Sunday, March 22, 2009

Andrew Hussie of MS Paint Adventures

If you haven't read through MS Paint Adventures already then go do so. This article will still be here. MS Paint Adventures is something of a comic experiment in comics and animation using elements of old-school text based adventure games. Every move of the characters through the imaginative and complicated worlds is dictated by reader suggestions (although many events take on an unexpected turn when they play out). Problem Sleuth is the longest-running story so far and Andrew wrapped the series up pretty much one year from its beginning. The adventure is massive, with so many characters and convoluted puzzles they had to put a wiki together just to keep track of it all. I thought that it would be a good time to catch up with Andrew as he was putting the finishing touches on the site's current project and planning his next move.


CC: How does it feel to be finished with Problem Sleuth?

Andrew Hussie: As of this moment, I'm working on epilogue pages, and still have some "extras" to get to as well.

But even if I were totally finished, and exhaling upon the completion of this unusual magnum opus, I'm pretty sure it would feel weird. I would just start on something else right away rather than let whatever that feeling was sink in.

I guess I don't really consider rest or vacations as things which apply to creativity. Always working on projects is sort of my year-round vacation from the awkward feeling of not producing anything. Even now I've been working on plans for the next story, before I've totally wrapped up PS.

CC: For the uninitiated, how did MS Paint Adventures get started?

AH: It started on an internet forum. It worked very much the same way as it does now, but replies to the thread served as suggestions. The entire Jail Break story was made in a forum.

CC: While I know the adventure was written with fan input how much of the “weird puzzle shit” did you work out in advance of commands? It seems to fit pretty well.

AH: Pretty much every puzzle was worked out in advance. I guess some of the following could be "spoilers" for anyone who hasn't finished reading [Problem Sleuth]. Albeit a very silly kind of spoiler.

For instance, the moment I drew the Snoop bust, I knew it was going to be the thing to deal the final hit to the boss. Also I put the giant fan on the island knowing it would be the thing to finally blow the bust off whatever it was sitting on (which turned out to be a pair of mecha legs). And then I knew they'd have to go on a sort of puzzle adventure through the brothel to plug in the fan, which I only bothered to design once the plug had landed in there. I let the pace of the story dictate how complicated the puzzle was. Since it looked like I needed to buy them some time to beat DMK, I made it fairly complicated with all the peepshow windows and food trucks and such. And then later I bought even more time by stretching the cord across the universe. The delay tactics got pretty flagrant and ridiculous actually.

But even though I did the planning, I always let the reader supply the actions to get us there.

The earlier puzzle to dislodge the oboe was the same way. It even involved the same elements: supplying power to a fan to blow a large bust across a room so it could fall through the floor on a piano. And even earlier than that a fan was used to blow a heavy safe door shut. Various puzzle themes have been established throughout, and were adhered to somewhat. It was sort of obvious when you think about it, that the big fan would be used to blow a heavy bust to kill the boss at the end (as insane as that sentence just sounded). Yet I don't think many people saw it coming. This is possibly because I established patterns of unpredictability in other ways.

CC: Were there any PC adventure games in particular you would say influenced MSPA? Did you play a lot of them?

AH: The only ones I can recall playing all the way through were Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle. But I wouldn't say any specific adventure game influenced it - only the conceptual framework, and a lot of the quirks and foibles common to those games.

Other types of games had their influence too, like fighting games and RPGs, especially when it came to certain gags, as well as visual styles in the animated frames.

CC: How crazy did the suggestions get? Were there any you were tempted to indulge that would have derailed the project or made things more difficult?

AH: Almost all of them were pretty crazy, and almost all of them did derail the project, in a way. The entire plot is really an elaborate series of derailings. That's mostly why it went on for so long. Crazy suggestions lend themselves to tangents. The whole story is composed of these tangents, which I did my best to weave together cohesively. But how it did sprawl.

But there were plenty that were "crazy" in the sense that I would read it, and then reread it, and say "Wow, I have no idea what this guy is talking about." Especially toward the end when the universe was becoming particularly unhinged. I think some readers were taking cues from those outlandish events, and then tried to advance the story on those terms, usually concocting fanciful ways to increase the speed of light, and often writing paragraphs in the process. Even though there was no way I would, or could possibly, use an entire paragraph as a command.

But I think in those cases they were using the suggestion box as a sort of whiteboard to just think out loud about some wild stuff, which was cool and all part of the fun. The suggestion box often made for some enjoyable reads. And many times even though I didn't explicitly use someone's suggestion, I would take what they were getting at and work it into the story in a less direct way. If there are readers who think I never used their suggestions, there is a decent chance I just might have without them realizing it!

CC: What has the response from the community been on seeing Problem Sleuth finish?

AH: It has been an incredible response, far beyond my expectations. I've always managed to respond to just about ever letter I get from a reader, but when the story ended, not only could I not respond to everything, I had trouble keeping up with just reading it all. I'm quite grateful to everyone who's stuck with me through this story, and to those who voiced appreciation for it in whatever way.

The sense I've come away with is that people actually like it when things have a proper ending. It's not uncommon for things on the internet to end, but it seems more usually to be characterized by a petering out, which is less well received. Tying up the loose ends makes all the difference. It's a model of storytelling I will strive to repeat.

CC: Do you plan on revisiting Bard Quest now?

AH: I'm going to put a very brief cap on both unfinished stories, just so neither one is left hanging. I won't spend much time on that though.

CC: Then what?

AH: There will be a story following PS very shortly. It will be very different.

CC: Some people might not know about the comics you drew before MSPA began. What prompted you to put out your own webcomic? Is a more traditional, semi-daily strip something you might return to again?

AH: I started a webcomic because it was what I was doing anyway: making comics. So like many others, I put them online. I doubt I'll get into it again though. I still like comics, but after doing MSPA for a while, I think it would seem awfully static and rigid. It's a medium I've already personally explored quite a bit, with a good variety of styles and approaches. I'd rather keep feeling out new boundaries, as long as it's possible.

This is even true with the next adventure. If you're thinking it's going to look like Problem Sleuth 2, but with new characters and a different genre setting, you'll be in for a surprise.

CC: You had a book released through Slave Labor Graphics, right?

AH: Yes, it was called Whistles. It was supposed to be the first of two books, and I have yet to finish the second. A fully rendered graphic novel is of course vastly more time-consuming than something like MSPA, page for page. But maybe that's one of the things I like about this format. The efficiency in conveying a complete story - the bang for the buck metric, I guess - seems to be very high.

I'll still finish it though, per what I was saying before about finishing stories.

CC: Something else you’re involved with that has been burning up the ‘net has been your video editing project. How did that come about?

AH: My internet friend, Jan, who I've known for quite some time, wrote to me about a project he was thinking of, involving re-editing episodes of Star Trek TNG. I of course thought this was a fantastic idea, and we made about a dozen short episodes very quickly. He is a brilliant editor, and they wouldn't work even remotely as well if not for his technical expertise. My role was to write "scripts" and come up with funny ideas, but of course he comes up with a lot of great ideas too.

It's a very fun exercise, and I probably laugh at them as much as any fan of the "gazzora" youtube channel, since they're fresh to my eyes after he's finished crafting them over in Belgium. I had a feeling they would be the sort of thing to make the viral rounds across the internet. I thought there was a chance they'd take off when I got around to showing them to the MSPA audience, but as it turned out, they took off before I even had the chance.

CC: You’ve talked about expanding beyond Star Trek with these and we’ve already seen some Back to the Future. Any clues as to what we can look forward to next?

AH: The plan was to do even more Back to the Future, possibly giving it as much attention as we gave Star Trek. But we've been pretty whimsical about it, working on whatever we happen to feel like at the moment. We've also talked about doing some shows like Fresh Prince and ALF. I feel like we could probably make just about anything work. Such is the power of editing.

But it's tough moving off of Star Trek, just because there's so much material there. We haven't really tapped even 1% of it.

CC: Well, I appreciate your time. Before you go, though, I have to ask…am I a winner?

AH: I don't know. Have you managed to escape your office yet?

Shit, I just got BACK to the office. Sigh...MS Paint Adventures is putting the finishing touches on its epilogues before starting up another project and usually updates with several new pages at once. Watch for new Star Trek videos here.


voodooKobra said...

"CC: Well, I appreciate your time. Before you go, though, I have to ask…am I a winner?

AH: I don't know. Have you managed to escape your office yet?"

Aside from the humorous context, that could be actual advice.