The group of grad students at UF that originally gave rise to this blog, the Game Studies Group, has been rebranded as the Digital Assembly (DA), and we had our monthly meeting on Friday. Our readings were the introduction to Gerard Genette's Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation and Georg Stanitzek's "Texts and Paratexts in Media" (Critical Inquiry 32.1). What we discussed, in a somewhat circuitous way, was how our various projects can or cannot be described in Genette's terminology, and ultimately whether or not paratext is a useful concept for studying media other than books. It was an interesting conversation, and I've had a few more thoughts. I'd like to keep the conversation going, so feel free to jump in.
Genette's defines "paratext" as the text's threshold, vestibule, or edge. Not part of the text, but necessary to it, assuring authorial control of the text by providing readers a sanctioned entry point. In general, paratexts include things like a book's title, typography, preface, pagination, etc. Moreover, paratexts can be further divided into "epitexts" and "peritexts", distinguished by their spatial relationship with the book (and Genette makes it clear that he is writing of books) such that epitexts are materials published elsewhere (e.g., James Joyce's road map for Ulysses), and peritexts are materially part of the same substance as the text (e.g., chapter titles).
Stanitzek seems critical of Genette for his logocentrism, but is eager to expand the notion of paratext to describe textual relationships in other media, including film, television, and hypertext (which he says may be the ultimate paratext).
As our conversation progressed, it seemed that many of us disagreed with Genette's Structuralist insistence that there be an interior and exterior to the text. At the very least, we seemed to be drawn toward the edges of what could be faithfully described as paratext, especially in light of the cross-media convergences that many of us are studying. For example, is fan fiction epitextual, or is it only epitextual if it faithfully adheres to the rules of the diegesis? Do Alternate Reality Games have a text at all, or are they pure peritexts? At what point does an epitext become its own text? Is that a matter of distance from the original text or a question of its own authorial autonomy? What about video games?
For my present dissertation chapter, I'm currently working through the questions of interface, thresholds, and layering in video games, so the relevant question for me (which I want to discuss more, hence this posting), is what we do with the HUD. If we follow Genette's formula, what is the HUD's textual status? In most first-person games, the HUD is definitely something which is not quite part of the game world (though, of course, it is often narrativised as part of, e.g., a space marine's combat suit), but is also not part of ours. Some notable exceptions excluded, it seems that the predominant role of the HUD is to provide an access point between the "text" of the game world, and the user's experience of it. Like a proscenium arch, the HUD frames the action and allows the actors (game world) to focus their attention in reference to a single point. In this sense, it seems that the HUD could be considered an epitext, but if we unexclude those notable exceptions, I think it starts to break down. The proscenium arch is the original fourth wall, so if we think of games like Eternal Darkness which occasionally reference or break their fourth walls (both narratively and visually), it's no longer sufficient to consider the HUD as somehow external the game. Furthermore, the HUD literally is internal in most games -- you see maps, score, and messages floating in an imaginary layer between yourself and the game, but these elements are often transparent or surrounded on all sides by the game world. The HUD which frames the world is in this case a figure on the ground which it frames.
What, then, of HUD and HUD-like elements that are literally (physically) external? When I play Berzerk on my Vectrex, I attach a transparent overlay which acts as a simple HUD. It is physically separate from the game world, and about half an inch closer to me. It frames the game/text, but it actually stands in the way of direct access. It adds a blue tint and slight blur to the game's graphics, so it is actually reducing the immediacy of my access to it.
I've recently heard arcade art and instruction manuals referred to as paratexts, and this is certainly a possibility. These epitexts certainly encourage access to the game/text and inform how we are to interpret the game's significations. I had no idea, for example, that Breakout! is set in outer space until I read the manual. I'm not necessarily convinced, however, that the epitextual bond or vector between the manual and the game is as unidirectional as Genette's formula requires. In the case of instruction manuals and box art, it seems to me that there's always a risk that the relationship could be reversed. That is, the real story could be in the instruction manual, and the game could be an epitext that lets you act out certain portions of that story. Of course, this is mostly true in the case of older, more iconic games, but if that risk is present from the beginning, perhaps it's still lurking even in contemporary games?
I've been framing this discussion so far as a question of whether games can appropriately fit into Genette's formula, but what I'm really after is whether Genette's formula can fit into game studies. Throughout the preceding discussion, I've intentionally conflated Genette's "text" with the gameworld, but I think my point is that this is not necessarily correct. Genette is careful to define text as, "a more or less long sequence of verbal statements that are more or less endowed with significance," so it seems clear that, although his theory may not be inappropriate for media studies, Genette himself is reluctant to take it anywhere beyond the book itself. Turning to video games, I don't think we could come up with a definition of "game" equivalent to Genette's "text." Maybe someone can prove me wrong, but it seems that there are already so many layers of signification present in any phenomena that we intuitively recognize as a game that describing any layer as essential or originary would be highly problematic. If even the source code and platform are "more or less endowed with significance," I don't think we can say much with the vocabulary of paratext except that these levels are all in some way "para" each other.
This post is getting long, so I'll leave off there. I'm eager to here what you think, and if you there Friday and think there was some other point we discussed worth bringing up again (I know there were – I just didn't want to make this a 30-page blog entry), please feel free to add your own summary.