Decipher The Unexpected Hurt

The undressing of an emotional pain in Borderlands 2 with a paratextual lens.

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Criticism Experiential Shooters


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?

[art credit]

Filed Under: Criticism Experiential Shooters

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.

9,695 Responses to “Decipher The Unexpected Hurt”

  1. Elizabeth

    This is shit problematic writing. It’s a vague attempt to add credibility to the author’s personal experience without actually utilizing the literary device of paratextuality to evaluate the game. Instead she uses it to evaluate her experience, which doesn’t make any sense and isn’t helpful.

      • Elizabeth

        Obviously personal experience is important and you can’t prove the credibility of it in the first place, like you can’t prove the credibility of emotional reactions – they just are.
        My problem was with the name-dropping of a literary theory to try to elevate an otherwise generally commonplace piece about personal experience to a more academic level – in order to try to make it a more relevant analysis. This, without properly thinking through the implications of paratextuality when applied to videogames and making a coherent argument/explanation for its application.

  2. Ron Sweeney

    I’m interested in this idea that in a game like Borderlands, the quest/narrative is paratext. It connects in interesting ways to what Genette says about the “threshold” and the “undefined zone” between inside and outside. This seems especially relevant in a game titled Borderlands.

    • Elizabeth

      Perhaps I have misunderstood his meaning, but how the quest/narrative paratext and not just text. And how does it connect in interesting ways to the “undefined zone” between inside and outside when it is a part of the game? Because games are so different from books an assertion of this kind would require much more in-depth analysis and explanation.
      Also, to your response to my previous comment, I was not suggesting that paratext is not affect – but that it is affect with intent coming from either inside or outside the text in the form of specific elements meant to influence the reader/player etc. Ms. Polansky’s experience playing the first game is not epitextual, it is simply personal experience, not even connected to a peritextual element of the game, or at least not one that was well elucidated.

      • Ron Sweeney

        Chapter titles are an example of this from Genette: they are inside/outside. The quests–names, titles, text–may function this way. I don’t believe this is true of all games, but the “story” of a game like Diablo III (using an example I’ve actually played) can be understood as peripheral to the text that is the game itself.

        • Elizabeth

          Right, I was initially thinking of chapter titles, but then got snagged on just how different a traditional literary text is from the “text” of a game. A chapter title is intended to add meaning to the text. I suppose a quest could also assume this function (e.g. serve to broaden one’s understanding of the game’s world) but I think this is undermined by the fact that it is a “quest” with it’s own material end.

          Either way, and this may have to do somewhat with my general absence from discussions of literary elements of games, but I think that it is very difficult to take a work that evaluates a literary text, i.e. novel, and apply it directly to something as dissimilar as a videogame without explaining how that jump is made and which elements of each are corresponding.

  3. Yann Best

    I’ve been umming and ahhing about posting here, both as I don’t want to come across as the sort of cock who comes in whinging about a piece because it dares to approach things from an academic, and because I genuinely enjoyed reading it. In the end I’ve opted not to stay silent, and I hope the author will forgive me for it.

    Relevant personal information: I come to this from a literary criticism background, but an ancient one – one where we don’t tend to talk of paratexts or such things, as it’s rather hard to form one when the works you are analysing may only exist on a couple of sets of fragments. Rather, we tended to consider texts from broader contexts – the time and place it came from – the expected knowledge of a contemporary reader – if you were reading the Aeneid, you would probably know the Homeric epics and be able to see how it related to them – and any intertextuality that we could divine. This may well be the reason for my issues with this article – it may just be that I lack the necessary background to engage with it properly.

    Preamble out of the way, my issue was this:

    The opening discussion of the game’s ironic framing, and of the driving capitalist ‘narrative’ as revealed through criticism, were interesting to read about; to these I could understand the allusions to the paratextual lens, as clearly the game would be interpreted differently without the ironic presentation made apparent by the game’s trailers,* and I can see how on playing through the game following a reading of the commentaries on its systems would colour the player’s interpretation of the game.**

    The core ‘story’ told in this article, meanwhile, is engaging and interesting: seeing how the specific experiences which will be common to a subset of players of Borderlands can influence their response to Borderlands 2 is fascinating, and an insight into how the implementation of recurring characters in a story, combined with multiple character choices, can allow for strong and divergent emotional responses – even in a series in which the plot is more of a light garnish than anything else. But I could not see the relevance of paratext to this major section of the article. It was a great example of the power of context, and of how games with multiple choices*** enable people to have different, yet controlled contexts from which to engage with the world. However, these were examples of intertextuality,**** surely, not paratextuality. They are, after all, wrought from an immediate predecessor – another ‘book’, in the terms of literary criticism – rather than orbiting referential works.

    Perhaps I’m entirely wrong, but to me it seemed, once I got to this section, that the idea of paratextuality was being pushed to places where it didn’t really need to apply – where the concepts it stands for (of the powerful influence of the seemingly-incidental elements of, and ephemera surrounding, a work) weren’t really the issue at all. It just felt as though it and its associated were being forced into the article, where they sat and served no real purpose.

    If this all sounds rather nitpicky, that’s because it is. The fact is, I’m not a huge fan of jargon generally (says the person who’s just filled a comment box with all sorts of twisty lingo), and believe it should only be used sparingly, when absolutely necessary. In this case it seems to have been used not only where it was unnecessary – that story, and the analysis of it, was fantastic without it – but where it may even be incorrect to use it. And so I felt compelled to comment.

    Again, it’s not my intention to insult or to slight. I may well be incorrect, too, as my understanding of paratext is untaught, and so liable to be flawed. If that is the case, I look forward to being corrected myself. But I found this article so frustrating – in managing to engage me and yet push me away at the same time – that I felt compelled to comment.

    PS – this came out longer and duller than I realise. My apologies for the overly-tedious prose!

    *though I know not whether I would agree to call this peritextual – what part of this is separate from the ‘text’ proper?
    **this I would agree entirely as being an application of paratextual theory, with this a clear example of epitext influencing the player’s interpretation of the work.
    ***even where those choices are merely the selection of a character
    ****or perhaps that should be intratextuality? You don’t really get works classed as sequels in the ancient world, so I’m not sure if being part of a franchise should mean all works within it are considered one text for interpretation, rather than separate entities.

  4. Craig Wilson

    That’s an interesting moment from Borderlands 1/2 I wouldn’t have expected to find. I love it when comedies sneek in a little drama.

    I like this idea of epitext and paratext when applied to Braid, a game with which I’m more familiar. Braid itself is paratext ripe (structured into chapters/worlds with introduction texts/title cards) and then there’s the messy epitext of different theories and Blow’s interviews etc. Ostensibly Braid is not complete without attempting to unravel its intentional ambiguity, i.e. studying both paratext and epitext.

    Hopefully I’ve got that right…

  5. Ethan Gach

    I think this peice is good because it makes an interesting connection that proves fertile grounds for further cultivation.

    Further cultivation/exploration of the intersection of games and paratext might be in the form of, as some have noted below, how paratextual elements can work to “control one’s whole reading of the text,” rather than incidentally inform it.

    People will have different in-game experiences, and different reactions to what they encounter, much more so than in other forms of entertainment/art. The heightened interactivity of games is nothing new.

    But how precisely the paratextual elements surrounding a game can corral multiple players from different contexts into a similar interpretation or experience of a game seems like it could be a more interesting road to travel down in the future.

    And to do that, the analogous video game elements which constitute a video game’s paratext could stand to be nailed down a little tighter. That’s not to say that the barriers are hard and fast. But at least in your application of them, they don’t appear to be clearly distinguishable from other video game mechanics/qualities in such a way that they lead to new analytic/critical insights.

    All of which is to say that this is a good and interesting first stab, but not a problem free one, and I look forward to you writing more on the subject.

  6. Anthony Burch

    I’m surprised you thought the emotional impact of this moment was unintentional — we very specifically chose to kill off Bloodwing and Roland because of the connections players may have had with those characters from the first game.

    While the game itself is full of irony and absurdity, we did want moments like this one or all the stuff in Angel’s chamber to actually hit you in the gut and elicit, well, the exact emotional response you had. Almost, like, word-for-word (I recall throwing around the phrase “make them want to put a bullet in Jack’s brain for what he’s done to [character]” during development).

    • James Hawkins

      Anthony – thanks for the comment!

      I don’t want to speak for Lana here, but I gleaned, from her prose, that the unexpectedness and intensity of her reaction might be more than she believed the game was meant to give. From your comment, it seems to be an example of you shooting to weave some deeply upsetting moments into the boisterous, self-effacing nature of the narrative, and reaching that feat with a player beyond what was expected.

    • Barclay Hanks

      Authorial Intention is a very difficult, if not impossible, thing to write about in criticism. The critic has to let the work speak for itself, generally, then describe how effect x is achieved by y. I think Polansky accomplishes this, while discussing how it is a surprising moment considering the context of the rest of the game. Intention doesn’t really factor into the criticism, one way or the other. In this case your intention and the way the game has been analysed matches up, so that’s awesome.

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