The Webcomic Overlook #124: MS Paint Adventures: Problem Sleuth

NOTE: A commenter has pointed out that MS Paint Adventures isn’t actually done in MS Paint. This manages to invalidate about 5 or 6 paragraphs in this review. So please treat these paragraphs as the ravings of a lunatic. Thank you.

MSPaint has been around since Windows 1.0. when it was called PC Paintbrush. It’s a piece of software that has since been bundled into every version of the Windows OS. Thus, it’s the only graphics painting program that everyone has. It’s simple to use with a few features. Airbrush, paintbrush, line, curve, and ellipse are all you have. Colors are limited to 48 selections.

In other words, it’s very very limited. It’s probably something you don’t want to use if you’re creating a webcomic. When you think MS Paint, you think of, oh, Pokey the Penguin. The joke, more often then not, is the awfulness of the graphics. If you want to actually create art, you’re probably better off using a more versatile software.

Or so you’d think. I’ve seen some surprising attempts at art online. Wikipedia, in fact, boasts a few nicely rendered examples. The result is quite impressive since most computer users are already familiar with the effort it takes just to draw a simple stick figure.

Pushing the envelope is Andrew Hussie, who must have a Master’s Degree in Maximizing Bundled Microsoft Programs for Humor Projects. Hussie is co-creator of a series of Star Trek: TNG and ALF edits, and he redefined the art of making deliberately terrible webcomics with Sweet Bro & Hella Jeff. He’s best known, though, for his efforts on a little thing called MS Paint Adventures.

His latest MS Paint Adventures project, Homestuck, is one of the most visually impressive uses of MS Paint I’ve ever seen. However, I decided to check out his first completed work in MS Paint (and the one that really put MS Paint Adventures on the map), the adventure game parody known as Problem Sleuth. It’s an absolute monster, clocking in at over 1700 pages. And yet it’s the easier than Homestruck to get into.

I first encountered Problem Sleuth more than a year ago as a potential review. I abandoned it, though, because for some reason the cookies on the computer I was using weren’t enabled, and I lost my spot somewhere around Chapter 3. As much as I was enjoying the comic, this was a fairly upsetting issue, especially since the comic was so long. (I’m not sure if there was a handy archive in place yet in those days.)

As it turns out, everything you need to know about the comic is right there in the first few pages. Our main character, Problem Sleuth (a.k.a. PS), is chilling in his office. Everything is told in second person, because you, technically, are Problem Sleuth (at least at the very beginning).

He tries to find his arms (which are already on his person). There’s a gun at his desk. When he tries to pick it up, it turns into a key for some reason. That’s not the only thing that’s weird. Pretty much nothing in the office is exactly as it seems, except, surprisingly, the candy corn in his pocket. For example, the window is not a window, but a lighted window frame (albeit with weird properties).

Peeking into the rooms of his fellow detectives, he sees Ace Dick (a.k.a. AD, a short squat guy with little imagination) and Pickle Inspector (a.k.a. PI, a tall lanky guy with a perpetual look of worry on his face). They too are stuck in their rooms. Problem Sleuth must work with the other two to get out their rooms, which are blocked by various means, including a giant bust of Ben Stiller.

See? That’s all you need to know. If that sounds like the kind of story for you, then MS Paint Adventures is right up your alley. Enjoy!

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

What, you want to know more? You people and your demands!

OK, here’s the most important things to get out of that first scene, which will repeat itself throughout the entire Problem Sleuth story.

1.) MS Paint Adventures is, in essence, a video game webcomic. Don’t frown at me. I didn’t mean that as a bad thing. Video game webcomics get hampered by the sort of in-jokes that only make sense if you’ve played the game being referenced. What MSPA does right is that it doesn’t necessarily spoof specific games, but rather spoofs the almost tortured logic required to play those games and the goofy programming glitches that go along with them. In the early goings, the comic is basically one big love letter to the complicated puzzles and the silly solutions, plus the length gamers go through in order to get around those mindbenders.

It’s not just early 90’s Sierra adventure games that MSPA spoofs. Later installments lean heavily on the tropes found in Final Fantasy and other Japanese RPGS. We’re treated to powerful summons, power moves, turn-based battles, transformation sequences, limitless random encounters, and post-victory dances.

2.) The gun is not a gun. The gag with the gun turning to a key was just the beginning. Everything acquired in the story at some point will most likely turn into a weapon and vice versa. Cans of paint stripper, for example, stand a very good chance of turning into flame throwers. Wigs have a good chance of becoming hats. While this could’ve been nothing but a joke, it inspires some creative and visually impressive solutions in the long run.

3.) The window is not a window. Most everything in the comic turns out to be a portal to somewhere unexpected. Building a fort out of your desk transports you to another dimension. Windows, when lighted, lead to completely different parts of the city. This gets seriously complicated when you factor in scale, which, for some reason, can be corrected with the right corset adjustment.

In addition, pretty much every tiny action leaves duplicates behind. A spirit quest for Problem Sleuth ends up turning him into a woman which becomes a female doppleganger named Hysterical Dame. Pickle Inspector creates eight copies of himself in a powerful attack, one of which ascends into godhood. Multiple voyages lead to three different Ace Dicks, one who becomes a zombie and the other Awesome transforming into a Latino powerhouse named Fiesta Ace Dick. Problem Sleuth is like some sort of propoganda for the asexual reproduction agenda.

4.) The whole story is basically about getting out. Seriously, this makes more twists and turns than Lost. And, in the same fashion, the nature of what exactly our humble detective are trying to escape expands as the story progresses. We may start with PS and pals trying to break out of a room, but it soon becomes apparent that the room isn’t the only prison. Once Team Sleuth gets out, they realize that they have to get out of the building. And then they have to get out of a realm of hogs, clowns, weasels, and elves. They even have to escape death. Pretty soon, getting out of the Universe is a distinct possibility. It’s like puzzles within puzzles, this comic.

Now, if this is all giving you a headache, my apologies. I mean, I did warn you ahead of time that all you needed to know was right there in those first scenes. But if it helps, all the seriousness is taken down by the cleansing magic of MS Paint. Hussie plays with some deep intergalactic question, such as most of the first few acts taking place within a giant cathedral and the unravelling of time and space. But how can you take anything seriously when the character designs are so simple and the lines are so pixellated? You don’t even have to be convinced just because Team Sleuth suits up in candy armor or because Ace Dick does the Truffle Shuffle.

In fact, the ridiculously convoluted nature of the comic itself becomes the joke. I’m tempted to say that you should turn off your brain when reading MSPA. However, the thing that sets all the silly flights of fancy from something that a 5-year-old wrote (like, say, Axe Cop), is that MSPA’s internal logic makes sense if you sit down to rationalize it. Rules for the Problem Sleuth universe are laid down, and god damn if the comic doesn’t follow them. If you try to figure out a solution as to why one of the characters creates infinitely smaller dopplegangers of himself, then by God there will BE one! The story often comes off like a collective story, with details becoming more and more preposterous the longer the story gets, yet there are multiple callbacks to events that happen earlier in the comic that you wonder, sometimes, if all of it hadn’t been laid out in Hussie’s twisted mind since the beginning.

Starting with page 1069, our pals PS, AD, and PI are engaged in a battle with the final boss, and they won’t be finished until close to the last page. That’s right, around 40% of a 1700+ page webcomic is devoted to the final battle! That’s some ridiculous Dragonball Z padding right there! It’s not as bad as it sounds, though. While our principal characters are engaged, other characters, like Hysterical Dame, Nervous Broad, Death, Professor Bee, the Four Heroes, and others are running around with their own subplots. Mainly it’s there to provide power-ups to our principals, but still!

Besides, it never feels overly long, because anyone who’s ever read MS Paint Adventures knows that the action sequences are proper as hell.

Topatoco is currently publishing a print version of Problem Sleuth Book One: Compensation Adequate. Right off the bat, my first thought was, “How are those animated GIFs going to translate to the printed page?” It just doesn’t seem right. The animated GIFs are hardcodedProblem Sleuth‘s DNA. They’re not novelties here; they’re essential. Several observers of the digital comic world have made remarks that webcomics will truly reach their potential when they can do things that their print counterparts can’t. Well, buddy, I’ve yet to see the day your comic book pages were animated.

The action sequences are all wonderfully staged, full of exaggerated poses and genuine excitement. One of my favorite moments unfolds over several pages: the entire sequence of Problem Sleuth‘s super move, the Parliamentary Uproar (ending, appropriately, with a witty one-liner). Each page click heightens the anticipation over what’s in store for us next. Another great sequence is Hysterical Dame‘s Charm Break, which rewards observant readers by mixing adrenaline-fueled action with a hefty dose of the comic’s in jokes.

As Problem Sleuth barrels toward its conclusion, these sequences become grander and more ambitious, becoming a blur of color, motion, and totally ridiculous moves. The tangled logic of Problem Sleuth comes into play as Past Future Pickle Inspector and Future Future Pickle Inspector set up traffic lights/portals to collide and unleash obscene amounts of energy. Problem Sleuth goes for broke, sprouts some wings, and breaks out one super weapon after another. Angels split into anti-angels and join the battle on the final boss. The once quiet little comic about a detective toddling around his office and finding parts for his telephone has now become an all out, supernatural assault where reality is a bad word.

By the time I’d reached the final page, I marveled on how fantastic the whole journey was. It was like witnessing a feature length Looney Tunes for the 21st Century with a far more epic scope. It was a satisfactory a conclusion that you could ask for. Pretty impressive for a comic whose characters were barely one-dimensional throughout! Yet, all the loose ends tied up nicely. This, frankly, is how Lost should’ve ended.

There are so many elements in MSPA Problem Sleuth that should, by all rights, make it a bad webcomic. It’s about video games. It’s rendered in a cheap-as-free drawing program. The narration is done in second person, which is a big no-no in any literary form. And yet the webcomic stands tall, ranking among the stone cold classics of the medium.

In the end, I’ll make it simple: did you like those first pages? If so, then MS Paint Adventures is right up your alley. Enjoy!

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on June 10, 2010, in 5 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, motion comic, sci-fi webcomic, stick figure webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, video game webcomic, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. MSPA is actually drawn in Photoshop, it’s in the FAQ on the site.

  2. You could have just posted one of those screen shots with:

    “I rest my case”

    And it would have been a great review 😀

  3. i have become a huuuuge fan of MSPA.

    the bit of narration that sums up problem sleuth the best for me is: “He is more fearsome than ever, with THREE HEALTH METERS, and a deadly BLACK HOLE VERSION OF HIS NON-IMAGINARY SELF pulsing on top of his HAT.”

    Homestuck is even more ridiculous.

    The one thing you didn’t really touch on, Hussie’s writing is very, very funny, he has a way of using baroque vocabulary in a wry way that really gets me.

  4. “It’s a piece of software that has since been bundled into every version of the Windows OS. Thus, it’s the only graphics painting program that everyone has.”

    You say only Windows has it, and yet claim everyone has it?

    • I like to call that hyperbole. (The Applegeeks review show that I’m a pretty hardcore Apple user. I got no PC’s at home; only use one at work.)

  5. Congrats to the artist for the five stars and the loyal following. But this stuff hurts my eyes.

  6. One thing I don’t think you mentioned is that Hussie was using reader suggestions to drive the plot forward. Although towards the end he outright made-up commands to conclude the story, most of those commands were suggested by readers. I find that impressive.

    Anyway, Homestuck may be getting closer to its end, but it’s hard to tell. It’s already been going on for over a year. If you review that, make sure you’ve got your Flash Player updated.

  7. I too thought MSPA was done completely in paint for quite a while when I started reading it… I eventually figured it out (or maybe stumbled across the FAQ, I can’t remember now) but if I hadn’t made that mistake I might not have got into it like I did (normally I prefer well drawn comics – thinking this was 100% Paint made it beautiful through relativity). I can’t wait to see your review of Homestuck though – it’s insanely awesome once it gets going.

    Despite your mistake this is definitely the best written review on Problem Sleuth I’ve seen (including the one Random House did). It made me want to go back and re-read it again 🙂

  8. Who's this douchebag?

    “The once quiet little comic about a detective toddling around his office and finding parts for his telephone has now become an all out, supernatural assault where reality is a bad word.”

    This is the best description of Problem Sleuth that I have ever seen.

  9. Taking the ovriweev, this post is first class

  10. It’s imperative that more people make this exact point.

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