Memes. These days, they’re everywhere. They are the pillars upon which internet culture—and by extension, pop culture—stands. But once upon a time, memes dwelled in the internet’s dankest sewers, traded in the darkness by geeks, nerds, and outcasts. On this week’s Splitscreen podcast, we examine how video games helped propel memes into the mainstream consciousness—and vice versa.
This week we’re joined by a special guest, meme librarian Amanda Brennan, who guides Ash Parrish, Mike Fahey, and me on a journey through the history of video game memes, beginning with “All Your Base” and continuing on through classics like “The cake is a lie,” “Arrow to the knee,” and the blinking white guy, who many still don’t know used to work for video game website Giant Bomb. We discuss how memes helped video games infiltrate the mainstream, even when many people sharing them didn’t know they were referencing video games.
Then we move on to another one of Fahey’s devious quizzes, this time drawing on memes that describe obscure video games and making us look like chumps. Finally, we do a deep dive into a recent meme—Resident Evil’s Tall Lady—and learn a whole, whole, whole lot about Ash.
Get the MP3 here, and check out an excerpt below.
Nathan: The cake is a lie. That was the first video game meme where it felt like all these people I knew but didn’t know were into games suddenly became gamers. Everyone was quoting it. I was like “You know what Portal is? I didn’t know you had a passing familiarity with games—let alone that you’re deep enough into them to play Portal.” What happened there? What was that moment? What allowed it to come to fruition?
Amanda: I think there’s a really interesting overlap between just general internet culture and gaming culture here. I never played Portal, and I remember being a teen on LiveJournal seeing “The cake is a lie” and just thinking it was so funny. Again, thinking about the emotion behind the meme, how absurd is this cake being fake, and also how often does it happen as a distressed teenager who grew up listening to Dashboard Confessional that everything is a lie? So for me, in my experience, “The cake is a lie” was this fun thing I could associate with internet culture.
Looking back on it now, I know it’s from Portal, but in 2007, I had no idea what Portal was. Thinking about 2007 and 2008, that’s when internet culture started to seep out into your every day. This is when we started to see the shift into internet culture being something bigger than just what’s happening on 4chan or Something Awful—into its own ecosystem.
Nathan: So are you, a former Dashboard Confessional listener, telling me that internet culture was vindicated?
Amanda: That was a deep cut that only you and I will get.
Ash: I have no idea what they’re talking about. Do you, Fahey?
Fahey: I’m an old man.
Nathan: It’s good that you admit it.
But that does seem like a salient point despite how bad my joke was, because I feel like that was also the point at which memes began to shift into the more nihilistic mode we now know them in. A lot of earlier memes, there was a darkness to some of them, but it wasn’t this sort of existential darkness. “Cake is a lie” had that. Was that the point at which memes took that turn? And if so, was it because that was the point at which millennials started thinking, “Huh, a lot of us are in college now, or starting our careers—wow, we are fucked”?
Amanda: Yeah, you really hit the nail on the head. It is when these kids who kind of grew up with these really funny memes started to be like “Oh, wait.” I graduated college in 2008, so I remember the world was very terrifying. What do you do when you’re in that situation but translate what you understand through memetic content?
Another really strong point to make in 2008 that was video game-adjacent and in the culture: Ctrl+Alt+Del published “Loss.jpg.”
Amanda: But in thinking about how gamer culture and internet culture collide and combine, that was a comic about video games that got serious. 2008 was the time when millennials who were making dumb jokes on the internet were like “Oh wait, we have to be adults now. This is what real life is like.” To see this gaming comic get so real, it immediately became a meme. And yet, almost 10 years later, it becomes another iteration of the meme even broken down—like, it strips the emotion out to trigger emotion in you.
Ash: You see four panels.
Nathan: For folks who aren’t familiar with it, because Loss is a little more obscure—Loss is well-known, but it’s not mainstream well-known—it was a Ctrl+Alt+Del comic in which a character suffered a miscarriage. It was a little mini-story told wordlessly. So one of the main characters rushes into a hospital and encounters his partner laying in a hospital bed, and she’s clutching her stomach because the baby is no longer alive. It was so bizarre because Ctrl+Alt+Del was previously a webcomic in the vein of Penny Arcade, where characters just hung out on the couch and made jokes about video games. But suddenly, it decided it wanted to tell an ongoing story about sad things. And of course, this was all written by...what’s his name?
Fahey: Tim Buckley.
Nathan: Right, Tim Buckley, who is very definitively a dude and so maybe doesn’t actually know a ton about miscarriage. But whatever!
Fahey: It was a miscarriage of comic publishing, is what it was. Oh, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry. I was reading the comic at the time, on a regular basis.
Nathan: Me too.
Fahey: Then I was suddenly like “OK.” And that was the last time.
Ash: Was it really this complete tonal shift?
Fahey: Yes! They have a robot that they built out of an Xbox. They’re all goofy and fun. They’re having fun, they’re shooting each other in video games, they had their own “Winter-een-mas” holiday that was all funny and goofy. And then suddenly: Here’s a miscarriage.
Ash: And they hadn’t been previously serious before? This was the one time where they decided to do an afterschool special?
Nathan: They had done some storytelling before. They had started to draw more on a larger continuity. But they hadn’t previously gone down this rabbit hole of human misery and darkness.
Moving along from that, I think we can finally arrive at “Arrow to the knee,” which was from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim in 2011. That was another point that to me felt kind of similar to “The Cake is a lie” in that everyone was quoting it and talking about it. All these people that I did not know were gamers were really into it. Why? It feels very video game-y as a meme. “Cake is a lie” feels more universally understandable. “Arrow to the knee,” you need to know the context for it to really work. It feels much more intrinsically tied to the game itself.
Amanda: Again, it kinda goes back to the equation of absurdity plus universal human emotion. If you think about it, getting an arrow to the knee is something you don’t expect to happen, it’s so frickin’ weird, and also, you know what it’s like to have something random happen and completely disrupt the course of your life.
This time period is also the beginning of Facebook groups where moms would make Minions memes. Someone who’s not familiar with Skyrim would see this and be like “Hah! Arrow, knee—this is so weird!” and kind of iterate on it, cannibalize it, and spit out something completely different. So I think this is another instance of, as internet culture gets bigger with not just teenagers and millennials on it, you get the older generations seeing something they think is funny, and they’re like “Oh, we’re gonna make our own memes about this.” It doesn’t matter, the context of the canon around it. What matters is, “Oh, I saw this dumb thing on the internet, and I’m now going to riff on it myself.”
Nathan: I think it also speaks to video games’ sort of intrinsic ability to generate memes. A lot of memes are intrinsically absurd, and games, more than any other medium I think, lend themselves to absurd situations. “Arrow to the knee” is intrinsically absurd because, like, every guard in this gigantic world constantly says it. It’s so bizarre and so strange, and it tears away the façade of realism and reveals the Chuck E. Cheese animatrons behind all of it. That seems to be more and more where a lot of later video game memes end up coming from. There was an article on a Vox site about this a while back, and they described games as having this wordless, deranged humor—where it’s just, like, things you could never come up with for the funniest joke in the world, and they just happen.
For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also, if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or to suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!