When I was a kid, I played videogames by the score – but they were all basically the same. The arcade games back then didn’t have a whole lot of space to work with, so there was a pretty constantly-defined progression; the first level had these kinds of monsters, and they acted in this way. The second level had different kinds of monsters, and they acted in their own way. And if you got far enough, the game eventually repeated.
Then there was Xevious.
Xevious was a scrolling shooter, where you controlled a little silver jet – called, inexplicably, a “Solvalou” – that flew over woods and oceans. It had a set of weird machine guns that shot out tiny white balls at flickery-fast speed, and a slower bomb that could target things on the ground with a boinging “BEE-ouuu!” sound.
But above all, Xevious did not play by the rules.
Xevious was unique in that it kept shifting the very foundations of the game you were playing. Everything changed as you went on. You were introduced to little pyramids on the ground that you could bomb, and they were awesome… And then, with no warning at all at a time much later, it would turn out that the pyramids could shoot you.
That didn’t happen back then. A sprite was a sprite, its function fixed forever. The idea that it could just do that stuff at will was crazy.
Likewise, you had tanks that sat on the ground, and they did fire at you. You had to blow them up or avoid them, but they never moved so this wasn’t an issue. Then they started moving, dodging just a juke out of the way to avoid your bomb. Then they started charging down the screen in mad dashes before scrolling off the bottom of the screen, obviously not interested in you; they were trying to get somewhere.
Then came the time when a tank spotted you and began rolling backwards, crawling back along the bottom of the screen where you couldn’t get at it, firing at you and forcing you to dodge until it finally gave up….
I never did beat the damn game, but it was filled with magic in a way that no other game back then was. I got better at it, and as I ventured further into it there kept coming more magical things; clouds of metal panels that floated through the air, teleporting black balls, screen-clogging motherships that appeared with an ominous hum. No matter how good I got, I would venture another fifty feet into the depths of Xevious and find something new, something crazy….
And then there were the secrets. Bomb the lower corner of the mysterious phoenix that had been plowed, like a crop circle, into one of the fields you flew over, you got a free life. Drop to the lower left corner and fire a lot when you start the game, and you’ll see a hidden message.
I emptied the wonder on Ms. Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong, and later on I found everything there was to find in Mortal Kombats I, II, and III. But I never did touch the bottom of what Xevious had to offer.
I could, of course, crack the ROM on it now. I could open up the code and dissect every last sprite inside, but…
…I like the wonder. I like the feeling that somehow, if I had infinite time, I could keep playing Xevious and never stop being surprised. If you’ve gotten far enough to know where its strange land ends, don’t tell me – no, I enjoy the feeling that there’s somewhere boundless out there, a game that never ends, a shooter that always has some new trick around the corner no matter how many times you’ve put the quarter in.
But I hadn’t had that feeling of bottomless depth in a long, long time. Not until I read The Mansion of E.
The Mansion of E is, in many ways, the perfect example of a webcomic, because it couldn’t happen in any other media. It’s too crazy for the standard newspapers, is published too often for the alternatives, and – barring the one-time success of Larry Marder’s Beanworld – it’s too bizarre and reader-unfriendly for comic books (and the art is, let’s be kind, probably not good enough to pass editorial muster – this is a writer-brain webcomic, not an art-brain webcomic).
No, The Mansion of E is what the web was made for – a strange and alien little alcove where a dedicated creator doesn’t have to worry about an audience. Everyone’s got a publishing platform on the Internet. And God bless him that he does.
The story of the Mansion of E starts out simply: a man stands before a wall in his house, performing a strange ritual. He does not know the reason for the ritual; he is blindly following a book instructions given to him by his ancestors, who know little more than he does, but they have determined via trial and error that doing these things in this order on these days keeps the house running smoothly.
The man, who is named Sylvester, is the current head of his family, and the 20th in a long line of people who have owned the Mansion of E. He does not control the mansion, mind you, for no one does that; he merely stewards it. (In fact, depending on who you’re asking, Sylvester may not even own the mansion at all.)
But someone must manage the Mansion, for it is filled with strange and inexplicable things.
There are basements with long corridors filled with mysterious rooms, each labeled with a helpful signs that say “Dandelion Wine” and “Erso Phagnum” and “Pot,” each containing something odd and henceforth unforeseen. There is a mysterious machine that is counting down from 315,342,642 one click at a time, and nobody knows what it will do when it hits zero. Strange monsters occasionally stumble up, ravenous and crazed, from the deep caverns underneath, and they must be dispatched; the forests outside are filled with tree squids and forest sharks and giant spiders. Long-lost relatives of Sylvester, who should be dead but somehow live, lurk in alcoves.
In the middle of all of this, a girl named Rosemary arrives. She is on the run, and good with a sword, and wants to know what the Mansion is about. They decide to go get a pot from the caverns, and stumble into something much deeper.
You see, if you go deep enough into the mansion’s depths, there are creatures that have never heard of humans. To these peculiar races – and there are many of them, Eyebolts and Willygigs and Trogs and Nomes and Ghasts – humans are a myth, a story to tell your children before bedtime, the secret harbingers of the apocalypse.
But unwittingly, it may be that Sylvester and Rosemary are the harbingers of the apocalypse. Because they have set off a chain of events that people from other dimensions and times are coming to investigate, this strange nexus of possibility….
Mansion of E is a maddening story, because like Xevious there’s always more to it. It’s been going on for three or more years now, with updates every day of the week, and we’re still discovering new plot threads. There are mysteries upon mysteries upon mysteries – not inexplicable mysteries, the way that X-Files kept piling stupidities upon each other until it collapsed, but new facts that reveal more doors to walk through.
As such, its pace is glacial. I felt a little bad about taking two-and-a-half months to tell a one-day story in Home on the Strange’s “In The Belly of the Beast” storyline – but The Mansion of E, which is two years older than HotS and publishes twice as often, has yet to get beyond noon on the first day. A lot of things have happened, but forward progression? Not so much. A huge fire started in chronological-2004 is still blazing in chrono-2007, as the characters keep encountering obstacles in their way of putting it out.
There are whole weeks that focus on nothing more than an insect, walking the walls of the caverns, slipping and falling into the vast machinery that fills the underground as we explore the odd nooks of the sprawling Mansion…
But that’s why this is insanely great for a webcomic. Some other publishing medium would encourage the creator to speed it up, to make money, to somehow tie it all up in one big miniseries event that would get great ratings. Mansion of E? It’s done by one guy, and he has his own agenda, and he’ll get there when he damn well feels like it. He’s beholden to no one but himself and his bandwidth costs.
This is an event that happens nowhere but on the net. And that’s glorious.
Mansion of E is occasionally frustrating. Sometimes, he’ll dip into more history of the Troll Wars, and I’ll groan because I want to see what happens next. And the art is going to be a turnoff for a lot of people.
But still. I chewed my way through three years of archives in my spare time, because there was always something crazy in that next strip. And the core characters are well written (even as the cast of characters is so insanely large that Robert M. Cook has to keep reminding us via links who this side-character is or when this person last appeared in a walk-on role in 2005), and continually surprise you with new facets of their personality.
It feels real.
After the second day of trawling the history of the Mansion, I fell asleep. I dreamed I was in the Mansion, exploring its dusty hallways, feeling that drone from the distant and long-forgotten contraptions of Ludwig as it hummed through my brain. There were doors, and things I did not know.
The Mansion has me. And I might leave it, but I don’t think it’ll be leaving me any time soon.
(And as always, if you have an underappreciated webcomic you think I should review, leave a comment and I’ll take a look at it. Reviews will be only for strips with less or equal traffic to my own strip, Home on the Strange, in order to highlight smaller comics; as such, the reviews will always be at least mostly positive. If you note any traffic I’ve sent your way and feel the urge to shower me with gratitude, feel free to plug HotS in your own comic. Danke. And thanks to breenwood for pointing me in Mansion of E's direction!)