Paratext, the term, comes from the work of Gérard Genette, a literary theorist from France. He’s contemporary to Roland Barthes, the person who coined the now-widespread term ‘death of the author.’ Genette is the indie band of mainstream literary theory, the one you namedrop to indicate you didn’t just get your academic study from channers screaming about the death of the author in threads about the sanctity of subtitles or something. The book of his you’ll want to namedrop here is Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation.
To define Paratext, first we need to define text. Text is basically, the stuff of the work. If the work is a story book, for example, the text is literally just the story from beginning to end plus all the illustrations involved. If it’s a comic book, it’s every panel, how they’re arranged, what is in them, what they say. If it’s an instruction manual, it’s again, the words that make up that set of instructions, all the illustrations explaining it. The text of a painting is, basically, just the painting itself, the image and how it expresses itself in the world. Text is, broadly speaking, easiest to nail down when you’re talking about books: The text is the stuff the author (or authors) made to tell you.
“What about videogames,” you ask, well, that’s where things get muddier and where I think I disagree with some speakers on similar theories like Dan Olsen. But let’s save that for later.
When Genette coined the idea of paratext, he focused on books. Books, boy does Genette love books. Paratext, to him, was the threshold between the text and the not-text. Your lunch isn’t part of the text, very clearly, so that gap is easy to see – but the gap between the cover of the book and the text inside it, that’s not so obvious. The title of a book? Its table of contents? Publishers’ notes? The year it was published, as information? The weight of the book, the feel of it, the type of paper? These, Genette said, were its paratext, and they were the “a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: A privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that… is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.”
Which sounds fancy, but we’ve had some years to work on it. Paratext, once the idea was established, became pretty important to how we recognise the ways in which people experience media. Genette, for example, with his loving focus on books, didn’t do a lot of good for the unsighted people in the world who have a much more limited experience of the paratext of books, but definitely have a stronger attenuation to audiobooks. So we worked on ‘paratext.’ The working definition I use is:
Paratext is media created as a requirement to experience a text
So, if we’re talking about an audiobook, the voice actor and the speaker quality and the freedom of movement it gives you while you listen is itself, part of the paratext of that book. If we’re talking about a painting, a surrounding gallery environment is part of its paratext – you need those things to experience that painting though if the painting’s location or form changed, so to could that environment.
And now we’re on to videogames.
I forward the idea that play is paratext. That is, the text of a game is the stuff that’s ‘stuck down,’ in the game, without a ludonarrative element; it’s the artwork, the models, the spaces designed, the construction and cinematography of cutscenes, the choices in editing and when and where the audience is given and loses control. That is text, but in order to experience any of that, you have to play it. You, a hypothetical you, a player, has to engage with the work and create a play experience in order to ‘see’ that text.
But then, that asks, doesn’t that make the play experience ‘not-text’? Well, sort of but also not really. It’s a threshold. Just as how the original structure of a game may work on the basic assumption you’re not going to stand still and wait for the timer to run out, there are assumptions of things that make the text a reasonable experience. You bring yourself to the table and you play, and you interpret, and in so doing, you create part of the game that’s there for the play experience.
This is part of why it’s so hard to analyse videogames in particular in terms of broad textual analysis, because a lot of people have it in their heads that there’s one singular model of how the game ‘should’ play, or two or three forking forms of it, without embracing the idea that part of the game is the player experiencing it. That competence and skill change the way a game feels, that pre-baked literacy or an absence of it changes what a game says. The ludic ballet of a speedrunner glitching around whole problems while perfectly evading random generated elements is as much the game as is the stilting steps of the first-time gamer learning how to aim and walk at the same time. What’s more, the idea of this paratextual element means we can look at things in terms of the general ways in which players tend to be pushed – we can view the play paratext in aggregate of experiences (the way lots of people create the paratext) or we can view each paratext as an individual interpretation that has potential to be interesting for consideration.
If we recognise play as paratext, we recognise ourselves as part of the creation of it. And that, that right there, is one of the most powerful things about games: Games let us create some of the text for ourselves.
By the way, Genette is still alive and I really, really hope he’s not reading this because he’s an old bloke and I doubt he gives two toots about videogames.