Texts and Paratexts in and Around Videogames

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.


Interesting topic, Zach...

Interesting topic, Zach... pehaps the paratext in games could be the control scheme in general? After all, indexes, paginations and prefaces and the like help a reader navigate a text.

I recently gave a paper looking at Austin's "performative utterances" and thinking about games as "performative images". Austin believes that there in order to fully understand a performative such as "I name this child Socrates" it is necessary to take into account the total context of the message (its immediate reference to a given child, its performance by someone authorised to perform a naming ceremony, etc). There was a famous interchange between Derrida and Searle over performatives and whether a total context could be determined at all - that's a little beyond what I was talking about, but it might be interesting reference in terms of the critique of Genette's 'logocentrism'.

Do we even read games?

Thanks for a great post.

I am not sure the HUD is a paratext at all, it seems to offer its own mini-narrative, mutating between bookmark (of how far into the performance) and comment in the margin (on performative understanding and execution, on how well the player is doing, and sometimes as a memory or memento library), so in a way it is an external cognitive artifact and yet also a direct interactive part of the interface.

I know that trying to read text and at the same time spatially explore games creates all sorts of cognitive issues (esp overloading) in virtual environments. Recent cognitive psychology suggests that the way, speed and order of how we 'read' text (as in, word) and 'perceive' image are fundamentally different-which may well challenge those who 'read' across not just literature but also film and game as 'text'. In other words, that we even 'read' spatial games, is a moot point.

Paratexts and canonicity

Strangely enough, I was thinking about posting (less eloquently) on the topic of these "paratexts" of games with relation to which documents we should consider in the study of the games. I think Zach is entirely right in noting that our engagement with the game occurs through so many levels that assigning the term "paratext" to things like the HUD, instruction manuals, and the like is only accurate in a strictly linguistic sense. But doesn't that still make it a good term to use, even if we have to neglect some of the values Genette has assigned to it?

At any rate, I'm interested in the multitude of paratexts that accompany long-running serial games like Metroid or The Legend of Zelda. My work with Metroid engages narrative and thematics in many ways, which makes outside texts like instruction manuals potentially important for analysis. But the Metroid universe extends away from what comes in the box - into print form, like comics that pop up in Nintendo Power magazine, or other digital forms like e-manga.

The situation for Zelda, you can imagine, is even more complex.

I guess my question would be how far removed from the game environment (for these purposes, I would say "what comes in the box") can these paratexts be and still remain relevant to study? I can't read or speak Japanese, so do the Japanese manga have any impact on my analysis? And do any of these paratexts have meaning for the average Metroid gamer?

I may be off here, but there only seems like one good way to read a book, and so most of the paratexts of a book will be involved at any point in time. With a series of games like Metroid, however, you can play to focus on any number of elements - the story, the puzzles, the exploration, the action, the speedrunning - and each of these strategies make different paratexts relevant to your experience of the game.

Some comments on HUDs

I split my comments up because they really have two different directions.

In reference to your musings about HUDs, Zach, I'd like to offer the Metroid Prime games (surprise!) as interesting examples of how the HUD can be used to break the fourth wall in really unique ways.

The Prime visor HUD is actually one of the most integrated HUD systems I have experienced, in that it is narratively incorporated into Samus's body while also being a functional tool for the gamer. The visor itself comes with different modes (X-Ray and Scan, for example) that act as filters to give the gamer additional data (some visual, some textual) about the environment. There's very little extraneous data like score that comes into the HUD; even the hint system is integrated into the Power Suit computer, if you will.

At the same time, though, the games have some really great moments that break the fourth wall and even turn the visor against the gamer. At the most basic level is the infamous reflection of Samus's face in certain lighting, which Corruption amplifies quite a bit and uses to unnerving effect. Different modes of the visor are useless in detecting, for example, Chozo ghosts, but at the same time the visor can be overloaded by certain attacks or the proximity of different creatures in the game, and only occasionally overridden by a change in visor.

My personal favorite HUD disruption is the Rezbit virus attack in Echoes that will make your suit go haywire and require a Power Suit restart in order to regain control of your body and vision.

So basically, the HUD is not just a frame in these games, but another tool that requires constant adjustment, attention, and patience.

But even that's complicated, because the game options are incorporated into the Logbook system, which should theoretically be part of Samus's suit software, which is accessed through the visor HUD, which should not be part of a Nintendo Gamecube game.

I think I've passed the point of being helpful now. You've taken up an ambitious topic!