Psycholonials – Part 3: Sword and Crown

This is the last part of a short series written by Victoria, who you can follow at @arachonteur. You can also check out Burning Down the House, her Homestuck fan project.

“I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.”

American juggao, Shaggy 2 Dope

You are 100% certain Shaggy 2 Dope said that.

>Psycholonials routinely fails to depict any character other than its protagonist with empathy.

So this is really the thing that sticks in my craw. The thing that grinds my gears. This is why I’m writing this.

The narrative wants to hate Z. It desperately, terribly wants to convey her from the same angle you would a character like Walter White. Someone whose lifetime of bad decisions ends explosively and dramatically.

But it can’t. It’s limited by its perspective. The story never moves away from Z. There are no clowns with speaking roles that aren’t mutinous scumbags, and even Z’s future-wife, Abby, who has the leverage to end the story in Chapter 9, takes a backseat to Z’s long, extended breakdown. This makes a decent amount of sense – Z is the protagonist, villain or not – but the core of making a character like this work is in their impact on others, and outside of Z and Abby, it’s questionable how many characters in Psycholonials are even sentient.

Sourced from Steam user Pactii

I hinted at Percy’s existence earlier, and now it’s time to talk about Percy. (This is difficult.) Percy is one of the few named characters with speaking roles. He’s a schlubby gamer boy, and he’s murdered in the middle of the story. He’s one of the few characters that’s not just a prop that can hold a gun, and he’s… well, even when he’s in the story, he’s a non-presence. He gets played and pushed around and used as a fall guy by Z until he dies, and after that, his relevance in the end is that his dead face is used as Zhen’s lock screen, and he gets a horse named after him. This is one of the “good ending” beats.

To go back to the Breaking Bad comparison, when Walt does something shitheaded, there are stakes at play – Walter White’s actions affect others directly, and the reactions of those characters are the soul of conflict. Walter getting involved with Tuco in seasons 1 and 2 leads Hank into the line of fire with the cartel, and leaves Hank with trauma, and he has to forge a lie to justify why he was gone for so long that results in involuntary hospitalization. Hank is a cop, and doesn’t deserve sympathy for that, but he is still a character to be engaged by – he’s got things going on other than just “is there.”

This sort of call and response with the world around them is totally nonpresent when it comes to Z, to the point where one of the driving questions in Chapter 9 is whether Z will experience any consequences for this, at all. (She doesn’t.)

Clowns die en masse in war against Massachusetts citizens, in war against America, and in war against themselves, but it’s never a loss, except for when it personally affects Z. Z literally cares more about the death of Abby’s horse, David Hasselhoof, than she does about the dozens of clowns that die in Chapter 8. It’s a consequence, but not a loss. And it tries this despite the fact that you, the reader, whether you want to believe it or not, are more like the clowns that die one after another than Zhen.

Sourced from Steam user Kinkyjou

The final beats of Psycholonials proper is Zhen confronting her form as a “successor”, a space ghost clown that Riotus was training to be named Z, drawing the Ben Solo/Kylo Ren line between Zhen and Z. In the final confrontation with Z, she (Z) directly frames you, the reader, along the lines of any given clown that gets killed over nothing.

Z offers Zhen a choice, between a sword and a crown. These two shapes are quite literally painted in the stars. While the obvious metaphor is that the sword is to be taken up against the United States, and the crown would be to rest on her laurels, it’s not – the sword quite literally a sword of Damocles. Zhen can run away from her issues some more, and have to live with the fact that she destroyed America, that some day this sword may fall from the stars and kill her, or take the crown, and return to endless praise and writing more Homestu– I mean, leading more clown armies.

The game has teased the reader with interactivity for quite a bit, and in the last moments, it finally “gives it” to the reader, in a sort of corny way. You can make your choice on what you think Zhen could do, and both options are wrong to choose, because the thing being expressed here is actually, “don’t tell Zhen what to do.” Even if you agree with Zhen, the story berates you for having an opinion at all.

Sourced from Steam user Pactii

While Hussie wants to portray fandom as a cult – and in the right/wrong hands, this can be the case – it’s just a simple fact that by default, it’s not. It’s a community like any other, and communities are made up of people, for better or worse. Community can be a thing leveraged by abusers without necessarily being a cult. After Zhen runs from the fire that she started, the throne of Supreme Honkifex and assumed control over the nation of Whimsiphae is up for grabs, and a terrible succession war starts. Those who attempt to succeed to the throne of Supreme Honkifex – a role synonymous with creative control over Homestuck – are mutinous scumbags, snakes, and clout chasers.

The very first Supreme Honkifex after Mizzlebip fakes their own death is a reference to Sugarshoe, from Whistles, whose only appearance in Whistles is to be a mutinous scumbag and overtake the circus after the old ringleader dies, and the credit sequence is jam packed with clown ascension and assassination.

(Actually, this bit is really really funny – all the new clown popes are drawn over historical leaders, and their assassinations drawn over depictions of their fall. At one point, the infamous photo of Stalin and Yezhov is referenced, but in the place of Yezhov, Stalin is erased. It’s pretty funny.)

The Jubilites are doomed to eternal warring because they do not seek what the wise sought, but instead just chase the crown. They’re murdered in quick succession because the lust for power does not run solely in one person. Anyone who would challenge Zhen’s authority is de facto evil, and only wants the crown for themselves. And then the last role to define is Mizzlebip, someone who was loyal towards Zhen the whole time. Mizzlebip is the only character to make the run to successor intact. It’s Mizzlebip, in the end, that takes the crown from the stars, and spreads the Whimsiphae lore to a bunch of other planets using psychic powers.

Remember that Jubilites are shorthand for Homestuck fans, and the title of Supreme Honkifex, in this read, is shorthand for control over Homestuck. Even Mizzlebip, a character who is sycophantic towards Zhen to the point of insanity, plots and schemes into getting Zhen out of the picture.

While Psycholonials ends with a 10 minute animation of Abby and Zhen living happily in Fiji, far away from the fires they started, the actual last beat of the story is a recounting of Joculine’s arc.

Sourced from Steam user Pactii

While the reasoning never really comes up in Psycholonials proper, there’s a trick. After you complete the credits, and Zhen makes the choice to not return to the Jubilite nationstates, the game replaces your saves with a letter that loads you into a letter from Zhen to Joucaline. This letter is kind of rambly, but it’s got a couple of coherent theses. In order:

  • Islands are pretty great because their borders are natural and imposed by the ocean, as opposed to the fake borders of the United States. (Sure.)
  • America was rightfully destroyed. (Yeah.)
  • People get mad at poorly-handled topics in media because they are fundamentally unhappy people who need to log off. (???)
  • Love cures all wounds. (I guess.)

I’ve kind of avoided the topic because it’s difficult to contextualize, but I did put “questionable takes on cancel culture” in the content warnings list. So you can’t really blame me for this.

Psycholonials uses the word “anti” a lot. Like, a lot. A lot a lot a lot. In the context of the story, it’s mostly synonymous with “hater” – an aspect derived from the K-pop influence on the story – but in the last letter, it shifts strangely. Fandom writ large doesn’t use the word “anti” the same way band fandoms do.

“Anti” can mean a lot of things. It’s purposefully truncated for maximum applicability, it’s a nice shibboleth. If you don’t already know what it means, the way it’s said conveys its meaning. Nobody wants to be an “anti”, those guys all bring the mood down with their virtue signaling and their demands to not be fucking weird for 10 minutes. I have no desire to try and drill down and specify what “anti” could be short for here, but it kind of speaks to what the biggest issue with Psycholonials is.

Joculine is characterized as having cancelled Zhen in the past. The facetious thing Zhen says to characterize her is, word for word, “um actually, its about holding certain individuals ACCOUNTABLE for their previously PROBLEMATIC BEHAVIOR!!”. It’s shallow, and it’s almost… strange. The position that Psycholonials takes regarding media criticism is that this kind of outrage is fake, made up and amplified to try and find meaning in an intrinsically empty existence, and the desire to be this way can be solved with love.

I don’t even know how to begin with this, other than in one way. This is going to be a strange comparison at first, but JK Rowling wrote a manifesto a while back.

Not a lot of people actually read it, and it’s obvious why – it’s a hateful little rag. But the pattern that stuck out is that when JKR repeated a well-travelled talking point, it was eloquent and confident. Worded in ways that are difficult to argue with, because of the TWERF song and dance being so codified. But that manifesto isn’t just talking points, repeated with the kind of platform that JK Rowling has. She also attempts to make points of her own, and when she does, they’re borderline incoherent. I’m not going to repeat any of them here, because the words themselves aren’t comparable – the condemnation of colonialism isn’t comparable to noxious transmisogyny.

But it’s kind of similar in this way: Psycholonials wants you to know it knows imperialism is bad. Capitalism is bad. The United States is bad. Colonialism is bad. But it gets to the dubiously-real “cancel culture”, and all it can muster is “you are just mad because you are angry.”

This is the last beat of Psycholonials.

>Wow, okay, why are you recommending it then?

I’m not one to only recommend things I think are perfect. We’re all better than that, right? You’re smart enough to recognize that a recommendation isn’t a flat, point-blank approval of every single bit of something. Art is made by people, and people are flawed, and more often than not, those two facts are directly related.

Sourced from @BasedDrWorm

As critical as I’ve been of the narrative’s tendency to extremely empathize with only Zhen, I do like Zhen a lot. She’s no Vriska, but you know. Who could be.

The way her mental illness overlaps with her voice as an author is something I really valued seeing depicted, since it’s a difficult thing to actually express without coming off as corny as all fuck. The moment where Zhen declares war on the US is also extremely… it is Extremely. It’s a haze of real, genuine anger and despair that I think is resonant and cathartic, even if the correct thematic choice is to backpedal off of it immediately. It’s almost compelling enough to make you want to take the crown ending, just to see that fury, that burning anger made good on.

Almost. By the time the choice actually comes up, the metaphor is too obvious to actually take the crown ending.

I also didn’t talk much about the successor plot, because well, I just think it’s good, with very few qualifications. It’s a cool thing that Riotus, the stand-in for inspiring authors of the past is also an open, outright colonizer. It’s a good way to convey a complex idea – the authors who are considered great are measured by the expectations of the culture they live in, cultures which condone and support things like colonialism. It’s also cool to me that Zhen, despite always taking the sword choice and denying her role as clown pope, still has a successor form that must be confronted and destroyed. People, against all good judgment, are inspired by Hussie’s work, myself included, and remembering that all creators you like are just Some Guy is a worthwhile thing to be reminded of.

I also like it on a purely craft-driven level – I like the art a lot. It’s easy to chump on the mixels (<- really funny phrase) but even when panel-to-panel art quality isn’t the key, Andrew Hussie isn’t a bad visual artist. The game always looks a specific way, and sometimes, it’s even good. But even when it looks bad, I can respect it because it’s a choice! Nothing else looks like Psycholonials. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing to you, it is a thing! And by god, the story is full to the brim with insane clown designs.

My favorites are Mizzlebip and her many iterations as Secretary of Jape, Chamomile Giddyup, and Uncle Imbroglio.

And the soundtrack is great! There’s a lot of comparisons to Joker (2019) that people make when it comes to Psycholonials, and I’m certain the soundtrack being primarily driven by cellos didn’t help. But honest to god I think a large part of why the ending took so long to fade on me is because of how extremely good the soundtrack is. The final remix of Ephemeral Muse is stellar. (Hehe. Stellar.)

At the end of the day, Psycholonials is a dour, miserable little thing. It’s a salty, cruel goodbye to a work that took up a lot of people’s lives, then crashed and burned, really dramatically.

Maybe that’s worth enough on its own?

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