By Lance Weiler, January 25th, 2009

You enter the CULTURE HACKER SHRINE. The floor is littered with the SKULLS of old media. An ARTICLE with a CLEVER LEAD is here. What will you do?

Comics and games have always had a symbiotic relationship. There are games about comics, and more than a few comics about games. Chasing the Wish even brought comics into the ARG scene a few years ago. These two media tend to collide often, thanks to a common nerdiness that permeates all things clever and visually appealing.

But I’ve yet to see a better fusion of sequential art and gaming than Problem Sleuth, an interactive one-panel comic that reads like a game, with all the trappings of an old school graphic adventure. This week, I picked the brain of Problem Sleuth creator Andrew Hussie about how he builds a story out of reader suggestions, wit, and candy corn.

"My blinking text prompt however doesn't work. This is the first indication the reader/player is given that he or she is being hornswoggled by this website."

Culture Hacker: So, how does the interaction in Problem Sleuth work?

Andrew Hussie: It is a mock adventure game driven by suggestions from readers, supplied in the form of commands”, the type which one might submit in a blinking text prompt in such a game. My blinking text prompt however doesn’t work. This is the first indication the reader/player is given that he or she is being hornswoggled by this website. The hornswoggling process only deepens and intensifies over the course of the Problem Sleuth epic.

Actually, the commands are submitted (of late) through a simple blog comments field. I then groom the submissions carefully and select one based on a rather exacting set of standards, such as whichever one seems to capture the most striking intersection between cleverness and idiocy. Or, whichever the hell one I feel like picking. Then I draw the result of this command, and the story continues.

CH: You’ve done “traditional” (non-interactive) comics before – on paper, even! How did you come to add an interactive element?

AH: The premise of the question gives me too much credit. It implies I reached some crest in my artistic endeavors with my paper-based artwork and saw a vast new frontier of untapped expression before me. And then with a flourish of alchemical wizardry I declared WHAT THIS NEEDS… (I pause to produce a powdery substance from a vial)… is but a pinch of INTERACTIVITY!

Ok maybe it didn’t imply that at all. But let the record show that what I described above did not actually occur.

It was a game I started in an internet forum to pass the time. It was not art, or an exploration in interactive media, or for that matter, anything meant to be viewed by learned and civil men outside lurid parlor walls boxing in debauchery and the fumes of smoldering opiates.

But it gradually became those things, at least in my view. And as art, in an odd way, I’ve probably come to take it more seriously than any undertaking I’ve ever scribbled on a sheet of paper.

CH: Do you think of your audience as readers, or as players?

AH: I’ve never really thought about it. I don’t spend much time at all dwelling on it as either a game or a comic. I’d probably classify my audience as a group of people with an uncanny devotion to staying abreast of the utterly absurd.

CH: I read a great quote on Penny Arcade a few weeks ago that immediately made me think of Problem Sleuth. Tycho said that the role of a gamemaster is “to uphold the beautiful lie that a system, even a system with embedded randomness, is at play.” How do you maintain that lie?

AH: The demands of maintaining that lie are especially present in crafting a tale like Problem Sleuth. For the majority of the story I didn’t know where it was going, and the interactive nature of it sort of has it sprawling on endlessly. The best way to establish the appearance that order is at work is to start forging connections between things which initially appeared arbitrary, and in fact probably were arbitrary.

I would look at it like this, at least if you are in the position of having to make a story the way Problem Sleuth is made. Imagine you are MacGyver about to go on a mission. But you are not told what that mission is. It might not even be violent. You might just need to deliver some groceries to an old lady or something, and then do some laundry. Or you might have to save the president. Who knows!

So what do you take on this mystery mission? What combination of elements allows you to be prepared for almost any development? Maybe components of a bomb seem like a given, but it’s more likely that you will find you have to use those components in completely unexpected ways and just roll with it.

Perhaps there actually is an optimal solution for the “MacGyver Mystery Mission” (MMM) problem. My solution however appears to be to lean heavily on things like candy corn, jazz instruments, particle board desks, and stone busts of Ben Stiller.

In thinking about it just now, it strikes me that, astonishingly, for every “solution list” to the MMM problem, there will always be some potential story and some potential unifying logic to rationally link every element on the list. Not only gracefully, but in a way that appears to have been engineered from the very start. Though of course this is an illusion. This is the lie.

CH: When you’re planning for a comic like this, do you do anything that could be traditionally thought of as “game design”? Are there design documents?

AH: The only thing that may resemble design docs would be an occasional map I might sketch to get a better feel for geography before plunging headlong through locked doors. Even so I don’t tend to draw very elaborate maps all at once. For instance before he heads into his back room hideout, I’ll draw that room, and that room may contain a door. I may draw what’s on the other side of that door too, or, more likely, I may say “I’ll think of what’s in there later.”

CH: Where does the user input end and the writing begin?

AH: The user input ends with the period that may or may not have been supplied at the end of the user’s submitted command.

Really from there I take over. Most of the commands are fairly trivial actions, but often lead to non-trivial plot swings which I have designed either 1) on the fly, or 2) in advance by tens or hundreds of pages, and am using the current command as either an ad hoc catalyst for it, or had anticipated such a command would likely be submitted and devised a contingency for it.

But that said, I don’t want to marginalize user input’s role in forming the story either. Some things, many things, enter the story that I just did not anticipate. Catch phrases especially seem to blossom through user commands. Things like “shit just got real”, or “punch ___ in snout to establish superiority”, or “ride ___ like mechanical bull”. All those and plenty more were originally authored by random users, who’s names I’ve long forgotten or never even knew, and unfortunately are relegated to a great pool of anonymous yet critical contributors to this story.

CH: What is your work schedule like? Do you set aside time in the week specifically for Problem Sleuth, or are you essentially “on call” for the game?

AH: I usually submit updates every day. I look at the new commands that have cropped up and make a few selections and execute the results.

It may seem like an intensive work schedule but I approach the process in a rather leisurely way. There are frequently commands that take less than a minute to produce. The animated commands take longer of course, but I’m more judicious with my time on those, and how often I employ them.

I update a lot because, for one, I probably entertain myself with the process even more than anyone out there reading it, but more importantly, I’ve learned by now that if I don’t keep riding herd on this story, it would go on forever.

CH: What software/services do you use to manage your comic?

AH: Since the website is called MS Paint Adventures, the answer should be obvious: I use Adobe Photoshop CS3.

I started out in MS Paint originally to cash in on this exciting internet “ugly pixel chic” or whatever it is. Maybe it’s really “this looks like shit but it’s still funny, and maybe that’s kinda part of why it’s funny chic.” Anyway, I promptly stopped using MS Paint when I discovered none of those things were actually legitimate chics.

I also stopped using it because MS Paint is not very good. The self-imposed gimmick serves no purpose when I am bearing the sole brunt of the gimmick, in private. It’s like saying I want to break the world record for push-ups with one hand tied behind my back. But in a dark room. No one can watch. You may only stand outside the door and listen in on the grunting my labors produce.

So I switched to Photoshop. Note this switch was almost instantaneous. But I kept the name of the “game” because I didn’t care enough to change it. Also it wasn’t really as “big a deal” back then. It probably still isn’t as “big a deal” now, come to think of it. Really, when can a story about stick figure detectives stuck in their offices ever be described as a “big deal”? These are difficult questions to answer.

I like to think I have one of the highest SDNTBSC ratios (Shittiest Domain Name To Best Site Content) on the internet. There might be others that are higher, I don’t know. Like maybe there is a website called slutsploitation-skankgrotto.com or something. And when you visit that site, your doorbell rings immediately and you go out to find a puppy on your front stoop. That one would have me beat.

CH: Do you think MS Paint Adventures would work in a more traditional medium – as a book, for example?

AH: I’m sort of exploring that right now. I think it could work. But it’s going to be one hell of a reformatting project, and would likely yield a pretty outlandish looking piece of literature. Which might actually be the best reason to pursue it.

CH: And finally: What’s with all the whores?

AH: Well when you’ve been cooped up in a sweltering office, sleuthing up the problems and cracking the weird puzzle shit all day, a hard boiled fella is going to be fixing for a little company. And his first impulse ain’t gonna be to dial up a party clown if you understand my meaning.

Problem Sleuth began in March, and currently contains nearly 1400 comics inspired by crowdsourced commands. It will conclude in the coming months, but the command line is still open for business. For more of Andrew Hussie’s art and writing, check out his graphic novel “Whistles: The Starlight Calliope”, which is available at Amazon.

This interview was brought to you by the letter H.

Haley Moore is a mild-mannered reporter by day, super spy by night: an Alternate Reality puppetmaster whose game credits include Catching the Wish and Monster Hunters Club, and a news writer and columnist for the Coppell Citizens’ Advocate. When she isn’t sculpting chain-smoking midgets out of polymer clay or plopping pirate hats on unsuspecting passers-by, she writes for Culture Hacker from her Texas home.

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Lance Weiler is the founder of the WorkBook Project and also a story architect of film, tv and games. He's written and directed two feature films THE LAST BROADCAST and HEAD TRAUMA. He's currently developing a number of transmedia projects.

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