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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hyperflexible Mythology: Classpects, Fandom, and Fanfiction

Several months ago when I decided to move this entire establishment to the icy howling perpetual nightmare that is Jupiter's Great Red Spot some reacted with undue skepticism. But it looks like yet again I have gotten the last laugh, fools, for through a chain of events too complex to describe here but stemming inexorably from my decision to drop a once hospitable pub into the middle of a storm that ravages the flesh and mind alike with fingers of icy death, I have finally achieved my highest level of power yet!

Yes, indeed, I have reached... GOD TIER!

Pictured: My pantless apotheosis is complete.

This change couldn't have come at a better time, as by sheer coincidence I wish to speak today about famed hypercomic Homestuck's symbolic and mythological structure which ties into the "God Tier" that certain characters reach throughout the narrative.

One of the many game-inspired parts of Homestuck is its use of what are called Mythological Roles for each character. That sounds very lofty, but what it really amounts to is one of the oldest elements in fantasy games: a magical area of expertise or "aspect," and a way in which that aspect is used as a tool by the character: a "class." Together, these mythological roles are described, somewhat awkwardly, as "Classpects," and they overshadow much of the fandom's activity.

I want to talk about them today not so much to analyze what individual classpects mean and do, or even their role in the wider narrative of Homestuck (plenty of other writers have already spilled much ink on these topics), but to explore what they mean for the fandom. See, the classpects are, in the words of author Andrew Hussie, a kind of hyperflexible mythology with a wide range of possible interpretations and implementations. These aren't necessarily traditional "elements" or rpg classes--classes include such odd things as "Sylph," "Muse," and "Heir," and aspects include "Breath," "Light," "Blood," "Hope," and "Void"--and the classpects are often ill-defined in their powers, or profoundly shaky in application, in part due to the fact that many of the characters do not, themselves, understand their own abilities. This leads, inevitably, to lots of fan speculation and conversation. It also represents one of the many systems within Homestuck that fans can latch onto as a structure to manipulate and deviate from in fan works.

Homestuck is not alone in having such a structure. The Classpects share many of their most useful qualities with such diverse systems as the Five Colors of Magic in Magic: The Gathering, the four Houses of Hogwarts, and the multi-person teamup nature of Pacific Rim's Jaegers. What these systems all share is a certain amount of arbitraryness and vagueness balanced by a named structure and a range of possible, tangible implementations of that structure. And they seem to share many of the same effects on fanfiction and fandom activities, making certain things possible that are not, perhaps, as easy to pull off with either more loosely or more rigidly defined structures.

Classpects first and foremost, as far as tangible details go, represent a power set. They represent the ability to manipulate certain things, pull of certain stunts, and, when pushed far enough, pull off ludicrous notional hacks on reality itself. One of the lead characters is a Knight of Time, for example, which seems to represent time being used as a weapon. This character loops around the timestream during battle, resulting in the creation of redundant copies of himself all fighting the same opponent. That's kind of the standard way in which aspects and classes interact: the class defines the way in which the aspect is mobilized by the player character.

Tantalizingly, though, there are weirder, more broken combinations. Recently within the narrative, for example, a number of strange classpects have shown up and started wreaking absolute havoc on the narrative and setting alike. For example (and skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't wish to have one character's skillset spoiled) there are classes that deal with theft--Thiefs and Rogues. One aspect, Light, deals with luck, fortune, and the fortuitous path to victory. A stealing-based character with the aspect of Light is therefore able to steal luck from enemies for his or her own use. But what happens when a theft-based player has the aspect Void, which holds dominion over nothingness, emptiness, and nonexistence? Well, apparently stealing your aspect translates to stealing the nonexistence from a thing--or, when you parse out the double negative there, you can paradoxically make anything appear at will.

The result of these shenanigans is that we have just enough information to begin speculation on what the less well defined Classpects might be and do, without enough information to rigidly define the possibilities as, say, the fairly well circumscribed four (and a bit) types of bending in the Avatar universe define possibilities for that setting, just for example. This opens up a wide range of creative possibilities for authors who want to push the boundaries of the existing material while still remaining recognizably related to the source material.

This is part of the nature of Hyperflexible Mythology: it straddles the line between opening up possibilities and providing structure in a useful way. Without leaving the existing system it's possible to create a huge array of characters (there are, if I've got this figured right, 168 different possible combinations just based on the existing 14 classes and 12 aspects, some of which aren't even well explored in canon despite their nominal use in-text). As the powers are often so ill-defined (for example: we have no idea what the Mage class does, only sketchy speculation on what the Blood aspect holds dominion over--certainly not literal blood, because that would be too easy--one class is described as "like a witch but more magical" whatever the hell that means, &c. &c.), it's possible to explore and imagine all kinds of different character powersets while still largely remaining true to the information we have.

Hyperflexible Mythologies also often contain literal and nonliteral qualities--a literal powerset (skills drawn from a Classpect, spell types that fall under the five colors of mana in MTG) and a symbolic dimension that taps into themes, philosophical concepts, character arcs, &c. It's generally understood at this point that the Mythological Roles are not just a bunch of Cool Powers but a representation of a character's developmental arc and their place within the wider narrative. They describe, and even predestine the way in which each character self actualizes, or at least attempts to. This predestination in the context of a video game is possible due to the nonlinear perspective of the game itself: SBURB, which the kids are playing and which provides their Classpects, stands outside of their timeline and, through stable time loops, can match the development a character will undergo to the Classpect that character is assigned (which of course prompts particular developments fulfilling the roles assigned in the first place).

The mythological roles then are intriguing to fans because they represent something of a character's nature and it's possible to speculate backwards from the arc that we see within the comic to the nature of the classpects... though this is always made difficult by the fact that there are two parts to each Classpect and the fact that none of the character arcs are, as of yet, actually finished. We can attempt to speculate on the fact that the Knight of Blood, Karkat, seems to simultaneously form powerful bonds that serve his team well in battle (most notably, there is a moment when he and another character bond over their shared strange mutant blood--bright red, a color that his alien species does not normally exhibit) while also resisting this aspect of himself and denying his own emotional vulnerabilities. The character arc for Blood thus seems to be one driven by social interaction and interpersonal relationship, and part of this character's development might be one of understanding his relationships better. Nevertheless, while we can speculate based on this information, we can't know for sure.

This miasma of doubt permeates much of the comic, in fact, due to the staggering unreliability of any of the sources we have for virtually any information, anywhere in the text. In this regard, Homestuck has probably one of the most Hyperflexible Mythologies you could possibly have without collapsing back into total freedom. Every source is compromised in one way or another. Andrew Hussie himself, the presumed highest authority on such matters, appears in the comic as a hyperactive, overreacting, sarcastic, and profoundly arrogant egotist whose behavior and narration are both profoundly erratic. There are two other key sources of Classpect knowledge; both are characters within the comic. One just went bonkers and decided to declare herself a god based on a possibly totally erroneous understanding of her OWN Classpect, and the other is an alien with a profoundly fucked up childhood who serves as a representation and possibly spoof in-comic of... well... the kind of fans who comb over the material for proof of their pet theories about Classpects and then repeat those pet theories as absolute, undeniable gospel truth. Like, literally her whole existence is to act as a metatextual representation of the creative-but-certainly-not-faultless part of the fandom's culture, alongside her foil--her brother--who represents the belligerent, developmentally arrested, shitty part of the fandom's culture. Her knowledge comes from reading over the literal exact same story we are reading with key moments in the story cut out deliberately to deny her key information about her enemy, which she then extrapolates meaning from! All in all, these are NOT super reliable sources.

Throwing things even further into doubt is the sheer mindboggling amount of punning present within the narrative as a whole and classpects in particular. One character, for example, is the Heir of Breath. This gives him wind powers, and among other things seems to allow him to turn into... a breath of air.

Get it?

Geeeet iiiit?

Yeah, the story is full of jokes like that. I just hollered aloud not ten minutes ago upon reading a mention in the zenosanalytic post linked above of how the Maid of Time keeps the timeline tidy. Literally for years I've been thinking of the "Maid" class in terms of medieval fantasy, fair maidens and all that, due to the other vaguely medieval classes. This double meaning never even occurred to me.

Another good example of this is the Prince class--a Destroyer class, apparently, that brings their aspect to ruin. One of my favorite people, Melissadoom, pointed out to me in a chat last night that while this class doesn't overtly make a lot of sense, it's possible to understand it by way of Machiavelli's infamous text. And there's some indication that Princes in-story are predominantly schemers and amassers of power. The title thus depends upon association and evocation for its meaning rather than a straighforward translation of powers and implications. You typically have to go one or more (sometimes many more) levels into the Classpect before the meaning starts to become apparent, and even then everything is still subject to the confusion stemming from each character's as-of-yet unfulfilled destinies.

I think this has indisputably helped to fuel the ravenously passionate fanbase Homestuck has accrued over the years. The sheer number of potential readings, hidden meanings, and endless conceptual permutations results inevitably in what is probably an endless array of possible conversations and debates. Homestuck here mirrors other literary works of lasting merit: just as we endlessly circle around what T.S. Eliot described as a problematically flawed play, Hamlet, or Eliot's own disjointed and often deliberately evasive "Waste Land," so I suspect that we will circle around the meanings in Homestuck for a long time.

But all of this has to do with the phenomenon of the discussion of Classpects and the development of an entire passionate range of Homestuck Theorists specializing in Classpect Theory. I haven't talked yet about the other massive effect that Hyperflexible Mythologies have on fandoms: their tendency to enable a massive proliferation of fanfictional experiments.

One of the intriguing things about Hyperflexible Mythologies is that they make recombinations easy to generate. You can, for example, reassign mythological roles or parts of mythological roles to different characters, then extrapolate backwards to how that role was assigned and extrapolate forwards to that reassignment's effect on the narrative. While the roles are ambiguous in many cases, this just provides greater incentive for authors, as the fanfiction can serve effectively as not just a narrative in its own right but a form fo theorizing and speculation through narrative. It's fanfiction serving as literary analysis, exploring alternate possibilities in order to put forth theories about the truth of the original text. This exercise is of course also possible with Hogwarts houses (Hufflepuff!Harry using the power of friendship to bind his allies together, resulting in a more robust resistance to Umbrige! Ravenclaw!Neville finding his talents for herbology early and becoming a fierce rival, occasional ally, and eventual lover to Hermione! Ron the Deatheater!) and with Magic colors (Blue Black!Jace unifying Ravnica and acting as the Living Guildpact by day, while secretly running House Dimir at night, playing a vast game of solitaire against himself enabled by self-administered memory erasure! Major hat tip to Zomburai of Everyday Abnormal for tipping me off to the brilliant possibilities of this character development).

This is closely associated with one of the most beloved of fandom games: imagining crossovers.

I mean, we saw this after Pacific Rim dropped, almost immediately, right? Suddenly EVERY FANDOM had a Pacific Rim AU, because the actual process of deciding who is drift compatible with whom is really freaking fun. It's engaging because it means you have to consider all the relationships within a cast of characters and then analyze which ones are actually stable enough to support drifting. The movie makes it clear that all sorts of different relationships are viable but which ones are you going to privilege narratively?

This becomes even more entertaining when you start smashing together the hyperflexible mythologies of two different settings together. If you merge Homestuck and Pacific Rim, you have to consider how the mythological roles are translated into a setting where two characters work in unison as a single entity. How do these roles and their narrative import weigh upon the relationships, positively or negatively? How do people collaborate across different mindsets and skillsets to find some sort of unity? And, all that important character stuff aside, how do they translate to badass powers used to punch Kaiju in the face?

You may note that a lot of these questions are already present in one or both works. That's part of makes these games of recombinatorics so fruitful from the perspective of fanfiction writing. As vehicles for theme, any consideration of them in a new setting results in new thematic considerations. The questions raised by the hyperflexible mythology in its native habitat compound with the new hyperflexible mythology that's been added to it. If fanfiction is at its best when grappling with key concepts from the original series (and I think it often is) then these games of combination and recombination serve as an easy vehicle for such considerations.

For the blending of Homestuck and Pacific Rim, for example, the notion of each character having an individual myth arc represented by their classpect butts heads potentially with the unification that drift compatibility represents. The two notions seem to be at odds, one leading the narrative in a direction of personal epiphany and heroic progress, the other leading the narrative in a direction of collaboration and liked relationship arcs. How the fanfic author navigates these tensions provides much of the conceptual interest and narrative productivity.

Hyperflexible mythologies thus provide a range of things to the writer: they provide a series of problems for consideration, tangible possibilities for alternate paths, potentially fruitful interactions with other systems, and an array of potential solutions to the difficulties and problems that are both inherent in the base structure and generated by the manipulation and recombination of that system. It's very similar to the structure of musical harmony or color balance or composition on a page: understanding the system within which you operate both reveals a set of problems that must be solved and a number of tools by which you might solve those problems, the two sides of artistic process braided together as one from the outset.

There's one other profound advantage to hyperflexible mythologies as well which I've hinted at a little bit but which is worth exploring in more explicit detail. That's the power of total randomness--the reworking of these ideas outside of an intelligent author's control, everything determined by a roll of the often digital dice.

Randomness is a powerful creative tool that's been used extensively in art methodologies for about a century now. One of these days I'm going to write in more detail on the Surrealists and how they incorporated the powers of the random into their works, but what's important here is the underlying reason behind their games (like the Exquisite Corpse, where multiple individuals draw on different panels of the same piece of paper, each working independently until the full frankenstein's monster is revealed at the end) and the presence of randomness in their own work (such as Max Ernst's use of rubbings from textured surfaces to inspire alien landscapes and strange monsters).

For the Surrealists, randomness was a way of bringing the Unconscious into the world. What they saw within random designs represented to them their deeply buried thoughts manifesting in reality.

Regardless of the veracity of the Freudian and Jungian models by which they were inspired, as far as using randomness as a tool is concerned, they were right on point in considering it valuable! Randomness can be a powerful tool for sparking considerations that you otherwise would not have explored, revealing truths to which you were blind, and possibilities that would never have occurred to your conscious mind.

I've found that with assigning characters to Hogwarts houses, in particular. The houses are so vaguely circumscribed according to such arbitrary and potentially heavily overlapping characteristics that there's a certain amount of arbitraryness to any assignment. Recognizing that and pushing that to the logical conclusion that you can assign the houses effectively at random is a profoundly creatively empowering insight, because it provides you the opportunity and the challenge (remember, the two go hand in hand!) to invent character justifications for those assignments. It becomes not a process of finding the Best Fit but a process of finding the Best Story, which is probably more important in the end.

It is the hyperflexibility the Hogwarts houses, and of the Classpects, that makes this arbitrary assignment possible. There is enough structure to allow you to compose those justifications after the fact, but enough flexibility and artificial constructedness (which is a recurring idea in Homestuck that I hope to explore in the future as well!) to allow the narrative roulette wheel to spin mostly freely.

Hyperflexible Mythologies are thus a major boon to fanfiction writers or anyone writing within a shared world. They offer the benefits of structure while also providing a remarkable amount of freedom.

There's one potential downside to this structure however that's worth discussing. That's the limitations of going beyond the existing system. It's very difficult to envision a Sixth Color of Magic or a New Aspect or Class. I've seen only one really successful attempt at the former, and only a handful of successful attempts at the latter.

This is not because the systems are perfect or well contained within themselves but because individual components of these systems tend to be both

A. nebulously defined
B. encompassing many qualities some already overlapping or bound to overlap with new categories
C. carefully planned and developed organically via narrative rather than invented whole cloth and
D. tied heavily to a compelling narrative

It's difficult to envision the boundaries of a new Classpect because the boundaries of Classpects are already so fuzzy. It's easy to charge, therefore, that a new Classpect is redundant, not because the existing Classpects don't overlap in some ways or even seem redundant at times (we know that some Classpects due to their aspect-class combo can strongly emulate one another, for example) but because pinning down a particular meaning to a new Classpect when those within the narrative are frequently not defined directly but have their natures revealed through the narrative tends to make similarities more apparent.

For this reason, I think that redundancy is a less interesting critique of fan-generated Classpects. It's an easy charge to level and therefore I think a less incisive one. More important is the multi-layered nature of Classpects and their heavy use of obfuscating symbolism and double entendre. Melissadoom and I in our conversations have sort of settled on one particular fan Classpect as our ur-example of classpects that lack the necessary obfuscation: Monk of Zen. It's... I mean, it's just frustrating in its obviousness. As far as I can tell, it's simply what it appears to be and can never hope to be much more. I'd contrast that with more evocative names that I've run across, the most significant probably being the God Tier Classpect that fans bestowed upon Andrew Hussie himself: the Waste of Space. Waste is an evocative name that resists easy compartmentalization in traditional classes, it has the advantage of being a terrible pun, and while it brings certain ideas to mind it suggests a myriad of paths that a character who has such a title might take in their development. (One of the more interesting idle pastimes in this fandom, in my opinion, is taking the "joke" classes--Waste of Space, Huss of Lips, Nick of Time (Nic Cage's god tier), Gent of Piss, and Douche of Tears, and try to extrapolate, from what we know of each bearer in-narrative, what their joke classpects might actually mean.)

There are, then, challenges to fans that Hyperflexible Mythologies provide. That is, I think, their paradoxical appeal. It is in the standard they set and the challenge they offer that fans find fascination. They (like the icy winds of Jupiter) provide a crucible for creative actualization, setting a series of tests for the novice writer that, if passed, will see them coming out the other side more creative, more capable, and more prone to the sort of divergent thinking upon which such systems thrive.

And if you study them carefully, you two may someday shed your pants and ascend to glory as I have done, and attain a Classpect as glorious and brilliant as my own ingenious and totally not stupid fan Classpect:

The Page...

Of Paper.


Once again the illustration this week is made possible due to the generous support of 14 fans (so far) who have pledged to the Patreon Campaign for this blog. The image above was posted earlier today for $3 backers, along with three other sketches that I decided not to include in the article that explore the concept of mashing Homestuck and other narratives more closely. Curious? Consider joining the campaign at the $3 tier! The campaign is set up so that you pledge to pay a certain amount for each post, with rewards for your pledge running as low as just 50 cents--which, incidentally, is all I need pledged right now to make it to a cool $50 per article!--and as high as $10 (which lets you effectively commission me to write an article).

The more money I get, the more time I can spend improving the site, getting the word out about StIT, adding more content, and launching experimental projects--experimental projects like the $5 backer reward, which will be PDF collections of thematically related articles, with new illustrations and content.

So please consider supporting Storming the Ivory Tower on Patreon. You, and the folks who have already pledged, can help keep this strange project that I started almost three years ago going strong well into the future.

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  1. If you are looking for good variety of cutting tools than your search ends here.

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  2. Great article as always, but it really surprised me that you didn't mention Bladekindeyewear's theories on what the whole classpect system actually means. I'd really love to hear your opinion on them.

    1. Speaking of fan stuff, there's also plenty of chapters in the Sburb Glitch FAQ that speculate on what the class/aspects are and have power over...but it's interesting to me not because it tries to clarify the vague, but because of how it tries to tie those classpects to a narrative.

      IDK how to describe it, really, aside from examples. The Glitch FAQ is written, well, like an FAQ, where each chapter is an article about a different part of the game. Some of the most fascinating articles are the Roleplay Coefficient (where Sburb rewards you for acting like your class would), the Unbreakable Unions (interactions between classes), the Class Spectra (pairing classes against each other as opposite ends of a spectrum), an article about how a Class acts on an's all interesting stuff, and the way it's written (as an article in an FAQ) allows for a really big exploration of concepts, much bigger than you'd find in a traditional narrative.
      There's the one that immediately jumps to mind as something you'd like.
      This one is just fascinating in general. Plus, it opens with the line "First, let’s discuss the meaning of Sburb. I’m mostly going to use the Clockwork Reversal theory and drift into the postmodernist sburban cosmogony, with a touch of neo-Squidissension (but without the esoteric stuff)." Heh, reminds me of //someone//.

    2. (General you, not a you directed at anyone.)

  3. Paper is a two syllable word. I cannot accept it as an aspect.

  4. If you are looking for a great Pacific Rim/Homestuck crossover AU fic check this amazing piece of fiction out:
    It's doubly fascinating because it also explores what the far future of PR looks like.


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