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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.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Next Homestuck Will Not Be Made In Flash pt 1: TRACES

It won't be. Let's talk about that.
Pictured: John Egbert







"I know not with what weapons the next Browser War will be fought, but the Browser War after that will be fought with sticks and stones." --Albert Einstein

The next Homestuck won't be made in Flash.

That's not meant to shock, it's just a statement of fact, a basic premise to get the ball rolling on this article. The next Homestuck--the next large-scale, sprawling, formally experimental webcomic--isn't going to be produced in Flash.

Let's quickly go over the reasons why.

First, and most obviously: Homestuck itself wasn't made in Flash, not for the most part. Bits and pieces were, of course, and those bits and pieces are big enough that I think we can place Homestuck firmly in the era of flash hypercomics, and flash productions in general. Still, it's worth remembering that in terms of Flash's importance, Homestuck just might have been implemented without it, perhaps forcing a removal of some earlier games but keeping most of the structure intact. If the first Homestuck wasn't made in Flash, really, the next one probably won't be, either.

Second, there's probably better ways of doing a lot of the things you'd want to do in Flash in raw HTML now.

Third, even if there wasn't (and believe me, that's going to be a bone of contention in the second part of this series...) Flash has been declared anathema by the Browsers, and therefore it's effectively dead. The next Homestuck won't be made in Flash because anything made in Flash cannot become the next Homestuck, by virtue of the fact that no one would be able to read it.

And finally, producing a hypercomic in flash is insane.

Homestuck was, however, originally going to be made in Flash. The Beta version of Homestuck was made in Flash. Each page was its own Flash animation, some allowing direct player interaction, and many with sounds of various sorts.

A surprising amount of Homestuck owes its form and content to this first failed experiment. The basic architecture here was used for many of the subsequent animations. The iconic layout--the single panel with its replay and volume buttons--that would later become familiar enough for Hussie to screw with the format in various ways appears already in the Homestuck Beta. In the first of a bewildering number of coincidences, this "beta" of Homestuck was release three days prior to the start of the true narrative, just as the Beta for SBURB is released three days before that same start. Oh, and perhaps most critically, the initial failure bumped Homestuck's core number from 410 to 413, with the main cast aging up three years. Imagine how different Homestuck would be if the kids were 10 instead of 13!

This has subtler aesthetic results, as well. The beta version of Homestuck is smoother visually, anti-aliased, somewhat more dynamically animated, making use of the tweening capabilities of Flash. The stark art of Homestuck, with its sharp pixel edges and quick jumps between keyframes without tweening, wouldn't exist without this turn away from Flash. I don't think it's unreasonable to say, therefore, that Homestuck is a Flash comic in a weird, inverted sense: it's defined, in some ways, by the absence of Flash as its core driving technology!

Plenty of it is defined by Flash's presence, too, of course, and from the interplay between the aesthetics of Flash and the more-familiar Photoshop. I haven't tried taking apart any of the flashes, myself, but I suspect many of the graphics seen in things like [S] John: Take Bite of Apple--animations included--were composed in Photoshop and then simply stuck into Flash. Take a look at the way John's head turns, for example. His face moves fluidly across the screen in a way that makes me think it's probably following one of Flash's signature tween paths. But his hair jumps from state to state. It's actually jumpier even that the looped panels of the Homestuck Beta--Hussie's not making an effort here to smoothly transition John's weird hair spikes (what is that hairstyle, Hussie?) in 3D space, I assume because, to use his own description of working with Flash's UI, "Even doing simple things was like pulling teeth."

I think I probably took to Flash easier than Hussie did, but I sympathize with his description. Flash was a real powerful tool in a lot of ways, but getting something that looked aesthetically serviceable was often difficult. There were some hard limitations to what you could do, usually revolving around the always-pesky third dimension. Wondering why so many cartoons now seem constructed like stage sets, with the characters in rigid 3/4 views, moving their limbs in limited ways? Wondering why jumping to 3D action turns so many of these cartoons into instant uncanny valley garbage? Well, Flash and similar vector-based programs are really good at handling rotations and movements through space on a 2D plane, but because all the images are composed of flat shapes they basically cry tears of blood whenever you try to produce movement in three dimensions... unless you sit around drawing each frame by hand, which kind of defeats the purpose of having a vector animation tool with timelines and tween lines and all that good stuff.

Or, hey, you catch that moment in [S]A6A6I1 where Jade's arm moves and then she fades out, and you can see a darker area where her arm segments overlap? That's another one of those core limitations of Flash that I don't think there was really any way of working around. If you lower the opacity of a whole entity, if that entity is made of several parts, like you need them to be if you're going to do even simple movement, it drops the opacity for each segment individually! So, if each arm segment is at 50% opacity, the point where they overlap lingers at 100% opacity! It's common enough in flashes that after years of viewing them my brain just sort of filters it out, but it's there nevertheless, a mark of Flash's technological limitations.

Flash is a mixed bag for Homestuck as a whole, then. When you pair these aesthetic limitations with the actual nature of Flash as a program--buggy, counterintuitive, and prone to crashing at the slightest provocation to the point where I structured my workflow around the assumption that the system would crash at least once in a work session--it's pretty easy to see why trying to make another hypercomic of Homestuck's scale in Flash now would be silly.

But if the next Homestuck will not be made in Flash, it's also inevitably true that the next Homestuck won't bear the many traces on its aesthetic of Flash.



The next Homestuck will not be contained in a massive nested series of spreadsheets. In addition to not being made in Flash, I think it's pretty likely that we can say this with authority as well.

I really need to emphasize what a god damn mess non-Flash hypercomic production was a decade ago. I already talked about this elsewhere in A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities but it's worth poking at again. Take Kid Radd, for example, which regular StIT contributor Arrghus pointed me towards just a few days ago. The comic has a pretty simple layout. You can press the left and right arrow keys to move forward and backward through a series of single panels, grouped into a series of gag-a-day style comic strips, each divided by the Kid Radd mock game start screen panel. Panels are frequently animated--either looping to show a repeated action or gesture, or longer single-play dramatic animations.

Kid Radd is most notable, probably, for these technical features, all of which have their issues. The comic suffers from a reliance on the setup beat punchline model despite the fact that there's no reason to adhere to that format (there's no limit on the number of panels that can be added in the system to a notional sequence) and some good reasons not to (mainly, that the jokes aren't that funny, at least not in 2017). Navigating the system can be a bit frustrating, as the archive bounces you to the beginning of whole story arcs... though admittedly Homestuck is probably just as frustrating to navigate, in that respect. And the larger animations are impressive, but they're easy to miss, as there's little indication within the visual rhetoric of the comic that a panel should be treated as something to be lingered on for 30 seconds rather than something to be zipped past.

Despite all this I still think Kid Radd is a notable formal achievement.

See, the whole damn comic is composed of a nested series of tables.

Table...


After table...


After table...


After table.

The table pile doesn't stop from getting taller.

I mean look this composition-via-nested-spreadsheets is definitely nuts, but it's still impressive just for how much fine control is on display within a system that wasn't meant to accommodate hypercomics. This is stuff that now could be done with a few lines of CSS! But at the time, using the limited technology available, author Dan Miller was able to get a remarkable amount of control.

But hold on to your ass because this is actually even wilder a creation than the layers and layers of tables suggest.

Here's, according to Miller, how he developed the idea for Kid Radd:

But one day while reading through the archives of 8-Bit Theater, I was begrudging my plight at being seemingly the last person on the planet not to have DSL or some form of non-dial-up connection. The irony struck me that it would take almost a minute for a comic to load, when after all, what's pictured in it? A bunch of four-color, 16x16 pixel sprites. Gifs of that size and limited color load instantly even on ancient 28k modems. Why the hell should it take so long to see such simple graphics? 

Holy shit! The whole comic is a bunch of tiny little images blown up to larger panels, all to save loading times! The whole aesthetic of this comic isn't just mimicking 8 bit sprite technology it IS 8 bit sprite technology! It's using the same technology within a different context in order to get the same basic result: a massive compression of what needs to be stored and loaded. Some things about the comic make more sense from this perspective. The speech bubbles, for example, are rendered in the browser engine as tables with actual text inside them. This is not only an easy way of shoving some of the visual processing off into more easily downloaded code, it's also an outright necessity given that rendering readable text within one of the tiny gifs would be functionally impossible.

This is a perfect example of how the nature of technology at the time resulted in particular aesthetic changes. These aesthetics are under threat in the context of technological advancement. Take the actual scaling process the images undergo, for example. Browsers now "helpfully" scale images through an interpolation process where the computer tries to blend and smooth pixels out. The result, as Kid Radd's archivist Brad Greco points out in his documentation, is that the clean scaling is replaced by blurring, destroying the original aesthetic of the comic. Thankfully CSS now allows you to specify how images should be scaled, making Kid Radd's preservation possible (although the original code in many cases no longer works, as it relies on things like "frames" that fell way out of favor with the W3C over a decade ago).

This is a reminder that the precursors to contemporary hypercomics are subject to dangerous code rot not through any fault of their own or their web hosts but simply because browser technology and web standards from the early days are being depricated. We have already lost the ability to simply play Flash animations. Homestuck panels now require active clicks in Chrome to grant permission needed to make flashes play. Worse, it is impossible now on both Chrome and Firefox to get things like the Unity web app to work. Frames are gone. Scaling images is back, but it was gone for a while. You see the problem?

The next Homestuck might exist in a world where, like Kid Radd, the functionality and aesthetic contexts of Homestuck have been destroyed.



The next Homestuck won't make use of 8-Bit Color Cycling. I mean, why the heck would it when there's so many other much better animation techniques available? Color cycling (I say authoritatively as though I didn't just learn about this 5 hours ago, myself) was a technique used in early games to handle background animations. Individual pixels with certain numerical color values were detected by the system, then cycled to a new color, in loops that the artists to render things like rushing water or reflecting light. It was born of memory limitations and screen limitations. It was abandoned with the advent of more viable animation techniques.

It remains so awe-inspiring and gorgeous that it's hard for me to not get emotional looking at some of the examples.

The linked example is the work of Mark Ferrari as translated by Joseph Huckaby into a web-usable form. The images, already an outdated technology in 2010, were resurrected by Huckaby using the HTML5 Canvas element. This was a good era for canvas elements, actually. Google and Firefox, ramping up their war with Adobe Flash, were heavily promoting what you could do with a little javascript and things like canvas and SVG. In this case, the translation from old animation technique to new web technology made plenty of sense: the Canvas API can read individual pixels, after all, so taking that array of abstract values and altering them cyclically seems fairly straightforward.

The results are stunning, all the more so because they're born of this apparent technological limit. Similar to the hard edged aesthetic of Homestuck, here's a crispness and a delicacy to these images. These images--both the color cycle images and Hussie's work--lean into their pixelated nature in the same way other modernist art forms exposed the nature of pigment, canvas, concrete, steel, silence. There is also deep pleasure in making sense of how the cycles work, interacting with each other and their environment. This is as engrossing, I would say, as the delicate pointillism of Seurat, but distinct, deeply tied to its medium.

The comparison is apt. Georges Seurat was working at a moment in history when new chemical processes were explosively increasing the colors of paint available to artists... not unlike the advent of 8 bit color, really. Seurat's masterworks have suffered from that explosion, however, in some ways. His famous Sunday on La Grande Jatte was painted, in places, with rogue pigments, the carefully chosen points of green turning, here and there, to a brackish black over time, little pocks on the canvas.

These color cycle images, meanwhile, and the explanation of their translation to HTML5 by Huckaby, are available only through the Internet Archive. Their original home web pages are also now rogue data, corroded points in the canvas of the Internet.



The next Homestuck will not be made using a pipe organ powered by flame.

Unfortunately.

I'm not even sure what the heck that means, mind, it just seems intrinsically fucking awesome. The best part of course is that it was real, a bizarre technological experiment from the late 19th century that used tuned glass tubes and jets of flame to produce music, or at least interesting wailing.

I found out about this "Chemical Harmonica" on a site from the 90s that attempted to collect information on dead forms of media. The obvious implication, therefore, is that there aren't a ton of these infernal instruments around anymore. I did manage to find one, though, just a brief burst of footage on Youtube of this strange spiny contraption, issuing its strange honking sounds in a darkened room.

I don't seriously think anyone's going to make a hypercomic with this thing in any capacity. Again, I don't even know what that would... mean? But saying "the next Homestuck will not be made using a flaming pipe organ" is different from saying "it will not be made using a piano." A piano could still be of some use in making a hypercomic even though it's unlikely that anyone's going to primarily compose a hypercomic using just a piano (though, I've been surprised before). The chemical harmonica is in a different category of unlikeliness, because it's dead.

Not only is it dead, but the Dead Media Project where I learned about it is also dead. It's a project from the 90s for goodness sake, it looks like it hasn't been updated in a decade and a half at least. I found THAT site by poking through ANOTHER website from 2002, many links deep. Many of the links on both those sites are to other sites that are, yes, also dead.

It's all a bit of a solemn reminder, I think, that artistic technologies are both absolutely critical to certain aesthetics, and shockingly ephemeral. If something fails to scale, get distributed, catch on, maintain support from a larger industry... it disappears and it takes its art with it. The art that survives will bear the countless traces of a production history that is now lost and might be irrecoverable.

Building a hypercomic in Flash would be totally nuts, but in this context, in the face of how easy it is to lose so much, I can't help but be a little reluctant to see Flash go, and a little frustrated with the glibness I often see about the death of this medium. What will happen when Homestuck's flashes will no longer load?

Maybe there's no real point in lamenting the death of one particular technology. Media may have their specific techniques and possibilities, but building your identity around that, calling yourself a "gamer," for example, seems a bit foolish in the face of the sheer overwhelming volume of dead media, dead formats, dead archetypes. Asserting the importance of any particular format is whistling through the graveyard, and friends, it's a big graveyard, and there's many open graves, waiting... just for YOU!


AAAAAH!


But maybe that's a reason to fight all the harder for ALL dead media, for its preservation and maybe for its eventual resurrection in new forms.

This Has Been

The Next Homestuck Will Not Be Made In Flash

Part 1

TRACES

Read (most of) Part 2: ERASES on Patreon now for $1!

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