Week 2, barnyard

This is an edition of Robin Sloan’s video game development diary.

Welcome: to returning readers as well as everyone newly subscribed. If you missed it, week 1 sets up the motivation behind this project.

The k in the headine at the top of the page is just as wonky this week as it was last week.

We shelter in its wonkiness.


Wot I got

After this week’s writing and typography work, I have got: a prototype game, totally raw and minimal, newly in possession of an opening chapter that sets you off on your quest. In addition, I have the beginnings of a larger understanding of the world of the game.


You set up a little factory

I will be candid: it was a challenging week! From my notes:

The writing: really really hard! Figuring out HOW to write for this game specifically. Form and content emerging together.

There’s a reason people don’t do this! It sucks!

A good reason, btw, to lean on genre a little. Hold one variable steady while the rest whirl around.

I’ve produced enough writing of different shapes and sizes that I can say, with confidence: this is how it goes. But, just as the recognition of depression doesn’t magically make you not depressed, the recognition of the creative task I have set for myself doesn’t magically make it not… a task

Happily, this particular kind of challenge is front-loaded. Once you successfully invent the Way in Which You Are Going to Write, you’re off to the races, and the material can stack up very quickly, since it is, after all, just text. Working on Neo Cab, it took a long time to determine what a single “ride” was supposed to be… and thereafter, about a day to draft one, start to finish.

In my notes this week, I also wrote:

The challenge, in any of these projects, is making the inchoate into “a thing you can do.” A widget you can produce.

The appeal of not only genre but format—even a format as broad as “a blog post” or “a newsletter”—is that the production of More Stuff becomes “a thing you can do,” step by step. You determine the shape of your widget. You set up a little factory. It’s nice.

This week, I was digging my factory’s foundations. Possibly in a swamp.

I have a Ruby script that watches my Ink files—the “source code” for the game’s branching story, which looks a bit like a movie script—and, when it detects I’ve updated one, slurps it up and drops it into the prototype, which I can access in my web browser.

So the rhythm of the week was:

  1. Work on the opening chapter in Inky, sometimes only changing a few words, then

  2. bounce over to the browser to tap through what I’d just written, testing the flow, the feel.

I want to talk more about that flow and feel, but first I need to tell you

Why text in games is bad

For me, when text in games is bad, it’s because of pacing: because video game makers can’t bring themselves to just blorp the words onto the screen.

The game Night in the Woods relies on text to communicate its whole story, and its creators obviously made specific, thoughtful choices about typography and presentation. The treatment is unquestionably “good.”

And yet!

Watching these text bubbles unfurl, I feel my attention constantly bumping up against the end of the line:

Night in the Woods

Now: I’ll allow that I am a very fast reader. But I’m not alone! In the year 2020, a lot of people spend a lot of time reading a lot of text on screens. We just chew this stuff up, almost every moment of every day.

Here’s another text treatment that is perfectly “good.” In the latest Zelda game, the text zips onto the screen, fading in a few syllables at a time:

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

For me, it is just wayyy toooo slowww. Now, in Zelda—as in most games—you can press a button to accelerate the text’s animation, which theoretically addresses my complaint, except that I end up playing these games constantly tapping B-B-B-B-B-B, lending the experience an unpleasant undercurrent of agitation: yeah-yeah-yeah, more-more-more.

I have an opinion, perhaps not fully defensible but nevertheless firmly held: this whole approach is fundamentally broken.

When we read, whether it’s on the page or the screen, our eyes don’t move in a smooth continuous motion. They do not, and cannot, track the animated assembly of a line of text.

Rather, our gaze shifts sharply from point to point, making little jumps which have a delicious name: “saccades.” Saccades work great with a text block (like the text of this newsletter); your eyes jump however quickly they need to jump, and the text always “shows up” right on time, because it’s already there.

But when a line of text appears gradually, as in both examples above, I believe it messes with those saccades. Your gaze is ready to jump, but there’s nowhere to go. There will be, in just a moment—not even half a second. But for that half second, you are waiting. Every half second: you are waiting.

(My understanding of this biology comes from Stanislas Dehaene’s book Reading in the Brain, which I am overdue to reread. As you might suspect: reading a book… about how you read books… starts to feel kinda weird, in a good way.)

(Fun fact: you are functionally blind during a saccade!)

I think video game makers resist blorping whole lines of text onto the screen because it feels raw; “unpolished.” In a modern video game, you can, like, make text coalesce out of glowing particles! Don’t you want to make text coalesce out of glowing particles?? Of course you do.

I contend that you should not. Make the magic sword coalesce. The text? Blorp it.

(This should not be construed as an argument against all text animation. As long as it’s instantly available for reading, you can wave it around however you want. I am a entirely pro-WiggleTech™!)

For an example of fully blorped text—and, really, a kind of prototype for the text treatment in Perils of the Overworld—you can tap through my app Fish, which is free. (There is a Windows version, which I never did figure out how to distribute properly. I’ll happily email you a download link if you send me a note at robin@robinsloan.com.)

For a quick demo that doesn’t require an app download, you can try tapping or clicking the link below, which will launch a tiny Fish-like experience. I coded this up very very quickly, and it might not work in your browser, but, let’s find out:

Give it a try.

Sound snack

In each newsletter, I’ll include a bit of the game’s music and its production.

Here is Jesse’s first draft of a cue intended for the moment when the player is faced with a decision. This has the distinction of being the first bit of audio I added to the game, and when it played, it made the text absolutely come alive:

Details, old and new

Typography plays out on at least two scales. Here’s Jost Hochuli in his book Detail in Typography:

While macrotypography—the typographic layout—is concerned with the format of the printed matter, with the size and position of the columns of type and illustrations, with the organization of the hierarchy of headings, subheading and captions, detail typography is concerned with the individual components—letters, letterspacing, words, wordspacing, lines and linespacing, columns of text. These are the components that graphic or typographic designers like to neglect, as they fall out the area that is normally regarded as “creative.”

You should see the examples in this book: text arranged with such care that it just feels… solid. Like you could eat dinner on top of it. Build a city on top of it. A civilization. And of course, the typesetting of the book itself is gorgeous. The whole thing is super-slim, just 64 pages. A treasure.

But:

Text does not have to be typographically perfect to be amazing. In fact, I’d argue that, for most of the history of video game typography, it has been its monstrous flaws—the result of punishing technical limitations—that made it so wonderful!

Here’s one of my absolute favorite books, in any genre, of the past several years: Arcade Game Typography by Toshi Omagari.

Arcade Game Typography

It is a compendium of vintage video game alphabets, every page packed with incredible solutions to totally unreasonable technical and typographical problems. Alongside its archival and aesthetic value, the book’s great draw is Omagari’s mini-micro capsule reviews of these typefaces. He is a world-class type designer himself, and he judges what he sees with a totally winning blend of good-humored generosity and frigid appraisal.

Arcade Game Typography mini-micro capsule review

Arcade Game Typography, Toshi Omagari

Above: “The result was a set of unique but mediocre typefaces, all three of which should be dismissed as bad fonts on a practical level. However, they have a certain charm that is difficult to disregard.” 😅

Arcade Game Typography mini-micro capsule review

Arcade Game Typography, Toshi Omagari

Above: “…the designer has managed to compress lots of complex detail into each pixel.” It’s really a lovely typeface, isn’t it? 👏

Arcade Game Typography mini-micro capsule review

Arcade Game Typography, Toshi Omagari

Above: “Nearly every letter has something wrong with it” 💀

Of course, video games don’t operate under these blocky, graph-paper constraints anymore. Modern software is capable of rendering typography that is, basically, perfect.

So, I contend that video game makers need to pick a path. Either

It is my estimation that most video games—Zelda included—hover somewhere in the space between those two aesthetic stations, offering typography that is, in fact, pretty good, which means it has none of the raw charm of the Omagari-verse but/and also lacks the foundational feeling of truly great typesetting.

Obviously I am aiming for the latter in POTO.

The shape of things to come

This week, in addition to writing, I spent perhaps a bit too much time evaluating typefaces.

Said every writer from the year 1984 onward.

I had been prototyping the game in Vollkorn, which is a basically perfect serif, offered for free; miraculous. I used Vollkorn in Fish, and it has a sturdiness—a little extra weight?—that really works on screen. I would not bet against Vollkorn appearing in the final product; its only weakness is its italic, which is, for me, not quite swoopy enough.

But what about a typeface for titles?

This week’s big surprise was Elfreth, a brand-new font that seemed, upon first encounter, almost comically well-suited to this project. But then… it just didn’t do anything for me!

Elfreth typeface demo

I cycled through a few other fonts with these ~fantasy~ vibes—some new, some old—and they all fell flat. I find myself drawn to weirder type.

There’s the wonkiness of Refraktury, of course, which provides this page’s headline.

There’s the variability of Seraphs. The sweeping morphs demonstrated on its specimen website suggest some interesting possibilities for text animation, subtle and not…

There’s also Scott Vander Zee’s Scotch Genovese:

Scotch Genovese typeface demo

Scotch Genovese, by Scott Vander Zee

I really can’t get over how much I like this font—but/and a huge part of its appeal is the ways in which it seems “off” to me. If you’ll excuse the snooty metaphor, it’s like a very funky cheese, or a glass of wine with a “barnyard” note: something is a little bit wrong… which is exactly what makes it right.

Here’s the type specimen that first commanded my attention. UGH it’s so GREAT:

Scotch Genovese specimen

Scotch Genovese, by Scott Vander Zee

And there’s something interesting, isn’t there, about a typeface that cuts against genre? It’s straightforward to set the title of your fairy-tale book in Medieva, like so:

Hero Legends of the World

And… to be fair… that book is perfect. But the typeface doesn’t actually do anything, does it? Beyond affirm, “Yep! This is exactly the kind of thing you thought it was!”

Anyway, that’s all to say, I haven’t selected my final typefaces, but I do think I have them here among my candidates. Right now, for the main text, I’m using the trial version of GT Alpina; go check out that italic. Grilli Type is a dream—possibly my favorite foundry in the world. In recent years, I’ve used their typeface GT America for a dozen different things, from websites to olive oil zines. So, speaking of cutting against genre:

GT America typeface demo

Remember: the first words you see on the screen in Star Wars—before the crawl, before the bright swoopy logotype—are set in a plain gothic typeface.


Wot I’ll do

This week, I’ll keep writing (and enjoy seeing the results displayed with a new font). My opening chapter suggests an initial destination, currently called Port Fabri, which will not be optional. I need to write Port Fabri. It’s in this first location—this first “widget”—that you’ll learn what kind of game you’re playing.


I was looking for something in my notes and, horrifyingly, found this, dated April 2012, which means I jotted it down just after releasing Fish:

Science fiction or fantasy. With a map.

Do it fast. June-July-August

A web drama. Scroll drama. Tap drama. The key is, it’s open to all.

A budget! For art, music.

Pushing forward this new FORMAT. Text! Cheaper to produce, but just as much fun to consume.

We get where we need to go eventually. It takes a while, but we do.

From Oakland,

Robin

P.S. I’ll keep a running list of all the books I mention in this newsletter over on Bookshop.


This has been an edition of my video game development diary, sent by email every Sunday. You are hereby invited to subscribe: