Cold Pornography: How Interpretation Got Sucky


Just when you thought videogame culture was on the upswing, in swoops Nintendo with the Official Legend of Zelda Timeline.


…People probably expect that sort of statement from me by now. Ever since my friend called me up on Christmas day to tell me the big news–“Yo, dawg, check it: LoZ got a timeline”–I’ve wondered, did he do so with the mental image of me groaning under my breath, fingers smoothing my elite beard? Probably. But the truth is, I do find the timeline intriguing: I am, through thick and thin, a Zelda fan. Hell, there’s a framed original of A Link to the Past’s Light World map hanging above my desk this very moment. So, despite what this friend might have thought, even the grumpy, artsy-fartsy part of me got a little excited opening up a browser and typing in “Zelda official timeline.”

But it’s not a part of myself that I like. No, it’s a part of me that has forgotten how to look for meaning, or worse yet, that never learned; a part of me that slinks around the big questions, looking for the easy way out. The part of me that loves the path of least resistance. And what’s really weird to me is that most people don’t mind that part of them at all. In fact, for most people, that is the them they want to be.

Example time: Last April, Valve released a little game called Portal 2. Perhaps you noticed. Anyway, the game was total tits–ridiculously well-crafted…meticulously labored over…the sort of work that even John Gardner would have almost liked. Almost. What made it even more impressive, however, was a thread I happened upon a few days after its release, Greek Mythology and Portal 2, one that eventually produced this comprehensive graphic (from user Granderoho):


Pretty sweet, right? I thought so, too. Though Valve hadn’t exactly buried Portal 2’s allusions to Greek mythology, Granderoho’s illustration took the parallels to the brink of a new level: interpretation. Suddenly, this little game about humanity had hit the road for stranger territory, for a place where the texts of the past and the texts of the present occupy the same space, as if they’d tumbled into bed together, hastily reconfiguring each other, until, in an orgasm-flush, an intercourse occurred.

Ah but instead things started getting weird…Though it began honestly enough, I guess:

but soon came the bizarre correlations…

then the contrived shoe-hornings…

only to then veer off into the batshit left-field…

and collapse into inexplicable acceptance…

…What the hell?! How did we screw that up? Granderoho had set our two texts up on the perfect date, where all we had to do was let them liquor each other up and get busy…and instead of letting it just happen we stepped right in pornographer-style, mustache twitching, with no time for any of that getting-to-know-you crap, croaking, “Get to the cumshot, would’ja!” And what did we get for all our anti-finessing? Just that: a cold, lonely cumshot of an interpretation.

I say “interpretation,” but really the excerpts from the aforementioned thread don’t really interpret anything. Just a lot of collecting mostly…the two texts being treated with little more respect than a CSI cadaver–just something that we might lord our researchings over. But what does that do exactly? I mean do…what does it achieve? Why, not even once, didn’t anyone mention the elephant in the room, that glaring question of Prometheus + Glados: what does it mean that Prometheus is a female?

Or if not that question, why not another one–and when I say “another one” I mean another interesting question. The rest of that crap, the insignificant details, they don’t mean anything. They’re just more loose ends to connect together, as if interpretation were no more complicated than making a tennis shoe stay put. But the question of Prometheus reconfigured into a female…well that’s intriguing. Or it’s a start at least…a real question…the sort that one can’t just shoot into wikipedia, picking one’s nose waiting for the One Answer to return. Shouldn’t that be where Valve’s allusions led us? I mean, before it led us to the potato-like-ness of planets…?


…I’m being harsh. It’s not any of their faults really. As a culture we have been trained into a certain understanding of what interpretation means, one that’s just barely interpretation at all: reference hunting…scouring a text for clues, what many gamers (erroneously) call “easter eggs.” The origin of this interpretative strategy is not altogether surprising…We live in an age of instant information; if an answer’s gettable, one has only to follow the trail back to its source; if the source isn’t immediately findable, then, well, the whole thing was just a damn sham to begin with. I mean, I understand not wanting to waste one’s life on things that cannot be answered…but how can we expect people to take videogames seriously when our Greatest Act of interpretation is the same one that six-year-olds use to find plastic eggs?

We can’t really. But the “good” news is that most anyone you’d hope to convince these days is using the same tactics themselves. They too have been trained into a research model of interpretation; that the ultimate goal is to comb a subject for objective fact, then present it to the audience like a disassembled frog. “The world of research has gone berserk,” goes the Dylan quote, “too much paperwork.”

I want to be careful about this point. The issue isn’t that people aren’t creative. I meet plenty of creative people–most of the people I meet, actually. No, the problem is more ingrained than the question of whether people are creative or not…The problem is that we’ve been taught that any work that doesn’t produce immediate results is a waste. Additionally, we’ve internalized that adage, Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got ‘em. Ah but in our internalizing we’ve overlooked the quote’s glaring caveat: yeah, but some people keep ‘em nastier than others…

And let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that this problem is exclusive to videogames. No way, jose. Take Lost, for instance, that beloved show that should have been called Oodles of References We Won’t Follow Through On: The Show. Or how about the novel House of Leaves, which had readers sifting through allusions and codes in order to discover…the author’s fucking name. Oh and let’s not forget all those adaptations we sit through–books into movies; movies into videogames; videogames into musicals…What’s the first thing that happens when we take issue with a movie or book or game whose source material we haven’t followed through each iteration? We get people telling us, “Oh but you had to read the so-and-so run to get that part”…“Listen, if you’d played the games, you’d realize that X is Y’s father AND his uncle, DUH!”…

Who wants art that functions like hyperlinks? I don’t. Especially not hyperlinks that lead to nothing more than the intellectual equivalent of dancing cats. If deep meaning is literally only a click away, then there’s nothing really deep to it at all, is there? If I told you my point was in this link, what is it exactly that you learn from clicking? What if I didn’t have a point at all, if I was only stringing you along, hoping you’d never realize the truth? Which did you learn during this act, the point? or the clicking?

There are those who would misuse us. They don’t always mean to, but they do. They present to us empty texts, empty except for these “hyperlinks,” which fill them. And when we’ve followed them all, we can sit back, stare meaningfully at the mess of lines we’ve made and say to ourselves, “Ah, I get it now…”

What did we get?



  1. muteKi

    You know, that does exist. They call it TVTropes. 😛

    • I had not seen the place before. Thanks, muteKi!

      • You have just discovered TV tropes? I weep for your free time.

  2. Dustin Rodriguez

    In the 1770s, Thomas Payne published ‘Common Sense,’ a treatise about the philosophical justification of government. In the American colonies alone, ‘Common Sense’ sold more copies than there were homes. Just think of that. Could a book, or any work in any medium, which dealt with the philosophical underpinnings and rational consistency of ANY subject achieve near-100% saturation in our society today? (I’m not limiting this to American society, as it is definitely a global phenomenon.) At the time, the colonies were mostly populated with poor farmers. We would expect them, looking through our stereotypes of the past, to be poorly educated and, consequently, uninterested in intellectual pursuits.

    Today, if you grab any 10 random works of pop culture, whether they are TV shows, books, videogames, whatever, you can be certain that 9 of the 10 do not simply lack an intellectual approach to the issue being handled, but they actively dissuade it. Anti-intellectualism has become so deeply ingrained in global culture that it is almost invisible to those immured in it. It has gone beyond simply being an idea which is proffered in works, and is the fundamental substrate upon which they are built. No one sees a TV show where the hubris of an intellectual character puts everyone in danger and the relies-on-his-gut hero swoops in and saves the day and even thinks this is making a statement. It is simply seen as working with the world as it is. Global culture has internalized the idea that people who approach topics intellectually are cold, unfeeling, arrogant, unrealistic, and only suited for mockery when they are not endangering everyone around them.

    This is not as recent of a development as your article seems to suggest it might be. The immediacy of information came after these ideas were well established. World War 2 profoundly affected the ‘collective psyche’ of the world. It, and other tragedies which followed it, were seen as the inevitable outcome of ideology. Rather than admitting there were dangerous ideologies and helpful ideologies, our culture tried to forcefully reject ideology itself. Of course, this is, in itself, an ideology, and no one or group can escape having their beliefs which guide their actions providing consequences (for good or ill).

    Or can they? This rejection of ideology, of any principled and consistent approach to life, in the popular culture coincided with monumental discoveries and developments in the intellectual communities of the world. These discoveries erected an enormous metaphorical umbrella of protection over everyone regardless of what choices were made. These benefits were great enough to maintain interest in intellectual pursuits in some, but not great enough to reverse the trend away. In fact, this protection afforded everyone in society options which were never before possible. One could reject intellectualism, or simply choose not to expend the great effort necessary to engage in it, and not suffer terribly for doing so.

    Had someone made the same choice earlier in history, the consequences of their own actions, being at odds with reality, would have produced suffering or worse. Protection from those consequences is one of the most essential components of the essence of civilization itself. However, those consequences also served a positive purpose. They provided visceral motivation to every person to discover reliable ways of learning about and dealing with the world. With that visceral motivation gone, it is far more difficult to persuade people to exert all the necessary effort to invest in an intellectual approach to life.

    If there is a solution to this, I do not know it. The Internet surely makes it possible for a renewed interest in truth and reason to flourish, but a very significant cultural change is necessary to spark it off. I have no idea what such a spark might end up looking like, but hopefully it will happen before our culture dismantles the intellectual apparatus protecting us all because they don’t believe the benefit to be worth the cost.

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  4. inannamute

    Intertextuality is getting pretty common in every media nowadays, and is a huge part of the current world whether you like it or not. Look at shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy. Without intertexuality, references to other shows, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of content in them.