The Zone of Influence: How Paratext Can Change Our Experience With Games

Guest writer tomcat explores how a game's paratext can be creatively used to enhance our affection for a game's developer or our experience of the game itself.

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In the study of literature, we frequently talk about paratext. The paratext comprises all those aspects of a book which don't form part of the literary text itself, but are nonetheless there to be read. Examples include the cover, chapter headings, page numbers, author biographies, and so on. All of these are examples of so-called paratext. Whether they are designed by the writer or editor or publisher doesn't matter; if they form part of the physical book--but not the actual work itself--then they are paratextual.

Unsurprisingly, it's strikingly easy to transpose this notion of the paratext from novels onto video games. Like books, all video games have a paratext: the information that forms part of the product, but is not actually part of the gameworld. It's the stuff that surrounds the game. Examples of gaming paratext include publishers' logos flashing onscreen when you insert a disc, options menus, level titles, and the like. These things don't physically exist in the world of the game, but they form part of the object "the game" nonetheless.

Paratext in gaming is most commonly employed by publishers and developers to self-advertise. They embed their logos within their products, often in highly creative ways. An early example of a game company taking creative advantage of the paratextual space is the original Sonic the Hedgehog, which opens with what is arguably the most famous publisher ident of all time. You're probably familiar with the white screen over which a distorted Sega logo gradually increases in clarity, and the sound of a group of digitally re-created voices simultaneously chanting the company name. Apparently, this used up a staggering percentage of the cartridge's available memory.

 

 

Sega went one step further with Sonic 2 by adding the blue blur himself into the paratext: the Sega logo is swiftly revealed in the distortions that trail behind Sonic's zooming. This obviously required a great deal of effort and energy to animate--somebody at Sega was taking the paratext seriously. In many cases the gaming paratext may seem insignificant, but from a marketing and aesthetic perspective, putting time and energy into a game's paratext definitely pays off: almost every gamer in the world recognizes the famous Sega chant that precedes the original Sonic games.

 

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It's my contention, however, that it's the current generation of games that have enjoyed the most fruitful experimentation with the paratextual. It took developers a while, but we are finally starting to see some amazingly creative handling of paratexts.

One of my favourite examples comes from Ubisoft's game Assassin's Creed: Revelations. Many people are familiar with the Ubisoft company logo that frequently pops onscreen at the start of their games; it's a kind of smooth, white, swirling movement accompanied by a pleasant electronic whooshing and pinging sound.

When it comes to Assassin's Creed: Revelations, however, some clever individual had the fantastic idea of manipulating the Ubisoft logo in such a manner as to make it sympathetic with the events of the game. Usually publisher/developer idents are entirely separate from the gameworld, neither visually nor sonically consistent with the art style of the game in question. Assassin's Creed: Revelations, however, is different.

In this game, the protagonist, Desmond, is comatose, trapped in the animus; something has gone very definitely wrong. A dead man is speaking to him, his ancestors' memories are all jumbled and out of whack, and Desmond himself has access to the deeper code structures of the programme. In a really cool reflection of this, the game opens not with the familiar Ubisoft logo, but with a deliberately glitched and distorted one.


 

Not only is this a fantastic paratextual representation of the game's aesthetic themes, but it's also a great aid to player immersion. The animus is glitched and spreading into Desmond's mind--accordingly, these problems are also spreading into the paratextual aspects of the game, even the designers' logo. They're breaching the usual boundaries of the gameworld. Spilling the visual ideas of the game into its own paratext really gives the opening a kick. It functions as a beautiful microcosm for Revelations' story: just as the memories of Ezio and Altair and Desmond are converging, slipping over one another and glitching together, so too is the game's aesthetic spilling over into its own paratext. Great stuff.

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Another example of paratext in gaming is the seemingly ubiquitous HUD. Heads-up displays aren't part of the world of most games, per se. They're onscreen information presented for the benefit of the player, and most definitely not accessible to the characters. Kratos never looks at the corner of the screen and comments on how many red orbs he has collected; Ratchet never pauses to think about how many more aliens he needs to kill before his upgrade bar fills; Nathan Drake can't really see a white line predicting the curve through the air of the grenade he's about to throw. This stuff is on top of the game; it surrounds it, but it's not part of the environment. It's paratextual.

But recent years have seen several developers willing to toy with the idea of HUDs, usually with the goal of increasing player immersion. One of the better examples is found in Dead Space and its sequels.

In Dead Space, there isn't a HUD, as such; instead, all of the information you need is incorporated into Isaac Clarke's suit and gear. His remaining ammo is displayed on his weapon, his health bar is a line of lights traced up his spine, and his options menu is a hologram projected from his suit. In essence, the designers of Dead Space have done away with the HUD as a purely paratextual object and have incorporated it as a literal part of the gameworld.

 


Ostensibly, the developers did this to create a greater sense of empathy with the character. Unlike most games, in which the player has access to information that the characters don't have access to (health bars, options menus, level stats, etc.), the protagonist of Dead Space has access to everything the player has access to. It means that the player is reduced to the same level as the protagonist (or, if you prefer, the protagonist is elevated to the same level as the player) in terms of the information available. This gimmick is particularly successful in Dead Space, because it's a horror game, and no other genre is more dependent on the player feeling at one with the character than horror. If horror is to fulfill its mandate to shock, disturb, and terrify, then the reader/viewer/player needs to feel as close to the character as possible. If the HUD gets in the way of this, then what better solution is there than to incorporate the HUD into the physical world of the game?

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Character inventories and the menus associated with them can also usually be considered part of a game's paratextual arrangement.

When Nathan Hale of the Resistance games wants to swap weapons, the character isn't supposed to see a digitized wheel of firearms at his disposal: that's merely a means by which the player can swiftly interact with the world of the game. In the gameworld, Nathan Hale supposedly just pulls whichever gun he needs out of wherever he was keeping it.

One of the best, most creative ways a developer has experimented with this aspect of paratext is in the Fallout series. As in Dead Space, the menu used by players to navigate their character's items, stats, and so on isn't something abstracted from the gameworld. It's something that's part of it. The Pip-Boy attached to the protagonist's wrist is a literal object in the game, consistent with its environment. When the player accesses menus, the character is, himself, simultaneously accessing the same menus. It's a small but infinitely satisfying addition, and especially important in a role-playing game because it contributes to a sense of oneness and shared experience with the character.


 

A similar idea was used by Bethesda in the earlier game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in which the character keeps all of his information recorded in a book, which is then accessible to the player.


 

Unfortunately, Bethesda decided not to carry this over into Skyrim, and instead opted for a different style of menu and inventory. I'm not saying that the menu system in Skyrim is flawed in a practical way: it's very sharp and easily navigable. But how does the character experience this sequence of lists? There's an experiential gap between the player and the character, and it's created by the abstract menu.



***

The stuff that surrounds a gameworld, but isn't part of it, can be manipulated in very successful ways. Whether it enhances the identity of a game's publisher or developer (as we've seen with Sonic the Hedgehog), whether it echoes the design of the game itself (as we've seen with Assassin's Creed: Revelations), or whether it contributes to a sense of empathy with a character's experience, paratext is something that shouldn't be ignored.

I'd love to see more developers playing with it.

And I'd love to hear your own examples of times when the paratext of a game has surprised you.

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Discussion

60 comments
BasicLogic
BasicLogic

There is a game called OFF which has a huge focus on the paratext to cause immersion. Its a great game and very interesting.

CalamityKait
CalamityKait

The PC game To the Moon plays with how background music works in the game.  The game follows two scientists as they traverse a comatose man's memories for the purpose of implanting new memories that will fulfill his greatest wish, to go to the moon.  The game's main musical theme, which plays over the opening and throughout much of the game, is paratext in that it's something the player experiences that isn't part of the game world.  Most of the time.  

If the player chooses to explore the setting before starting the adventure, however, she'll find a pair of children playing the same melody on a piano, and in the course of investigating the main character's memories, will find that the song was written by the protagonist for his wife.  Finally, once the new memories have been successfully implanted, in the altered memories the song takes on a new title and meaning.

Because the same music exists both within the narrative and as background music for the player, the textual changes in what the player knows about the song and its meaning to the characters involved changes how the music affects the player's emotional responses when it shows up on the soundtrack.

JBStone1981
JBStone1981

Fact: The first use of paratext came in 1101, when King Blu Fufaw of France wrote a pun on the back of a cereal box. 

Articuno76
Articuno76

Interesting article. I now have the concept of paratext to wield when talking about game design.

I am not sure if it falls under paratext but I always loved the quirky names for the checkpoints that appear in the Halo games; things like ''Shut Up And get Behind Me...Sir'' and  "Light Fuse...Run away!". I don't really even like Halo or FPS games but that right there imbues the game with a unique character.

The same goes for the naming conventions for the Mario games.  They inform the player on one level by giving them a clue as to what the next part of the game is going to be like, but at the same time they also set a tone with which the game talks to the player. The wit on those little bits of text are make what would otherwise be a mundane gaming convention/system (level names) into another character that the player becomes attached to...even if that character never had a face or a name.

edit: Many developers add that 'voice' into their game through the way they name their achievements/trophies as well.  I'm no achievement junky, but I love it when the game is talking to me the way a developer would talk to it's audience (with references and in-jokes unique to the experience of those that are part of the culture that play that developer's games).

BLaverock
BLaverock

Really interesting article, and informative! Thanks for the great blog post!

Vertigem
Vertigem

Loved the article, keep it up.

Shanks_D_Chop
Shanks_D_Chop

I can't possibly agree about the Fallout example. The reason being that it makes accessing your menus rather tedious. It's a little thing but it takes a second or so from pressing [TAB] to the PC raising it's wrist for you to check the menus. After a long playtime (100 - 300 hours) you really start to resent any time where you've got to check your menus.

Since, unless you've got a specific mod, you have to access the menu to perform any kind of first aid it becomes immersion breaking to use in a fire-fight as there are no combat context sensitive animations for it. Bullets freeze in the air around you as you rather leisurely look down at your wrist.

Immersion is all well and good till it starts turning game elements into chores. Then it's actually working directly against the effect it was trying to achieve.

And it looks ugly as hell from a third person perspective.

Hurvl
Hurvl

Come to think of it, I really dislike Ubisoft's paratext - more precisely their logo's sound effect. It's too loud and too high a pitch. It's like when watching a movie on TV at a volume which is just right and then when there's a commercial break the volume increases enough *on its own* that it's suddenly a bit too loud for comfort. You then want to grab the remote and either mute the f-er or lower the volume, although then you have to raise it again when the movie starts. As if commercials weren't imposing enough, they try to force themselves on you by automatically raising the volume from what you consider just right. 

It's the same thing with Ubisoft's logo's sound effect. I can go on all day listening to different things at a volume which I consider just right and never needing to change it, but when starting a Ubisoft game the logo's sound effect is always too loud. I either then click esc or if that's not possible, I simply take off my headphones in advance, but I never need to do that with other company logo's. Thankfully, I only own one Ubisoft game: Dark Messiah.

Gr3gSolidus
Gr3gSolidus

So nice to see someone highlight the importance of the little things.

Apastron
Apastron

Irrational Games were quite clever and played the BioShock 'anthem' over the top of their logo at the start of the first game.  It doesn't mean anything to you at first but when you hear it in...Fort Frolic, I think, I found I suddenly gained more of an appreciation for the developer and their attention to detail.

oneportal
oneportal

The devil is in the details. Nice essay.

buffaloblitz85
buffaloblitz85

Like the article but... Is this really that big of a deal, I mean no game sells more based upon the paratext, but it is nice to see something else written as opposed to the same old

starduke
starduke

Well, in Elite Force the main character had a screen that went in front of his eye that was the HUD. It was actually very similar to Google Glass. It was cool when he touched the side of his head to press the button to activate it, and it popped out and went in front of his eye.

hella_epic
hella_epic

I liked Max Payne 3's menu....COD Black ops series also has really good menu's

khankalili
khankalili

Aren't you making too much of the paratext. I've never bought something because of, or not bought something because of lack of paratext (at least I don't think I have). I also have to question whether inventory systems are paratextual...in the elder scrolls it is pretty intrinsic to the game (there wouldn't be a game without an inventory, the design of it may be a different story but you could say the same of how anything looks in game). 

Besides which the logos at the start are annoying as hell. Couldn't we skip through those in previous generations of games. I start up the game and have to watch the same damn logo's of publishers/design studio's/etc every single time and am just ramming esc or enter or the mouse buttons (even though I know they won't work), because I already know they made it...it's on the damn box, it's on every advertisement...just let me skip it or give me something else if it's just a loading screen.

JamesThePrince
JamesThePrince

The loading screen for Assassin's Creed III Tyranny Of George Washington is genius! While it's loading you get to collect Apples of Eden's, keeping me busy until the game officially starts.Reason's why loading screens should have a unique feature in a game. 

Patohua1
Patohua1

Okay as a graduating film analysis major, I have to commend Gamespot for sharing an article on paratext. I didn't realize until I saw the tag on the bottom that this is written by a UK blogger, which makes a lot more sense. Paratext is taken for granted most of the time, but it's what builds our perceptions of media subconsciously and is kind of like the negative space in an art piece. I've played games where the paratext doesn't match the feel of the game and it ruins the game inexplicably. It's just one of those things that's really hard to get right, but when it is, it makes a game run so smoothly.

NylaMandisa
NylaMandisa

I loved the in-game/in-character map use of Farcry 2. Instead of opening some map menu like the majority of games, the character himself would actually pull out a paper map in one hand and a GPS/compass in the other. You could change from the large scale map to another page that was for the zone you were currently in. Loved the feature! Sadly Farcry 3 dropped the idea and went back to the boring, immersionless map in a menu.

LoG-Sacrament
LoG-Sacrament

A lot of developers are looking to minimize the HUD as much as possible, but my favorite ever is the really busy one in Metroid Prime. The narrative revolves around the television screen being Samus' visor. This allows the HUD to be part of the game world with it being connected to Samus' computer and giving relevant information. Because technology is so important for the game thematically, Retro Studios was really open to crowding up the borders of the screen to remind the player of that technology.

santinegrete
santinegrete

Singularity had some corny paratext with Rs inverted, found it charming.

leikeylosh
leikeylosh

Hard Reset has very cool in-game menus too.

Scarshi
Scarshi

Never liked the menu system of Skyrim. It seemed too technical compared to previous versions. It is a fantasy and the menu doesn't show it. Be much better if the player pulled out a scroll attached to the belt while the camera zoomed in.


If I had my own menu system, it'd be my phone from my pocket.

hastati4
hastati4

I love Borderlands 2's in-game menu, how your character appears to be looking at it as well as the player themself, and they'll make comments when the player does things like compare weapons, or browse over abilities to use skill points on. Anything to bring the game experience closer to the player is good.

adders99
adders99

This was a very informative read... I have never thought about menus etc that way! Its so true!

EdAl2112
EdAl2112

Dark Souls and Demon Souls are some of the most immersive games I have played but the Giant HUD bothered me too much. The game is definitely even more immersive and therefore better with the HUD disabled. There is no going back after you disable it.

hardeddie
hardeddie

Lucasart had some of the most creative paratext for their games.

korvus
korvus

Don't really have much to add that others haven't already said but I want to say that it's nice to see articles in Gamespot that don't revolve around the same three themes we see twice a week...Good job :)

RedLegZeff
RedLegZeff

Not sure if this falls under paratext, but one of the things I really like is when a gameworld works some game mechanics into itself. For instance, what happens when your character dies? You start back a ways, why? Most games just ask you to accept it. Assassin's creed it was you are out of sinc with your memory machine. Bioshock infinite had a weird take on this which also fit the gameworld really well. I'd even argue super mario brothers did, depending on how you interpret things. You need another magic mushroom for another trip through the magic kingdom. Oh man, flying turtles everywhere. Also explains why an Italian plumber would be there to begin with.

BlueToofGangsta
BlueToofGangsta

This was a great article. Some really interesting points. Makes you realize how much thought and energy goes into tiny details.

lindallison
lindallison

My favorite logo paratext is when you can press a button to skip it.

Gamer-Geek
Gamer-Geek

I liked how the Dirt games had interactive real-world menus.

ElFlechero
ElFlechero

One aspect of paratext that I use to instantly judge how much polish a developer put into their game: when you first boot the game, is there a screen that says "press start"? Why? Why not just throw me in a menu? Especially if after I press start, then do I have to wait for the menu to load? Irritating. If I press a different button (the one by my relaxed thumb, x on ps3 or A on xbox) does that work or does it really have to be start? Little things, little things.

BLaverock
BLaverock

@Shanks_D_Chop I'm pretty sure most people would disagree with you. Not only was the Fallout wrist-menu innovative and creative, it was easy to navigate. And like tom_cat_01 pointed out, it fit into the gameworld which enriched the game's roleplaying aspect. If you don't like waiting 1 second for the menu to pop, then you're going to resent any game. And why would you complain about action stopping when you pull out the wrist-menu? You think it's a good idea to get shot while in the menu? I'm sure a lot of people would like that... (sarcasm)

FiveStarHacker
FiveStarHacker

Funcom did something similar with the theme song to Secret World (potential spoiler) that is featured on the trailers and most notably on the log-in screen. At first I thought it was just a beautiful piece of music but I had no idea it would come to play in the game later. Even when leveling skills and gaining abilities you hear chimes that sound just familiar enough to jog your memory. It was a nice touch.

razama
razama

@buffaloblitz85  I think paratext definitely has an influnce on how well a game does. Look at the first Dead Island. Its marketing lead us to believe that the game would feature a dramatic and emotional take on the zombie genre, you know with the slow-motion-reversed cinematic commerical made for it. It definitely made people more interested in the game even though they KNEW there was no gameplay shown and the commercial wasn't promising anything in terms of how the game would actually be.

Hurvl
Hurvl

@stardukeIn Doom 3, your character takes up and holds his PDA (Personal Data Assistant, with audio logs and mission objectives) in front of his eyes before the entire screen is filled with the PDA text and menus and thus switches to PDA-mode. I think it was a nice detail, that all the info you have access to is something your character needs to look at as well, it doesn't just appear out of thin air.

razama
razama

@khankalili Any game you have ever been immersed in, you probably got immersed in it because of the tiny details. It helps make the world come alive for the player - and if you don't "notice" it well... that is actually kinda the point. All of these tiny things - marketing, subtle music, the glitch example with AC - add up and subconciously pull you more into the game. You'd only notice it if you were someone who likes to look for these things or you are the kinda person who apperciates detail. Otherwise, it is fine to just digest it whole... just know the paratext is the "Salt and pepper" to you gaming sandwhich :)

ExtremePhobia
ExtremePhobia

@khankalili You were able to skip those logos on PCs for a little while but that was usually only in games with simplified menus behind them. I don't remember ever being able to skip the "SEGA" intro. A lot of developers now use it as a means to load information up for more complex menus which now tend to require rendering of the game world to a certain extent.

And while you may never have bought a game directly because of the paratext, that doesn't mean that it hasn't influenced your enjoyment of a game in a way that influenced your buying decisions. Dead Space is a fine example of that. While you will never buy the game because of how the menus appear as holograms or the health is part of the spine of the suit, you may not have enjoyed previous installments in the series if you had to bump in and out of menus all the time which could have gotten you to buy the game.

It's unquestionably an immersion thing and immersion always has different effects on different people. In a fighting game, nobody argues the value of balance and nobody argues the value of good story in most games but immersion is one of the tougher things to handle. To some, paratext is pointless because it really is just a method of immersion (just like having chapter titles in the proper font on the top of the page is part of the immersion). But to some, it makes a more cohesive experience that wouldn't have been nearly the same otherwise.

I can't image Mega Man without that bar on the left side divided into little lines going up the screen. It's completely paratext to make it like that but you'd notice if it wasn't right.

Hurvl
Hurvl

@JamesThePrince A really old and slightly obscure example, but you made me think of the loading screens in Darkstone, an old Diablo clone. Each time you went to a different area, the loading screen showed a road being traversed in first-person and it seemed as if you got closer to that other area just by watching that screen, as if your character was the one doing the walking and that he got closer with each step. It made waiting for areas to load much less tedious.

Patohua1
Patohua1

Also, the author left out an extremely important aspect of paratext unique to the game medium: loading screens. Loading screen say a lot about a game and about its creators and are arguably the metaphorical period in the sentence structure of the storyline of a game. I've played a few games without loading screens and the temporal and spacial jumps are jarring and unsettling.

AmericanDadd
AmericanDadd

@NylaMandisa Well, actually in Farcry 3 it's a Tablet. In the jungle, lol, i know. But it's a tablet   jason has from the start and that agent (can't remember his name) uploads info to Jason via the tablet

the_bi99man
the_bi99man

@EdAl2112 I haven't gone so far as to completely disable the HUD in Dark Souls, but I do use DSfix to make it significantly smaller. I have the weapon icons removed entirely, so the bottom left corner just has the item and spell icons, and I shrunk the entire HUD to about 60% size, and made it 50% transparent. I see screenshots with the full HUD, and can't imagine going back to playing it like that.

Hurvl
Hurvl

@lindallison I always skip Ubisoft's logo because it's accompanied by a high pitch and a loud unpleasant sound. The effect it has on me is similar to when a commercial break starts and the volume automatically gets noticeably (and irritatingly) louder. I just want to mute the f*cker, but since there's no such thing in games I try to skip it by clicking or pressing a button. If that doesn't work, I take off my head phones before I start the game. I like several logo paratexts, but after seeing them 10 times, I just skip them.

the_bi99man
the_bi99man

@ElFlechero I'm not sure why so many games still cling to that, but it was originally a design left over from the arcade era. Until a player pressed start (and inserted a coin), the game would stay out of the menus, and run a demo loop, which would usually include dev/publisher logos, and shots of gameplay, eventually coming back around to that "start" screen. It was both to have something to attract the eyes of gamers walking around the arcade, and also to avoid the menu screen getting "burned in", if the machine was left idle, with nobody playing, for a long time.

Some modern games still have that entire design idea intact, including the demo loop, if you leave it running without pressing start. It is kind of puzzling with games on home consoles/machines, though. It's not like your xbox is running all day every day, in a public place, needing to attract random people to come over and play it. It's just sitting there by your TV, and if you turned it on, it's probably because you're ready to sit down and play something.

MetalDogGear
MetalDogGear

@ElFlechero 


Not to rain on your parade or anything, but. Arkham City had a press start and a load time. 


And that is one of the most polished games I've ever seen

Shanks_D_Chop
Shanks_D_Chop

@BLaverock @Shanks_D_Chop I'm pretty sure they wouldn't. The criticisms I make are not exclusively mine. I've seen them shared by many across various online communities.

I'm not sure that the Pip-Boy is particularly innovative, it's not the first time a game has had menus accessed via a player-owned item. The same then goes for creative.

It's not exactly easy to navigate, compared to sooo many other games, and this point is reinforced by the popularity of mods that alter it.

And does it fit into the gameworld? Yeah... Like a spaceship fits into a naval combat game set in the 1500s. It's also a ship, true. But it's incredibly out of place alongside every other ship present and no-one in-game ever really picks up on that.

It doesn't help with roleplaying as, even with alternate start mods (immensely popular), you still have this thing on your wrist. How? Why? There's no alternative option, it's forced on you which automatically detracts from the roleplaying/immersion value.

I never said waiting one second for the menu to pop up was in itself bad or complained outright about the action stopping while accessing said menu. I never suggested that the action should continue while you're in the menu. Learn to understand what you're reading.

My criticism is the way that the "menu-checking" never changes, despite what situation you're in. That breaks immersion.

starduke
starduke

@Hurvl It's almost like that in the Fallout games as well. I mean, you don't just magically have an inventory and whatnot, it's an item your character wears.

DigitalDame
DigitalDame moderator moderatorstaff

@Patohua1 Perhaps you'd be interested in writing a counter editorial ;)