The Ridiculous Adventures of MSPA Reader in Hussnasty Hell
What is there to say about Openbound?
It’s the three/four-part interactive “game” running throughout the third intermission of Homestuck’s sixth act. It’s set in a cluster of dreambubbles out in the Furthest Ring, the story’s equivalent to an afterlife, where a seemingly-infinite number of iterations of characters spend, seemingly, the rest of eternity hanging around in each other’s memories. Its main protagonist is Meenah Peixes, a young girl from an ancient universe who has only recently arrived here in the Furthest Ring. Her goal is to find the ghosts of her friends, who have been here for considerably longer than she has, and convince (as many as possible of) them to enlist in an army set to oppose the grandest of all demons and existential threat to the fabric of reality: Lord English.
And it has been a particularly divisive section of our beloved internet epic. It focused on a new cast of twelve characters, easily the most flawed of the lot. It in fact seemed to relish in exposing us to long conversation after long conversation with a rogue’s gallery of toxic personalities, most of whom are clear caricatures of subsets of Homestuck’s own audience. To “beat” a single part of Openbound may take upwards of an hour. The whole time, the hyperlink allowing progress through the narrative is right there, giving a temptation to skip this trip through the margins of nowhere. It’s entirely arguable that whatever narrative developments occur in Openbound are made redundant by recaps (and, less arguably, retcons) later on.
But you should absolutely play through Openbound at least once, and listen carefully to what its ghosts have to say. Others may argue otherwise; I argue that Homestuck itself has necessitated that your experience in playing through this game will present you with your greatest opportunity for interaction with the narrative. Openbound is a Descent To The Underworld in the mythological sense, not for its characters (who have degrees of familiarity with or belonging in there) —but for an underappreciated little character named MSPA Reader. Openbound is your descent to the underworld, and it is Homestuck’s most interactive iteration of one central question.
Before we can explore the game, though, it would do us well to examine what sets it up, so that we may better understand the question being posed and its significance (both within the narrative framework and without).
Let’s talk about Lord English.
I- Enter “Caliborn: Enter”
Lord English is Homestuck’s ultimate villain. This isn’t a controversial statement; the comic goes out of its way to tell us that in plain terms.
His is the force that binds all characters to the endless cycle of suffering known as the Alpha Timeline. He is the demiurge that condemns all souls to the spite and toil of material reality, preventing ascension into the ideal. He is a large muscular adult who beats the shit out of defenseless children. He is an indestructible demon, he travels through time at will; his will is time.
He is a mobster, a manchild, a galaxy ender, a big bruiser.
He is Last Boss.
But he’s also something beyond even that. As author Andrew Hussie describes:
“All iterations of Lord English in sum represent the ultimate metavillain.”
— Homestuck Act 3, physical edition, page 132
“What’s a metavillain?”
Simple: A fictional character who antagonizes the reader through assaulting the textual framework (i.e. the story itself).
Homestuck started small with this concept: Jack Noir was a villain who happened to be aware of and interact with the boundaries of the fiction.
It grew broader: Doc Scratch was a villain who inserted himself as narrator, changing the presentation of the whole story after directing Alternian society into systemic oppression. And Doc Scratch was pretty evil as far as villains go, but Homestuck had saved the worst for last.
Lord English assaults us with his very presence.
Even just physiologically, looking at him on-screen strains the eyes, his flashing sequences of colours and billiards seeming to embody the very real obnoxiousness of the comic’s common “fast looping gifs.”
Yet, ideologically, he grafts himself with purpose into the core of the comic’s symbolic labyrinth, dwelling in void and enigma, permeating every secret, the end of all roads on the search for meaning.
You want to look away, but you are far too curious.
You must look at him, in the end, and hurt your eyes.
And he loves that.
But that’s nothing compared to his true intent: You must learn of him, in the end, and give up on taking Homestuck seriously.
In the above image, excerpted from Act 5 Act 2, Hussie describes “forces which if handled recklessly will nullify the basic ability […] to give a shit.” He’s talking about his direct intervention, as authorial self-insert, with events in the story. He’s talking about meta shit. And he’s establishing a precedent for Lord English.
After Act 5 Act 2 was Homestuck’s second main Intermission, where out of Doc Scratch’s corpse “hatches” his master, LE, appearing on-screen for the first time. His first action was to honk, establishing an association with Gamzee Makara, who would quickly become a recurring agent of “unexplained bullshit.”
His next appearance, in Act 6 Intermission 2, found him on Earth C (yes it is Earth C, click both links), hunting down and murdering Andrew Hussie’s self-insert, thus directly interfering with those aforementioned meta give-a-shit “forces.” This is the third way Lord English assaults the story: By literally doing things, absurd things, in the canon.
Then came the end of Act 6 Act 3, the flash titled “Caliborn: Enter.” On one hand, this flash connected Lord English with cherub Caliborn, who has not only read enough of Homestuck itself to become familiar with its characters and meta mechanics, he embarks on a quest to sabotage the story. This provides a motive. On the other hand, we get to see LE himself in action. Let’s focus on that a bit.
We first see LE’s vessel, the Cairo Overcoat, as it departs from Earth C, placing this sequence immediately after the Andrew Hussie murder. It arrives in the Furthest Ring, passing by some hideous Horrorterrors, before arriving in a dreambubble well populated with ghosts of alternate selves from doomed timelines. He proceeds to wreck their shit with what we’ll call a “rainbow seizure attack,” double-killing the already dead, and causing a shockwave so vast its cracked aftermath can be seen far through the Furthest Ring…
…including in a dreambubble inhabited by one Meenah Peixes.
That’s right, it’s finally time to talk about Openbound —
“Wait wait wait wait wait,” you say. “So LE honks, LE kills the self-insert, and LE ‘double-kills’ some people who were dead anyway? How, exactly, is this particularly evil?”
Because every part of it is a conscious reminder that Homestuck is ridiculous. This is even explicitly stated in Openbound:
Think about it. This was the very next part of the story after Caliborn: Enter. For Homestuck to go and remove any doubt that Lord English’s actions were meant to look kinda silly, that’s… significant, wouldn’t you say?
Because, really, think about it. What happens when Lord English does ridiculous things? What happens to us?
Do we start rooting for Lord English’s defeat with more conviction? Or do we start to doubt Homestuck’s measure of villainy and decide we wouldn’t really mind all that much if Lord English won in the end, just because it would make things a bit more serious?
Do we take Homestuck more seriously? Or do we take Homestuck less seriously?
Do we punish Homestuck for Lord English’s actions? All because our capacity to give a shit has been eroded?
And what happens, then, when the reader no longer gives a shit? Who is the reader? We’re someone in the comic. Our input, our expectations, and our reactions drive the story. Our existence is why the characters are specifically in a story. We’re who Gamzee hides his secrets from. We’re who Vriska shows off for. We’re who Caliborn knows exists, we’re who he writes Homosuck for.
If we no longer give a shit, then we’re one step closer to having no concern whether the good guys live or die. One step closer to…
…being happy at the prospect of Calliope’s death.
If we no longer care about taking Homestuck seriously, then Lord English knows he is free to do what he wants.
We’re bystanders. He wants us to walk away.
II- The Metakatabatic Ballet
“The first walkaround game in John’s house established the precedent that — since the reader of the story is now directly controlling John and therefore can’t be issuing commands in the usual sense — the commands inside the game are being issued by an in-story character […]”
(Homestuck Act 4, physical edition, page 65)
The above quote has one hell of an implication: If we can’t be issuing commands during a game because we are directly controlling the character, then… during a game, we are in the panel. That is where MSPA Reader is, preoccupied.
Openbound is not the first time a character has gone to the afterlife. But it is the first interactive game set there, and so according to that precedent, it’s the first time the MSPA Reader goes there. We are free to explore directly, instead of being limited to just what the narration is willing to divulge. It is our descent and, in the end, return from the underworld — it is our katabasis, in other words. (Which makes this trip very katabatic.)
What do we see down there?
We see an absurd cast of new characters walking in circles, set to music. We see, you could say, a…
…ballet of the dancestors.
In A6I2, we learned that Meenah is new to the afterlife —
— and this places her in contrast with the other trolls of her session, who have been here in the dreambubbles for an indeterminate number of sweeps. I bring that point up multiple times for a reason: It’s a significant point of characterisation that’s easy to overlook. The people we are about to see have been banished from their lives by Sburb, banished from Sburban victory by Lord English’s machinations, banished from life by Meenah’s (clever) plans, and they’ve been on the very margins of existence for a very long time. The Beforan trolls have been lost in their memories for so long that they can’t keep track of time, lost rehashing their personal conflicts, lost dwelling in the uncertainty of the abyss, lost with their only comforts: their personality quirks. Who we see are shades of their former selves, remnants of identities trapped in a very Hussnasty Hell. (See Endnote 1.)
Let’s start with a hard one: Kankri Vantas.
Kankri is insufferable towards certain people, tolerable towards a few. The same was true of his descendant, Karkat, at his worst, but the difference is we never get to see Kankri at his best (that’s reserved for the Sufferer). Instead, we see him in the middle of speaking with someone he deeply wishes will care. He has had a lot of time to swim around in his thoughts:
and it’s probably a safe bet that he’s not too happy about having been dead:
Unfortunately, he’s right about one thing: He is the spiritual shepherd around here. His penchant for proselytizing makes him good at masking his insecurities under a semblance of certainty and intelligence (making him potentially look very trustworthy), and as we hear throughout these dreambubbles, he has had influence among his friends. The most relevant is our resident Pyrope.
Latula is good at what she tries to do. She’s great at skateboarding and playing video games, and she’s considerate and smarter than she may look, all traits in common with descendant Terezi (well, maybe not the skateboarding). She inherently cares about her friends, lifting up and defending matesprit Mituna from Damara later on, welcoming Meenah openly, opening up towards Porrim, and…
…valuing Kankri’s priorities. She has been led by her spiritual shepherd down this spiral of clinging to any insecurity and wearing it like a mask until it seems at risk of consuming her entire identity. The meaninglessness of the afterlife did not turn her into a caricature; it may have been as tragic as her love for her friends which did that.
Porrim Maryam, on the other hand, is generally seen as the most bearable new troll. By the time we meet her, she has managed to keep her head on her shoulders, using the existence of Alternian descendants to reflect on her party’s relationships. She uses her standing within her friend group to encourage healthy thinking and self-acceptance, and even when she turns Meenah down she immediately turns her focus to offering suggestions and advice (“ask the god tiers”). To her descendant, Kanaya, Porrim is the object of katabasis — Kanaya goes to the underworld in order to learn from her and is one of the few trolls to come away from that successfully.
I think there’s a good chance that Kankri picked up much of his rhetoric and academic vocabulary from Porrim. It’s a shame that he sees her as a “mom” against whom to rebel. Therein lies the tragic element.
Cronus Ampora is another character who has not coped too well with his fate. There’s, uh, a lot of reason to not want much to do with him, but hear me out! His fate revolves around a failure: The failure to “be the one” to kill Lord English. Like, his destiny literally involves originally being the one, only for that to change. What can he stand for, now that he’s in Hell? Well, someone was there to help him out with that question:
The Beforan spiritual shepherd’s influence gets around. Take your flaws, process them as insecurities, wear them as a mask, and double down.
(Incidentally, that quote has another important detail: Cronus isn’t an asshole “because he thinks he’s a human.” He’s an asshole because he thinks he’s a greaser, a chosen identity popularly represented by bullies.)
There’s one more important point about Cronus to make, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. For now, let’s deal with Captor.
Mituna’s golden days (ahem) were in his past, perhaps more so than most of the Beforans. Aranea explains it best:
He was a hero who wore his faculties out in order to protect his friends. We watch him now, abused by Cronus, dependent on Latula, unable to articulate himself well enough to stand up to mistreatment without, often, giving more ammo to those who dislike him. The above quote gives an even darker hint at a recurring shackle on the Beforans’ entire session, one which will take us to our next troll, the silent Makara.
Kurloz famously had a nightmare so horrible that he woke up screaming loud enough to deafen Meulin. This act brought him enough guilt to convince himself to sew his own mouth shut, but what did he dream of? The implication is that it was of Lord English, the true face of Kurloz’s religion, who would be responsible for the widespread subjugation of all future trolls. For the rest of his life, and for all his afterlife, Kurloz has dedicated himself to the service of his Lord. He is said to be uncannily good at deducing blackrom pairs — he can pick up on people’s hate and probably knows how to exploit it. As the previous paragraph implies, he might be responsible for Mituna’s tragedy, and Aranea drops an even subtler hint that Kurloz may be responsible for Cronus’s as well:
Kurloz is one of the least tragic characters in Openbound; his is a part of a greater “success” story, the success of Lord English. He is a villain, hiding in silent absurdity in the center of this intermission. Even within the afterlife, we see him further nefarious schemes and assist Gamzee, ultimately delivering a codpiece and completing the clown’s God Tier getup. (See Endnote 2.)
Beware the mime.
Meulin Leijon is she who Kurloz deafened. Enthusiastic, supportive, really quite lovely. She speaks a little loudly at times, but she can’t exactly help it, and she gladly complies with Meenah’s request for volume control. Her tragedy comes with the company that keeps her: Kurloz uses her for his own purposes, communicating with her mind directly (probably through a form of chucklevoodoo), plotting their friends’ downfall, and…
…she’s not consciously doing any of this. She’s a pawn.
Rufioh Nitram is a pushover. He works so hard to please his friends that he might not even realize how much they affect him. He thanks Meenah for “standing up to” Damara for him, when Meenah is partly the one who pushed Damara to paralyze him (we’ll get to that). In his desire to repay Horuss for bringing him back from the dead, he spends his afterlife too bashful to break up even if it occupies a substantial portion of his thoughts. So yeah. More tragic flaws. Speaking of Zahhak!
Horuss is a lot like his descendant Equius, but more. Where Equius was a Void player, Horuss found a philosophical purpose in the Void. Where Equius built robotic vessels for his friends, Horuss built robotic horse vessels for his friends. Where Equius protected Nepeta who, in turn, neutralized him, Horuss forms a connection with Meulin in the afterlife which only pushes him deeper into a rejection of his personality, an embracing of happiness no matter what.
The tragedy here is obvious. Meulin is an exploited soul, and so her emotional advice is inherently compromised. But Kurloz’s exploitation of her must be kept secret, so Horuss can only trust her blindly:
And so the wheels of subjugation keep on turning.
Damara Megido, who in another instance of her universe is forced to be Lord English’s Handmaiden, is here presented as a troublemaker. She once dated Rufioh, until Horuss came and won him away, but we’re given a little indication that she might have been able to deal with that by itself…
…if it weren’t for Meenah’s influence as a radicalizing factor.
Pushed into taking action against people who can’t even speak her same language, Damara was wide open for pretty much any other ideology to rope her in. She got Lord English, whose will she served by obstructing her friends and suggesting the Scratch as a solution to their session. (It was a solution; it’s just that… that allowed Lord English to sink his hooks into their universe properly, rewriting Beforus as Alternia, and setting all the horrors in motion.) Now that her purpose is spent and she’s still stuck with people who can’t understand her, all she does is do drugs and say overly sexual comments her friends don’t pick up on. “Nothing matters, so fuck it,” essentially.
We’re nearly done. Just two more trolls left to cover.
Aranea Serket cares a lot for her friends and works hard to fill us in on their stories. She’s our first real exposure to the Beforans, and her loneliness pervades much that we learn. I probably don’t need to offer reasons for you to give a shit about her; she’s not that controversial a character. But I will point out that she was in no way free of Openbound’s smothering tragedy:
To the reader, comments such as that are comedic instances of dramatic irony. But when you consider the first half of this essay, that Lord English wants to look ridiculous, that he uses Gamzee (and, by extension, Kurloz) precisely for that purpose, maybe you can see why Openbound deals so insistently with the motif of “haha this is totally harmless! none of this is important!”
Maybe you can see that there’s more to the Beforans than we are led to believe by all these jokes.
And the crux of it all comes down to our final troll, our fishy princess, our punky Peixes…
Meenah. She’s bad in all the coolest ways. She’s a chance for the personality of the Condesce to receive a positive representation. She’s familiar enough with her friends to be able to try and convince them without our help, yet new enough to the afterlife that she hasn’t had time to lose her strong sense of self-preservation. In terms of “giving a shit,” she puts on a facade of not caring but is truly a blank slate. It’s not that she doesn’t give a shit, just that she hasn’t.
There’s that question again: The question of “giving a shit.”
That’s what Openbound can be said to boil down to: After watching Lord English slaughter the already-dead, can you travel to the afterlife with Meenah, meet the shades/souls trapped there, and honestly say that you still take Homestuck seriously enough to want to see it through to the end? Can you even take Openbound seriously enough to want to play it all the way through?
It’s a difficult question. It’s one of Homestuck’s greatest challenges.
Openbound is made even more difficult in that the shades we meet look, on the surface, an awful lot like some of us. They seem to be mocking us. Antagonizing us. One-dimensional pastiches of us. Usually, when we’re unsure of something like that in a story, we turn to the author for help, and Openbound even offers a take on that dynamic: You can make it to the end as Damara and find Hussie, who gives you “commentary” on the creation of the Beforan trolls.
He says Kankri is a pastiche of bad sjws.
He says Latula is a pastiche of empty gamergrls.
He says Porrim is a good sjw.
He says Cronus is “the worst character in Homestuck.”
He says Mituna is a pastiche of 4chan and gamerbros.
He says Kurloz is another juggalo the story didn’t need, that the story didn’t even need twelve new trolls, that Lord English is probably doing all this because he thinks it’s funny.
He says Meulin is the deaf character in “this kickass smorgasbord of disabled characters.”
He says nothing about Rufioh except an apology to Dante Basco.
He says Horuss is “just Equius on horse steroids.”
He says Damara speaks shitty Japanese and that someone is probably drawing porn of her right now.
He says Aranea is a blabbermouth.
He says Meenah is there to “throw a bone to the pisces people.”
In other words, Hussie’s character outright defines the most cynical interpretations possible. He is reductive, literally describing them as “1.5 dimensional NPC-caliber characters.” If you come away from Openbound taking his character at face value, which is understandable, you will probably feel very bitter about it.
But I do want you to take note of something: You’re talking to Hussie’s shade. Lord English has already murdered him by this point, rendered him a dead 1.5 dimensional NPC-caliber character whose main personality quirk is an obsession with Vriska. (Even just literally speaking, Hussie mentions that Openbound took as many manhours as Cascade did to produce, so as an author his words should be taken with his post-production exhaustion in mind.) Death Of The Author probably applies, especially since the Homestuck page titled “DOTA” has already happened.
Hussie’s answers are probably not meant as definite answers. He’s probably trolling you.
He cannot make you care about his characters. Homestuck cannot make you care. That’s why “do I even give a shit about this” is the comic’s greatest challenge. It’s a question of empathy, of trust, of moral integrity.
Here are a bunch of new characters who all stumbled into Lord English’s schemes, and now they are suffering in the underworld, and yet Lord English has also orchestrated that you are very likely to come out of this disgruntled and with as little sympathy as possible. He is the greatest villain to them, in part because he is a metavillain against us, driving readers away from giving a shit about his victims.
You don’t have to love Openbound all of a sudden just because I said some words at you on the internet. But maybe consider checking it out again. Maybe consider Openbound in these terms:
Can you descend into the underworld, meet its shades, and come back out without losing your capacity for taking Homestuck seriously?
Can you give a shit about these tragic characters when surrounded by forces that conspire to make you not give a shit? Can you believe the Beforans to be individuals first, and caricatures second?
Can you believe that a patriarchal entity like Lord English might be very good at driving you away from something you might have once cared about? That Hussie may have intended for you to struggle with that?
Can you learn to recognize when you’re being manipulated to not care?
Can you spot a smear campaign?
Or will you walk away from all this?
1: I’m told that the Horrorterrors literally feed off of the negative energy generated by souls in the Furthest Ring, thus lending more weight to the tragedy of the shades, but. I can’t actually find textual evidence for that. EDIT:
2: That’s pretty fucking ridiculous, isn’t it? But hey, let’s talk about codpieces for a minute. They look like dicks because they cover up dicks. Is Gamzee popping a boner down there? We may never know now. This is just another way in which Gamzee is surrounded by mystery and hides his schemes by looking fucking ridiculous. And in getting his codpiece, he completes his God Tier outfit, thus meaning we will never be really sure whether he has actually achieved God Tier, and so Gamzee further erodes the question of “how seriously should I take God Tiers/Homestuck?”
3: Special thanks to optimisticDuelist, Hexillith, th4nkyoub3n, and Luna! You are all excellent beta readers.
4: Also. “Hussnasty” is the adjective form of “Hussie.” Probably should have said this one much earlier, you say? That’s the joke, I say.
5: Thank you for reading!!!