Talking about Games: Interpretation

Words: 4155 Approximate Reading Time: 30-35 minutes

A relatively recent phenomenon has been that people have become more interested in theorycrafting. Broadly speaking, theorycrafting is – as the name implies – building theories to help explain a source material. This practice is in no way new. It’s been going on for thousands of years. But as video games have become more complex, they’ve begun to be treated as works that can be interpreted.

I’m all for this. I like interpretation, and I like thinking about video games. So theorycrafting and the discussion that surrounds it is right up my alley.

But in the wake of this new development, I increasingly feel it is important to try and provide what I might call advice about approaching the task of theorycrafting. My own area of expertise relies a good deal on looking at source material, examining little details, and putting together those details to help explain what’s going on. If that sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve probably seen other people doing that same thing with some of your favorite video games.

So imagine this as an expert sharing his tools. There are so many people who have been trained to do this very thing in different contexts: literature, philosophy, film, etc. And they’ve been doing this for a long time. Why reinvent the wheel on your own when there are so many people with expertise that can train you in how to build a wheel?

What is Interpretation?

So let me begin by making a distinction. Because there’s several different kinds of theorycrafting, and I want to focus on one particular type. Some of the tools and rules I’ll be discussing won’t always apply to the other forms of theorycrafting, so you should make sure that you and I are talking about the same thing before we move forward.

My focus here is going to be this thing I’m calling “interpretation.” Interpretation is distinct from things like headcanon, fancanon, and critical analysis (I may in the future try to expand on these other forms of theorycrafting in more detail).

Interpretation starts with the source material – for our purposes, a video game – and then creates a theory to explain something about the game. For instance, let’s say the game’s narrative is vague. You might use an example like Journey. Or perhaps there are a lot of unique details in the game that sparks some interesting questions about what’s going on. An common example here would be Undertale. So you then want to figure out what the narrative is about, or maybe find a hidden story in those details.

Now, here’s the key: interpretation is you saying “here’s what the game is REALLY about.” By which I mean you’re claiming to have the correct understanding about what the story is about, or how the details fit together. If you like, you’re claiming you have the Truth about the game and its story.

First off, why would you want to say that you’re engaging in interpretation, as opposed to some other form of theorycrafting? Well, the problem is that if you just go in blind, other people might get the wrong idea. If people think, for instance, that you’re just presenting your headcanon, they may follow up with giving their own headcanons, rather than talking about your theory and helping to build it. Or imagine the reverse scenario: you’re not engaging in interpretation, but rather giving your headcanon, but other people think you’re giving an interpretation. In that case, you might find people criticizing your “theory,” even though you weren’t looking for criticism. So knowing what you’re doing and letting other people know what you’re doing can be helpful.

But why would you want to do interpretation at all? If you’re claiming you know what’s really going on with the story, wouldn’t you feel embarrassed if you ended up being wrong? Or wouldn’t you feel attacked if people started criticizing your theory? So maybe it’s just better to avoid doing interpretation altogether, right?

However, keep in mind that there’s still value to doing interpretation. Sometimes a game is essentially inviting it, so we kind of need people to be doing this. But what about being wrong, or getting criticized? Well, take a lesson from the many people who do this stuff for a living:

  1. It’s okay to be wrong. You aren’t a bad person if you mess something up. It’s just a learning experience. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and figure out how to do better. And if you keep trying, you will do better.
  2. Approach interpretation in the sense that you’re taking part in a larger project. It’s not you against the world. You’re working with everyone else to solve a puzzle. There’s no single winner. Instead, everyone in the community wins when they figure out the right answer.
  3. If you want to do interpretation, have confidence in your skills. Enough confidence, at least, that criticism isn’t going to throw you off.
  4. Be open-minded. This goes back to (1), but you want to eventually learn to be skeptical of yourself, so that you can craft better interpretations. So see criticism as an opportunity to put your theory through a trial by fire. If it survives, awesome! If it doesn’t, that’s also awesome!

So don’t just avoid doing interpretation because it sounds scary. It can help create a more productive conversation and help develop your critical thinking skills in ways that other forms of theorycrafting might not be able to.

How to Interpret

Now let’s say you’ve decided to start doing some interpretation. You’ve got a game that seems strange enough that you think it’s worth looking into, and you have some idea about what’s going on. But you’re not entirely sure how to move forward. How do you put these details together? How do you know you’re on the right track? How do you spot flaws in your analysis?

Here I’ll provide some broad tips to try to help guide you and useful questions to ask yourself.

Tip 1: Identify the “Null Hypothesis

It’s easy enough to throw out an idea and come up with a few details that might support it. But your idea doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You’re asking a question about the game and there’s usually a starting point for how we would normally answer the question. This starting point is the null hypothesis.

Imagine the null hypothesis in this context as “if we weren’t trying to look for a secret message, but just taking things at face value, what would we get out of this?”

The point of identifying the null hypothesis is that one of your objectives, even in interpretation, is to show that your explanation is better. In this case, why it’s better than the null hypothesis. So part of your job is to explain why a reader should accept your explanation as opposed to sticking with the null hypothesis. If you can’t convince your readers of this, you’re going to have a tough time getting your theory off the ground.

Where this can go wrong is that people can sometimes make theories and start off by trying to read things in a confusing way. So a relatively simple line which – in a perfectly normal context – means one thing is then warped to mean something else. Why? Because that line needs to be warped to support the theory. Okay, but then why should we be warping the line in the first place? To which there’s no answer. In other words, the theory “begs the question,” which means to assume as true the claim that you’re supposed to be arguing for. So always ask what the “normal” way to look at these details or lines would be. Only change the meanings if there’s a specific reason to do so.

Basically, you’re going to be collecting evidence as you put your theory together, but it turns out evidence is really easy to “find.” I put that word in quotations because it can often be the case that we see things as we want them to be, rather than as they actually are. If you’ve ever encountered someone who misrepresented or misremembered something you said, especially because they were trying to make you look bad, then you should know about this problem. But you too are just as susceptible to this bias. So you need to be on the lookout for it. When you’re looking for evidence, scrounging up details to support your theory, always ask yourself “how would someone else who wasn’t trying to build a theory understand this detail?”

The null hypothesis is important because it helps keep your theory grounded. You know what you’re trying to do, and also what kind of evidence you’ll need to gather. Otherwise, you can end up wildly grabbing details and smashing them together. This can be fun, but it’s not why we’re doing interpretation. Remember, we’re not trying to find the fun answer, but the right answer. Interpretation can still be fun, it’s just a different kind of fun.

Tip 2: Always Remember the Author

The key thing to remember about making an interpretation is that your goal is finding the “Truth,” which means that you’re trying to figure out what the creator intended when writing the story, or putting in those details.

You don’t have to engage in a complex psychological analysis of the creator to do this. So definitely don’t start stalking the creator and trying to find little details that you can use to support your theory.

Instead, just always try to remember that there’s an actual human being behind all of these weird details. In fact, there’s often a lot of human beings behind these details.

I’ve occasionally seen, for instance, people try to point to obscure novels or films to help explain something about a game. But the issue here is that there’s then no attempt to connect that novel or film to the creator. Often, it’s just “this other story has a vaguely similar plot point to the game I’m looking at, therefore they must be connected.” That logic, as you can see, doesn’t really work.

So keep in mind that there’s a real person trying to keep this all together. Which means a lot of things. For one, they’re capable of making mistakes. Sometimes something that seems important is just a throwaway. And these problems can often be compounded as more and more people are involved in the project. Especially be on the lookout for these kinds of mistakes when dealing with translations.

I’ll give an example from one of my favorite games: Dark Souls. Dark Souls is a game ripe for this kind of interpretive analysis, because so much of the storytelling is vague, conveyed primarily through little pieces of lore.

I’ll try my best to keep this explanation broad. The short version is, there was a particular piece of lore about a character who was the son of another major character named Gwyn This son was eventually exiled and stripped of his status for a particular transgression. Allow me to quote the particular piece of lore that’s relevant:

Lord Gwyn’s firstborn, who inherited the sunlight, once wore this ancient ring.

Lord Gwyn’s firstborn was a god of war, but his foolishness led to a loss of the annals, and rescinding of his deific status.

Today, even his name is not known.[1]

So if you read that, it seems like what happened is fairly clear. The son lost the historical records, and this was regarded as such a horrible offense that he needed to be severely punished. Makes sense, right?

Although…it’s kind of weird to say the phrase “loss of the annals.” Most English speakers don’t use “annals” to refer to a literal large collection of written history. We tend to use “annals of history” to mean recorded history in a vague sense.

But let’s look at another item description. This time I’ll just quote a small portion:

The symbol represents Lord Gwyn’s firstborn, who lost his deity status and was expunged from the annals.[2]

Notice anything odd?

If it’s true that this guy lost the annals of history, how could he be expunged from them? Either they would have had to locate the lost annals in order to remove his name, or else create new annals, which wouldn’t actually contain his name, so there’s not anything to expunge.

There’s not any detail in the first game that expands on this, so these are the only details we really get. But Dark Souls III features this infamous son as a boss fight. Where we learn that, in fact, his transgression was betraying his people. That explanation makes a lot more sense: sure, losing historical records might be bad, but how could it be so bad that it would merit permanent exile?

Okay, but then why did so many people for so long believe that the guy’s failure was literally losing these historical records? Well, let’s go back to that phrase “loss of the annals.” In English the individual words make sense, so the phrase has meaning. So if you just read things literally, you get this understanding of what the failure was.

But as I said above we don’t really use the word “annals” in that context. We generally use it to refer to history more broadly, as a concept. So change “loss of the annals” into “loss to the annals.” That is, the son was lost to the annals of history.

Now it makes more sense: his foolishness (betraying his people) caused his father to strip the son’s status and impose this exile. And to make sure that no one would follow in the son’s footsteps, his name was expunged from the annals of history, which we could interpret literally, or more broadly as being erased from memory.

So a massive mistake in interpretation (what happened to this mysterious guy?) results from a tiny translation error (of vs. to).

This may seem like a strange example to raise, but it helps to illustrate how these tiny errors can have big consequences. When you make your own theories, you’ll likely end up placing a lot of emphasis on particular wording. Why did the creator choose this word, as opposed to a different word? That is, in fact, a key element of interpretation. But you need to be careful: sometimes a particular word or phrase is chosen because the creator’s vocabulary is limited, or because the phrase has a specific meaning in a specific context, or because it’s just a mistake.

I wish there was an easy way to say when there’s an error and when there isn’t. Unfortunately, such a rule doesn’t exist. You just have to be careful. But if you take a deep breath and occasionally ask yourself “could this be an error?”, you’re more likely to avoid falling into those traps.

Tip 3: Don’t Confine Yourself

One of the major errors I see in theorycrafting is that interpretations are often built through a sort of mistaken logic. First, the interpreter notices something odd. Second, the interpreter tries to figure out an explanation for that odd thing, whatever it is. Third, the interpreter goes out and finds additional details that fit that explanation. And now you have a theory!

That’s the wrong way to build a theory.

There’s a concept about motivated thinking that is captured by the following phrase: “to the boy with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” That is, when your thinking is confined to a particular solution, you look at everything through the lens of that solution.

So you notice something odd, and come up with an explanation. Then you go searching for evidence, but now you’re specifically looking only for information that supports your argument. And if your reasoning is motivated enough, you’ll find something. Other details can be warped to fit the conclusion you want to reach.

How do we avoid this? Well, the answer lies in stepping outside your particular conclusion for just a bit.

Ask yourself the following question: “if my theory is true, what else would need to be true at the same time?” Because generally, all of these details are designed to try and fit together in some way.

So I’ll provide another example, this time from the game Undertale. A theory was floated around for a while regarding an area near the end of the game. In this area you encounter a series of monitors which tell a story through journal entries about an experiment that went terribly wrong. The basic storyline of the game, and the writing of the journal suggest that this experiment was all being carried out by a single character, whom I’ll simply refer to as “Character X” (this suggestion of the writing, by the way, would be the null hypothesis: see Tip #1).

The theory about these entries was that actually they were authored by two (or potentially more) characters. Why? Because the entries use different grammar: some entries are written in a professional manner, with proper grammar; others are written entirely in lowercase text with little or no punctuation. The game isn’t able to convey much else about characters other than through text, so it certainly makes a kind of intuitive sense that the two styles must imply two different characters. So that must mean Character X and some other Character Y were both participating in the experiment.

So there’s a logic there, but it’s the exact motivated reasoning I mentioned at the top: you find something odd, come up with an explanation, and then fit the facts to the explanation.

Let’s say this theory is true, how would we prove it? Well, Character X happens to be a major character that interacts with the player character on many occasions. So there’s a relatively simple test we can build: Character X should always communicate in the same way (either in a professional or unprofessional manner). There is more to the theory going on, but this test gets to the heart of the matter.

So we would then want to go back through the character’s various dialogue interactions, at which point, we find that in fact the character switches on occasion. Sometimes they communicate professionally with good grammar, and sometimes in the lowercase unprofessional manner from the entries. Which means that the null hypothesis can’t be rejected simply on the basis that there are two forms of writing: Character X uses those same two forms in their normal interactions.

The importance of trying to test a theory by looking for these secondary hypotheses is that it prevents you from fitting the facts to the theory, which is what you always want to avoid. It is surprisingly easy to come up with explanations for these oddities, and only slightly harder to come up with even grander theories based on flimsy evidence. You want to instead be thinking about how to build a mountain of evidence. The more independent verifications you can find, the stronger your theory is going to be.

Tip 4: Try to Disprove Your Own Theory

This part is almost certainly the hardest. Even the greatest scholars can have blind spots when it comes to their own projects. However, it’s still an important skill to build up: learning to critique yourself.

Sometimes you can get training in this by just making mistakes. Build up a theory, collect evidence, and then present it to other people. Here’s where being part of a community can be really useful. Hopefully you happen to be part of a community that has members that take interpretation seriously, and so can help by pointing out problems in a constructive way. As you get those criticisms, you’ll slowly get a better understanding of your blind spots. Just as importantly, you’ll get a sense of possible weaknesses in theories more generally.

It can be just as useful to actually engage in critiquing other theories for practice. Look at interpretations that other people have presented and try to find weaknesses. Have they identified a null hypothesis? Have they provided enough evidence to convincingly argue that the null hypothesis should be rejected? Are there any holes in the logic? Is there any evidence that contradicts their claims?

The more practice you get in, the better you get at critiquing, which also means the better you can get at critiquing yourself.

Why is it important to critique yourself? Because so many errors in theories can be avoided by turning a spotlight back on them and asking these tough questions. Have I really put in as much thought as I need to? Do I have enough evidence? Does it actually make sense? Does it seem right?

Ideally, you want to imagine what a potential opponent might say against your theory. Not just any random person, but the smartest and most aggressive person you could create. Someone who is dead certain you are wrong. How can you convince that person? What holes might that person find in your theory? What points would they make to try and contradict you?

The goal of all of this isn’t to discourage you from trying to come up with a theory. Instead, it’s to help you build the strongest theory you can. The more you do to anticipate objections, the more likely you are to hit upon the truth. And that, after all, is the goal of crafting your interpretation.

Tip 5: It’s Okay to Be Wrong

I mentioned this before, but it’s good to repeat. Not every theory is going to be correct. Part of what’s nice about this process is that it’s rare for us to get some definitive answer on which theories are correct and which are incorrect. Many theories can exist at the same time that disagree with each other, and we may never know for sure what the right answer was. If you find that frustrating, you may want to avoid doing interpretation. But sometimes, the fun lies more in coming up with theories, trying to find evidence to support your argument, and discussing this stuff with other people.

However, just because we don’t get a definitive answer does not mean there can’t be wrong theories. Some theories just don’t make sense. Some theories are completely contradicted by other parts of the game. Some theories can’t possibly be true.

You may, from time to time, make these kinds of mistakes. Especially if you’re just starting out in making theories and aren’t quite sure what you’re doing. In fact, you should mentally prepare for making those mistakes. The likelihood that you got the right answer in general is fairly low, and is even less if you don’t have a lot of experience.

A good theorycrafting community is ultimately going to be one that has a lot of people doing three things: creating and sharing interpretations; offering criticisms of existing and new theories; encouraging people to participate in the other two activities.  All of these elements are important. Obviously, people need to be sharing theories, or else there’s no theorycrafting going on. But offering critiques is just as important: we need to know what the holes in the theories are. Criticism can bring to light new details, help show common pitfalls, point out potential errors, and overall helps everyone to see how they can build better theories.

So you want to be encouraging good, constructive criticism. By all means, reject people who are cruel and unhelpful. But good theorycrafting relies on good criticism. Don’t reject criticism simply because you wanted to have fun and it makes you feel bad to have errors pointed out.

What this all means is that you need to be prepared to be wrong. Your theory is likely to face criticism, and your initial reaction may be to get defensive. To try to warp everything to fit new details to your theory. To reject contrary points as irrelevant. To cling to your theory like the world will end if it falls apart.

I’ll note that this reaction is, to some extent, normal. It doesn’t feel good to be incorrect. Most people would react the same way.

But it’s still the wrong way to react.

I’ll also note that I’m not saying that if your theory is getting criticisms, then it must be wrong. Even good theories should be put to this test.

Instead, it’s about mentally preparing yourself for criticism: you can be wrong, and that’s okay.

You still want to provide defenses of your theory, but eventually you may reach a point where your interpretation just can’t be correct, no matter how hard you try. And when you reach that point, you need to be willing to let it go and move on. You’re not dumb because you ended up coming up with an incorrect theory. You just made a mistake. And everyone makes mistakes. Just keep trying. As you do, you’ll get better.

Take pleasure in the journey.


[1] If you’re curious to see the (English) description yourself, you can find a like here: https://darksouls.wiki.fextralife.com/Ring+of+the+Sun’s+Firstborn.

[2] See the full item description here: https://darksouls.fandom.com/wiki/Sunlight_Medal.

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