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    Hiveswap: It Keeps Happening

    For those on the outside looking in, Homestuck fandom is baffling. A web comic with flash games in it? Alien internet trolls based on zodiac signs? Endless references to Con Air? Even Jess Haskins, creative director of its long-awaited video game spin off, struggles to nail down the core of Homestuck’s appeal. “Man, that is, that is a big question. I think part of it is that it’s such a big and expansive world and has all these wonderful casts of characters. It’s a world that’s actually really easy to put yourself in to. Because it has its own lingo, it has a lot of stuff about how characters have their powers, and their quirks, and their personality, and their look. It’s really easy to immerse yourself in that world, and see yourself, in that. So making a game where players can actually be in the world, instead of just reading about all these characters, is a natural next step for the brand.”

    Homestuck creator Andrew Hussie has been involved in every aspect of the writing and production, from the outline level all the way down to the final text and finishing touches; yet it's been a highly collaborative process. ''en to really he's open to really good ideas, and mostly really funny jokes, wherever we can get them. So if you throw something in that makes Andrew laugh, then it’s in.”

    Hiveswap is being developed in Unity, and the production process has been surprisingly fast. “The game has been in pre-production for quite a while. Working on the script and the story at a really high level. It was back in October when we actually started up the studio here in New York, and really got the team together to dive into production. Since then we’ve been tearing through it at a really fast clip. It’s been really nice to see everything come together after it’s been gestating for all this time.”
    A web comic with flash games in it? Alien internet trolls based on zodiac signs?
    The game is due to launch a full year after the date in the initial Kickstarter pitch, but Jess assured us that the project is otherwise running smoothly, and that its episodic structure is no cause for alarm.

    “One: We are not running out of money. We are not splitting the game in two. The game is planned to be episodic. We’re releasing it in four acts, which will be evenly spaced. This isn’t: ‘Oh crap, we only have money to make a quarter of the game! Let’s raise some more!’ We feel that the game is better enjoyed and digested in chunks, sort of like the comic itself, which has a big rush of content, and then a long pause, while the audience can read, absorb, speculate, theorise, tear it apart, dig in, and then anticipate the next instalment.

    “So it’s really a creative decision, to break it up that way. But we’re completely confident with the budget, with our progress, and we’re not looking to pull a... no, I don’t even want to say, ‘Pull a Double Fine.’ They’re doing great over there. Their game looks great. It’s just taking a little bit longer than they thought, because game dev is hard. We realise this, and we’re trying to go forward while being aware of this.”

    And the backers? “I think they generally have been pretty understanding. There are always people who aren’t going to be 100% satisfied, but I haven’t been made aware of any mobs with pitchforks. Mostly, I’ve just seen a lot of enthusiasm and excitement about the game.”

    Not entirely unlike Scott Pilgrim, the Homestuck comic is a world where our reality and video game logic are blurred together in a surreal melange. Hiveswap takes this ball and runs with it. “It definitely has the spirit of the comic. Which, in a lot of ways, is about highlighting, lampshading some of the possibly absurd or quirky mechanical conventions of games. Things like the inventory: this magical space where you can store living things, and a car, and just whip them out at will. It’s not just abstracted, it’s a physical reality for these kids. Poking fun at the idea of ‘achievement’ and ‘level progression’ and ladders and rewards, and all of these things that are weird and gamey. The game is a natural place to explore and play with these things. We definitely are carrying on that tradition.”

    A great deal of the comics humour stemmed from the its characters’ Kafkaesque struggles to manage their inventories, but Jess’s team decided early on that directly emulating this would be a fool’s errand. “We don’t want any of our jokes to compromise or get in the way of user experience. Reading about John having terrible trouble with his Sylladex and flinging his objects across the room is funny to read about, but not so fun as a player if you’re actually doing that. In that sense, we have toned it down.”

    Three main playable characters will star in Act 1, with two more to appear down the track. “That main one that you’ve probably seen and met so far is Joey Claire, who is our star of the story. Plucky 90s kid. Her interests include dance and veterinary science, and solving puzzles. There is her dorky kid brother Jude Harley, who is a bit of a conspiracy buff, and has a suite of trained carrier pigeons that do his bidding. And then, later on, we will meet Xefros Tritoh, who is the first Troll that Joey meets. And he has many interests including telekinesis, butling, and the Troll sport of ‘Arena Stickball.’

    Wait a minute... ‘butling’? “Butling. The art of being a butler.”

    21st century internet shenanigans abound in Homestuck, But Joey starts her adventure in 1994, so when she’s whisked through time and space to the Troll World, discovering social media apps like ‘Prongle’ gives her a profound case of culture shock. “In this weird alien sci-fi setting, what they have is like our modern internet. So it’s like a 90s kid being thrown into the present day. And discovering social media! And online shopping! And selfies! And all this stuff that to her is completely foreign stuff, but to the modern player, it’s like seeing her grapple with present day internet.” Its wonders and its horrors? “In equal measure.”

    Assembled from .gifs and rambling chat logs between 20+ main characters, Homestuck is unusual in that follows a creation myth-style story structure. The game will be diverging from this format. “Hiveswap is more of a classic Hero’s Journey. Obviously, a kind of classic adventure story. It’s a quest, basically. And instead of one, singular hero, it’s a group of people who each take their turn in the spotlight, and have to work together and cooperate. There’s a big doomsday end-of-the-world McGuffin, and there’s a big evil villain. In those terms, I’d say it’s a bit more of a classic, tighter story than a sprawling creation myth.”

    Replete with weird worlds and zany characters, Hiveswap is being modelled on the LucasArts greats, though readers will be heartened to learn that some aspects of 90s adventure games will not be emulated. There won’t be a re-run of the infamous cat hair moustache puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3. “It’s the parable of the off-the-rails-what-were-they-thinking-you’d-better-call-the-hint-line-buy-the-hint-book type of illogical puzzle design. Which reportedly killed adventure games. I’m certainly very aware of that whole tradition. I’m personally more in favour of the more logical, story-driven puzzles, rather than exercises in absurdity.

    “Unless it’s, you know, to make a point. As I said, Homestuck, and Hiveswap by extension, are about the absurdity of puzzles. But it’s bad experience design to design something where you have to be in the brain of the designer to figure out what they possibly meant. We wouldn’t go down that route.”

    Homestuck’s wild ride has lasted for over five years now, but Jess hinted that Hiveswap could see the franchise live beyond the fated conclusion of Homestuck proper. “The game has a different set of characters, a different setting, and is meant to stand on its own. Not just for fans of the comic, but to bring other people into the world. But it’s a fascinating, fun world, and there’s plenty more to explore.

    “If this first game, once it’s out, it does well, we’d like to move on to do a second, companion game, also set in the world. And after that, there’s really no limit to what we could do.”

    To wit: the abundance of matroska-like meta-humour will carry on from Homestuck into Hiveswap. “We’re way into meta. As many levels of meta as we can get, we’re in for that. [laughs] Rest assured!” Perhaps the most striking example of this in the source material is an ironically awful comic-within-a-comic. We had to know: Will Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff be in the game?

    “[laughs] I don’t know if I’m allowed to divulge such secrets!” Hiveswap Act 1 is due to launch in Q2 2015. For more details, visit Hiveswap.com.

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