Text in Videogames
Text in Videogames
0Whereas textual studies has the benefit of decades of textual scholarship to respond to, videogames themselves do not yet have a standard historical narrative to account for the development of their characteristic typefaces and letter designs. One initial goal of a theory of videogame typography should be, therefore, to discover and document that history. While the chapters that follow provide a first step in this historical direction, this is a history mostly taken for granted by both academic and hobbyist communities. What I set out to discover through this project are the technical, material, and aesthetic influences that bear upon the design of type and arrangement of text within early videogames.
0If the lesson of textual studies is that a materialist approach to criticism tends toward increasing (rather than collapsing) the availability of plausible interpretations of a text, even at the risk of supplying incommensurable textual singularities, one task of the archivist in service of this approach seems to be to increase the granularity of the textual object. In other words, as finer detail and greater variation appear within available materials, a logical result is an approach like the one mentioned above. For example, since the Blake Archive (www.blakearchive.org) allows easier access to the multiple versions of Blakeâs work, and it improves the detail available in its proprietary image notation system, critical interpretations of Blakeâs corpus logically proliferate in more directions. Similarly, classic studies of typography like Robert Bringhurstâs elegant volume The Elements of Typographic Styleâ illuminate minute particulars of type form that are practically indiscernible to the uninitiated reader to harness productive readings of typographic form. For example, these readings of technical elements like stroke, axis, and weight, provide evidence for conclusions about the prevailing type forms of different historical eras. Two recurring themes in Bringhurstâs discussion compare type forms by the way they relate to the human body and architecture. Early typefaces mimicked handwriting for their forms, so their leaning axis is an echo of the slant of the calligrapherâs stroke. In this way, the form of the type contains an element traceable to the human body that is distinct from the so-called rational vertical axis evident in neo-classical type forms. Typefaces of this variety such as Baskerville, contain an idealization of form that is also evident in neo-classical architecture, so the shape of the letter contains within it an element reminiscent of a particular spatiality. Both the humanist and spatial properties of type are relevant to videogame typography for the way game text sutures the game world to the players experience while at the same time interlocking with the three-dimensional spatial forms within the game diegesis to produce an overall aesthetic effect. Bringhurst, not surprisingly, does not discuss videogame typography, but the closeness of his reading provides an elegant inspiration for the kinds of insights that can be drawn from similarly particular or technically minute features of typographic form in games.
0Another matter for consideration is the ontological status of the text within the game world â both text that appears as part of a HUD as well as that which appears inside the spatiality of the game. In early games for systems like the Atari VCS that lacked native text rendering or character sets, programmers had to create every letter or number required as a graphical bitmap. For the VCS and most console systems, these bitmaps are formed by essentially switching bits on and off in a stack of 8-bit bytes to essentially draw the character on an approximation of a section of the raster grid. In this way, text is literally an image from the perspective of the machine, and its unusual ontology is such that letterforms are legible within the assembly code itself. In other words, videogame software can be accessed in a way that views its programming code as a literal list of bytes (bytes in this case are a sequence of 8 binary values, 1 or 0). By aligning the bytes vertically, all letterforms that appear in the game are visible. By contrast, more advanced textual encoding methods store numeric values from 0 to 255 in the binary code and access a given character based on its assigned ASCII value and render the character based on the visual instructions supplied by a separate font file. The technical differences between these two formats for the retrieval of typographic information supply an interesting complication to the previous discussion about semiotics as a basis for thinking about video games. With the logic of a unit operational approach, both forms of text signify their semantic content in the same way, but their contradictory formal conditions open up possibilities for divergent interpretations of their expression as interlocking units of an overall system. This difference can also manifest in shaping the playerâs experience of the game.
0The constraints imposed by the underlying technology provide another avenue for discussion because they come to bear strongly on the forms available to typefaces in video games. This creates an interesting link between cultural and artistic movements concerned with the effect of constraint upon creative expression. Again, the early videogames, particular home console games, are especially relevant to this discussion because their visual forms bear a surprising affinity with minimalist graphic design popular in the 1950s and 60s. They also specifically echo type forms produced by the Dutch De Stijl group in the 1930s. What is significant here is the way that constraint by necessity relates to constraint by choice in the production of aesthetics, an idea that is developed in the works of the Oulipo and their relationship to New Media and hypertext literature.14 Experimental type designer Wim Crouwel, writing in 1970, characterized the future of type design as one of constraint and configuration. He bases this projection on his analogy of the âcellâ as the fundamental unit of computing (Crouwel seems to mean both the pixel and the bit), and he argues that the new logic of type design recognizes this fundamental unit and uses it to build ânucleiâ (letters) which form âunitsâ (words or concepts) that together assemble to form communication (Crouwel 57)â . His use of the term âunitâ as well as the configurative logic of this philosophy seems even more appropriate for the videogame context in light of the unit operations approach, so it is interesting to compare Crouwelâs own type design that reflected this philosophy with videogame type. This is a relationship I explore in the second chapter of this study.
0Finally, just as the problems of electronic textuality are brought to the foreground by the challenge of creating an archive, the specific aesthetic forms of videogame type and its dispersal throughout culture betray a belief about their ideal forms. In other words, there is a kind of restorative nostalgia for early videogame graphics that frequently âcleans upâ the material traces of the display technology. Although the appearance of so-called âjaggyâ fonts has come to characterize computer generated type, the low resolution (particularly of early TV console systems) meant that the supposedly harsh, âstair-steppedâ curves of letterforms were actually more fuzzy than jaggy. The fact that the hard-edged, jaggy form prevails in so-called âretrogamingâ and related invocations of videogame nostalgia suggests that the material form of the original game situation is being lost as it has been replaced with the supposedly ideal, hard-edged form of the text image. In other words, hard-edged forms promote a nostalgia for an imaginary aesthetic, but in the critical context, this revisionary imagination seems to conform to the fiction of the game object as transcendental form. The challenge for the scholar, therefore, is to find ways to recreate or simulate the original material conditions of the videogamesâ design. This is relevant to the study of typographic forms because programmers of early games were certainly aware of the peculiar optical effects of the CRT display, so successful type design in the context had to take that distortion into consideration, often by taking advantage of its peculiarities. For example, the fact that the first numeric forms for keeping score in early games like Pong contain only straight lines and right angles is partly a way of dealing with the blurring effects of the television raster display. An approach to the materiality of videogame type should include the television or monitor screen among the interferential layers of production standing between the encoded typographic object and its reception in the space of a videogame.
- 14. It is appropriate, therefore, that The New Media Reader, edited by Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, includes a selection of Oulipean writing. The authors explain this connection in away that appeals especially to a favorable comparison videogames: âThe potential that lies within such an understanding of interactive experiences is a reconfiguration of the relationship between reader, author, and text. The playful construction within constraints that the Oulipo defined as the role of the author can become an activity extended to readers, who can take part in the interpretation, configuration, and construction of textsâ (Wardrip-Fruin & Montfort 148)â .