous abstractions: the early chapters dwell on confusing inventory systems and an arbitrary level hierarchy. These gaming abstractions aren’t merely parody material for the reader to laugh at–they’re material for the characters to laugh at. The item synthesis system lets the cast create everything from jetpacks to a Bill Cosby laptop. We know that a Bill Cosby laptop is a ridiculous/awesome idea. So do they. We are watching people play a game.
So the comic’s postmodern knowingness works out for comedic purposes, but as the pages upon pages of IM chat logs build up (this is how the characters communicate), it’s hard not to wonder if there’s method to the madness. Hints are dropped: John, the first of the four heroes, rambles about his emotionally distant father’s obsession with clown dolls. The man keeps buying them as gifts, John says, thinking he likes them, when in reality they’re ugly and stupid. It’s all just a prank to make him writhe in embarrassment as he’s forced to recall his childhood fascinations. It is later mentioned offhandedly that perhaps Dad is buying presents for his child simply to bridge the gap between father and son.
What makes this suggestion a revelation rather than common sense is the fact that silliness is the standard in Homestuck. The reader is forced to suspend their disbelief within the first five minutes and ends up taking the silliness at face value. Create an elaborate plot to sneak outside and check the mail in search of your brand new game; crawl past your alcoholic mother’s wizard statues that she surely only bought to passive-aggressively irritate you since she knows you hate wizards. It’s funny when you read it, but there are moments when characters offer logical explanations for the chaos. Maybe it’s not just a prank, they realize, thinking back on their parents’ irrational actions. Maybe they see it that way because that’s what they believe.
The comic is ongoing so a central theme hasn’t solidified yet, but the coming-of-age thread continues. Each hero’s adventure begins by fusing household items and miscellaneous organisms to create spirit guides to help them on their quest. John ends up with his dead grandmother (fused with a clown plushie, if I recall correctly); Dave gets his older brother-slash-mentor and Rose gets her deceased cat/best friend. This is important. The spirit guides aren’t arbitrarily assigned: the were friends and mentors in real life. The premise of the game is to use the minerals gained from defeating monsters to build the hero’s house vertically until they can reach a portal in the sky. Every character begins at home–homestuck. The world is gone but your house is still there because it matters to you. Your friends are geographically out of reach–each of you ends up in a different in-game world–but you communicate through IM, just like you did in real life. There are unresolved tensions: John’s Dad’s study, the only part of the house invisible on the mini-map, symbolic of his fatherly elusiveness and mystery. Each character is introduced with a paragraph summarizing their interests based on objects lying around their room. It is not some fantasy RPG abstraction that defines the characters, but rather the posters in their rooms and objects in their houses. Need I say it? Just like real life.
It reminds me of Harry Potter and a longish article from The New Yorker that basically says that fantasy doesn’t have to take place in a foreign world. Often, especially in young adult stories like Harry Potter, fantasy is a mirror of reality. It’s not the intricacies of the lore and Latin spell incantations that turned the book into an icon–it’s the way Hogwarts mirrors school life. The authoritarian teachers and late-night pranks are exaggerated, of course, but at the end of the day they’re familiar to all of us. The farther I got into Homestuck, the more I felt that it was much the same. Here’s a vague approximation of a quote that pops up somewhere deep in the series: It’s hard being a kid. It’s hard and no one understands. A single sentence in a story of Tsukihime‘s length, yet it sticks. It’s echoed in a later arc when it is revealed that the game is deliberately designed to be played by children entering puberty. Romance is supposed to bubble up and mess with team unity. It’s no coincidence that the cast wrestles with the troubles of youth while trying to save the world.
(Umineko comparisons would be made if it weren’t for spoilers for both series. In a nutshell, both stories have characters playing the role of the reader and analyzing the “real” story for us. In Homestuck’s case, the characters provide meta commentary on their game. It raises the reader’s awareness that everything is deliberate and structured, perhaps for thematic ends.)
So what exactly is this game and why was it made this way? We don’t know yet, but I’ll stick to my theory that it’s a grand, hilarious, brilliantly hyperbolic coming-of-age tale. The whole idea of life being like a tabletop RPG is driven home by the countless allusions, and the few lines of thematic development stick out like a sore thumb (in a good way). This really isn’t The Matrix. It’s middle school life told as a game.
And while this post is more explanatory than evaluative, I should mention that the comic is actually good. What really makes it work in comparison to your average magical girl/YA fantasy coming-of-age narrative is the amount of fun it has with itself. The characters grow on you while you’re busy laughing. The whole story does.