The cake is a lie: memes and what they say about our industry

The cake is a lie. Yes, you know what that’s from: Portal. Incidentally, can you believe Portal’s nearly six years old? But anyway, “The cake is a lie” became a meme and was thus granted immortality, albeit in that fleeting Internetty way. I really wish that I’d written those five words.

And in a similar, er, vein, “I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow in the knee.” Which is from? Yep, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Now, this is a line very similar to many I’ve written for many swords-and-lords-type games. But, again, a meme and the writer now lives in a mansion with a computer-game-shaped swimming pool. Or so I like to believe.

When game writing muscles into the meme world, it says two things to me. Firstly, games are clearly universal enough to have earned their place there. To get memes, the people have to be au fait with where they come from. Secondly, the writing is confident enough not to seem too desperate. For, as we all know, cool doesn’t try to be cool, and you can’t really set out with the intention of writing a line that becomes effortlessly famous on the Internet. One does not simply walk into meme-ness.

The web is like a massive ant nest (bear with me here) and, of course, we are the ants. And like ants, we’re far more alike than not. I know none of us wants to be seen as the same as anyone else, but really we are. We think alike, we enjoy things alike and, damn it, we take great pleasure in doing so, because it reinforces the impression that we’re fine and as good as everyone else, and that we fit in, and we’re part of a group. Honestly, it’s true, even if you don’t want it to be. You know that kinship you feel when you stumble onto something just as, or fractionally after, other clever people do? Yes, you’d be part of a cool elite for getting it and getting it first, but you’re alone. The other cool dudes validate you and your judgement. Being alone creates self-doubt.

Even though a tsunami of information and entertainment crashes towards us all the time, it’s amazing how much we seem to share our experiences globally. Liam Neeson’s ‘unique set of skills’ schtick in Taken, the Skyrim and Portal lines, Totally Looks Like, rage comics and so on. It’s part of what I know, and I dare say the same for you. And as I write game dialogue and text, there is, I cannot deny, a part of me that hopes certain lines, ideas or interchanges will hit the meme jackpot. There’s a great joy in knowing something you’ve come up with has lodged in people’s heads. It proves you’ve done it right.

Bruce Robinson once said that when he was filming Withnail & I, there was a moment when the crew, who hadn’t given much away regarding their opinions of the movie till this point, all latched on with delight to Uncle Monty’s line, “As a youth I used to weep in butchers’ shops.” When he heard them (over)using it to each other, he relaxed and for the first time started to believe the film would be a hit.

So as this deluge of digital stuff washes over us all, it is odd that we find ourselves sharing bits. Although notice that what we share are bits – almost literally bits. Tiny fragments. “War. War never changes”, “Finish him!”, “Someone set us up the bomb”, “You must construct additional pylons.” It’s a shorthand. I quote one line. If you know it, we both know the game, or whatever. Plus the line I choose makes a point in a way that’s far better than just saying it. If you know what I mean. Go on, think about it. I can wait. (Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.)

Games are a big deal in all this because the net-savviest people tend to play games. Also, most of the quotable, out-of-context memes come from entertainment you invest a little more in than, say, just simple TV or pop songs. Movies and games resonate more with us because they’re bigger, more engaging emotional events and we largely tend to feel the same way as we experience them.

As more and more games get this niche acceptance, the happier I am. As an industry, we’ve had an inferiority complex, off and on, for a long time. Truly, I believe that’s gone now, and that we have realised that giant, epic, story-driven games are not competing with movies, and that little app-style games aren’t lacking if they’re not pretending to be giant, epic, story-driven games.

Note how game-based memes are never the full-on declaimed Brian Blessed-like classic lines, though. It’s the quirky ones people share. The ones that make a comment on whatever the issue is that’s currently under discussion. The psychology behind using obscure but vaguely applicable quotes to promote kinship and humour in a discussion is perhaps a different subject altogether. “Our princess is in another castle!”

So in my quest to get a line into the world of memes, I can only do the following. First, keep them short. “None shall pass.” Make them highly applicable. “Hadouken.” Ideally, make them odd, so those not au fait with the source will have no idea what you’re talking about. “You have died of dysentery.” But make sure the people who do instantly know where they’re from and what I’m trying to say. “Wakka wakka wakka.”

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