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After a short summer break Grafik’s Letterform Live series of events returned last Wednesday with a night devoted to ‘Gaming’ and typography. Presented in partnership with Monotype and the ISTD and hosted by Protein Studios in Shoreditch, Letterform Live sees five different speakers give a short presentation on a shared subject. Each taking a single letterform as their starting point for a personal journey through the subject matter. The world of games proved to be a rich and varied topic, I must be careful not to say video games here because of course not all games are computerised… Caroline, our editor and compere, introduced the event with a reminder of this. Caroline discussed her “analogue childhood” of card and board games prior to her first exposure to the digital world at age ten – a Pong arcade machine in Benidorm that led to a whole week’s holiday money disappearing in one short afternoon.

We then moved from Pong to something quite different, our first speaker of the night was Marie Foulston, curator of Video Games at the V&A museum and “Queen Roughhouser” at Wild Rumpus, an indie game event collective. Marie began her talk with her letterform, a small and solitary white ‘z’ on a black page. Marie revealed that this was the initial letter of the word “zero”, typeset in Letter Gothic, a font designed by the excellently named Roger Roberson, who coincidentally lived in Kentucky (this will make sense shortly).

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It was then revealed that her word choice of “Zero” comes from the title of an indie game – Kentucky Route Zero, and that the font Letter Gothic is the one used throughout the game. Marie explained that as a narrative-driven “point and click adventure” game, typography is actually far more central and important in Kentucky Route Zero than in a conventional video game. For Marie, part of the explanation for KRZ’s unique qualities can be found in the games’ three developers (Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt), due to their mixed backgrounds and rich eclectic influences. Marie pointed out that the large amount written about this game proves its value and importance.

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Marie’s expert gaming knowledge helped explain Kentucky Route Zero to us in more depth. Its interesting visual aesthetic is the result of being 2D although built in “Unity Engine”, a 3D tool, while the game itself is packed full of visual references to both the real world (Marie showed examples from architecture and painting) and also the rich history of the “point and click” genre. She went on to explain that development tool Twine played a big part in both the development of Kentucky Route Zero and the contemporary resurgence in more narrative driven games. Twine is an open-source tool for “telling interactive, nonlinear stories” that requires no coding skills and has helped bring the world of gaming and “interactive fiction much closer together”. Resulting in games like this that provide an “alternative perspective on gaming”, moving away from the idea of total freedom into something more engrossing and literary.

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Focusing back on the typography of the game Marie explained that the games developers were interested in Concrete Poetry and hypertext artworks, which led to the type in the game going far beyond a choice of font and colour. It is animated and communicative through both movement and colour, affecting the pacing of the narrative while also being altered by the direction of the narrative itself. This narrative is complex, rich and multi-layered, so it is only fitting that the typography is well thought-out. Marie concluded that this game shows “how much is missed if you don’t consider text as part of a game” and pointed us in the direction of Jake Elliott’s talk at A MAZE Berlin in 2015 and Alex Wiltshire’s analysis of the game for more in-depth information.

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Our next speaker for the night was Holly Gramazio, a games designer and one half of Matheson Marcault, an agency who “work with culture, history and physical space” using game design to “engage people with places and ideas”. Her starting letterform was a slightly “weird and wobbly” W with a line beneath it. The line reveals that this a W on something that can be turned upside down… Holly’s choice of subject matter took us into a distinctly analogue space, that of the playing card.

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Holly revealed that this W was from a once popular, but now obscure, card game called Lexicon. The aim of the game was to make words out of cards, with each card carrying a large central letter. Holly explained that “card games were huge in 1933”, the year that Lexicon came out, because during times of recession card and board games were popular as you could play them again and again for no extra cost. People at this time generally understood the conventional deck of cards and enjoyed the flexibility that they offered by being usable for many varied games. However new card games were also being developed, with decks that could only be used for one specific game, Holly took us through a few of these, such as Alibi and Happy Families.

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Despite the idea of letter based card games seeming so simple, Holly told us of the many failed attempts that preceded Lexicon. These examples tended to be either too complicated, educational but not fun, or visually lovely but not functional. In one case the cards had to be written on, so weren’t even reusable, not much use!. The breakthrough came once the game inventors started using big central letters on the cards, giving good visibility and fan-out-ability. Yet it seemed there were “so many ways to mess it up”, some game cards had letters on both sides, taking away the integral element of secrecy. Others had meaningless numbers on, were strange shapes or still just too complicated to take off. But Lexicon did in a big way, with reports of housewives meeting up for mass games, taking up entire dining tables. It also led to spin-offs like Crossword Lexicon, whose packaging declared it the “New card game craze”.

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Holly ended her talk with a round-up of what a card is good for and what design considerations have made for a successful card game; the cards have to be easily legible to the player, yet also secret to the other players and easy to hold, shuffle and fan out. Last of all they need to be “a nice physical object”, something that I’m sure our design savvy audience could relate to, especially the print designers…

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Up next and continuing our night of gaming themed typography, we welcomed Richard Hogg, an accomplished artist, designer and illustrator, as well as video game designer. Richard was behind the 2014 Playstation game Hohokum. His presentation began with a mysterious letterform, which was revealed to be a lower-case Lambda from the Greek alphabet, but also a stylised ‘a’ from the logo for the sci-fi game Half-Life. A game which Richard explained, was the first he had played in a long time when he saw a friend playing it after it was released in 1998.

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Richard, bending our Letterform Live rules slightly, had a second letterform to help explain why he had gone so many years without playing a single game. It was an ornate ampersand, with a dragon’s head breathing fire forming the leg. Which turned out to be the ‘&’ from the logo of the fantasy role-playing board game Dungeons & Dragons, a game which Richard loved as child. Playing it often, while also reading a vast array of fantasy books. That was until around age 18 or 19 when he “rejected it all as childish”, becoming more interested in art and eventually becoming an “obnoxious and elitist art student”. This aversion to “high fantasy” has lasted Richard’s whole life, meaning he hasn’t even watched the Lord of the Rings films or any of Game of Thrones yet.

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But playing Half-Life in 1998 really made Richard reconsider this aversion to games, it seemed “more mature and grown-up” with “considered and subtle typography” despite essentially being a game of “shooting monsters in the face”. Richard reflected that these days there are a lot more grown-up games that are “thoughtful and works of art”. Yet still Richard has an aversion to fantasy games, like Dark Souls which many of his friends rave about. But Richard reflected that the “horrible typography in these games was a barrier to playing” especially the bad little serif numbers they all used. Yet he had recently learned that the font choices were mainly down to these games being Japanese, the Western font choices were an “accident of translation” and “revealed just how shallow I am”.

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But reflecting back on his past for this talk, and looking back at the designs of the Dungeons & Dragons games he loved as a child, Richard discovered that they are actually “quite beautiful and naïve, almost zine-like” revealing his “regrets about values I adopted, and something valuable I threw away”, specifically the slightly crappy but DIY ethos of the fantasy world. Although D&D, as Richard pointed out, did become more slick and corporate as he got older, moving away from its roots. Richard concluded that caring about “whether type in a game is tasteful” is actually quite shallow and this “emphasis on production values” can actually be damaging and make you miss out on something charming and fun.

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Talking of low production values, our next presentation was all about the limitations of early computer technology, and the creativity that endured despite these limits. Giving this talk was Toshi Omagari, a typeface designer based at Monotype’s London office, an avid gamer and collector of Nintendo Gameboys. Toshi’s starting letterform was a blocky number 8, chosen because he was going to talk about typefaces from the 8-bit generation of games in the 80s and 90s. A time when letters had to fit within an 8x8 pixel grid. Strictly speaking Toshi explained that the letters had to only be 7x8 or 7x7 as the letter spacing (both right and sometimes also above) had to be built into the glyphs. You would think that such a small grid would really limit type designers, but Toshi was here to show us this wasn’t the case in a whopping 89 slide presentation…

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Toshi explained that he wasn’t talking about the logos of the games, but the actual typefaces in which the text of the game was set. Toshi’s starting point was the font from the famous 1978 Atari game Breakout, and he pointed out that the majority of games companies at the time, like Namco, Capcom and Konami were based in his native Japan. From Breakout we were taken on a whirlwind tour of 8-bit typography, covering categories such as; Light & Square, Bold Sans, Serif, One-side contrast, Reverse Contrast, Stencil, Italic & Script and Decorative. Some fantastic game names cropped up like; Sexy Parodius, Joy Joy Kid and Flak Attack.

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Toshi explained that all these fonts are extremely limited, and sometimes incorrect, but they all work well in their context. And that the designers managed to achieve some incredible details, like decorative serifs, colour gradients, 3d effects, stencilling, shadows and italics, all despite the tiny grid. Toshi also showed us the typefaces that were popular at the time and the adaptions that games designers did to make these fonts work in their games. At the time a real font couldn’t be used in a game due to the technical limitations. Popular fonts included Data 70, designed by Bob Newman for Letraset in 1970, Revue designed by Colin Brignall also for Letraset in 1968 and Stop designed by Aldo Novarese for Italian foundry Nebiolo in 1970.

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There were also fonts that managed to evoke particular moods or periods, such as western fonts for cowboy games or Japanese feels for samurai and ninja games. For the Simpsons game (1991) the designer managed to do a pretty good job of replicating the font from the TV show, even adding a shadow. Toshi’s practical experience as a type designer really helped in explaining to us what made certain fonts interesting or notable and where the little compromises had been made. Compromises such as the lack of descenders, crazy ampersands and the general lack of optical balance. Toshi ended his talk with his favourite 8-bit font, from the 1987 game Ark Area, which managed to achieve a good 3D shading effect and shadows, all in the tiny grid, amazing what can be done despite tight technical limitations.

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Our final speaker, concluding the talks, was Darren Wall a graphic designer, art director and editor-in-chief of Read-Only Memory, a publisher of high quality books on the history of video games. Darren is also something of a Kickstarter wizard, but admitted at the beginning of his talk to be feeling a bit of an imposter since he hasn’t played a video game in years! His chosen letterform was a highly stylised, gold-plated but pixelated ‘R’, taken from the logo for Red Sector Inc., “basically a bunch of criminals” how intriguing, we eagerly waited to find out more…

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But as Darren explained it wasn’t just a case of copying the games, these pirates also made their own animated and musical intros, or “cracktros”, advertising both who had “cracked” the game and their technical skills. These intros were “peacocking displays of what the pirates could do with their machines”, and were highly branded. Red Sector was one such group, and had the logo that Darren found highly memorable. Their “cracktros” were pure showing off, even a boring word-processing programme they pirated had a bonkers animated intro. But this eventually evolved into the “demoscene”, which was essentially the same people who made “cracktros” making longer animations to “show what the Amiga could do” and how creative designers could be. Some come across like primitive music videos, while others are far more jokey or surreal, many of them are genuinely quite impressive if you remember how limited computers were back then. Darren showed us a few of these, ranging from the bizarre to the hilarious, and all of them near impossible to describe. But luckily Darren had a shortlist of motifs that characterise the demoscene:

  • Swirling type
  • Balls
  • Awkward sexual material
  • Fantasy illustration or varied quality 
  • Nonsense
  • Toilets
  • Technically astounding 3D

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You should probably get on YouTube right away and search for cracktro or demoscene, as what Darren showed us was really quite something. But this scene lived on longer than you would expect, there was a meet-up and competition ever year known as “The Party” which lasted up until 2002. Judging from YouTube the demo scene still lives on somehow. But I think Darren’s teenage years seem like the golden era, when computers could do something, rather than nothing or everything, resulting in a weird and wonderful kind of outsider art.

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The night ended with questions to our panel of speakers from the audience, with one lucky question-asker winning a big bag of Monotype goodies, before everyone retired to the bar to mingle over drinks.

Special thanks to all of our speakers and to Monotype and the ISTD for their ongoing support. The next Letterform Live event will be on the theme of ‘Beer’ on Wednesday 26 October.