If the paratext of Borderlands 2 looks like anything, it’s a gun. This has already been more or less established by other critics, knowingly or not. That being said, I don’t blame anybody for not knowing what the hell paratext is. When I first learned about it, it wasn’t even explained to me properly. But I’ll do my best to sum things up.
Now, literary theorist Gérard Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation was certainly not written with respect to Borderlands 2, or any game, for that matter. What Genette was describing had to do with the framing mechanisms around a piece of literary work—a novel, or poetry, for instance—that help us to interpret the work’s content. This could refer to internal mechanisms, like cover art or chapters, which Genette identified as the “peritext” of the work. On the other hand, there are external forces that help us interpret a work as well—things like interviews, reviews, conversations and letters. This, Genette calls the “epitext.”
All that being said, I think it’s possible to abstract this theory of “paratext” beyond its application to literary work and use it to talk about the framing devices used for other art forms, like games. In fact, because games rely so much on mechanisms and systems to communicate meaning to players, I think it may be profoundly valuable for us to understand what paratext is and how it can apply to games.
Why does the paratext of Borderlands 2 matter?
Because Borderlands 2 made me cry, and I don’t think it was supposed to.
I don’t really care to talk about the game’s narrative. The game, as Yannick LeJacq points out, doesn’t seem to take its own narrative seriously anyway. Although much of the subject matter is dark and genuinely upsetting, the game is framed in an ironic, self-aware, excessive way. This in itself is a “peritextual” framing device: the veneer of self-referential humour and excessiveness influences how we interpret the subject matter.
The fact that quest stories are fairy negligible can also be considered a part of the game’s peritext: while I will get the gist of the game’s overall narrative by triggering dialogue after completing certain objectives, I can generally ignore subplots or specific details that don’t really help me proceed through the game. Shoot it till it dies, get better equipment. Shoot the next thing more efficiently next time. Get better stuff. And repeat.
There’s a kind of emptiness that the game creates that it then tries to fill, but never really can. As Patricia Hernandez and Brendan Keogh have both touched on, Borderlands 2 can actually be defined by its economy: one that not only entraps you in an overtly capitalistic system where equipment becomes obsolete not long after it’s acquired—but actually defines itself in terms of brands and the characteristics of the weapons you control.
These commentaries—what we might call a part of the game’s “epitext”—make it difficult and complicated for me to talk about sobbing at the unexpected death of a character.
It wasn’t a human character. Death is common in Borderlands 2. It’s used as a pretext for jokes, or plot progression, or as a relatively easy way to punctuate the game’s amusing hyperbole with a sense of drama. Most of these deaths get deleted from my mental inventory quicker than I rid myself of excess guns. But then the game killed Bloodwing—brutally, abruptly, and almost without necessity. Bloodwing, the hawk that accompanies the hunter class character, Mordecai, in the first game, gets kidnapped by arch-villain Handsome Jack. Bloodwing gets experimented upon and mutated. Bloodwing, rabid and frantic and now full of evil, is transformed into a boss that my fellow players and I must fight.
We’re given a glimpse of hope that we can save her. As she cycles through the different elemental abilities she has been given—ones analogous to elemental abilities possessed by many of the game’s weapons—hurling corrosive acid and electric shocks and fire at us, Mordecai insists that if we can just tire her out he can tranquilize her and maybe cure her. Mordecai—and the rest of us—have forgotten one thing. And then Handsome Jack reminds us: the explosive ability.
And there goes Bloodwing’s swollen head, in a million little pieces, in front of my eyes.
And there it is: Handsome Jack killed my bird. The epitext of this moment feels both ridiculous and overwhelming to me: I played Mordecai in the first game. I was attached to that character, and to his special ability. I have memories of fighting alongside my bird, of winning battles, of ranking her up. It was as if she levelled up with me, next to me, as a companion.
That motherfucker killed my bird. I don’t really care what the story is. The game has instilled me with a different kind of emptiness—one that can only be resolved by a bullet to Handsome Jack’s brain.
I’ve cooled off since, but reflecting on this reaction I detect another kind of epitext. My experiences with the first game obviously had a profound effect on how I would behave with the second one, and in ways I didn’t expect. Between the three of us who were playing, I was the only one that had actually spent time playing Mordecai in the first Borderlands. I was the only one that had forged that virtual attachment.
It feels absurd to talk about Borderlands at all in terms of a genuine emotional experience. It seems framed in almost every way to promote the absolute opposite. And yet, the same framing devices—both from within and without the game—are the ones that surprised me into shedding actual tears (ones that I no doubt tried to hide from my teammates). They made me want to kill the villain—of getting the satisfaction of doing it myself—almost regardless of the game’s narrative.
If we were to have an extended conversation about epitext in video games, I might bring up things like Eric Zimmerman’s concept of “meta-interactivity,” which involves the discussion surrounding a particular piece of media, how people express and share their ideas about that media with each other, and so on. I would talk not only about critiques and commentaries, but personal stories, fanfiction, mods, and the list goes on. But what I think is really interesting, in my own experience, is how unpredictable paratext can ultimately be. There is simply no way of knowing all the diverse and nuanced experiences people will have with their games until those experiences have taken place. And, once expressed, those narratives can influence how other people interpret that game as well.
Particularly in an interactive medium, which relies so much on player input, illusions of agency, dynamic environments and feedback from a system, the possible narratives people can form around a game are almost infinite. Not only are we informed by an epitext—in the form of ads, word-of-mouth, personal experiences, expectations, and the critical stuff I listed earlier—but the peritext of games can have a strikingly different and unique effects on individual players. Even a player’s familiarity with the specific device could determine which objectives are met, and which are passed by. Maybe they’ll have different levels of experience with a keyboard and mouse, which will influence how they proceed through a quest. Maybe I won’t trigger that piece of dialogue, or find that radio recording, or do that mission. Maybe someone else will.
Maybe I’ll come into Borderlands 2 with this epitextual, experiential and emotional baggage I acquired in the first one. Maybe that will have had an effect on me I won’t even understand until wiping hot tears away and asking my teammates if I can get the killshot at the end of the game. Save it for me. I need to do this myself. Let the fucker taunt us while he still has time.
In my first playthrough, I didn’t actually get the killshot. Someone else forgot what I had asked and took the shot kneejerkedly while my back was turned. It was almost as though Hernandez’s “vicious circle” experience with Borderlands 2—one that revolved around loot upgrades—took on a different meaning for me. The ultimate upgrade for me would have been the closure of revenge, but Borderlands 2 doesn’t let me do that. I’m here, in my second playthrough, still looking for better loot, still levelling and re-speccing and weighing one class mod against another.
But the way that the overall paratext of this game works, I can replay it infinitely. I will reach the same endgame a hundred times in a row after seeing Bloodwing’s head blow off a hundred times in a row. Out of all those playthroughs, I can keep getting chances at killing the handsome bastard. Will I get my chance this time? Will it mean as much to me to go through those motions again? Will revenge at the barrel of a gun fill up the emptiness that Borderlands 2 has created?
Or will it feel unfulfilling, and meaningless, and absurd, like its paratext tells me it should?
About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.
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