Saturday, 4 February 2012

Digital Canvas - MSPA and the rise of interactivity

MS Paint Adventures (MSPA for short) is a webcomic series of long stories, created by Andrew Hussie and all with three things in common; A strange sense of humour, a simplistic art style that gets more complicated day by day, and in each story the plot is driven in one way or another primarily by the input of its loyal readers. You see…

In The Beginning, there was the Forum. And on this hallowed ground, Hussie started posting webcomic pictures and encouraged his fellow forum users to suggest what should happen next. This first adventure was known as Jailbreak, and followed a badly drawn man locked up in an unusual prison. Andrew set up the webcomic in the style of an old text-led adventure game to make use of “go WEST, get the FLASK” style commands, and also to parody gaming mechanics (which he still does in greater detail in his more recent adventures). For this first adventure, Hussie chose to only use the first commands given after each update, and the storyline was very much humour-led (indeed, most of the website’s running gags can be sited from Jailbreak). Finding that this format was popular with the forum, Hussie launched his own website for the series with a handy “suggestion box“ feature, abandoning the meandering Jailbreak and starting up a new adventure called Bard Quest. This was to be known as the failed experiment, as even though Andrew was now picking and choosing the best reader suggestions for the plot, he was experimenting with a multiple-parallel-paths-at-once style that he inevitably couldn’t keep track of.

Then came the golden age of Problem Sleuth. Choosing suggestions to fit his own needs but sticking to a linear format this time, Hussie created a year-long story filled with hard-boiled detectives, locked-room puzzles, hilarious trolling-the-readers gameplay, reality bending and jumping, RPG style special attacks such as “Sleuth Diplomacy” and “Temporal Replicollision”, the four nations of clowns, elves, pigs, and weasels that needed to be brought to peace, several tentacled horror-terrors, and multiple versions of the same characters squabbling with each other. The beauty of Problem Sleuth was that it managed to simultaneously homage and parody old school RPGs, be extraordinarily funny, and tell a great story to a satisfying conclusion.

Towards the end of Problem Sleuth the website started getting extremely popular, with the suggestion box suffering from regular crashing due to overuse. Hussie stated that towards the end, he could have taken the action in any direction he could have dreamed of due to the diversity and number of suggestions, which kind of defeated the purpose. So for the next adventure, Homestuck, the suggestion boxes were soon closed after a few initial suggestions. Andrew continues the site’s interactivity through more subtle means, taking input from the site’s forum (which continually generates theories and wild guesses of what might happen next, to which Andrew sometimes reacts to in-comic) and using art and music contributors, especially for the big Flash updates. Homestuck is the story of a group of kids who play a game that destroys the Earth, and that’s just the beginning of the story! Homestuck is still ongoing, and tends to be a lot more story-led than previous adventures but still with a good dose of trademark MSPA weird humour. MSPA’s popularity has dramatically risen again during Homestuck, generally thought to be due to Hussie introducing an alien race of Trolls that could be easily cosplayed as, parodying the behaviour of real-life internet trolls by explaining their rudeness and l33t typing styles through an alien culture and mindset.

As anyone in Hollywood will tell you, popularity breeds copycats, and this is no less true for MSPA. In fact Hussie actively encourages a dedicated section of his site’s forum that has been given over to “Forum Adventures”, continuing the honoured tradition of Jailbreak’s humble beginnings. You can find a forum adventure on pretty much any subject in there, including a certain puzzle-based space adventure from yours truly called “You Have To Explode The Sun”. It’s kinda slow to update, but it holds a dear place in my heart. Of course, a popular concept like forum adventures wouldn’t be limited to just the MSPA forums; a small band of the more prolific forum adventure authors from the MSPA mothership have recently launched their own forum, solely dedicated to the art of adventure creating, which for some injoke-y reason they have named Eagle Time. Also of note are the budding forum adventure communities on the Garry’s Mod forums and Bay 12.

MSPA has basically paved the way for a whole new genre of webcomics (albeit a niche one at the moment): Interactive Webcomics, the modern evolution of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. As well as some escapees from the forum that have found their own success, independence and fanbase (Voices, Prequel, etc), there are a few other pioneers of this brave new genre frontier, such as Aetheria Epics where community voting before each update decides the direction of the story, or Epicsplosion where the author manages to do what Andrew Hussie couldn’t and maintains several parallel plot paths at once. Even the more successful long-running webcomics are sitting up and taking notice, with Ctrl-Alt-Delete dabbling in a few email-vote-driven self contained stories in the past, and Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics constantly teasing on Twitter of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure project of some sort in the works. So it seems the Interactive Webcomic is here to stay, and long may it reign!

Todd Marsh realises that if this is gonna be a regular thing, he needs to read a wider variety of webcomics.


  1. I like the self-advertisement, there. Heheheh. Still, a good job at summarizing such a phenomenon in such a small space!

    1. Glad you like it! Proud/embarrassed to say this one was mostly done without the need to check facts!

  2. Nice job! If you want to make this regular, I'd suggest Monster Pulse as a read. It's not too long, you can get to the latest page within the hour but the story is quite compelling!