Type:Rider is a video game that plays like a lecture. Many reviewers wouldn’t mean that as a compliment, but I certainly do. In its methodical structure and its clarity of vision, it makes for an exceptionally good lecture – one that leads its players through the history of typography and makes its potentially obscure subject matter consistently accessible.
Released in 2013 for platforms including iOS, Android and the Playstation 4, the game wears its educational goals on its sleeve, but rarely allows them to inhibit gameplay. It is divided into ten levels, in each of which the player controls a pair of dots, consecutive full stops that lovingly orbit each other as they bounce across the screen. They don’t have names or faces and they never emit a sound, let alone speak. Still, they are as endearing a pair of characters as I’ve ever come across in a game; and for all their movement, they also constitute a still, silent point around which the historical narrative shifts.
For eighteenth-centuryists, the most intriguing part of this narrative is the fourth level, Didot, an airy jaunt across a landscape of giant letters, musical notes, and silhouetted neoclassical architecture. These are the obstacles that our dots have to navigate, all the while trying to avoid gaps in the scenery, in classic platform-game style. In the backdrop to the level, just as visually appealing but not open to interaction, are a succession of images from eighteenth-century texts: the frontispiece from Giambattista Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico (1788), for instance, and the title page of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedie (1751). You probably won’t be able to spend long admiring this ornamentation, as you try to prevent your intrepid punctuation marks from falling into oblivion, but the care that has gone into the level design is always obvious.
Besides leaping over obstacles and trying to survive to the end of each level, the game also sets you the goal of picking up various collectables as you go – some easier to track down than others. Each level contains the letters A-Z. (I recommend hunting these down with an eagle-eyed, alphabet-crazed toddler at your side.) And alongside the letters, each level also has a well-concealed ampersand and six sparkling asterisks to keep treasure hunters busy. The asterisks unlock pages of commentary on the period of typographical history in question. Within the Didot level, for example, the asterisks yield notes entitled ‘The Romains du Roi’, ‘John Baskerville’, ‘The Didot Family’, ‘Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico’, ‘The Birth of Print Media’ and ‘The Encyclopedia’.
There is no denying that these commentaries have to do quite a lot of heavy lifting in making an otherwise impressionistic game more concretely informative. There is something of a disconnect between what you do in playing the game and the way it chooses to educate you when the game-playing stops. There are also some occasional problems with the prose in these commentary paragraphs, a lingering indecision as to whether events and lives should be related in the past or the present tense. This may be a translation problem. The game is a co-production between French game developers, though you wouldn’t be able to guess any particular national provenance from the wide-ranging view it takes of its topic. Regardless of some stiltedness of expression, I found the commentaries engagingly written and generally accurate in historical detail.
All told, Type:Rider does an impressive job in balancing the prerogatives of a game with the need to educate. It is assisted in this by its choice of subject: I struggle to think of another field so little understood and yet so instantly understandable. Exploring fonts not just as abstract designs but as physical obstacles on a screen and as nuanced evocations of time and place is a worthwhile endeavour. I would suggest that a game needs to be at least a little bit like a lecture in order to do justice to the full complexity of typography and its traditions.
Type:Rider was created by Cosmografik and produced by Ex Nihilo, Arte France and Audiogaming. First released in 2013, it is now available on mobiles, PCs and the Playstation Network.