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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, January 8, 2018

The Next Homestuck Will Not Be Made In Flash Part 2: Erases

This is the one where I'm really pessimistic about web art.

"The Internet is providers.
The Internet is consumers.
The Internet is you and me.
The Internet is not a big truck.
Maybe there is a place for the Internet.
And again, the Internet... is a series of tubes!"
--Senator Ted Stevens

Part 1 of this series is here.

The next Homestuck will not be rendered through a series of forum posts. 

Like Homestuck is, I mean. 

Which, listen, this at least isn't something I'm going to defend as an artistic practice worth preserving, this is some straight bullshit, this is nonsense. It's so ridiculous that I almost can't believe it myself. And yet, apparently MSPA Prophet has been using this forum structure for years to "predict" future updates. See, each Homestuck page first went up as a post in this god damn PHPBB forum before going live on the main site, allowing MSPA Prophet to predict an incoming update. Please for the love Sophia read the account of this bogus nonsense.

This is a mix of hilarious, impressive, and appalling to me, and I still don't really understand how it's even, like, possible. And while I'm not going to defend it as a sane website structure, it's sort of emblematic of the kind of bizarre ingenuity that's emerged in the post-Homestuck web art scene. If MSPA's wider circles have spawned people like Hussie with his bizarre forum solution, or Toby Fox with his nightmare switch, or Ryan North and his choose your own adventure experiments built in Twine, or uh... me, I guess? And maybe that spirit of spaghetti coding and monkey patching in the name of experimental art is worth celebrating as a core part of not just hypercomics and web art but webcomics and maybe the Internet itself.

There's a section in Reinventing Comics where Scott McCloud discusses his children experimenting with an early paint program whose "delete all" function, if used repeatedly on the same canvas, would generate a weird interlocking pattern of Op Art ripples. This was unintended functionality... and yet to his kids, he recounts, this was simply another tool for generating a particular aesthetic effect. PHPBB boards are not meant to be the backend to a hypercomic but, by god, Hussie made one do that work. People--often outsiders to a product's core audience and development team--have a great capacity for finding radical new uses for existing tools.

I have experience with this myself. A Host of Gentle Terrors and my eventually-coming-out followup Gleaning are made in Twine, which is optimized toward branching stories. In my games, I have the player primarily loop through the same "passage," randomly generating a landscape and encounters with each new loading of that main screen. I've also followed the development of ultra-minimalist tool Bitsy (creating my own Bitsy game) and it's been incredible to see how other creators have used an ultra-restrictive system that offers primarily the ability to move between 2d screens to create things as complex as quasi-3d cave exploration games.

One of the things I've repeatedly encountered studying hypercomics is people making use of familiar systems in bewildering ways. There's things I've seen in early 2000s comics that I've never seen used anywhere else. Well, anywhere else but Homestuck itself, which has consistently developed systems, like John and Terezi's Excellent Adventure, that previously I had only encountered in minor tech demo comics. 

So the next Homestuck won't be hosted on a PHPBB site, but I have to suspect, given past experience, that it'll be driven by something just as goofy, technologically speaking.

Unfortunately, this might not be due to human ingenuity so much as a continued lack of really practical tools.

The next Homestuck might not be made in SVG.

The next Homestuck might not be made in HTML Canvas.

The odds on these things aren't identical. HTML Canvas has the major advantage over SVG of actually fucking working most of the time, notably, and it's already been used for things like Prequel Adventure (as covered in A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities). SVG is a verifiable god damn mess, a mass of arcane numbers and letters that, in the interests I imagine of rapid programming have actually created something difficult to impossible to actually, you know, program. Canvas, aside from the occasional piece of functionality that no browser has bothered to implement properly, trades this mass confusion for a different problem: the spec is horribly limited, with only rectangles available as object primitives, and--

Wait, I should probably explain what these things are first, yeah?

These are, sort of, the replacements for Flash. Neither technology is quite like Flash, however. Each contains one fragment of Flash's functionality split into separate parts. 

SVG or Scalable Vector Graphics is a model for generating shapes in the web browser using math. It's, essentially, a browser-based, hand coded version of what you can already do with Flash drawings. The objects, as in Flash, can be scaled and rotated and so on without loss of detail, though instead of visually manipulating them you've got to write them yourself, or wade into the hoary, bug-filled wilds of Inkscape. 

Canvas, on the other hand, is a more raster-oriented system, making greater use of pixels. You can draw lines with it (more easily, bewilderingly, than in benighted SVG) but the real focus seems to be on Canvas's image importing capacity. You can plop images (including SVGs) onto canvas and then do processing on them. If you loop that processing within Javascript, you can actually use canvas to create frame by frame animations.

This is all sounding pretty Flash-like. These technologies were, in fact, pushed as supplanting Flash by the World Wide Web Consortium, and individual companies like Mozilla, Google, and Apple. They were developed as Flash killers, and their existence is now being used to justify Flash's impending death sentence. Apple stands out here as particularly culpable. CEO-King of California Steve Jobs published a whole screed against Flash back in 2010. It's around that time that we saw a proliferation of breathless "look what you can do in HTML Canvas" articles. The rush was on to embrace this new technology. Most of the examples in these articles are now dead links or outright broken code, but, hey, we gotta keep looking to the future, right?

And in fairness, as I've already covered pretty extensively, we did, in fact, need to keep looking to the future, or at least try to crawl partway out of the primordial bog of early web markup. Flash was, arguably, a first attempt at mutating some lungs. By that time Cascading Style Sheets and Javascript were already doing tons to make webpages less dependent on things like the bizarre nested tables of projects like Kid Radd. Java Applets (no relation to Javascript, for some fucking reason) should probably  be considered part of this evolutionary lurch forward, too, though from what I've gathered in practice they were often more like a fifth limb growing jauntily out of our collective fishy forehead. The web needed in many ways to keep evolving. I don't dispute that.

My issue is with the bad faith in which that evolution was carried out, and the distinctly patchy results.

Jobs's polemic ludicrously positions Apple as for "open software development" by taking on Flash. Apparently because Adobe is a rent-seeking corporate behemoth, that means that Apple must be a plucky underdog, right? Hey, remember that Apple commercial based on 1984? Don't ponder that creeping suspicion that framing autocratic control as rebellious freedom is, perhaps, the most Orwellian thing imaginable. Freedom is slavery!

Whatever Jobs's attempted optics are, the naked avarice of the polemic is remarkable:

Flash was created during the PC era – for PCs and mice. Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.

Translated out of corporate spin Jobs's aims are transparent: to assert that his major competitor, Microsoft, has has its day. This is now the era of the Great Spontaneous Apple Creation! An apple in every hand! Oh, sure, maybe Flash does fall short in all those areas Jobs describes, but it's clearly just a pretext, just a casualty of a much larger war: the war for Microsoft's market share.

What's really amazing about this is that Jobs and others blithely condemned Flash to the dustbin of history without bothering to make sure there was anything to replace it.

I'm here to declare that there wasn't a replacement in 2010 and there still isn't one now. It's all a bunch of bullshit.

Listen. I've been trying to understand these APIs for the last few months. It's been one of my most continually frustrating and dispiriting experiences creatively, actually, because no matter where I turn, I hit wall after wall after fucking wall. As soon as it seems like there's a straightforward, intuitive, and above all lightweight way of rendering something that amounts to just doing some math to some pixel values, I run into something that is still not officially a W3C recommendation... or that is only implemented in half the major browsers... or that everyone supports EXCEPT Internet Explorer... or that works, uh, except on mobile where no one's bothered to implement this "low power, touch interface, open standard" technology... or that works except for, whoops, this basic-ass piece of functionality renders in radically different ways on different browsers... or that's been a known bug in Chrome since 2012... and so on.

You know that specific feeling when someone manages to rickroll you? That's how I feel reading about SVG, in particular. I go through Mozilla's coverage of the spec and get to an example that seems to be what I need, scroll down, and their own representation of the example FAILS TO FUCKING LOAD, and "WE'RE NO STRANGERS TO LOVE" blares in my ears. I feel like I'm constantly being trolled from a dozen different directions by this dumb system.

This is compounded by the problems with programs like Inkscape. Inkscape bills itself as a competitor to Adobe Illustrator but it is locked in to SVG as its underlying standard, severely limiting the potential of the system to expand without W3C approval. Meanwhile, the actual SVG outputs are not human readable or writable, it's impossible to edit the code itself within the program, and extremely basic features like support for CSS are simply nonexistent.

If you're not doing stuff that requires coherent code outputs, of course, Inkscape does, technically, work, but it's far from a Flash replacement and barely an Adobe Illustrator competitor. Core things that make Flash useful--tweening paths, most notably--just aren't there. So, if you're relying on that kind of tech to visualize what you're doing you are, again, boned. This is pretty incredible because as far as I can tell this means that a bunch of tech companies with the W3C as their go between agreed to kill Flash and replace it with... nothing. 

Here's my theory on how this whole thing works. 

Programmers are expected to provide endless free labor making open standards like SVG and Canvas usable and accessible, because that's simply cheaper than companies having to find ways of working with each other. This labor must be provided without any expectation that corporations will make their own standards open. Hence the endless attacks on "Copyleft" licenses, licenses that demand users of code release their resultant code under similarly liberated licenses. These viral licenses--so described because they reproduce themselves whenever their code is used in a new project--are obviously disliked by software companies who stand far more to gain from licenses that simply allow unrestricted use. That's more "open" right? That's real liberty!

The underlying libertarian ideology that becomes apparent as you read denouncements of Copyleft is a sham though, as Jack Graham has been eloquently revealing over on Eruditorum Press lately. Supporters of "exploited code" (really--I came across articles talking about how much fun it was to write code that was exploited, which, do I even need to plumb the subtext there?) talk about not wanting to "impose values on others," but is not an argument for "exploitable" licenses an argument that corporations should impose THEIR values on programmers, the value of getting to do whatever the hell they want with our code?

Spoiler warning for Jack's project: it is. That's literally what Austrian School types believe: that liberty should be defined as the ability of property holders to make money on the free market. 

Liberty isn't for you unwashed peasants.

Neither, increasingly, is the Internet.

The next Homestuck might not be made in anything at all.

Homestuck readers are familiar with the idea of nasty clowns being used by fascist powers to dismantle government, but it's still a bit of a shock to see FCC chair Ajit Pai capering around like a court jester while killing the Internet. I mean I'm honestly taken aback by just how revolting this dude is--making quips about having colluded with Verizon to dismantle Net Neutrality protections while... colluding with Verizon to dismantle Net Neutrality protections. Armed with promotional videos full of rancid, year old memes (no I'm not going to link to it), Pai presents a marionette figure, blatantly absurd and just as blatantly being puppeted by monopolistic telecom companies.

It's remarkable just how much 2017 feels like an exaggerated satire of a real timeline, and part of it comes from what a clear joke the men and women eviscerating the last remnants of social democracy are. Ajit Pai simply is one of the few actually putting on fools' regalia while he plays his part in the slaughter.

This shouldn't come as a surprise to someone of my age, though. I remember the days of MySpace pages, and if there's one thing we learned from MySpace users it's that you can't spell slaughter without laughter.

It's that general sensibility that really gets to me, in all this--that sense of "lol what are you worried about?" Pai is the worst, by far the worst, but there's plenty of echoes elsewhere, in the smug programmers going yukking it up about Flash's demise, among other things. The hilarity has a lot of different flavors, ranging from contemptuous superiority to twee cheerleading, but generally the message seems to be that nothing can kill the Internet and anything short of that (except I guess girls playing video games) is not only beneath concern, but anyone who is concerned is a bit of a fuddy duddy.

But the Internet dies every day in countless ways. I mean let's really take for granted the whole silicon valley faith that the Internet is not just a series of tubes but is Freedom and Expression and Speech and so on and so forth. If all that shit is true, then if someone is cut off from all that stuff that the Internet supposedly does then for that person the Internet is dead, or as good as. 

I mean it's a little bit bizarre, isn't it, that we should simultaneously accept that the Internet is this fantastic next stage of human evolution but also accept that for most people it's just going to be a new medium through which advertising is crammed down their throats. That's what seems to be at stake from my perspective not just in net neutrality fights but in countless other things online as well. Like Patreon basically acknowledging that $1 pledgers and anyone making just a few hundred dollars a month mean nothing to them. Like Youtube taking advantage of queer content that the simultaneously demonetize or ban. Like Twitter basically admitting that there's different classes of speakers--normal plebs, celebrities, and Donald Trump--and the rules apply differently--or not at all--to these different groups.

The list goes on and on, really, and Net Neutrality is sort of the ultimate high level manifestation of something going on everywhere. Net Neutrality, as a principle, means that all information must be treated by internet service providers as equal. They can't selectively speed up or slow down information passing through their wires. This is good because if they could these de facto monopolies could take entire geographic regions of the US and say if you don't pay us more, you'll only be able to quickly access the sites we run, advertise with, have non-aggression pacts with, and so on. This isn't bad for Twitter or Google users directly, I suspect, because such companies will probably make deals with the telecoms to keep their data flowing. It's very bad for Twitter and Google and whoever the fuck owns Tumblr now, though, because they'll need to make those deals and find more ways of exploiting their user base in order to make that money up.

That's kind of fascinating to me, because all these companies are run by absolute bastards, and whoever wins their particular game of thrones, we're going to lose. That's the point of A Song of Ice and Fire, after all, though people seem to forget it a lot: the people who suffer from feudal lords with imperial aspirations are, ultimately, the peasants. You know, us.

Hey remember when WV--a Warweary Villein or "free person under the Feudal system"--led a rebellion against both the White and Black royalty of Prospit and Derse, attempting to end both the chessboard war at the core of SBURB and the whole damn monarchical system baked into the game's mythos? Wasn't that great?

Hey remember when this article was ostensibly about Homestuck and Flash?

Here's the point I'm staggering towards:

I grew up with this idea of the Internet's history as being this straightforward move from less to more open, with the W3C and greater access and so on and so forth. But now, down in the trenches, what I'm observing is that the past isn't respected, and the future is just assumed to be taken care of, even when it's not. Small, weird projects had plenty of trouble gaining traction in the days of the early Internet and they've certainly gotten, relative to that dismal era, better... but in more recent years I can't help but think they've gotten quite a bit worse again. 

The point of all this is not that you can't create hypercomics in SVG and Canvas, or on Patreon, or in the context of a protectionless, feudal state Internet. I'm sure you can! And the art that is created in these contexts will derive their aesthetics in large part from their restraints, from the way that technology imposes some boundaries while opening other affordances. If we could make comics using a bunch of nested tables, scaled gifs, and frame calls, we can make comics in these new contexts as well, and I suspect they will on the whole be more advanced than the hypercomics that were around when I first began studying them a decade ago.

But... what does "we" mean here? 

If "we" just means a narrow slice of programmers, and people like me too pigheaded to know when to quick screwing around with something as limited as Canvas or as fundamentally broken as SVG, that... sucks. And among that set, if Patreon ditches some percent as not making "life changing" money, and Facebook buries some percent of their posts, and some percent of their uploads to Youtube get hit by some spurious copyright claim, and Twitter bans some percent because they finally told a nazi to go play in a trash compacter, how many will be left after that meat grinder?

But lol the Internet can't die lmao. How hypercomical.

This didn't start out as an essay with a thesis, it was just sort of a bunch of free floating frustration and anxiety with the state of the Internet and, if I'm being honest, with how little progress I was making with this canvas nonsense I was working on. It remains a bit of a complicated, ambivalent thing. It's not like Flash or any of these other goofy fixes for hypercomic problems were, you know, good. The idea of an open standard replacement for Flash is really good, on the whole.

But in the rush toward what is merely expedient for the large entities dominating the web, we're leaving people, and art, behind. There's no reason why followers of Homestuck or Kid Radd or color cycling artists or whatever the hell need to use the same janky frameworks in order to recapture something aesthetically meaningful from those works, but they can only do that if the works are still available at all, and if the "free and open source" tools are more than "free" and "open"--accessible, stable, casually adoptable by people who don't have a fucking computer science degree.

The next Homestuck will not be made in Flash.

With the increased deprecation of older web technology, and with the primitive scramble for scarce resources being carried out by the new Internet lords, Homestuck itself might join Flash as a mere casualty. And we will have to say, the next Homestuck will not be made in a world where Homestuck still exists.

Evil Be Thou My Good

Homestuck was a Gnostic story. The Homestuck Epilogues are a satanic one. Dirk Strider is the devil. To understand, we'll have to consult a poet who's of the devil's part: John Milton.

A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities

A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities analyzes Homestuck in the context of the new hypercomics boom that it inspired. Laying out the history of hypercomics for the first time, this book is an essential read for anyone looking to better understand why Homestuck is successful, and the possibilities that its formal techniques offer.


  1. Great article.
    There's nothing wrong with Inkscape that 10 million dollars can't fix. It is 14 years old and still hasn't reached version 1.0.

    1. It's been really weird moving from Krita and Libre Office, which seem to have tons of support and power, to Inkscape, which is... a program that really feels and looks and handles like something 14 years old and still not at version 1.0 :/

      I'm not sure what the difference is. Maybe it really is just a funding issue? But I think Krita and Inkscape are technically sub-projects of the same broader open source graphics initiative so idfk

  2. Ironically I also used Inkscape to create a Net Neutrality PSA:

    1. Nice.

      Yeah it's not that it's impossible to do things with Inkscape... it's just... really emphatically not where it should be, and I don't think "I could do this" can or should translate to "everyone must be able to do this"

      I'm very impressed with anyone who gets the program to work for them.

    2. I agree. I picked Inkscape as a least-worst option to make a web-compatible SVG. I chose reducing pain for the public at the price of increasing pain for the artist (me).

      And true, Inkscape is hobbled by its commitment to SVG, which it has no power to upgrade, but on the other hand if it went outside ossified conservative standards then browsers wouldn't render its drawings correctly. (LibreOffice SVGs failed my browser test early on.)

      What's really broken is the web itself. The browser began as a simple HTML document viewer and now we're slowly, excruciatingly morphing it into a Turing-complete virtual machine. Imagine rejiggering MS Word into a whole operating system, one ugly patch at a time, and stopping halfway through.

      But I do believe radical change is possible. Recall how fast people installed instant messenger or Warcraft clients vs how long it took IE to finally support PNG files. Ironically it has been easier to simply write and disseminate whole new species of app than to wait for old standards to catch up.

      I also feel your pain that Internet is in danger, and support and root for net neutrality, but sadly the foxes *own* the chicken house here. Telecoms own the cables and only the highest nonstop enforcement can protect us, something our Jekyll and Hyde election cycles have massively failed to do.

      We gotta own the wires! Legalize muni wifi and mesh out whenever possible. Other countries have done it and we can too.

      Sorry for the long rant, consider it a compliment that your article evoked my emotions.

    3. Yeah it's pretty obvious that there's a whole lot online that's gotta be given more populist control, though I think we'll need to rethink some things about how Open Source is done generally as well since at the moment it seems pretty patchy?

      It blows my mind reading early ECMA recommendations that fully treat the webpage as... just an academic journal article, essentially? We really are building on top of something that was totally conceptually foreign to what we're trying to do with it now. I don't know. It's a big problem. And fixing it of course risks destroying backward compatibility which is also a huge problem...

      I don't really know what the answers are here


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