The Paratext of Video Games
In the past few years game development has taken some strange, interesting turns. Mostly, but not exclusively, from the indie scene. Games are becoming introspective, inasmuch as they are looking inward at themselves, at the nature of games and play. You could convincingly call it a kind of postmodern turn for game design. We have games like The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013) in which you control a bored but happy office worker who finds himself suddenly alone in his workplace, everyone else having mysteriously disappeared. Stranger still, a narrator starts giving him instructions about navigating through his empty office and the player can either obey or defy him. The game turns into a funny, but disturbing commentary on authorial intention, control and agency. Then we have games like Pony Island (Daniel Mullins Games, 2016), where the game at first seems to be a simple endless runner, but then we find out the real game is about the endless runner’s creator, who appears to be the devil himself, or certainly some kind of evil force. What follows is a battle between you and this manipulative creator as he destroys the game’s menus, makes options unavailable, and wreaks other kinds of metafictional havoc on the player. What these games introduce is a kind of self-awareness and critique of assumptions and expectations we associate with video game design. A lot of great words have been written about these types of games already, so I instead want to say a little about what these games bring to the fore – the paratext surrounding video games.
The paratext of any given text refers to the pieces of information which appear outside of the text, and inessential to it, but which nonetheless participates in and influences 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, cover art etc. In other words, the paratext is that which 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. Gérard Genette popularised the term and idea, and provides a helpful definition for both text and paratext:
The literary work consists, exhaustively or essentially, of a text, that is to say (a very minimal definition) in a more or less lengthy sequence of verbal utterances more or less containing meaning. But this text 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).
So the paratext threatens the borders of the text, questions what can be included and what is to be excluded – the paratext is both absent and present. Genette suggests that its presence performs the function of presenting the text, a kind of threshold through which to welcome, guide, prepare, or perhaps warn the reader. The text cannot be entered without first encountering the paratext, and this is why 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). The title for Joyce’s epic dominates a lot of the discourse surrounding the novel. It is not difficult to imagine how the critical reception for Ulysses may have been different if Joyce didn’t choose the Greek hero’s name for the title of his novel. But looking at paratexts 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 the texts.
So what exactly would constitute the paratexts of video games? Are there any? Well, there’s the obvious ones they share with literature, namely titles, art work, the name of the artists/development team, publisher etc. You can find them all on the box containing the game (at least for those who still consume this way; I’ve resigned myself to the reign of the digital). But there’s other types of paratexts unique to video games, those that exist within the text of the game itself, not just within the box that presents it (or in the opening credits of the game text which repeats the box). These paratexts break up gameplay (and other content where gameplay is absent, like cinematic custscenes) and constitute the spaces in-between the player’s main interaction with the game. I’m thinking here of main menus/title screens, loading screens, pause menus, and even tutorials, though I realise that to include the latter would be to contradict, or at least qualify the earlier statement that these paratexts involve a break from gameplay. Yet tutorials are both inside and outside the game text; the player controls an avatar usually in a kind of play/test area separate from the game world, or more interestingly, within the game world itself, in which case the tutorial forms part of the narrative. The latter case makes it difficult to place tutorials in the category of paratext, because if the very act of learning gameplay controls falls in line with the character’s narrative of growth, the tutorial slides from the paratextual into the textual. Some loading screens face similar problems. For instance, many loading screens now give the player snippets of information, whether it’s related to the narrative and the world, or if it’s gameplay tips to help the player navigate the game space. In the latter, we can convincingly call these paratexts, but for the former, especially when these narrative snippets are allegedly derived from ancient scrolls or from the transcription of a song—sources based within the game world—they can’t easily be slotted into the framework of the paratext. Are maps within video games paratextual in the same way they are in a lot of fantasy literature? Or do they exist as an ever-present, integral component in the game world? As you can see, video game paratext is just as problematic to define, if not more, than the paratext within (or outside) literature. What I want to do here, though, is look at some game paratexts that I particularly enjoy, whose function perhaps reaches further than a simple interface allowing the player to start the game, pause it, load it, or learn it.
The main menu, which is to say, the menu from which you choose to begin a new playthrough of the game or continue a previously saved file, is usually just that, a flashy but uninteresting title card interface used to offer the player this choice.
The main menu in Final Fantasy VII (Sony, 1997), however, presents a peculiarly minimalistic main menu which I think performs several functions. First of all, the title doesn’t appear anywhere, though it has already made a faint appearance in the opening credits sequence preceding the main menu. Secondly, a strange looking sword placed in the middle of a black background; we don’t know who it belongs to or what it might represent. Thirdly, there’s no music accompanying the menu, even though there was music during the credits sequence – the famous arpeggio backed, melancholic anthem of the game. These three components—a lack of title, a mysterious sword, and no music—present the uninitiated player with several impressions of what this game could possibly be. Now you might think I’m being very hypothetical here, imagining a player unfamiliar with the cultural phenomenon of FFVII, but my first encounter with the game was almost as innocent as what I’m describing here. I learned about the game by watching a friend play a little bit of it, was instantly fascinated, bought it soon after. And although I’d seen the actual game in play, I still had little to no idea about its plot, the characters, the gameplay mechanics etc. All I had was the spectacle of the aesthetic, and that was all I needed.
But to return to the oblivious player, FFVII’s naked, stripped down main menu creates a specific kind of allure for the player which might have been lost if it was presented differently. Even the capitalisation of the ‘NEW GAME’ suggests the scope of creating a new save file, that doing so is not the same undertaking as beginning a new game of, say, Candy Crush or Super Mario Bros. The strange, fat width of the sword positions the game somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy, and its isolation in the menu not only hints towards the player’s use of this weapon, but also towards the significance of the weapon as a symbol. The narrative follows Cloud, the sword’s wielder, a young man whose masculinity is wounded quite severely when he is rejected from the specialist military unit called SOLDIER. Several other things happen to Cloud which make him assume the personality of someone who was a 1st class member of SOLDIER, a delusion which cures and fulfils his masculine ideals. The big, fat, heavy sword is thus a symbol for overcompensation, and this finds clear expression in the battles where Cloud’s more detailed animation model shows the comical image of skinny arms carrying this ludicrously hefty sword (at least until the player replaces it with a different weapon). So there’s one example of a seemingly insignificant paratextual component informing and contextualising a wider game text.
I can think of other title screens that are the exact opposite of the minimalist aesthetic used for FFVII, but are no less expressive for it. Consider the main menu of the ultraviolent indie shooter Hotline Miami (Devolver Digital, 2012), a game which revels in its manic, unthinking acts of massacre. Set in sunny Miami in the late 80s, the player controls an unnamed character who receives anonymous, cryptic instructions which usually always involve 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 crazed avatar who desperately commits consecutive mass murders. The main menu captures the essence of the game quite perfectly.
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 becomes 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 mental condition of the avatar and the anarchic sense of morality contained within the game’s action.
Loading screens, arguably even more ephemeral than title screens, can also 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, this time is appreciated in loading screens. Bloodborne (Sony, 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).
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, long and unadorned, but a space that also 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, textual game world.
Video game analysis should then take care to attend to these small pieces of code, because if we ignore the paratextual components in game texts we risk overlooking important parts of design which, though small and unremarkable, nonetheless contribute to our experience of the larger game text.
Daniel Mullins Games, 2016. Pony Island, video game, Microsoft Windows.
Devolver Digital, 2012. Hotline Miami, video game, Microsoft Windows.
Galactic Café, 2013. The Stanley Parable, video game, Microsoft Windows.
Gennete, Gérard, and Marie Maclean, 1991. ‘Introduction to the Paratext.’ New Literary History, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 261-272.
Serrels, Mark, 2015. ‘I’m Gonna Miss Bloodborne’s Loading Screens’ in Kotaku. http://www.kotaku.com.au/2015/04/im-gonna-miss-bloodbornes-loading-screens/ [last accessed 24.2.17]
Sony, 1997. Final Fantasy VII, video game, Playstation.
Sony, 2015. Bloodborne, video game, Playstation 4.