This piece is community funded. If you like this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. There is also an abbreviated video version of this post embedded shortly below (Youtube here) which includes the making of the above header image.
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.