A journey through history

Typography is ubiquitous and present in our daily lives, often without even noticing it.

That's a quote from Type:Rider, what the developers call a "game documentary" and what I'd call a slightly frustrating, albeit compelling museum-style whistle stop tour through fonts and typography across human civilisation.

But the quote is spot on. Typography is everywhere, and though that's difficult to imagine for us today — just take a look around — it wasn't always like that.

Type:Rider goes on a journey from cave paintings, through to early writing systems, such as cuneiform and hieroglyphics, then onwards to the spread of printing across late medieval Europe, and the continued development of fonts, typography, all the way to the current age where words being marked on media has made way for being displayed on screen instead. So then, this is as much a study of the spread of information.

Not only is it a journey through history for the player, but for the two dots comprising a colon that the player controls. They roll along the level and can, somewhat inexplicably, jump and wall jump.

Type:Rider is no NightSky

Why two dots when, say, a full stop could have sufficed? Perhaps that's to avoid accusations of being a clone of Nifflas' relaxing NightSky. If anything, the extra dot is a hindrance; it makes the clumsy platforming even clumsier, and doesn't really add anything to the gameplay.

Extra dot aside, it is reminiscent of NightSky (itself a game you should check out) and I think the difficulty and the slightly sparse, often monochrome foreground level layouts are why comparisons are drawn to Playdead's Limbo. That, as well as the difficulty. The difficulty is another reason that Type:Rider seems to get compared to Trials, but this is a more loose association only. The Trials games are finely balanced and tuned, so as to allow for mastery of very delicate, precise controls. Type:Rider, unfortunately, is not. Quite often you'll end up bouncing off uselessly from walls, or find your pitiful leaps are insufficient to jump the chasms that you need to.

OK. It's not actually that glitchy — it's definitely no Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 — but the floatiness of how the dots "jump" and move, mean that there are some sections that are frustrating where you'll repeatedly bounce to your doom. With the addition of a couple of cheap instant death sections which seem like they were thrown in as attempts to add tension, it would have been just nicer to have a relaxing, easy to progress through, game.

On the plus side, restarts are quick and the checkpoints frequent, so it's rare that you find yourself repeating familiar ground. It does still break the flow of what would be an otherwise relaxing experience, but this at least tempers player frustration.

But Type:Rider's still worth a look

That's all a pity, because the actual atmosphere, that of something like a very immersive museum exhibit is a pleasant one. The graphic designs of the levels, and the integration of fonts into them, are well thought out, and thematically cohesive in the ideas they're trying to portray and show imagination. The historical background is provided via brief, but informative, texts that are collected throughout the levels.

There are some peculiar issues, likely due to a quickly thrown together English localisation. There is one notably particularly bad translation that recurs throughout: the term wheelbase peculiarly gets mentioned in the text several times. The Steam discussion forum for the game actually answered this: it's a badly proofread translation: it should be serif. Likewise, there are some weird text kerning issues in the history text too, and it's likely that these too don't occur in the French original. But that's an oversight considering that the game is dealing with typography.

The scope of the game means that it is limited to telling a few stories, but as an introduction to some of the big names in history and the technological advances made, it does a good job. It is interesting just how important the onset of widespread dissemination of information has been, and the impact that has had since. We take the immediacy of that for granted now — you could well be reading this text that I wrote seconds after I published it on this site, wherever you are in the world — but the distribution of printed works on any useful scale wasn't even a concept until the late medieval period, just a few hundred years ago. It's difficult to comprehend that when information is so central to society now.

It's also interesting where Type:Rider leaves off, which is the development of markup languages, and computer bitmap and vector fonts. A really big omission, perhaps because it was made a few years ago, back in 2013, is emoji. (However, emoji were big enough in 2013 to make it into the Oxford English Dictionary.) Electronic communication saw the incorporation of emoticons, constructed from text to hint at tone where plain text may be ambiguous. That's been followed by the widespread use of emoji, where characters visually represent concepts or objects, and so that nicely brings us full circle: modern day communication harking back to how writing systems first began.

If the idea of spending a couple of hours learning about typography is something that sounds appealing, Type:Rider's worth spending the time with. Just take the gameplay for what it is, which is occasionally relaxing, sometimes frustrating, be prepared to work through the trickier sections. It's certainly hard to dislike a work that even manages to make a valiant attempt of painting Comic Sans MS in a somewhat sympathetic light.