The bizarre iOS platformer that’s also a documentary about typography
Video games have explored a huge number of educational topics over the past 30 years. Math games are a staple of elementary schools, and strategy games have proven wonderful entry points for students of history. But to my knowledge there's never been a game about the history of typography before.
It's surprising enough that there's now a video game about typography, but it's doubly surprising that it's good.
Type:Rider is a unique and fun platformer that uses its own levels to teach you about the history of written English and the Romance languages.
At this point, a few people may be rolling their eyes at the premise of Type:Rider. It's become somewhat hipster-chic to be interested in typography, but forget about all of that. It's not a game about obsessing over the differences between Calibri and Candara fonts. It's about how letters evolved over the eras, the people who developed our modern written language, and the advancements that have shaped it.
This is the video game equivalent of some dry PBS documentary about ladders or tandem bicycles that ends up being bizarrely fascinating. You'd never expect that you could actually care about this sort of thing, but give Type:Rider a few levels and it quickly becomes interesting to see how the old Gothic alphabet transformed into the modern standard.
Type:Rider does this in an interesting way too. On one hand they have a large library of articles that you can peruse about the inventors of certain technologies or the histories of alphabets, but on another far more interesting hand, the levels themselves serve as a guide.
In Type:Rider you play as two connected dots, the colon in the title, to be specific. It feels sort of like a BMX bike as you roll through the levels. Holding one side of the screen makes you roll in that direction. Tapping the opposite side while rolling makes you jump. It's simple, but deep enough that it's fun to learn the physics of jumping and maneuvering around as such a strange shape.
The brilliance of Type:Rider is that it connects its physics-based platforming with its main educational goal by constructing the levels out of the very fonts and letters that it's telling the history of.
When playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater you unconsciously study the design of the level, the angle of the ramp, and the distance of the jump etc. In Type:Rider you do the same thing, except the levels are constructed out of letters.
What that means is that you end up studying typography naturally through the very nature of playing the game. You can't make jumps properly without understanding its shape and curve, and the progression through the stages guides you from the ornate, curvy Gothic script to 20th century angular, sharp Dada-era type and beyond. Before long, you'll develop very firm opinions on serif fonts like a true typeface geek.
Beyond simply the shapes and curvature of the evolving script Type:Rider also goes to great lengths to craft levels that reflect the era that each typeface appeared in which serves two purposes. On one hand they make for some fun, varied levels from the Gutenberg era all the way to the Old West. But it's also about giving you an understanding of how each type fit into the styles and sensibilities of the time. They weren't created in a vacuum. They reflected and influenced the tastes and styles of the time.
Type:Rider is a fun platformer in its own right, but it's not a game that can be seperated into its parts. That's a good thing and a bad thing. Typography is woven into every bit of this game, so you have to be interested in typography, or at least interested in learning new things, to get much out of the game. You shouldn't go into Type:Rider looking for a fun time waster any more than you'd buy a Werner Herzog documentary looking for a fun popcorn flick to watch with friends.
This restricts its audience to a dedicated few, but also makes it a much better, more cohesive game. If you're the type of person who finds themselves regularly drawn in by interesting segments on NPR or perusing the documentaries section of Netflix, then Type:Rider is well worth the “premium” $2.99 asking price.