Folklorists

Folklorists Chell Portal 2 Stephen Beirne

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In the middle of one of those conversations where we natter about whatever bits of media we arbitrarily liked, my brother contradicted my reading of Portal 2’s protagonist. “Chell is a clone,” he told me, reasoning that otherwise the continuity between the first game’s ending and the second’s beginning makes no sense. I had second-hand knowledge that Chell’s parents were Aperture Science employees who donated her for the cause, and I told him this.

“Oh, well.” For the benefit of this story, he stroked his Green Arrow moustache. “That still fits. Maybe she was born in a lab, or maybe you’re a clone of the original daughter.” This was before I came to learn it’s a popular enough theory to have made it onto The Internet. There it gathered so much attention and prominence, in fact, that Portal 2’s writers made a point of denying it outright, and so died the theory of Chell the clone.

Or did it.

It so happens there are these ghosts who’ve been pissing around my head recently. “What are you even doing?” they ask me. “What makes your perspective so valuable? WoooOOoooOO.” They’re the Ghosts of Game Criticism, granting voice to that little doubt at the back of my mind, “what am I writing for?”

Earlier this week, Craig Stern wrote an article that restored this nagging feeling. It was Stern rebutting a fairly common saying in some circles of games criticism, the one along the lines of “there is no wrong way to interpret a game“, before going on to suggest some criteria by which we can judge any given interpretation’s validity. Stern believes that, insofar as interpretations serve as descriptive filters of media texts, they ought to account for all relevant parts of the text and so describe a coherent narrative. Accuracy, truth and validity closely intertwine: an inaccurate reading is invalid by virtue of its misrepresentations or omissions.

“An interpretation of a work must arise from study of the work itself, and not merely from personal predilections. […] Games are finite. They have contours: defined aesthetics, narrative, characters, words, boundaries to the play space. Any interpretation which fails to accurately account for these elements of the game will necessarily fail to divine the meaning or meanings that arise from the interaction of those elements.”

He doesn’t exactly say interpretations “ought to be” this or that, by which I mean it’s not explicitly a normative creed for the descriptive process, but I think it’s clearly implied as preferable to an alternative where anything can go.

It’s a grand piece. Other than the ghosts, I quite like it.

But while I’m wholly on board for calling out the “there is no wrong way to interpret a game” mantra as nonsense, there’s a boatload of problems with the solution Stern suggests for establishing which narratives should be deemed credible. Not the least of which is the fact that it hedges impossible demands of us given how virtually no-one is, as it happens, omniscient. On this point, a more discerning mind might come along and press him on exactly what components should be considered sufficiently relevant to credit an interpretation as appropriately whole. Or one could question the barriers imposed on the field of criticism by standards which deny validity to all but the most diversely knowledgeable. For example, must I have played Resident Evil 2 in order for my impression of Resident Evil 6 to carry weight given how mired it is in its own delirious lore? Do I need to polish up on the hermeneutics of zombies in contemporary media to be able to properly contextualize it within the canon of popular culture? And what if, as it turns out, RE6’s narrative is banjaxed all to hell and just doesn’t support a coherent, continuous interpretation unless you start making very generous omissions?

And then the overarching question: is Stern making his recommendation into a basis for an explanation of interpretation as a normal element of everyday life? Does his concept of interpretation invalidate itself?

These problems are bog standard when it comes to assertions about interpretation, especially on what kind of interpretations are preferable. This kind of creed or methodology needs to be able to hold up when turned on itself in scrutiny, since it’s an interpretation of the concept of interpretation. If the method doesn’t hold water at its core (when talking about the nature of interpretation) it won’t do us much good when talking about the nature or ‘the facts’ of a videogame, whatever that means.

To that end, Stern approaches interpretation from the perspective that we experience a game or a text or an object, interpret it, and subsequently relay this interpretation to whoever is around to hear it. The middle step is pivotal—that’s what needs to accurately relate to the game in question if it hopes to be a valid impression or description of the object. This step encompasses the interpretative process proper, sifting an object for meaning and divining a narrative from the remnants.

But here’s where I run into difficulty. It’s all well and good if you’re only really concerned with finding out about the object as an objectively existing bundle of ideas and narratives—I think this is the basis on which Stern narrows the claim that interpretations are descriptions to the matter of the object in question—since you can stop here without a bother in your head. Under this structure, what you interpret is an object, so what you describe in relaying your interpretation is, naturally, that object, to a greater or lesser degree depending on your faithfulness to it.

However, if the act of communicating is itself considered a process of interpretation, namely the filtering of ideas into language, what you go on to describe is your idea of the object as it exists in your mind and not the object itself. Desiring to break away from this chain and communicate the actual object requires a refiltering of one’s perceptions, and again, and again, until it finally resembles a narrative honed to the source material, stripped of the fluff of your intentionality. But the metric by which you determine that final interpretation to be satisfactory is itself a product of interpretation (of facts, of cultural context, of semiotics, etc), so disassembly requires a sorting through of all these ambient contributing factors in order to ascertain their relevance. Attempting to dissolve away the difference between interpretation and the object itself ultimately leads us to a homunculus regression.

Still, a refutation of the idea that all interpretations are valid appeals to me something fiercely, so this is something I’ve needed to reconcile within my own criticism in recent years. I’ve gone to great lengths in the past when writing about intentionality and interactivity to stress the importance of the player to the game as co-author to its narratives. By definition, you are who makes this game narrative—this exact one you are experiencing right in front of you—intelligible. You actualize the process as meaning-making. And the meaning that results, and the narrative that forms, holds incredible value insofar as it is the product of a melding together of your soul and the game as an object.

Within this framework, the value here is self-discovery through communication with the object, and then self-affirmation in prizing the narrative as born wonderfully, hopelessly, from a part of you.

But a community cannot run on existentialism alone. Tensions mount between finding value in yourself and overcoming yourself for the benefit of those around you—your family, friends, neighbours, complete strangers, all of whom depend on your contribution to the social sphere in a way that is, optimally, not entirely self-involved. If everyone insists to live within their own little solipsistic, self-satisfied bubble, community and empathy become unreachable. As Mattie Brice writes in Death of the Player, our self-involvement proves destructive when practised as ethos:

“My journey with this concept started when I played anna anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuck Me and the Case of the Vanishing Entree. I remember it took me an entire day to play it, mostly because it felt so hostile to me at first. The game was set in its ways, knew what it wanted, and I felt incidental. I could play along, or leave. So I left. Its content disturbed me, to be completely honest. Within the hours that I spent away from it, I reflected on my inability to play, and decided it was a rigidity in myself, feeling a lack of control and agency within someone else’s world. Going back to it, it became clear that the designer was clearly present and wanted me to experience feelings I’m not used to. Eventually, I noticed I was being trained, trained to exist in this play space.”

Whereas the ideal existential being is pure carelessness, in your day-to-day life people depend on you for civility and comradeship, as you do on them. In the field of games, this involves offering ground for mutual understanding of videogames and collaborating with other people to explore our experiences together.

Everybody has their own idea on how to do this. Everyone has their own preference of methodology on how to think and talk about the medium. This, again, blossoms into conflict, such as the formalists versus zinesters cold war that I think might be getting revised out of history. Or more generally, the old guard versus the fresh young upstarts, with their dangerous ideas and irreverence for the old ways, the greying tomes on how to discuss videogames. These methods are themselves representative of their practitioner’s inner being—their predilections and education, their culture and heritage, their identity and hopes and dreams—which corroborate in the interpretation of media and fly off into the world to butt heads with the being of another person as expressed by a different critical lense. Little battles over methodology can be hurtful and shocking depending on how much of ourselves we put into communicating our perspectives. Through these conflicts each practitioner of a methodology is left to lick their wounds and ponder on what makes their method important—or more appropriately, what makes their perspective, their interpretation, valuable? This has inspired my ghost.

Stern takes great care not to comment on the value of interpretations on a whole, other than to recommend pursuing a body of valid (read: accurate) reference work. He does not say whether an invalid interpretation lacks value, for example, other than for seeking a description of the game in question. I might be putting words in his mouth but the implication seems to be that the product of games criticism (or journalism, or just standard discussion) is the establishment of communal, agreeable knowledge on an objective reality (or on objects in that reality).

That being said, if you reject the pursuit of a body of valid reference work as a goal, you can sidestep this value paradigm and instead quest for value by re-envisioning truth-statements of validity and the meaning-making that comes from interpretations. The question, so, is where do you seek value in your enjoyment and interpretation of games? Put another way, does it actually matter if Portal 2’s writers deny that Chell is a clone? My moustachioed brother is not put out in the slightest by the official canon so long as his own reading improves on it.

For me, as I’m sure it is with many others, the purpose of games criticism is not so directed towards the establishment of reference materials. My work, my criticism, doesn’t trade in information as objectively existing knowledge about objectively existing media texts, since it isn’t fuelled by a desire for increased quantities of communally available data.

Now there is criticism existing out there in some form or another that does harbour these interests, and grand for them. In the mainstream, though, it’s largely been turned into a bogeyman for the punchline of surrealist jokes, much to the irritation of, it must be said, a fairly vocal scattering of game enthusiasts. For them, the value of criticism is solely in meticulously describing objects as facts.

This is Chris Wagar’s contention with games journalism, using Jonathan Holmes as a catspaw. Wagar attributes Holmes’ disinterest in describing games on a minute mechanical scale to his inability to understand them, also extrapolated into a communal failing. In his own way, Wagar is more interested in the life of the game than the life of the author, so his preferences show up as a somewhat dry systemic analysis of, in this case, competitive fighting games. In contrast, Holmes’ preference for chaos comes across as more laidback and accommodating.

The whole exchange led Jed Pressgrove to respond that expertise is not a pre-requisite for criticism. Says Pressgrove to Wagar:

“Gamers have very different views about games, so it’s no surprise that game critics are not authorities on everything. In fact, game critics are not authorities on anything — I don’t care how knowledgeable or skilled they are. Critics are only there to be read, considered, and questioned.

“So we should not be surprised when reviews and other criticism don’t reflect what we think. We should demand that they challenge the way we think!”

In this business of analysing games, there is something of a mystery as to who exactly is an authority on anything. ‘The death of the author’ is thrown around to justify reader-response criticism, as is the maxim Stern objects to, that every interpretation is correct or valid. ‘The death of the player’ shows the fault in willing ourselves into leading shuttered intellectual and emotional lives. The critic can claim expertise on but a sliver of possible critical lenses as interpretation, each valid in their own way just as they are deficient in innumerable more. If by this shortcoming no critic is an authority on anything, not even on their own experiences, reader-response suddenly looks more like a leaky boat. But if we take the text as the final authority on itself, as Stern does, above all its author’s intentions and all its audience’s fancies, we’re left back at our homunculus problem that nobody even knows what the text ‘actually’ is prior to looking for it.

The life of a critic is the same tragedy of existentialism: how do you live an existentially fulfilling life at the same time as living conscientiously. We can either point to something or tell you what it is but never both, since in the telling it becomes something different.

But what we can do to reconcile these two forces of text and meaning is to produce with our criticism, not data or reference work, but folklore. Communally existing knowledge that is inseparable from consciousness on a social plane, as extelligence, inverse to intelligence, consciousness on an individual plane. Much like geist suggests the mindfulness of ideas, extelligence sees ideas and consciousness embodied in cultural artefacts. Portal 2 is one such artefact. This article is another. Taken as an account or a description, it deals in facts, but taken instead as folklore, it deals in meaning.

The value of this comes as I accept the existence of the social world and my place in it, and contribute to it my consciousness as given in the experiences and perspectives representative of a game’s narrative through me. I accept my fallibility and fragility as a condition of this. And in admitting myself as a participant in your world, rather than maintaining we each live in distinct bubbles, I accept responsibility for my message appropriate to my failings in the context of it as a socialized text and me as a socialized person, rather than appropriate to everybody’s individual imaginations. The text gains substance through the contexts by which it exists—historical factors, as well as linguistic, cultural, critical, economic, philosophical, and so on—granting it weight and relevance as a token of values and experiences communal to my peers and neighbours. By this it’s then opened up to be read by people of different backgrounds as a proverb, flexible, but obliging and yielding no more than its own consciousness allows.

The power of folklore isn’t in its accuracy as a factual account of social or personal narratives, nor in its offer of expertise on a moral or historic subject matter, nor even in its clarity of communication. As extelligence, interpretations can be as invalid and ludicrous as you wouldn’t believe and still carry such insight as to make them invaluable.

8 thoughts on “Folklorists

  1. “In his own way, Wager is more interested in the life of the game than the life of the author, so his preferences show up as a somewhat dry systemic analysis of, in this case, competitive fighting games. In contrast, Holmes’ preference for chaos comes across as more laidback and accommodating.”

    Y’know, this set of sentences really demonstrates a failure to understand, a failure to bridge the gap. I got this from one of the commenters on my article. He posted on his twitter comparing my review of cloudbuilt to eurogamer’s, claiming it was “dry.”

    I feel like I’m talking to one of those people wearing that t-shirt that says, “Magic is just stuff Science hasn’t made boring yet.” https://www.threadless.com/product/1268/Magic_is_just_stuff_science_hasnt_made_boring_yet

    This type of view reminds me of this speech by Richard Feynman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZNsIFID28

    I see a very similar attitude with the mechanical view of game design. We have these massively complex systems of interactions and possibility space, like chess, mario, mirror’s edge, and street fighter 2, and instead of respecting that as an artistic and beautiful thing in its own right, people call that DRY or DULL.

    It’s like as realtime rendering moved towards greater visual fidelity and therefore storytelling capability everyone forgot they were games, at least everyone in the journalism sector, hell a lot of the people producing them forgot too.

    And frankly, I find the way the mechanics interlock and create near infinite permutations of scenarios in these games to be interesting as hell. You probably played Pokemon as a kid. Do you know how the missingno glitch works? The old man that shows you how to catch pokemon actually stores your name temporarily in the list of pokemon to be caught so that his name can be old man during the tutorial on catching pokemon. This would normally be cleared upon entering a tile with a wild pokemon list, however the shore at the edge of cinnebar island is both enabled for wild pokemon encounters and has no associated list. Because shit, isn’t that the coolest damn thing? Have you ever wondered how a priori and a posteri collision detection systems work? Do you know about the current use of delta time for 3d games to allow for variable framerates relative to the fixed framerates of older 2d (and some 3d) games? Did you notice how Sonic, Mario, Megaman, king of fighters, and Smash bros all have similar mechanics with pressing the jump button harder to jump higher and how each of them accomplishes this in a different way, which suits the types of games they are and the way the player needs to control the character relative to the levels and other character abilities? Isn’t that cool? Isn’t that worth covering or talking about so that both people can identify why the games they like feel the way they do so they can talk about how it should feel relative to a given game, or so developers can see and understand the different methods and approaches to better understand what method they should use in their own game?

    I regularly have this saying, I want to know how the universe works. I majored in animation in college, I’ve been an artist for a long time and regularly my pursuit in art has been to find out how it all works. What is the method that enables me to learn the data I need to know to produce desired outcomes? What data do I need to study in order to correctly draw a human figure in proportion? This stuff is important to being able to consistently draw the things I want to depict in a way that people will interpret consistently. Like being able to draw someone’s face and have people recognize that face as the person I attempted to depict. My view has always been that the quality of art is determined by the technique used to produce it, and from there you can make art about any message or meaning you want to.

    And frankly, I’m pissed off by the attitude that this sort of information is stuffy, dry, or boring coming from people who rob the art of video games of its soul. Because for all the impassioned essays about why whatever current media darling indie hit is deep and changes the way we look at games and establishes new meaningless relationships between ourselves and others, they’re still not looking at games, at the artistic systems of rules that create the fun in basketball, hockey, soccer, texas hold’em, monopoly, castlevania, quake, bayonetta, and smash bros.

    My problem isn’t just that game reviewers aren’t experts, my problem is that nobody is looking at how the systems of rules that comprise games are actually put together in any coherent manner. The analytical method isn’t a reductionist one, based on reducing games to their core components. Instead games critics are regularly obsessed by the symbols and semiotics that are of facile importance in comparison to how games work, leading to dumb statements when one tries to address any interactive aspect of the game like Holmes saying that longer landing lag is a symptom of being a control freak instead of being capable enough of critical thought to realize how it impacts the entire game. Because of the obsession with the feedback games give or their narrative resonance, there is a regular failing of understanding when it comes to multiplayer games which lack those things by and large (the exact same failing that happens with singleplayer games, just in those cases the prominence of the narrative content allows them to talk about something definite and overshadows the vagueness of the rest of the review).

    The article responding to mine calls into question whether anyone is an expert at all, and I can’t draw a fine criteria for what constitutes expert, that’s difficult in any medium, however I can definitely say that journalists regularly make mistakes like holmes did. They regularly fail in these critical thinking exercises, the entire show Extra Credits is a fine demonstration of that, where they have progressively and readily made mistakes whenever they attempt to talk about something other than a game’s narrative (for example, look at David Sirlin having to correct them about the Perfect Imbalance episode, and the immediate massive mistake they make by claiming chess is a balanced game). You don’t need to be an expert to make correct deductions based on the information you have available. However the regular trend of people in the games criticism sphere making either vague surface level observations and deriving incorrect conclusions is overwhelming.

    And the funny thing is, in comparison to semiotics or meaning or significance, which may well be very subjective things, the rules of the game and the effect they have on how people play the game are very absolute, objective, and observable phenomena. They’re something we can quantify and learn from, yet they go ignored except by the basically dead and unknown formalist movement.

    The rules that comprise games aren’t arbitrary, they aren’t subjective, and they aren’t dry or dull. The rules for games we have aren’t what they are by chance, yet games journalists would have us ignore these rules as just being there to fill in the overarching theme of the game rather than being something positive and enjoyable on their own merits.

    It’s like instead of recognizing games as their own form of art, like the difference between a movie, a painting, a book, and music, critics are coming at them with this old style of understanding from literary theory and reiterating the same tired post-modernist art understandings we’ve called bullshit in art history classes a hundred times. Yes, I read your other article on ye olde interactivity paradigm before you bring it up, it was.

    And of course if anyone raises their voice to cry foul, we get the league of games journalists all rushing to defend each other. What did that article criticizing my piece say? “So we should not be surprised when reviews and other criticism don’t reflect what we think. We should demand that they challenge the way we think!”

    Yeah, I’m trying to challenge what you all think right now. I want you to see the beauty of games and be able to explain that beauty to others so we can all have a more rich games criticism space, but I am met with nothing but rejection and ass-covering.

    If you want to have a skype or steam chat, my name is Evilagram on both. A direct conversation would get this sorted out faster than long protracted essays and articles.

    And my last name is spelled Wagar. No E.

    • Hi Chris. Apologies for misspelling your name, I’ve edited it now.

      It strikes me as if you’re responding to a whole load of different articles that are not this one, so I’m only going to address the points I feel are most pertinent.

      First of all, I said your systems analysis was dry, not dull. I actually quite like systems analysis, at least when it’s well done. It can be very interesting. It’s not really what I want to do with my own writing but I don’t begrudge anyone for taking that as their focus in their criticism.

      I gather that you don’t feel the same way about people who want to talk about narratives–like you feel narrative is just some bit of meaninglessness added on to the ‘actual’ thing that is the game, or whatever. You can’t just say you’re not being essentialist and expect it to be the case, you have to actually carry it through in your work. That means not dismissing the parts of a game that aren’t interactive (by your very limited definition of ‘interactive’). It means not boiling games down to their ‘essential’ parts, rules and mechanics, as if the medium is only these. It means not acting like the only way to do game criticism is /this way, /your way.

      The gist of this article is that we each need to find our own value in the work we do. It’s not that there’s only one way to do the work, or that people can only value their criticism they way I value my criticism. I gather you don’t have a second of your time for my perspective or my values. Grand, no skin off my teeth. What’s to sort out? You go off and do whatever you want to do, and I’ll be happy over here doing mine.

      Also, I have no idea what you’re on about with your post-modern literary theory art class business, but to be honest, given the attitude on show, I don’t quite care.

    • Game systems are not boring, and you were right to call out Holmes’ laughably vague piece. But I stand by this: a frame-by-frame review of Street Fighter IV is not what most people want to read, and I say that as someone who loves figuring out the little things that allow me to win in fighting games. A frame-by-frame analysis does not ask most readers to think differently — it asks them to go to sleep, just like that boring Robert Yang piece you linked in the comments below your article.

      And I am not part of any league. The fact is that I did not reject your argument because I want to protect others; I rejected it because it was very flawed (beyond the dismissal of Holmes, who writes like an amateur).

      • Fair, though people like Matthew Matosis and Super Bunnyhop get a lot of traffic. Extra credits got a lot of traffic too. I think if the content is structured properly then it could inform people and reach a wider viewership. It’s a matter of working out a format and getting the ball rolling, as more people are drawn in, they draw in larger numbers still. Content like that barely exists at all, and the success of similar types of content in a similar format shows that it has potential to reach a wider audience, or at least exist for the people dedicated enough to find it to learn from.

        There has to be a better way than this.

        I’m sorry for the accusation of conspiracy.

  2. But really, more than anything, I just wanted to make it clear how much I dislike the attitude that somehow game systems are boring when they are the source of the fun.

    Also Holmes’ attitude isn’t accommodating or laidback, it’s condescending and exists literally to ruin other people’s fun. You make that look like a laidback thing by disguising it with kitschy phrases like, “preference for chaos” as if that means anything about what he said. How is a preference for chaos more relaxed in any way? What does that even mean? I have no honest idea what you’re trying to say or how that initial point supports that conclusion.

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