What We’re Playing

Reading Mia Consalvo's Cheating

Michael Hancock is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, and book reviews editor at FPS. He is also sad no one has yet submitted a review of McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory.


Epi(c)texts and Ni No Kuni

by Michael Hancock

At the moment, I’m playing Level-5 and Studio Ghibli’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, released about a year ago on the PS3, which means it just reached the top of my Games I Meant To Play Last Year list. (I’ll get to you some day, Gone Home.) While I’m not done playing yet, I’ve got one word to sum up the experience: paratext.

Bear with me for a moment, because this is going to take a somewhat lengthy (yet informative and surely entertaining) digression. While sadly no one has submitted to FPS a review of Mia Consalvo’s Cheating or Steven E. Jones’ The Meaning of Video Games, both books consider paratext in the context of videogames. Paratext can be loosely defined as anything that influences a reading of a text that’s not part of its main content. In Consalvo’s case, paratext includes looking at how players and magazines like Nintendo Power get positioned as experts on certain games. In Jones’ case, it includes looking at things like how Nintendo’s Wii commercials created a sense of how its games were meant to be played.

Technically, all of the examples of paratext I’ve listed thus far really fall within a subcategory of paratext called epitext, which includes all paratexts not specifically included in a text, and those that are included are called peritext. In a videogame, the line between peritext and just text gets blurry quickly. Is the title screen a peritext? What about the achievement list? Or the Head-Up Display?

On his blog, Robert Yang makes a convincing case that even the unportalable walls of Portal constitute a paratext, in that graphics making good use out of the technology reinforce the value of a videogame, particularly an AAA videogame.


The white walls support portals, while the metallic black walls do not.

Further, every feature a sandbox game adds, every mini-map icon, crafting system, and side quest, contributes to the notion that the game is vast and therefore valuable. Essentially, feature creep is a sort of paratext.

And that, finally, brings us back to Ni No Kuni. In terms of its paratext, it is the most JRPG-ish JRPG I’ve played in a long time. The combat system reminds me of Tri-Ace’s previous game, Rogue Galaxy, with its hybrid of movement and menu systems. The options to catch familiars and evolve—sorry, metamorphose —them into stronger forms through feeding them special items will be very, very familiar to Pokémon fans.

And so on. The alchemy system reminds me of Star Ocean, among many others, where you mix ingredients to gain a nominally more powerful item. The errands echo Final Fantasy XII’s bounty hunts and Dragon Quest IX’s Quest List Log, both of which have their own pedigrees. And despite the creative designs and settings supplied by Studio Ghibli—which in themselves, are paratexts referring to the studio’s reputation in animation—the game’s settings include very familiar standbys such as areas set in volcanos, graveyards, and deserts. All of these features can be thought of as paratextual markers, little sign posts that say “yep, it’s a JRPG.”

It’s not a bad game, by any means. I love its commitment to the lore of game (the Wizard’s Companion is a seriously paratextual addition), and the blend of earnestness and wonder that is the hallmark of quality child-oriented fantasy. But I wonder: Am I playing it for the paratext, or in spite of it? What does this game mean to people who haven’t played dozens of JRPG ports for the last twenty years? And, maybe most damningly— if you take away the paratext of what’s already been done, what’s left?

Rob Parker is a Contributing Editor at FPS. He holds an MA in English & Film Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University & is currently working on an MA in Experimental Digital Media at the University of Waterloo. His main areas of interest are genre theory, creative writing, interactive fiction, and roguelikes.


Rogues’ Gallery: Streaming and Reporting on Roguelikes

by Rob Parker

Like Michael, I’ve been reading a fair bit of Mia Consalvo’s fantastic book, Cheating. After watching several people stream themselves attempting (and often spectacularly failing) the Spelunky daily challenges, I’ve been thinking about the roguelike genre (games that frequently feature procedurally-generated levels, permanent or non-trivial death penalties, and obtuse mechanics) in constellation with gaming capital. In Cheating, Consalvo spends a lot of time talking about how players circulate and display their game knowledge. Whether it was through reading Nintendo Power and passing those tips on to their friends or through writing walkthroughs/online guides. Roguelikes tend to resist these approaches, since the levels are randomly generated, and many important mechanics are frequently obfuscated from the player. The Spelunky daily challenges are the same map for every player, but that player only gets one chance to play through it, creating a wave of impromptu walkthroughs, warnings, and strategies within that community every time the daily challenge resets.

Part of this thinking spilled over into considering the roguelike as a genre. As Tanya X Short noted in a fantastic piece over at Gamasutra, “Never Say Roguelike,” the term is extremely unclear to players that have not already been exposed to it. This prompted Lars Doucet to suggest a term that is a little more descriptive (“On Procedural Death Labyrinths”). I’m not quite ready to fully weigh in on the viability of Doucet’s term, but it does emphasize the aspects of this type of game design that seem to most coincide with Consalvo’s concept of gaming capital. In addition to resisting repeatability by randomly-generating levels, the emphasis on permanent death or at least highly punitive death mechanics in roguelike design immediately places a premium on strategies and tips that players can share with one another to avoid dying. Furthermore, by evoking the figuration of the labyrinth, a confusing structure that hides an unknowable horror, Doucet’s term also gestures at the importance of obtuse knowledge to roguelike design. The idea of obtuse knowledge is perhaps most keenly explained in Douglas Wilson’s Polygon article about the solo eggplant run in Spelunky.

To this end, I’ve started streaming myself playing a variety of roguelike games (on Twitch with the username RobotParking) and following those streams with a more critical sort of after-action report. So far, I’ve only been able to stream Brogue, a free and very user-friendly but still “classically-inspired” roguelike, but I’ve been working on a rough schedule that includes Teleglitch, Steam Marines, Dungeons of Dredmor, Cataclysm, Dungeon of the Endless, Tales of Maj’Eyal and (assuming I can get it to work still) the winner-designed roguelike experiment Mercury made by James Lantz. In particular, I’ll be focusing on how these games treat death, emphasize the necessity of occulted knowledge, and how each game’s slightly different approach to procedurality complicates its relationship with the accumulation of gaming capital between players.


  1. One of these days, Mike, we’re going to sit down and you are going to expose for me the fun of Dragon Quest IX.

    • Actually, I’m not sure that would be helpful. To paraphrase a Mark Twain story, I think I’ve reached a point with traditional JRPGs where I see the game in terms of how it deviates or adheres to other games, rather than appreciating its own “romance and beauty.” With DQIX, what I remember most about it now (aside from the bitter randomness of its treasure hunting random dungeons) is the sheer effort the localization team put into the assonance of the enemy descriptions. Here’s an example: “Slimes are common monsters that are found all over the world. Their simple yet lovable form attracts many admirers.They’re unimpressive alone, but if a few of them focus the force of friendship, they can make a miraculous metamorphosis.” (Ni No Kuni borrows a lot of the same style, come to think of it, in things like making every purchasable perk contain the word “Jack” in its title.) It’s so brief that there’s barely any reason to take note of it; just the repeated f’s and m’s in the last sentence. But you spread that out over a few hundred entries, and it gets impressive. Is that enough to justify a 50+ hour game? Probably not.

  2. Also soliciting roguelike suggestions if anybody happens across this comment section. (Note: not on the above list is Receiver, which I actually did last week.)

      • Thanks for the suggestion, Felan! I’d completely forgotten about DCSS.

    • Has anyone ever looked at the concept of the roguelike in regards to boardgames? Particularly, I’m thinking co-op boardgames like Arkham Horror. I’ve been playing some Ghost Stories recently, and it’s got a lot of the hallmarks of the rougelike and PDL, as Doucet defines them: frequent death, confined generated space, random monsters, turn-based, grid-based, resource management. (Not some of the other big ones, like exploration, but you can’t have everything.)

      • Outside of a pretty narrow scope of people, I don’t think a lot of folks have looked at the concept of the roguelike at all. Though, procedural spaces in board games is a thing I find relentlessly cool. At any rate, while I really appreciate Doucet’s approach, I’m not a complete adherent to it. In his case, he’s positioning it as a replacement for “roguelikelike” and “roguelite,” while I’m suggesting that those terms were derived from “roguelike” to maintain an illusory boundary between an insular community and a larger discussion that is enriched by taking those earlier or more obtuse examples into account.

        What I like about “Procedural Death Labyrinth” as a term is that it crystallizes a few mechanics that offer a similar feel or experience or horizon of expectation, regardless of the context into which they are added. It’s not perfect – “death” really means “nontrivial or highly punitive death consequences” but I guess saying death is core to the experience (not unlike the marketing tagline for Dark Souls) is good enough.

  3. RE: Michael’s piece, the concept of “paratext” gets used in a variety of different ways, but I find it most useful as a way of blurring and breaking down the boundaries between “core” text and paratextual framing. In a lot of cases, including the Yang piece, scholars do the opposite, using the concept of paratext to taxonomize and separate everything deemed to be peripheral from the “core,” presumably to get at some kind of pure essence of text. While I can understand this impulse (and perhaps its utility from a design perspective), I would argue that paratext theory offers a way to think about how those textual boundaries are produced, rather than simply reifying them. I think it’s more productive to think about paratextual framing as a contingent but inseparable part of the assemblages we call “texts” and their manifest operations.

    • I agree that paratext is best thought of as breaking down boundaries between framing and core text. In fact, I had to cut it for length, but an earlier draft had a long quotation from Gerard Genette on his definition of paratext: “More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold… It is an ‘undefined zone’ between the inside and the outside, a zone without any hard and fast boundary on either the inward side (turning towards the text) or the outward side (turned toward the text), an edge, or, as Philippe Lejeuen put it, ‘a fringe of the printed text which in reality control’s one’s whole reading of the text.'” The tricky part is that once you add the concepts of peritext and epitext, it gets easier to slide into boundaries. What I like about Yang’s approach is that he’s willing to consider how peritext might apply to videogames, while Consalvo and Jones are more considered with things easier defined as epitext.
      To go into a Ni No Kuni example of fringes that “control one’s whole reading,” in the original Japanese DS version of Ni No Kuni, as I understand it, the game came with a book called the Wizard’s Companion, which is full of game lore. In the PS3 version, the book is only contained in an in-game menu, and most of the pages are blank until the player reaches the appropriate stages of the game that unlocks each individual page or entry. That, in turn, can create a very different way of playing the game.
      (And in a similar way, the game makes an interesting platform studies example, as the DS version called on the player to draw the associated glyphs for each spell to cast it, whereas the PS3 just has you choose from a menu.)

      • “Fringe” is a good way to put it, and I guess for me what happens when you start thinking through things in these terms is that you realize texts are nothing BUT fringes. And that’s a really interesting starting point for analysis.

        • Not sure I agree, though I get your gist. You can’t have “nothing but fringes” since the very concept of “fringe” depends upon a core to be peripheral to. I think it might be better said that a text has no essential core, which means that it has *no* fringe.

          In practice it doesn’t work that way of course, but the point I think you and Michael are making is that any privileging of something is arbitrary. I agree with that. I suppose I disagree with your rhetoric, not your general point.

          • I guess what I meant by “nothing but fringes” is that what we call texts are in fact messy assemblages made up of diverse elements, and as you suggest it doesn’t make sense to arbitrarily privilege one aspect of the text as the “core.” But those elements have “fringes” of their own where they meet and interact with each other. That’s where, for me, thinking with paratexts becomes interesting.

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