Storytelling for the Digital Age

With the rapid rise of ebooks and digital forms of reading, many are asking questions about the future of literature and storytelling. Will print books continue to exist? Is it possible to create impactful, emotionally-charged narratives in an exclusively digital format? Do we have any idea what that could even look like? Well…we just might.

Enter Homestuck, a webcomic (containing over 800 thousand [yes, thousand] words of dialogue and prose) that began on April 13th, 2009 as a create-your-own-adventure story headed by author Andrew Hussie. The narrative centers around four 13-year-old online friends who quickly realize that, in order to save humanity, they must play a video game together. The basic format is simple: a webpage equals one page of the story, and there is usually one key visual element and at least a paragraph of prose; sometimes Hussie foregoes text entirely, allowing the art to tell the story.

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Dialogue in Homestuck is presented in the form of chat logs between characters; most early character interactions are done via fictional instant messaging, but Hussie maintains the chat format for dialogue even in scenes where characters are together in the same room. Prose passages are written entirely in second-person, maintaining the feel of the narrative’s origin as a choose-your-own-adventure story. And the art? Extremely simple digital art, intentionally designed to look like it was made in MSPaint in, like, twenty seconds or less. The effect is more charming than you might be led to believe!

What makes Homestuck stand apart as a digital narrative is not only its masterful use of static art and writing, but also its animated GIFs, elaborate musical scores, breathtaking flash animations (including the infamous [S] Cascade, which drew so much unanticipated traffic during its launch on October 25th, 2011 that its host website, Newgrounds, crashed less than five minutes after the animation was released), and even small, entirely self-contained video games.  The end result is a story that, prior to the release of its 2019 epilogue, spans a grand total of 818,929 words – that’s more than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, one of the longest English language novels at just over 565,000 words – 14,915 art panels, and over four hours of animation and music.

Homestuck’s popularity exploded in 2011 with the release of the aforementioned [S] Cascade, resulting in thousands of people sporting gray body paint and candy-corn colored horns (emulating the story’s race of alien trolls) at anime and pop culture conventions across the United States. Online, fanfiction communities were thriving, often engaged in friendly competitions to encourage the production of fanworks that frequently emulated Homestuck’s unique style of storytelling. A number of prominent writers from that community have gone on to see publishing success, and often credit their participation in fan communities in helping improve their skills. They won’t be named here, as they have sought to distance their online personas from their public ones – but if anyone is interested in some up and coming speculative fiction, I’ve got recommendations!

So, that’s Homestuck. “But Kayti,” you might ask, “what, exactly, might this mean for the future of storytelling?” Well, the influence this particular narrative is having on certain subcultures could be an indication; fan writers taking their unique Homestuck-writing skill sets to the published world is somewhat obvious. What is less obvious is the fact that a little independent video game called Undertale, created by Homestuck’s composer, Toby Fox, is noted to have a similar narrative style to Homestuck – and really, the game isn’t so little. In fact, Nintendo recently announced that it is adding one of the characters from Undertale to its worldwide smash-hit fighting game series, Super Smash Bros.

Ultimately, it’s too early to tell how many stories will go the way of Homestuck. The reality is that storytelling and writing are changing, and will continue to change, in this new digital era. Ebooks, webcomics, even the recent appearances of cooperative storytelling live streams (think Dungeons and Dragons), are here to stay – but, I pray, not at the expense of the good old-fashioned printed word.

-Kayti

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