What if text games were more like Saul Bass sequences?


Jake Elliott, who made Kentucky Route Zero along with Tamas Kemenczy and Ben Babbitt, is passionate about the role of text in games — and he believes typographical choices can make a surprising impact on player experiences.

Kentucky Route Zero is a special, unforgettable work. It's a story-driven game set on an atmospheric, surreal road trip through a labyrinthine fictional sunset, against the backdrop of sunsets, phosphorescent highway light and the ghosts of Americana. As visual and sonorous as the experience is, the core of the experience is conveyed through text.

Elliott has been designing games for just about six years now, and is enthusiastic about the ways accessible tools like Twine, Inkelwriter and other systems of dynamic text are helping lead text games to a major resurgence. He says the flexibility of new creation tools means creators can attain unusual effects and new ways of approaching the player by thinking about the typography itself.

"With something like Twine, we import all these tools that are used to do typography on the web, like CSS tools and stuff," Elliott said, talking at the AMAZE festival in Berlin. "Having a ready access ot these tools, to CSS within Twine, as it's really easy to drop in stylesheets that you find on the internet, mean that a lot of Twine games have really dynamic and interesting typography."

That can mean more than just optional bells and whistles, he believes: the famous title sequences Saul Bass did for Alfred Hitchcock films prove how judicious use of creative typography can create strong emotional impact.

Any time the word "Zero" appears in Kentucky Route Zero appears in the game, a cloud-like shader effect passes over it — the "Zero" is a legendary road that characters often reference, but that may not be real. The game has its own "complicated apparatus" for implementing bold, italics and other layers to the monospace, fixed-width text space.


"We can drop any shader we want onto any of these text subjects, and have some bits of text render differently than others," Elliott says. When a character is under the influence of anesthesia, the text becomes indistinct and difficult to make out — a way of offering the player an additional way of experiencing a character's state of mind through how they interact with what they're reading.

Ellipses that appear at slow paces can indicate dialogue pauses or can prompt a response for a player who is experiencing something primarily by reading: "We can use punctuation not only synctactically, but also like a little micro-language for animation, one that works on both registers at once," Elliott says. "This isn't something we invented by any means — you see this in a lot of Japanese roleplaying games — and it has a kind of bad reputation for being a goofy writing affectation, but it's really effective if you look at it in context."

Time constraints can create fascinating dynamics for text: Elliott cites Anna Anthropy's Queers in Love at the End of the World, a game where you have only ten seconds to choose what to do with the time you have left with your lover.

"Bear in mind that text is always a time-based phenomenon, even static text on a page."