The Paratext of Video Games

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Steven Harvie is currently studying a Masters degree in Fantasy Literature, a new programme at the University of Glasgow which traces the history and development of the nebulous fantasy genre. He enjoys playing and thinking about video games in his spare time (just don’t ask about the backlog).

A compelling but often overlooked part of video games is what we call the ‘paratext.’ The term was coined in literary studies to discuss the pieces of information which appear outside of the text (the main body of writing), but which nonetheless participate in and influence our reception of the text. For instance, the paratext of a novel would be the novel’s title, the author’s name, the synopsis on the back cover, chapter titles, publication details, or the cover art. It appears marginal to the experience of the text, but actually provides a significant network of ideas around which our approach to the text is shaped. In this essay, I will explain the literary origins of paratext before showing its relevance to video games, after which I will consider the implications of the term and idea for the online gaming community.

Gérard Genette – who first popularised the term – provides a helpful definition for paratext:

The literary work . . . rarely appears in its naked state, without the reinforcement and accompaniment of a certain number of productions, themselves verbal or not, like an author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations. One does not always know if one should consider that they belong to the text or not, but in any case they surround it and prolong it, precisely in order to present it (Genette and Maclean, 1991: 261).

The paratext forms a cluster of ideas which present the main body of writing to us; a kind of threshold through which to welcome, guide, prepare, or perhaps warn the reader. The same can easily translate to videogames; we cannot enter a game without first encountering its paratext. Although discussing the novel, Genette stresses the importance of the paratext for any kind of textual analysis. To show the far-ranging implications of paratexts, he only has to ask one simple question: ‘reduced to its text alone and without the help of any instructions for use, how would we read Joyce’s Ulysses if it were not called Ulysses?’ (Genette and Maclean, 1991: 262). James Joyce’s modernist epic about a day in Dublin derives much of its references and meaning from Greek mythology. If the novel was instead called Dublin or Home, for instance, we might read it differently; the emphasis on Greek (or any) mythology changes how we understand the story. But looking at the paratext isn’t about dwelling on the myriad possibilities and ‘what ifs’ of what could have been; it’s about asking how these seemingly external elements contribute to and facilitate our understanding of what we read and play.

Now, can this concept of the paratext be used to examine video games? If so, what does game paratext look like? Games and literature have some paratextual elements in common, namely titles, art work, the names of the artists/development team, and the publisher. But there are other types of paratext unique to video games: those that exist within the game itself. These paratexts constitute the spaces in-between the player’s main interactions with the game: main menus/title screens, loading screens, and pause menus. These small necessities of game design deeply impact the player’s experience of games and play.

Main Menu

Consider the main menu of the ultraviolent indie shooter Hotline Miami (2011), a game which revels in unthinking acts of massacre. Set in sunny Miami in the late 80s, the player controls an unnamed character who receives anonymous, cryptic instructions which incite them to commit mass murder. The game’s hazy neon visuals and the sharp, overproduced pop reminiscent of the 80s creates a kind of drug-addled experience as the player controls this avatar who sows destruction and death with wanton abandon. The main menu captures the essence of the game quite perfectly.

A screenshot from the video game Hotline Miami showing the main menu

The main menu screen for Hotline Miami

The title shows up in Russian (the game’s enemy is the Russian mob), which to unassuming eyes simply looks like words printed backwards. The title, and the multiple options below, slowly sway from side to side in a lazy state of instability. The ‘Start Game’ option repeatedly fades out of focus in a distortion of violet neon. Palm trees switching hues between shades of purple, red, pink and white flank the screen as they pass steadily into the edges of the front of the screen, simulating a drive down a road in Miami. As if this wasn’t trippy enough, the music played alongside this is a mellow, psychedelic track, and the singer’s reverb-soaked drawls make it all but impossible to discern the lyrics. All these elements create a surreal and disorienting title screen which works to convey the unstable condition of the avatar and the anarchic sense of morality contained within the game’s action.

As well as the current revival of 1980s aesthetics and surreal psychedelia, Hotline Miami clearly draws upon the flashy, eye catching paratextual material found within arcade games (and around the cabinets themselves). Joseph Voltz recalls the arcade’s association with idleness and delinquency: ‘The arcade space, aglow with screens and neon, came under scrutiny as a potential breeding ground for sin and immoral behaviour’ (Voltz, 2016). Indeed, this relationship is crystallised in Larry Clark’s film Bully (2001) where one of the teenagers responsible for the murder of the eponymous bully is seen playing arcade games, sweating with fevered addiction. Hotline Miami’s main menu borrows the garish aesthetic of arcade games to capitalise on the anxieties that once surrounded the arcade and its addicted clientele.

It is also worth mentioning that this bold main menu is perhaps only possible because it was developed by an independent game studio (supported by indie publisher Devolver Digital). Mikhail Fiadotau claims there is ‘an immediacy to indie games that mainstream and casual games lack: it is usually the authors themselves, not separate PR teams, who generate paratexts surrounding their creations.’ Indie games, ‘considerably less shackled by market demands and corporate censorship,’ can afford to experiment with paratexts when most companies play it much safer (Fiadotau, 2015: 88). Of course, it is reductive to assume the artistic and creative superiority of independent artists, but Fiadotau nonetheless situates paratext as being informed as much by financial constraints as it is by creative decision-making.

Loading Screen

Loading screens, arguably even more ephemeral than title screens, can serve purposes beyond the base function of allowing games time to load their game worlds. Most loading screens, especially lengthy loading screens, are experiences to be endured by impatient players waiting to enter the game world. Sometimes, however, players appreciate this time. Bloodborne (2015), for example, featured a noticeably long loading screen in its launch state, and was later optimised for a quicker speed. While most players were more than happy about a revamped loading screen (the art design changed too, from a black background superimposed with the game’s title, to a dark blue background with helpful descriptions of items and other pieces of narrative), some players actually mourned its loss because for them it was useful for their game experience. Mark Serrels describes how he gradually developed a fondness for the original loading screen:

To begin with I didn’t notice. Then I noticed. Then I became frustrated. Then I learned to endure them. Then I became indifferent. Then, at some point […] I began convincing myself that this purely technical failure was an actual good thing that enhanced the Bloodborne experience. […] the loading screens allowed you a moment to relax, a moment to ‘think about what you just did’, to consider the reason for your death and come back stronger’ (Serrels, 2015).

A screenshot depicting the loading screen from Bloodborne as it appeared at launch

The original loading screen in Bloodborne

In Bloodborne, as in most FromSoft games, the fail state is encountered at a rate most players would agree is frustrating. Of course, the challenge is part of the appeal of these games. After death you face the waiting room of the loading screen, an unadorned silence, but a space that offers time to reflect and regroup. Perhaps the blank art design isn’t lazy, but rather deliberately empty so as to avoid clouding the player’s mind with other distracting thoughts. Serrels even suggests that the long waiting times could have been set in place to force the player to avoid ‘fast travel’ between checkpoints (an event which activates a loading screen), encouraging the player to explore on foot. Whether FromSoft had these intentions in mind when launching the original version is up for debate, because while it seems doubtful that any developer would deliberately include longer than necessary loading times, I wouldn’t put it past a playfully sadistic developer like FromSoft. In any case, Bloodborne’s loading screen history shows how such a seemingly trivial, paratextual component of game design can be used strategically, to guide and influence the experience of play in the wider game world.

A screenshot depicting an updated loading screen in Bloodborne that displays item descriptions

The updated loading screen in Bloodborne

And yet, to overstate the significance of the loading screen is to risk losing the usefulness of the term. Annika Rockenberger’s paratextual analysis of BioShock Infinite questions whether the loading screen can even be considered ‘outside’ the game: ‘do the internal loading pages (which interrupt as well as organise the gameplay, and include information regarding the intra- as well as the extra-diegetic level . . . belong to the game proper?’ In other words, by emphasising the importance of these game elements, can we confidently claim that they are not ‘inside’ the main game text? Bloodborne’s original loading screen contained no intra or extra-diegetic information, but the absence of information itself was arguably essential to the game’s design. As Rockenberger concludes, ‘Are all these elements not integral parts of the game’s overall conception, its medial and/or conceptual totality?’ (Rockenberger, 2015: 56). As we shall see, this problem becomes ever more pronounced when we look at paratexts beyond the virtual game world.

Beyond In-Game Paratext

According to Steven Edward Jones, we must also consider  instances of unauthorised paratext; that is, paratextual material created not by the developers or publishers, but by the gaming community. Rockenberger helpfully discusses Jones’s argument: ‘during the course of his book Jones ponders the “implications” of Genette’s theory, and—rhetorically exploiting metaphorical expressions like ‘threshold’—successfully expands the range of things the term ‘paratext’ might apply to’ (Rockenberger, 2014: 274). This opens the floodgates to all the myriad creations shared by the gaming community. This kind of paratext is by no means unique to video games (just think of fan-art or online reviews for film and literature), but the volume and the range of user-generated material for video games is unprecedented. This can include fan fiction, parodies, wikis, fan forums, game reviews, and viral marketing campaigns. This list, provided by Rockenberger, is far from exhaustive; it fails to mention those popular online paratexts which proliferate on YouTube, Let’s Plays, where players record themselves playing games for an online audience, forming a complex textual network in itself.  This approach to video game paratext includes so much stuff that Jones is forced to conclude that ‘almost any popular video game [is] always already predominantly paratextual […] Once you look at today’s games and game-like media entertainments, it’s all paratext, in concentric circles rippling out into the world’ (Jones, 2008: 43). Jones’s insistence on the ‘predominantly paratextual’ nature of our experience with games implies that we rarely engage in video game play without an already substantial pool of paratextual references. In fact, most of our time might be spent on paratextual material. In which case, the supposedly secondary, background role of paratext becomes, in the world of games culture, the primary focus for its players and thus is no longer recognizable as paratext. Is Jones exaggerating? If not, how do we then deal with this? Do we discard ‘paratext’ as a helpful analytical tool for games studies, or limit what we include as ‘paratext’ in the first place?

It could be more helpful to think about game paratext as a fluid spectrum; to borrow Daniel Dunne’s argument: ‘it can be thought effectively as a progressive spectrum that with each iteration either is closer to or further from the text’ (Dunne, 2016: 281). This allows us to stop worrying about splitting hairs, and instead draws our attention to the dynamic relationships between game texts. Unfortunately, Dunne doesn’t elaborate on how we can measure the ‘closeness’ of any given paratextual material to the main text, but given his focus is mostly on authorised paratext—In-Game, In-System (Console/PC interface), In-World (game disc, game guide)—we can assume he prioritises those paratexts which the player encounters most often within the game itself. Nevertheless, the study of paratext for Dunne is less about defining the structure of a hierarchy than it is about drawing our attention to the totality of a textual experience.

Conclusion

Video game paratext—whether it’s in the game world, on the game case, or on the cultural maze of the internet—is therefore something we as players should study because it can function as an aesthetic and thematic statement (as in Hotline Miami) or as a reflection of design mechanics (as in Bloodborne). Moreover, acknowledging paratext in video games is simply to observe the reality of the ways games are consumed: discussed fervently on online forums and by influential YouTubers, mastered with the help of thoroughly researched ‘walkthroughs,’ and played vicariously through Let’s Plays. Now, let’s not forget about the content of the games we are playing, but let’s be mindful of the threshold, too.

Works Cited

Devolver Digital, 2012. Hotline Miami, video game, Microsoft Windows.

Dunne, Daniel, 2016. ‘Paratext: The In-Between of Structure and Play’ in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games ed. by Christophe Duret and Christian-Marie Pons (Hershay: IGI Global) pp. 247-296.

Fiadotau, Mikhail, 2015. ‘Paratext and meaning-making in indie games’ Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 88.

Gennete, Gérard, and Marie Maclean, 1991. ‘Introduction to the Paratext.’ New Literary History, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 261-272.

Jones, Steven E., 2008. The Meaning of Video Games: Gaming and Textual Studies (New York: Routledge).

Rockenberger, Annika, 2014. ‘Video Game Framings’ in Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture ed. by Nadine Desrochers (Hershay: IGI Global) pp. 56, 71.

Serrels, Mark, 2015. ‘I’m Gonna Miss Bloodborne’s Loading Screens’ in Kotaku.

Voltz, Joseph, 2016. The Electric Zoo: Video Game Paratext in American Arcades and Homes