Unboxing Age of Empires: Paratexts and the Experience of Historical Strategy Games

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The unboxing of the iconic real-time strategy game Age of Empires (1997) at the time of its release was, like many video games of the 90s, a ritual experience. This unboxing, and in particular the exploration of its contents, remains unique in terms of video game packaging, which has since transitioned away from large-scale containers complete with manuals, leaflets, and CD-ROMs to DVD formats and, more recently, digital download keys and online distribution platforms. The unique nature of the experience can be put down to paratextual experimentation on the part of game developers, who, in the case of Age of Empires, drew on existing tabletop game peripherals, the iconography of historical novels and film, and early computing manuals. The resulting combination of game manual, technology tree, and detailed packaging established the potential for playful exploration, not only of the game’s rules and systems beyond its digital space, but also its historical content and concepts. While scholars have considered how in-game paratexts extend the gameworld beyond its technical confines, the paratexts for Age of Empires offer an insight into the materiality of early historical video games, including how different paratexts were deployed by the developers, how they could be exploited by players, and how, through sustained usage, such playful materialities have been incorporated into the virtual worlds of recent games.
Developments in the theory of paratexts have revealed their potential beyond those originally sketched by Genette, with media scholars considering the framing effects of paratexts around a range of fictional experiences, including the way in which they can generate their own storyworlds. In this contribution, I will further expand upon the relationship between paratexts and audiences by considering the imaginative, historiographical, and action-orientated possibilities raised by the paratexts of Age of Empires, as well as player responses to these. For the imaginative, I will explore how the manual, which includes embedded narratives, screen shots, and behind-the-scenes sketches of the game’s developmental process, acts as a bridge between the production of historical experiences, the historical imagination of the player, and the gameworld. For the historiographical, I am interested in how the game manual and technology tree construct spaces to explore historical progress, cultural relations, and ethical engagements with the past, which complement but also extend the experience of the game. For action-orientated possibilities, I will detail how the manual and technology tree offers players the possibility to hone both their technical understanding and mastery of the game, as well as develop their strategic understanding of its historical simulation. The self-contained nature of the game’s paratexts suggest they are less peripherals and more a central part of the playable experience, with the manual and technology tree comprehensive enough to enable players to formulate tactics (within limits) that can then be applied to campaigns. I conclude by considering how subsequent historical strategy games, including the recent Definitive Edition of Age of Empires (2018), incorporate these functionalities into the game itself, thus removing the need for material paratexts while preserving the core functions they performed.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationParatextualizing Games
Subtitle of host publicationInvestigations on the Paraphernalia and Peripheries of Play
EditorsBenjamin Beil, Gundolf S. Freyermuth , Hanns Christian Schmidt
PublisherBerlin: Transcript Verlag
Number of pages34
ISBN (Electronic) 978-3-8394-5421-3
ISBN (Print) 978-3-8376-5421-9
Publication statusPublished - 3 Nov 2021

Publication series

NameStudies of Digital Media Culture
Publishertranscript Verlag

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Material Texts
  • Institute of Greece, Rome, and the Classical Tradition


  • Video Games
  • History
  • Age of Empires
  • Paratexts
  • Media
  • Popular culture < Digital/media literacies
  • Media Studies


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