Games

'Hiveswap' and the Tenacity of Fandom

Fan participation was completely integral to the first few chapters of Homestuck, which is partly what has made the wait for Hiveswap so difficult for fans to take.

Shit is basically flying off the hook. It’s like shit wants nothing to do with that hook. The hook filed for divorce from that shit and is now seeking custody of the hook and the shit’s two kids.”

-- Andrew Hussie's Homestuck

If you found the above quote hilarious, I recommend putting your life on hold for the next couple of weeks and heading here. The caffeine-fuelled trance you’ll go through before you’re done with the 8,000-plus pages of Homestuck will be completely worth it. Be warned though, your friendships forged before you become a "homestuck" might not withstand the barrage of references to and praises for the comic that you’ll be compelled to unleash. Such will be the case until those who know you either relent and assimilate with the one true fandom or stop talking to you altogether.

Just like any cultural phenomenon born on the internet, the webcomic Homestuck is hard to summarize, with any effort at doing so being doomed to at least partially miss the point. Having said that, I think Andrew Hussie, its creator, did it justice in an interview with Brian Lee O’Malley by calling it “a story about kids on the internet, that is told in a way that is like, made of pure internet” ("Scott Pilgram Guy Interviews Homestuck Guy", Comics Alliance. 2 October 2012).

However, even that is slightly misleading, because Homestuck is actually made up of two equally important and hopelessly entangled parts that don’t mean much when seen in isolation.

First, there’s Hussie’s creation itself. Dubbed "The Most Elaborate Webcomic You’ve Never Heard Of" and "The Ulysses of the Internet", the webcomic, which took off in 2009, is a huge beast of complex plot-lines, outlandish-yet-internally-consistent laws of physics and incredibly compelling story-telling. Through breaking the static webcomic format in non-gimmicky ways with Flash animations, games, and links to other media, Homestuck still stands out in terms of quality from the ever increasing hoard of webcomics that have accumulated over the years.

The second ingredient of the Homestuck is that cake is the fandom. The idea of mass obsession over a piece of fiction has been around since Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, but in all cases that I can think of, the fandom is not a crucial part of the franchise. We probably wouldn’t have The Cursed Child if J.K. Rowling wouldn’t have received such love from the fans, but having a Tumblr blog is not really necessary to understand Harry Potter. However, I would argue that being familiar with the fanart, the major ships, and the discussions about Homestuck on Reddit and Omegapause is imperative to really get it.

In fact, fan participation was completely integral to the first few chapters of Homestuck. Submissions for what should happen in the next panel could be sent to Hussie via a text box, who would then pick out one suggestion to become part of the canon. Later the submissions box was retracted when responses became too numerous for Hussie to deal with, but fan participation continued in other ways. As he started making more ambitious and longer Flash animations, Hussie started recruiting fans with a knack for drawing, and the entire soundtrack of Homestuck has been fan generated. In fact, contributors to the Homestuck soundtrack include Mark Hadley, the guy behind Let’s-Player-darling Slender: The Eight Pages, and Toby Fox, who at least partially developed the uncontestably best game of all time, Undertale, while living in Hussie’s basement.

Known as the only fandom that was too weird even for 4chan, the collective is huge and has shown unprecedented levels of dedication, having in the past inadvertently DDOS’ed both the home site of Homestuck and the Flash content powerhouse Newgrounds after the whole fandom leapt at much-anticipated updates hosted on them at the same time.

Further proof of the devotion of homestucks lies in the 2012 Kickstarter campaign Hussie set up for Hiveswap, an adventure game set in the same universe. The set goal of $700,000 was reached within less than two days of donations opening up, and the campaign closed with almost $2.5 million in the jar, easily brushing aside Order of the Stick for the record of most successful comics-related Kickstarter campaign to date. While the quirky, pop-culture-reference-heavy writing style was what drew people to Homestuck in the first place, the almost physically impossible pace at which Hussie kept updating the comic was what compelled them to stay. As the website was sufficient for him to pay the bills, Hussie could spend “literally every waking hour creating this thing”. The only lulls in Homestuck updates came when Hussie needed to make long flash animations.

After the overwhelming success of the Kickstarter campaign, Hussie had another thing besides Homestuck to occupy his time (and besides the increased con visits, which by now had become overrun with Homestuck cosplayers), and updates ground to a halt for months on end. Even though periods of no content were nothing new, the "pauses" after the Hiveswap Kickstarter got longer and more excruciating, as Hussie didn’t really let fans in on what was going on with the game. The few updates that did make it online were rather troubling. The original development studio, The Odd Gentleman, was let go in 2013 and the whole game shifted gears in 2015 as the art style changed from 3D to 2D. Both of these alterations signified a troubled development process and fears of cancellation abound.

While Hussie secretly fussed over Hiveswap, Homestuck still remained unfinished. The Megapause started the day after the birthday of Homestuck, 14 April 2013, and lasted for two months. While Hussie animated and worked on the game, it was nothing compared to the infamous Gigapause that followed. In October of that same year, Andrew posted an update saying that he would like to wrap up the story and finish the final animation before he uploaded anything new. After building up to a climactic battle, all canon content ceased for an entire year, and the fandom started to dwindle.

Some people moved on to other frequently updated fandoms, like Steven Universe, which had started to come out at the same time and had similarly lovable characters. The Homestuck Reddit threads mostly contained re-posts of old fanart, and earnest discussion started getting clogged with "shitposts".

When Hussie came back from the land of no updates in 2014, he revealed that he was nowhere near finishing the story, but had decided to restart the serialized updates instead of keeping the fandom in suspense any longer. Two more periods of hiatus would follow (the Masterpause and the Omegapause) before Homestuck finally concluded on April 13th of this year with a single nine-minute animation comprising the entirety of its last act.

The abrupt ending was received very poorly by the community, leaving longtime fans perplexed as to the many plot threads that it left dangling. The open questions implied continuity errors, and the general consensus was that Hussie simply screwed up in making the finale an unsolvable puzzle for the fans to assemble. Those who had poured their time into coming up with ways that the various pieces could fall into place felt most betrayed, as could be seen in the blog posts of BKEW, a notorious fan theorist, around that time. A great window into this dark period for the fandom is the third most upvoted post on the Homestuck subreddit.

All hope for clearing things up and giving the fandom some kind of closure now rests on the Epilogue, which Hussie promised to release sometime in the future. As things stand today, the fandom is currently in another hiatus, which already has a name, and is known as the Epipause.

With the disappointment of Homestuck’s finale and no updates about Hiveswap, a lot of people started dropping out of the fanbase altogether. Those who clung to the fandom found other ways of filling the gaping hole that the finale left. One of the /r/homestuck mods, ElvishisnotTengwar, kept the Hiveswap subreddit alive almost single-handedly with old fanart and the rare snippets from artists working on the game, while Makinporing and a few other mods fought desertion by hosting monthly “Community Streams” of Homestuck fan content.

“Act 8” and “Act Omega” became the most popular fan-made adventures telling the story of what happened after the ending, born out of a literally interpreted statement that Hussie had made about how everyone should “draw their own conclusions” regarding the finale. However, the thing that really jolted the fandom back to life was Cool and New Webcomic, a parodic retelling of Homestuck in which the entire world had become a surrealist nightmare with only one character, Rose, retaining her sanity. A rollercoaster ride with bizarre humour, intentionally bad writing, and a sadistic main character, it’s no wonder fans flocked to it after Homestuck left a sour taste in fans' mouths.

This fan adventure debuted right before the finale and went on to center the fandom on Reddit, exploding in popularity in early June. Since then other fans have chipped in enough music to fill 14 full-length albums for its soundtrack. It’s creator, who goes by "o" in the Omegaupdate forums and who doesn’t break character even when speaking about the webcomic, said: “i thing the main reason the community likes the cool and new web comic is because it gives them EMOTIONS. when there favorite cool and new characters die, or makeout with each other in love or are being meaned to by there daddy or risk their lifes to dance with hams, it makes people cry a lot. but they LIKE too cry: this is a fact which you learn when youve became a web comic maker.”

For a time, the ubiquitous negative posts about Homestuck were drowned out as Cool and New Webcomic discussion threads took their place and the /r/homestuck seemed to have completely distanced itself from the actual Homestuck.

Not everyone was in favor of the new direction that /r/homestuck was taking and a group of users who disliked Makinporing’s moderation left to form a new subreddit - /r/MSPA, causing a minor schism in the community. Besides that, the drop-off in fresh fanart meant that shitposts continued to threaten the quality of discussions and homestucks continued leaving for greener fandoms.

All of this was happening with no news about Hiveswap or the Epilogue. The original Kickstarter campaign had promised a backers-only weekly update blog, which never materialized, and most people outside of the fandom (including myself) assumed the game got quietly cancelled. Rafe, a former mod of /r/homestuck, says: “If our enthusiasm flagged, it wasn't so much that we believed Hiveswap was dead. We just weren't being given anything. It wasn't time for hype yet”.

The terrible limbo, however, finally came to an end, as October saw good news from Hussie in the form of a release date for Hiveswap, set for January 2017, a short gameplay video, and a six minute long credits sequence for Homestuck. The most upvoted comment on the Hiveswap video simply says: “Homestuck's fandom: wakes up”.

It’s hard to say whether the episodic adventure game will bring the fandom back to the golden, pre-Gigapause days or whether the wave of fresh content will be enough to dissolve the thick layer of salt that precipitated because of the finale. However, it’s sure to bring a whole slew of new fans to the franchise, since a familiarity with Homestuck will not be required to understand the plot of Hiveswap. wade5454, another former mod of /r/homestuck, says: "Overwatch proved that even a game that’s designed mechanically to be competitive and for a more hardcore crowd, it can still get a fanbase centered around the characters alone. So, I think Hiveswap can make us pretty big again, but only if the characters are as compelling and engaging as they were in Homestuck”.

Knowing that both Andrew Hussie and Toby Fox are working full-time on the game brings hope that Hiveswap will revitalize the greatest fandom born online and will signal a whole new chapter in its existence.

Meanwhile, the Homestuck Discord server remains a lively community, the subreddit is buzzing with both Hiveswap and Cool and New Webcomic content, and the Homestuck tag is climbing back up Tumblr’s Fandometrics ladder. Hopefully, the darkest days have passed for the fandom, and it can once again be a place where people of all backgrounds can congregate, driven by a shared passion for trolls, chat-logs, and "shipping" characters who belong nowhere near each other.

As Rafe says: “We love Homestuck too much to let go”.

Oh, and if you have time, please go and read this string of Tumblr posts about the “4chan vs. Homestuck” war. You will not be disappointed.

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