Cookie Fonster’s Problem Sleuth Commentary Part 1: Things Aren’t As They Seem, Ever


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Chapter 1

Pages 1–83 (MSPA: 219–301)

You are one of the top Problem Sleuths in the city…

Problem Sleuth, like all three other MS Paint Adventures, starts off simple enough: by introducing the main character in a default starting situation. Jailbreak and Bard Quest both put the main character in a definite predicament of sorts, but Problem Sleuth and Homestuck simply introduce the main character in the most everyday setting possible. While Homestuck soon tells us that John, the protagonist, is getting a video game called Sburb for his birthday, thus setting up a premise*, Problem Sleuth does not give us any premise at all in its opening pages, instead revealing it through Problem Sleuth (the character) realizing through command-based exploration that he is trapped in his office.

* I’ll be doing A LOT of comparing Problem Sleuth with Homestuck in this post series. That’s part of the point of this project, to see Homestuck from a different perspective by comparing it with its predecessor.

The text accompanying the page is as follows: You are one of the top Problem Sleuths in the city. Solicitations for your service are numerous in quantity. Compensation, adequate. It is a balmy summer evening. You are feeling particularly hard boiled tonight. What will you do? It’s a simple introductory line that gives a bit of introduction fluff that doesn’t have much relevance to the real story. The three main characters are all supposedly detectives, but they do almost no detective work at all in the comic; I bet this is to parody how character introductions in video games are also hardly relevant. In Homestuck, the interests brought up in character introductions sometimes actually are relevant to the plot; sometimes they’re not relevant to the plot but very character-defining; and in a few cases, such as Dave’s supposed interest in bands nobody has ever heard of but him, never brought up at all.

You’ve already got arms, numbnuts!

The first command given to Problem Sleuth is a running gag throughout the MSPA series of comics: he is asked to retrieve his arms, only for it to be revealed that he already has arms. This serves to establish the counterproductive nature that arises from characters being given commands.

The second command is even more gone against than previously. He is asked to retrieve his gun, only for there to actually be no gun. While Problem Sleuth turning out to already have arms is a response to why a command cannot be followed through with, there turning out not to be a gun completely screws with the interface and makes no sense.

Problem Sleuth is then commanded to punch through the glass to unlock his door. At this point, the reader, or alternately the person commanding Problem Sleuth, may know that opening the door with the key obviously isn’t going to work, so he must try a more unorthodox approach: breaking the glass.

But it turns out the glass is actually just a sheet of paper taped to the door. At this point it is apparent that things in this world are pretty much never as they appear to be. Without that rule, most of the story’s plot wouldn’t even be possible.

In the top center of the image, there’s a little square depicting the sheet of paper falling off the door, which disappears in the next picture. I suppose that’s just early art weirdness, because if this page was made later on it would obviously be animated.

When Problem Sleuth is commanded to take the paper, this is the first command that’s followed in a straightforward way: he puts the paper in his video game inventory.

After this point I won’t go through every single command suggested.

After failing to simply open his door (establishing he is stuck in his office), instead of trying to unlock the door with his key, Problem Sleuth is commanded to call a locksmith. Once again the story completely ignores the key on the desk because it’s obviously not going to work.

His phone can’t be used because it doesn’t have a rotary dial or a receiver cord. This is clearly only the case because of the crude art style that doesn’t show such things when the phone is drawn in small style.

First appearance of candy corn.

Matching up with the improvised nature of the story, Problem Sleuth’s inventory seems to be able to expand at will, which is also shown a little later. Also, it’s revealed that his desk is actually just a board on top of some cinderblocks.

First panel that’s really film noir style.

When Problem Sleuth is finally commanded to get his key, something unexpected but retrospectively obvious happens: it turns back into a gun. Although weapon/object duality is a recurring motif in Problem Sleuth and Homestuck, I’ve heard this is in fact a reference to some glitch in video games.

It should no longer be surprising at this point that Problem Sleuth’s safe isn’t actually a safe. Now, the surprise isn’t that objects aren’t what they seem to be, rather what they turn out to really be. Beneath the safe’s facade is merely a portrait of a clown, but I’m sure I remember that there’s secret access to a window to Ace Dick’s office that’ll be revealed at some point. I don’t remember exactly how that happens because I don’t have Problem Sleuth’s plot memorized the way I have memorized Homestuck’s plot.

Problem Sleuth is commanded to “get ye flask”, a reference to old text-based video games where commands will not be recognized unless worded a certain way. However, in the comic’s persistently subversive nature, the command actually works. Although this could totally pass for an intentional subversion of an obvious joke, the author in fact didn’t know the reference at the time (remember, every command in Problem Sleuth was reader-submitted). I know this because I’m a little shit who gets 90% of my knowledge of the way works of media are done from TV Tropes; this includes my knowledge of the “get ye flask” joke. Now, it’s good that Hussie didn’t let most commands at this point be straight-up followed through, because otherwise it would be a lot more obvious that he didn’t get the joke.

In response to Problem Sleuth being commanded to drink his whiskey, the narration says, How do you expect to drink from the FLASK OF WHISKEY when it is not in your jacket pocket??? Presumably this is a reference to the annoying restricted way inventory systems in video games work.

Not shown: Problem Sleuth tumbling backwards and breaking his desk.

Next he is commanded to use the key on the door, but it’s no longer a surprise that the key turns back into a gun, which can be used to blow a hole in the door if you want to use its last bullet.

Now here’s where the story does something exceptionally trollish. Problem Sleuth is commanded to examine what’s taped to the bottom of the phone, but while he does so his finger slips, using up the last bullet and blowing up the lock, thereby leaving him stuck in his office unable to unlock the door. This is a really stupid yet simultaneously brilliant way to trap our hero aside; it accounts for little things going on in the background that aren’t normally acknowledged in video games.

God damn it I am such an idiot. I completely forgot how locks worked and didn’t realize that blowing off the lock would unlock the door. But it’s a moot point anyway, because the door turns out to be unlocked all along, but blocked by something. Earlier it was stated that the door was locked despite Problem Sleuth not remembering locking, which at the time could be excused by his world’s counterproductive interface, but now it turns out that someone blocked his door.

Turns out that Problem Sleuth’s door is blocked by a bust of Ben Stiller. This is the first appearance of a person other than our main character: an employee of Busts-R-Us who is dead on the ground for some reason. Also, note the door next to Problem Sleuth’s labeled A.D.

Looks like the clown picture’s eyes are how Problem Sleuth can see into Ace Dick’s office. I guess that answers that.

Problem Sleuth looks out the window, showing that it’s still bright out despite it being 10 in the evening. It’s already obvious that it’s not a window, but given that the window is a source of light, it can’t just be a picture of something either.

On this page, the command given is, “Throw cinderblock at window, thereby discovering it is fake.” It’s clear that readers at this point know to expect things not to be what they look like, so they may as well look for a way the author can subvert that concept. Although the last few pages already suggest that the window isn’t a real window, the block actually crashes through the window.

This picture is an early hint of a character we won’t meet for at least 500 pages or so. The narration deduces for us what this paper might be for, which is one of the few times we get Problem Sleuth’s supposed detective skills in action.

Problem Sleuth then builds a fort, and uses imagination to play make-believe inside it. It seems likely that the command to play make-believe was just a silly joke at first, but it later on becomes one of the main plot points of the comic.

Problem Sleuth’s fantasy is about actually being a detective who isn’t stuck in his office and having things like a real desk and phone.  It’s exactly would would happen if this actually was a detective story rather than an adventure game parody that poses as such.

The fake window turns out to be concealing a safe, which is unexpected because we already saw a fake safe in his office early on.

The narration says in response to Problem Sleuth using the combination on the safe:

However, instead of opening the safe, the dial has simply popped open to reveal a keyhole. It looks like it requires a key that looks more like a house key or a car key, rather than one of those old fashioned looking keys which tend to be littered all over video games, and which you are quite sure you have never once seen lying around in your office. 

Finally, we have a potential use for the key, except we don’t. Turns out that it needs a different kind of key, the kind that isn’t normally seen in video games. I like how such keys even exist in this video game parody adventure.

More on this guy’s role in the story when we get to play as him.

With his room darkened, Problem Sleuth can now look through the holes to see the office of a rival detective named Ace Dick. While he is presented to us as our hero’s nemesis, he doesn’t seem like the main villain. He isn’t big and mean, or particularly powerful, like video game villains tend to be. That role is given to Mobster Kingpin, a powerful man in the city or something like that. It always confused me a little why the heroes antagonized that guy, maybe because I somewhat skimmed parts of the narration. I guess I’ll find out later.

Ace Dick’s role as Problem Sleuth’s nemesis doesn’t last long, since he later becomes a member of the story’s main trio. I don’t remember how that comes to be, though I do know it’s a subversion of the whole idea of the main character’s rival.

There’s a key on Problem Sleuth’s door. The narration says he doesn’t know it’s there, but he’s commanded to throw blocks on it regardless. This is the first time the narration is set apart from the characters’ thoughts, something that is done very much in Homestuck to the point of characters sometimes being narrated with stuff that doesn’t at all represent their thoughts, like the time the narration says Caliborn is very sad about killing Gamzee when he actually isn’t.

Is “Ace Dick” not already an insult?

Since Ace seems so intent on being able to see into your office, it looks like you put up something for him to look at.

This line above doesn’t make sense as Problem Sleuth’s thoughts, unless it was something that happened many years ago. It seems likely that the narration is in fact the thoughts of the player commanding Problem Sleuth, not of the character himself. This is another weird sense of detachment from the characters and their narration.

Problem Sleuth bangs the coffee machine on the door and uses the hat to catch the key as it falls off the door. This is where he starts using exploits to get around his video game predicament.

After nearly 80 pages, our protagonist finally succeeds in something: he successfully retrieved the safe key, with a smile on his face. I think this experimenting may be meant to mirror the experimenting one may do when playing a new video game.

His next command is especially ridiculous: he tries to pee through the eyes of the clown painting into Ace Dick’s office. It should be unfunny and immature, but it actually is pretty funny. It reminds me of the even wackier commands given in Jailbreak, which always accepted the first command submitted and involved a lot of commands for the guy to pee on stuff.

Problem Sleuth uses the key to open the safe, and this is where the story finally starts progressing. And it’s a fitting time for that to happen since we’re now done with the first chapter.

To recap, chapter one of Problem Sleuth stats with a lot of screwing around, progresses into finding out that nothing is what it seems to be, and culminates in finally achieving video game stuff with retrieving a key and unlocking a safe. See you next time as we go through whatever happens in the next chapter or two, since as I said, I haven’t memorized the plot of Problem Sleuth.

Next – Part 2: Puzzle Soup for the Drunken Soul

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