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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.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Just Peachy: Homestuck, Act 6, and Difficulty

==> Storming the Ivory Tower Writer: Fondly Observe Libations


You, which is to say I, observe your, which is to say my, IMMACULATE DOMAIN, containing my IMMACULATE CHAIR and IMMACULATE SELF. You (read: I) have cleared away all those EXTRA SAM KEEPERS which were clogging up the joint, repaired the roof that's been busted for SEVERAL YEARS, and finally gotten some NICE WINE which you (still me) are currently fondly regarding.

You (I) have achieved the absolute apex of God Tier powers, which includes among other things fixing roofs, ushering extraneous versions of people gently but firmly out of the narrative so they don't clutter up things for the real, true versions, and to make absolute pronouncements with assured certainty, which everyone will accept automatically you're sure (which is to say I am sure).

==> StIT Writer: Demonstrate Abilities.

Act 6 and Act 7 do a much better job of addressing and resolving character arcs than [s] Cascade does.

Boom. See that?

Staggering in its radical brilliance but fundamentally undeniable in its accuracy.

(Sam Keeper): What? You can't just say something like that and pat yourself on the back! There's loads of stuff you'd have to explain to make that make sense to people.

==> StIT Writer: Ignore Unwelcome Intrusion


(Sam Keeper): Are you listening to me? You're leaving out so much important information, like even ignoring the fact that you haven't explained why you're even MAKING that comparison, the comparison is only interesting if you talk about a bunch of other stuff that Act 6 is doing. I mean yeah the whole act is basically about experiencing difficulty and working through that difficulty rather than expecting flashy magical solutions, and that APPLIES to this comparison, but the comparison really isn't interesting unless you talk about all that stuff first!

(Sam Keeper): In fact, even people that seem to agree with me that the end of Homestuck was pretty great take as given the idea that [s] Cascade resolved a load of stuff, and they position [s] Act 7 in opposition to this.

(Sam Keeper): Look, just, fill people in a bit! Act 6 is difficult but that difficulty is really interesting and worth talking about, so let's talk about it!

==> StIT Writer: Indulge This Walking Narrative Cul-De-Sac






Fine. Let's talk first a little bit about Cascade though, you withering appendage of my distributed self.

The reality is that Cascade resolves next to nothing in the comic up till the point where it appears. There's a few major events that are pushed forward by Cascade, and some major closed time loops, but from a standpoint of characters moving their development forward? Yeah, not actually a whole lot going on in Cascade, as surprising as that might be to hear, judging at least by what I've seen people say recently.

It's kind of difficult to argue this though because it's tricky to demonstrate the nonexistence of a thing. But we can kinda pull out some of what is happening in Cascade and analyze what it does for the narrative. 

For example, Dave and Rose go god-tier. That's big and dramatic and flashy--which is a recurring kinda theme in Cascade that we'll come back to. 

And Jade ascends to god tier of course, and that's also big and dramatic and flashy.

But these don't so much represent the neat conclusion of particular arcs as either their movement forward along their particular paths incrementally... or their sudden truncation. Jade's ascent for example involves her merger with her dream self, so Jadesprite's character arc is just sorta apparently brought to an end. For Dave and Rose, we find out what the Tumor is for: not blowing up the green sun but actually CREATING it, which is a hell of a revelation but raises more questions than it answers. It's a dramatic twist but I find it hard to call it a resolution. Bec Noir resolves the plot arc of the exiles in the sense, I guess, that they almost all end up dead, which... again, not so much a resolution as another sudden truncation. 

Cascade largely has two things going for it, though.

First, it introduces a series of dramatic flips in the narrative: Bec Noir is suddenly counterbalanced by the Peregrine Mendicant, and in turn is demoted shortly after Cascade by the arrival of Lord English, the assumed destruction of the Green Sun is replaced by its paradoxical creation, and the Scratch is escaped by the escape from two dying universes into the Outer Ring. In this sense, yes, there's a whole lot of loops closed, though I think you'll find that actually piecing everything together is much easier upon re-reading the comic than it is the first time you experience Cascade.

And second of all, Cascade is full of flashy shit that can be mistaken for the resolution of character arcs. I think, judging by the fact that people seem to be complaining a lot about character arcs when they complain about Act 7, that this is what they're talking about... but in reality most of Cascade is a cool light show that doesn't really help to resolve any of the fundamental problems that the characters face. Like so many things in Homestuck, it's kind of a con. 

So effective is this illusion of character progress, in fact, that even the characters themselves are taken in.

This is where act 6 comes in. To a large extent Act 6 acts as a deconstruction of Cascade in particular and much of the comic up till that point more broadly. It's an examination of the actual ability of these particular characters to differentiate between Flashy Powers and actual maturation. Within Act 6 there's a repeated search for dramatic flashy solutions to everyone's problems all at once, and these attempts always make things catastrophically worse. Without exception they are disastrous, just a total fucking mess. And the appeal of Cascade I think is the appeal of the flashy dramatic epic solution to all problems. We should understand Act 6 in terms of a response to Cascade, in terms of a particular idea that Hussie is trying to introduce about difficulty.

(Sam Keeper): Yes, finally, that's what I'm talking about! I've even written three different articles on difficulty in games before, so I'm sure they'll be useful here, and there's loads you can say about how Act 6 is diffi-

AS I WAS SAYING this is a useful term to introduce because Act 6 is very difficult in a number of ways for the reader. There are a number of challenges facing the reader as we start Act 6. For example, we have a whole new slate of characters that we're forced to get to know, reiterating the introduction model from earlier in the comic. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but this comic is at page 6000something and when you've read that much and you're having to go through a bunch of new introductions I can see how this can be quite tedious. Even as someone who likes Act 6 I find that this is a bit much to grind through. There's the fact as well that we have this big dramatic climax in Cascade and the course of the narrative has been dramatically reshaped, with a whole range of new challenges offered, but we're immediately told right away that it's going to take three years for anyone to get to where they want to go. So the stakes have been dramatically raised, but we're going to have to wait a considerable time before anything is resolved. Then there's the new session itself, which is characterized by delay, lack of progress, and desolation. Between the invocation of inert noble gases and lands covered in tombs built by civilizations that died before their saviors came, it's a bleak setting characterized by inaction. 

This is all stuff that the characters chafe at, and I think it frustrates the reader as well.

This is probably the most emotionally trying part of Homestuck, in the sense that the kids repeatedly find that they aren't doing all that well emotionally. The kids here struggle with grief, guilt, trauma, and the confrontation of multiplied selves and the question of identity. And for the most part, we see them repeatedly stumble, with Dave and Karkat losing direction, John becoming frustrated and petulant while stuck on the same ship for three years, Terezi spiraling deeper and deeper into self-loathing, Davesprite sinking deeper into his depression... it's just a real mess.

This is a part of the comic where we see a number of overtly abusive relationships play out, which is a pretty trying thing to read at times as well. It's much more apparent to me on a re-read that the interactions of the Alpha kids are pretty resolutely disastrous. Jane and Jake are at constant cross purposes with their communication due to their own peculiarities, but it's obvious also that Dirk is extremely manipulative and controlling of Jake, and Roxy is pushy and sexually aggressive towards Dirk who she knows isn't interested in her.

These kids have no way of effectively grappling with their psychological differences and their emotional needs, and it leads to pretty disastrous scenarios. To reiterate, it's a real fucking mess, and I think it can be quite emotionally trying to read. 

What's important though is recognizing that this is set up quite deliberately as something that is affectively difficult, something emotionally challenging, something frustrating to experience... something that we therefore long to see a dramatic solution for.

What we are given in response is Trickster Mode.

Now, I can understand if you dislike Trickster Mode. It's totally reasonable to respond that way because Trickster Mode is meant to be disturbing.

For those wondering what the fuck I'm talking about, Trickster Mode occurs when the Alpha Kids get their hands on a magical item that Hussie as narrator compares to a star in Mario. And everything kinda ends up looking like this:


And that's without the horrible horrible soundtrack.

It's important to recognize that the effect of trickster mode on the reader is meant to roughly parallel the effect on the characters, namely:


So eeryone turns colorful and they all babble about how they're going to have loads of babies and never have emotional problems ever again. 

Well, except Dirk who turns pastel but is still just as depressed as before, which is actually a great nod to the fact that Trickster Mode doesn't actually change anything beyond surface level bullshit.

This is pretty much up front and explicit within the text. Andrew Hussie has a conversation with the villain Caliborn about the situation where he describes Trickster Mode as "freakish and disturbing" and fundamentally alien to the human need to work through interpersonal problems. And we get this amazing comparison to stars in Mario: Hussie describes stars as "devastating to Mario's personal growth." This is, of course, ludicrous. It wouldn't be Homestuck if the narrator was reliable, you know? But this nonsense actually does reflect core ideas within Act 6, and a particular response to Act 5 and Cascade.

Cascade is, from the standpoint of the narrative, effectively a kind of Trickster Mode. Cascade represents a really dramatic set of leaps forward in the GAME THAT THE CHARACTERS ARE PLAYING where a lot seems to get resolved but very little beyond immediate game construct concerns are really fixed. God Tier gets a similar treatment: God Tier is positioned early on as a thing that will solve the problems of the players. Later on, however, this is called into question in a number of ways, such as the conversation where Karkat and Dave discuss the Gift of the Gab ability and Karkat's assumption that it allows God Tier players to better communicate on an emotional level. It's a great example of game abstractions taking the place, for the characters, of actual real attempts to deal with all the emotional baggage that they're left with over the course of playing this awful fucked up hellgame.


So Trickster Mode acts as a really direct commentary on all this other stuff going on, these patterns where stuff seems to be resolved for characters but they actually aren't. It's the most overt example of characters and readers mistaking flashy powersets for personal growth.

Caliborn acts as a reader stand-in when he complains about how slow and frustrating and full of Feelings these teens are. Hussie responds by criticizing him for treating the characters as game objects. Caliborn of course literally acts this out later by creating his own super shitty adaptation of Homestuck where all the boring stuff is skipped over and cool dude Dave Strider wins everything forever and gets all the bitches. Basically, Caliborn is a little shit but he's a little shit in a particular way that represents a form of fandom engagement, in the same way Calliope represents a different form of fandom engagement.

So Hussie is doing something a little mean here. He's suggesting that our desire to see problems resolved quickly so the plot can move forward is analogous to what Caliborn does, treating these characters as just puppets for our amusement. Which is hugely ironic because Hussie-as-narrator spends loads of time proclaiming himself an absolute master of the narrative with the characters as, yes, his puppets. But as an artist he's constantly finding ways to have his characters jump out of the narrative and resist Hussie-as-narrator, leading up eventually to the final escape from the narrative entirely in Act 7.

All of this adds up to a text that plays heavily with difficulty by presenting the reader with first a reason to desire an easy resolution of problems, and then presenting the reader with a series of events that dramatize the results of attempted easy fixes. The impulse to feel satisfied with Cascade because of the aesthetic qualities that make it deeply cathartic while still being empty from the standpoint of the characters' emotional maturation is challenged in Act 6, and with it the whole desire for emotionally cathartic myth arcs that serve the reader's sense of dramatic convention more than the emotional needs of the characters.

As mentioned above, there are a number of events that parallel Trickster Mode, and I think in these events we can see a challenge to the player/reader's hegemony. When we look at who is successful within the game, we see that it's characters who try to get their own shit together on a personal level rather than the ones who try to turn themselves into grand heroes. The ones most susceptible to grand heroic narratives are the ones most prone to dramatically fucking up everything. Aranea is probably the ultimate example of this, a megalomaniac convinced that she can see the best possible path for absolutely everyone and if she seizes control of the narrative she will create a far better story capable of transcending its origins. It's not exactly a bad plan in the sense that this is... actually kind of what the kids end up doing, ultimately. She wasn't exactly wrong to think dodging out of causality was the right path. But her problem is that she carries out this plan in a way that's driven by hubris, a conviction that whatever gets her closer to her goals is allowable. Aranea is ultimately monstrous in both actions and ideals, driven by her omniscient knowledge of how people feel about her to manipulate and control those around her, and the end result is that everyone dies horribly.

Vriska is exactly the same way. There's some theorizing that Vriska ultimately doesn't make it out of the game in the end, and I think there's a lot of support for this theory thematically. She's spared from her fate in the original timeline, and yet she seems to learn absolutely nothing, no humility, no regret, and she bases her entire decision path on her desire to be the source and the end of Ultimate Evil, even at the price of oblivion. She's fixated on being the person at the absolute center of the narrative.

And, of course, above them all is the self-styled artist Caliborn, who (in the form of Lord English) kills the literal author of Homestuck, and then attempts to supplant the narrative with one of his own creation, a narrative that, it's implied, would have come to pass were it not for John's extracanonical meddling. Caliborn is a total jackass, but is there anyone more convinced that the narrative would be much better served if everyone just did what he wanted them to do?


In contrast what we see with Terezi and John and Roxy, among others, is that they are self-centered. I don't mean that in a bad way. They're trying to determine their individual ethical paths rather than trying to lead and control those around them. Terezi explicitly describes her decision path as based ultimately in self-knowledge rather than assuming the knowledge necessary to controlling everyone around her. And I think that does tie back into the flashy powerup model of problem solving. People get where they need to go in their own time, in this narrative, and forcing things to accelerate and synchronize according to your desires and fantasies isn't a path to happiness, for really anyone. And Homestuck as a narrative is difficult because the characters resist our own ideas of what's best for them--our assumptions about whether or not they should complete their quests, who gets to count as the "real" version of a character, and what constitutes a sufficiently heroic and epic victory. (How dare they not heroically sacrifice themselves for our dramatic enjoyment! How dare they not resolve all of their problems in a neat and tidy way!)

Difficulty here, as with Undertale, is contextualized within gameplay and the idea of a difficult to beat game, a game that in its construction is fundamentally unfair. What Hussie has done here is paralleled a kind of game difficulty with the difficulty the characters experience as human beings dealing with trauma, growing up, and learning to relate to one another, and then paralleling that again with the actual experience of the comic as something difficult to read on an affective level, and then paralleled that AGAIN with the difficulty of accepting a narrative that eschews the Heroic Monomyth for something far stranger and more exciting. These ideas reflect each other throughout the work, making visible through readerly experience matched to the experience of the characters.

None of this is to say that Cascade isn't incredibly powerful and compelling! There's moments of Cascade that never fail to move me to tears. The triumphant reprise of Black Rose Green Sun, a song previously used after Rose loses herself in grief and fury after her mother's murder, here used to accompany Rose and Dave's death and mythological reverse, for example is just... incredibly powerful and moving. Symbolically it seems to suggest Rose and Dave rising above their death wishes.

But what Act Six shows is that going God Tier due to two universes blowing up in front of you is not the same thing as dealing with the fact that you saw your mother or brother get HURK


(Sam Keeper): Were you going to say STABBED? Is THAT what you were going to say? HAHAHAHAHAHA


(Sam Keeper): I cannot BELIEVE you fell for that! And you're supposed to be the one that has all those cool God Tier Character Development Skills! Well too bad, LOOOOSER!


Ah, look at that, the parentheses are gone and everything, fantastic. I am the NEW Mrs. De StIT Writer, sucker! By which I mean to say, I'm the old one, I guess.

Good thing my alternate self is such a blow hard, unlike me. I'm sure that Just Death is in no way reflective of a deeper character flaw that I should analyze in some way.

I'm sure we can all agree that unlike Homestuck's Act 6, there's really nothing of value to be learned here and all this strife was totally pointless and not something I will ever need to reflect upon.

My alternate self had a point though: I think in the end the lengthy denouement of Act 6 provides a lot of the closure that people seem to have looked for in [s] Collide and [s] Act 7. Those two flashes were never really meant to resolve every single character arc. Rather, that heavy lifting was done over the course of Act 6 as characters slowly tried to work through their issues together, doing the hard work of, well, growing up. Collide and Act 7 should be seen as the final reward that we, the readers, receive upon playing through a hard game and grappling with the challenges that the narrative throws at us (though Act 7 has its own puzzles: just like any part of Homestuck, figuring out what exactly happened is a kind of game, and you have to work through the last part of the comic a few times before figuring out how all the timelines fit together).

Yes, Collide and Act 7 are mostly very flashy, exciting, cathartic experiences that don't have a lot of deep character import. But that's ok, because in that sense they're EXACTLY like Cascade. The psychological heavy lifting has largely been addressed elsewhere in a way that makes it clear that growing up isn't a Level Cap that you reach but an ongoing process that will continue after the last page of Homestuck. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Act 6 gets a lot of punishment in the fandom, and the ending of Homestuck has received a similar beatdown, and in a sense I can see why that's the case, because ultimately Homestuck is a difficult, complex, and, yeah, literary work. But we've been experimenting with form and narrative for about a century now in literature. The idea of texts needing to follow absolute standards of Good Writing died pretty much the moment Ulysses hit the presses. and I guess what I'd just ask is that we might work through our own experiences of frustration as we read the comic to understand the new and exciting space that Homestuck opens up, rather than wishing for a work that just fulfills our desires for neat, traditional storytelling.

You don't even necessarily have to enjoy Act 6--hell, I love it and I'm not sure I'd say I ENJOY quite a bit of it!--but before dismissing it out of hand because it's not the same as the sound and fury of other parts of the comic, maybe consider what it's trying to actually do.

And that, I'm sure, will be the final word on the matter!

Well, the final word until I get the REAL final word in! You see, as I cowered behind that podium... table... what the hell is that thing, anyway? Whatever, who cares, the point is that while I cowered in fear from my EVIL ALTERNATE TIMELINE "MATURE" AND "WELL ADJUSTED" SELF I found the time to work on something I knew would come in handy once I got the chance to deal with the IMPOSTOR!

I am proud to announce a new article collection from Storming the Ivory Tower, coming soon!!



Containing five of my articles on Homestuck, including an all new article exclusive to this collection analyzing Act 7 and the way the conclusion of Homestuck reflects Gnostic Christian themes that emerged throughout Act 6. The fully illustrated ebook will be available to $5 backers on my Patreon, just like my previous article collections Neighquiem for a Dream and My Superpower is Manpain.

And, as always, you can back me on Patreon in order to see article drafts, exclusive files used to produce my artwork, and podcast versions of my articles!

Contribute to support me, the realest and most totally canonically well developed version of the writer of this blog in all of Paradox Space!

1 comment:

  1. I mean, I can't help but think that this is kind of a false comparison you're making here - setting up Act 6 as a criticism of Cascade for being all flashy powerups and not resolving character arcs is unfair because Cascade was never /about/ resolving character arcs. It was about resolving outside conflicts and, as you say, closing loops. You can't very well resolve deep-seated traumas if you're too busy being wiped from existence by the Scratch! But comparing it to Trickster Mode is wrong for, I think, precisely that reason - Trickster Mode was a criticism of trying to solve interpersonal problems that way, not of getting a power boost so that you can lay the smackdown on the guy who killed your parental figures and your universe (even if in the end PM's the only one who gets her conflict with him resolved. Well, maybe Jade too, but she never had as much reason to hate Bec Noir as the others anyways...)

    Anyways, I'd say that people wanting the ending to be more Cascade-y is as most half of the problem we're having with it - yes, admittedly it would have been nice to see the characters triumphantly defeat the Big Bad of the story instead of him getting cleaned up by a version of Vriska who forgot all of the character development before her death and maybe even backslided a bit and a version of Calliope who was willing to destroy all of existence as collateral damage. I mean, if LE was so unrelated that none of the main cast even had to be present for his destruction, can you really blame people for wanting to return to the days of the Kids having reason to personally confront Bec Noir as an end boss?

    But that's only part of it. The other problem people have with the ending is the lack of dialogue post-Collide. Cascade being mostly about getting past external problems in a flashy way was fine because it was never meant to be the ending - it was a triumphant escape from the closed circle of timeloops and countdowns that was the Beta session, but not the conclusion of the story. On the other hand, Act 6 left us off with one or two arcs resolved - Dave's in particular was nicely wrapped up - but so much more stuff simply left hanging, *in a comic known and loved for always finding a way to tie up even the most insignificant-looking of plot threads.* I mean, come on. Hussie spent years teaching his readers that every little detail could be important and then just... suddenly stopped resolving things. What do you expect?

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