Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a popular English idiom for a reason: we’re prone to judging things based on first impressions, especially in the arts. Covers, titles, forwards, and acknowledgments are just some of the materials that shape our perception of a work, even though they’re not part of the work itself.1 These materials are what’s known as paratext: the elements that surround a work to introduce, promote, and contextualize it. While the study of paratext is relatively new, originating with late-twentieth-century literary scholar Gérard Genette2, paratext itself dates back to our earliest works of art. The titles of plays gave audiences some idea of what might unfold on the stage, as did the actors and writers involved in the performance. While the concept of paratext has expanded with time, its function remains the same: to familiarize an audience with a work of art.
Like other creative works, video games have their own kinds of paratext. Some forms of paratext exist in the games themselves, while others support the game from a distance. Internal paratexts like menus, loading screens, credits, and game-over screens all influence the way players experience the game3; external paratexts like the box art, advertising copy, and promotions introduce the game and (ideally) entice people to play it. Although internal and external paratexts often come from different sources (creators/developers and publishers/marketers, respectively), they’re all authorized by the people who hold the rights to the intellectual property. Conversely, unofficial paratexts are works that influence how people perceive a game without the explicit authorization of the IP holder. Reviews, critiques, fan works, and social media posts can all serve the same function as paratexts in their own right, regardless of who created them and what their intentions were. With sufficient support, such unauthorized works can be as influential as the authorized materials explicitly designed to supplement the game. It’s a theory supported by English professor Steven A. Jones, author of “The Meaning of Video Games: Gaming and Textual Strategies,” whose study of video game paratext led him to conclude that “…Once you look at today’s games and game-like media entertainments, it’s all paratext, in concentric circles rippling out into the world.”4
Types of Paratext
Games Discussed: Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996), Donkey Kong Country (Nintendo/Rareware, 1994), Dark Souls (FromSoftware, Series), Bloodborne (FromSoftware, 2015)
For those who play video games regularly, in-game paratexts like launch menus and loading screens have become so familiar that they’re almost invisible. Indeed, it’s easy to dismiss them, as they rarely impact the gameplay or the story. What they do impact are the player’s perceptions and experiences. A survival horror game like Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996) will have a very different tone than a lighthearted platformer like Donkey Kong Country (Nintendo/Rareware, 1994), and the paratext has to reflect that. Hence, Resident Evil and Donkey Kong Country’s title screens look very different, even though they serve the same function in-game. In Resident Evil, the blue-tinted title screen features an extreme close-up of a human eyeball, something most players are likely to find discomforting or disturbing. Conversely, in Donkey Kong Country, the brightly-colored title screen shows Donkey and Diddy Kong swinging through the banana trees. Just as Resident Evil’s title screen set players up to experience disquieting horror, Donkey Kong County’s title screen promises them exhilarating platforming action. Without so much as a second of gameplay, players know what to expect from both games, thus proving the power of paratext.
Compelling images can quickly create context for an unfamiliar game, but there are other ways for developers to communicate through players via paratext. For example, in FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series, players who teleport from one place to another are treated to snippets of information about the various items they’ll encounter through the game. Some of these descriptions offer gameplay advice, while others give insight into the world of the game and its inhabitants. These paratextual descriptions were so well received by players that when FromSoftware released Bloodborne in 2015, players complained about the comparatively empty loading screens that littered the game. A subsequent patch not only improved the load times but also brought back the paratextual item descriptions, much to the delight of From’s fans5. To them, the paratext was as much a part of the experience as the gameplay, as it allowed them to immerse themselves into the game at a deeper level.
Games Discussed: DOOM (ID Software, 1993), Mass Effect 3 (BioWare/Electronic Arts, 2012)
Paratext that exists outside of a work, also known as external paratext, has the job of compelling prospective players to purchase the product. In video games, eternal paratexts range from game boxes and merchandise to advertisements and trailers: different tools, but made with the same purpose in mind. They build excitement in the minds of potential players by delivering critical information about the game, including (but not limited to): genre, tone, difficulty, and target audience. Using the classic first-person DOOM (Id Software, 1993) as an example, the iconic box art promises a game filled with guns, demons, and muscular men committing acts of violence. Likewise, the 1994 ad copy makes a similar promise, saying: “Satanic demons, lost souls, fire-breathing monsters—You may be spooked, but you sure won’t be lonely.”6 It’s a pitch that leaves out more than it puts in, but it works because it captures the spirit of the title while appealing to the type of person most likely to buy it. Anyone who sees the ad expects it to live up to the promise of the paratext. If it does, players are happy; if it doesn’t, it might be the paratext that’s the problem.
One of the most famous examples of promotional paratext misleading players occurred in 2012 when BioWare and Electronic Arts (EA) released the final chapter of the Mass Effect saga, Mass Effect 3. According to GameSpot, who covered Mass Effect 3’s launch and its aftermath, promotional material for the game included the promise that player’s choices would “…completely shape your experience and outcome,” resulting in “…radically different ending scenarios.”7 When player choices ended up having a limited impact on the outcome of the story, players who purchased and completed the game came away with the feeling that they had been misled. Some outspoken fans went so far as to take their case to the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)8, believing they were entitled to compensation for the money spent. Although the ASA ultimately exonerated EA, the bad publicity and player frustration that resulted from the broken promise shows how detrimental a disconnect between paratext and text can be.
Unauthorized: Commentary and Creation
Games Discussed: Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix, 1995)
Commercials and box art are designed for selling games, but they’re not the only things that influence game sales. Audience-created paratext, also known as unauthorized paratext, can have just as much of an influence on purchasing and perception as paratext created by the IP holders. In the paratextual study “Show Sold Separately,” author Jonathan Gray details the breadth of the category, saying: “In its most common form, this audience paratextuality occurs anytime two or more people discuss a film or television program, but audience paratextuality also includes criticism and reviews, fan fiction, fan film and video (vids), “filk” (fan song), fan art, spoilers, fan sites, and many other forms.9” Indeed, audience-created paratext encompasses almost every work a person can create in response to an original creation, so long as it influences the way people perceive that creation.
Since the correlation between audience-created paratext and game sales is difficult to define, creators have mixed feelings on how much unauthorized material should exist in support of their works. Reviews and conversations are difficult to control, though some developers have tried. In 2016, Skyrim-developer Bethesda announced they would no longer be sending out advanced copies of their games to reviews, stating: “We want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time.”10 Although Bethesda relaxed this policy11 a short time later, it still speaks to the desire creators have for control over how their creations are perceived. Publishers are particularly adamant about shutting down works that infringe on their IPs, as Square-Enix did when it shut down the fan-made 3D Chrono Trigger remake, Chrono Resurrections.12 While publishers have numerous legal and economic reasons for shutting down fan projects that get too large, they’re also concerned with how those projects will affect players’ perceptions of their properties. In doing so, they’re admitting the power of paratext, authorized or otherwise.
Paratext plays an essential role in how we experience video games. Whether we’re preparing to enter a game world from its main menu, deciding which game to buy from its box art, or reading fanfic about a game we’ve already played, we’re letting paratext shape our perceptions of the work. Writers who wish to create lasting impressions on players should consider when to introduce paratext, how to use it, and how audience paratext can expand their work .
StoryScan: Resident Evil Village: Setup & Payoff
Narrative Analysis: Influences & Inspirations
Artists find inspiration in other creative works, both inside and outside their medium.
StoryScan: Chrono Cross and Plot
Chrono Cross’s story struggles to get off the ground due to a lack of goals, stakes, and urgency.
1-2 R. Nassor. “How We Sell Stories: A Brief History of Paratext.” BookRiot, 2021.
3 Harvie, Steven. “The Paratext of Video Games.” FirstPersonScholar, 2017.
4 Jones, Steven E.. The Meaning of Video Games (p. 43). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
5 Harvie, Steven. “The Paratext of Video Games.” FirstPersonScholar, 2017.
6 Official Magazine Advertisement from Magazine Advertisements. GamePro (International Data Group, United States), Issue 65 (December 1994). Courtesy of MobyGames.
7-8 Sinclair, Brendan. “Mass Effect 3 ending OK’d by UK ad bureau.” GameSpot, 2012.
9 Gray, Jonathan; Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately (p. 143). NYU Press. Kindle Edition.
10 Gault, Matthew. “Video Game Reviews Are Broken.” Medium, 2016.
11 @DanStapleton. “They’re back to giving out copies a few days early. Not as far in advance as I’d like, but a big improvement.” Twitter, 2017.
12 “Chrono Resurrection.” Wikipedia, 2021.
* Reference Footage (Resident Evil): TurkishBullet19. “Resident Evil (PlayStation) – (Longplay – Jill Valentine | Best Ending Path).” YouTube, 2013.
** Reference Footage (Chrono Resurrection) ĮνąҚιŗąX™. Chrono Resurrection Trailer HD. YouTube, 2013.