by Kevin Czap
Problem Sleuth is one of the best and most exciting comics I have ever read. I’m not sure if that means anything to you, but believe me when I say that I am quite serious in my appreciation for it. While I was reading it, I was in an almost constant state of “flipping the fuck out” (that’s a technical term, by the way), and since I’ve been finished with it, I’ll occasionally find myself just mulling over the precise, diamond-like quality of its construction. This might all sound pretty hyperbolic, but I really do mean it – creator(curator?) Andrew Hussie made a masterpiece with this one.
What sets Problem Sleuth apart from a lot of other comics work is how perfectly the form is fused with the content. This is part of the reason it can be difficult to pin down just where it sits on the that imaginary line of comics/not-comics — the work is only really concerned with being itself. And what it is, well, is it’s a game. Or rather, it’s about games, and our relation to them. Or rather, to be honest, it is both things. Problem Sleuth is a full-on wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing examination of ludology, in a way that’s hilarious, inspiring and remarkable. There’s way way too much detail and amazing things to talk about for me to be able to cover everything in this post, but I can at least make my case as to why this should be taken seriously as a part of comics history. Boot up your console, unpack your game board, whatever, let’s take a look.
The structure of the comic is that of a game within a game within a game, and so on. The set-up, that of a classic point-and-click adventure game, is on the one hand is a device that facilitates the unique interactive quality which has been talked about plenty in other places, but also on the other hand, in practice, it’s a tool used almost exclusively to resist interactivity. This is evident from the very first command to get your arms (which you already have, obviously). Instances like this that defy common sense and add unnecessary complications to the game are the rule here. The fascinating thing though is that Hussie’s not just being an asshole, he’s laying the framework that makes up the physics of the game. The characters of Problem Sleuth inhabit an unstable universe, but it’s consistently unstable. With every new element introduced, it always ends up making sense within the logic that’s been established. When the story seems on the verge of collapse because there’s just so many ridiculous plot points going on, it all manages to keep together and wrap up in a way that, for all its absurdity, makes perfect sense. The introduction of fractal geometry and metaphysics might cause some people’s heads to start spinning, but it all serves a purpose.
It all starts off simply enough, centered around the eponymous hard-boiled detective who quickly learns that he (you) is/are trapped in his/your office. Things get more complex exponentially from there. Whereas initially your main concern is helping some hypothetical dame (I’ll just adopt that pronoun from now on), we slowly start to piece together there is something pretty shady going on. As you learn more about your surroundings and work your way through all the weird puzzle shit (another technical term) that keeps you from just getting outside, the more you (as the reader, not necessarily as the in-game characters) can see the intricate mechanism that holds the whole thing together. There is some pretty sinister wrong-doing happening courtesy of the Mobster Kingpin. The stakes grow larger and larger, to the point where the fabric of reality is in jeopardy, but all the way through, Problem Sleuth never loses sight of its original mission — getting you out of your office.
It’s not too much of a stretch to see the office as a metaphor for the game itself. Until we’re able to solve all the puzzles and beat all the various versions of the final boss, we can’t just leave. Anyone who’s been totally sucked into a video game can understand that kind of draw. Just a couple more hours… This comparison is made explicit, I think, by the dual realities of the Real and the Imaginary. The real world is where Problem Sleuth’s office is, with its desk, ethnic mural and window to the outside. It’s with the window that things start to get weird/interesting. The view through the window is actually the Imaginary world, the window itself is an illuminated portal powered by electricity. Few things in this story are what they first appear to be, or at least it’s one other thing simultaneously. All windows and transparent surfaces are pathways to imagination, and every bad-ass weapon is, in reality, a harmless object (candy being the most devastating imaginary weapon of them all). A lot of the humor comes from this duality, relating to what I was mentioning earlier about the constant subverting of our control over in-game events. Double entendres abound as our initial and secondary impressions are flipped upside down. The particular mechanics of this game take a little getting used to, but those who are paying attention are rewarded.
It turns out that the secret is figuring out how to use your imagination to your benefit. It’s no surprise that Pickle Inspector (the tall, lanky associate of our hero) is a master of puzzles, since he has the highest Imagination stat of the detectives. Throughout the comic, the characters retreat to their respective desk forts to let their imaginations run wild, which is usually when plot points advance the most. It makes sense, too. Imagination is the key resource we call upon when playing games, whether it’s just playing make-believe or trying to wrap our minds around difficult puzzles. By focusing so intently on games, and really all kinds of games, Hussie is able to zero in on the deeper connection between us and the things we do to entertain ourselves. This is why I contend that Problem Sleuth is so much more than it’s particular subject, or the style of humor it uses, both of which might not be to everyone’s tastes. As art, it holds together exceptionally well, both in terms of its construction as well as the commentary it makes about life. It’s silly as hell, to be sure, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s also sincere and knows what it’s doing. As I mentioned at the onset, I can only really begin to scratch the surface with this review, but that’s for the best, perhaps. It’s much better if you experience it all for yourselves.
Oh yeah, and anybody who still mourns that Big Numbers was never completed… I’d argue that Problem Sleuth does the job very well.
The title of this post refers to the final challenge that Pickle Inspector bests Death at, an infinitely complex ultimate version of Sudoku. It’s maybe the best example of Problem Sleuth as the video game it pretends to be, not least of all because of its physical impossibility.