Like the earliest examples of books and film, the earliest computer games were defined by the limits of their technology. Games such as Tennis for Two (eventually re-envisioned as Pong) and Spacewar! used monochrome sprites that could be modulated via console-style controls; when graphics had to make the jump to home-based consoles, they became blocky and pixelated, recognizable only by the game’s title and box art.
Games & Digital Media
IN-GAME TYPOGRAPHY of the arcade age played a role similar to that of neon signs in decades prior: to grab the attention of passersby, define brands and products, and above all make a unique aesthetic statement within the limits of its technology. Arcade games had to not only stand out in dark rooms and corridors, they had to compete side-by-side against other games, and along with eye-catching cabinet designs and sound blaring through speakers, a game’s onscreen display – called “attract mode” – was its primary means of drawing in paying customers. Typography played an essential role in drawing in players and convincing them to spend that first quarter – and after they had done so, in displaying essential information, providing encouragement, and keeping score. For those with enough skills, the experience of entering one’s initials on a semi-permanent High Score screen provided the ultimate type-based endorphin rush.
IN THE ERA before the world was fully mapped onto its current grid, creators of atlases had creative license to fill in gaps in the collective knowledge however they saw fit, with sensationalized descriptions of new lands, people, and creatures being the norm rather than the exception. With every corner of the world mapped and measured, what atlases and travel writing have gained in knowledge and accuracy they have lost, at least to some degree, in wonder and creativity.
THE CRPG BOOK, from the UK’s Bitmap Books, is the culmination of years of work by over a hundred contributors. It’s one of the most comprehensive histories of CRPGs ever written, and features in-depth review-style writeups of over 400 games, along with essays on the ancient history of role-playing games (going all the way back to the Prussian Empire), the early days of MUDs (multi-user dungeons, the earliest online games), the archaic but impressive PLATO computer system, and the importance of paper manuals and hand-drawn maps.
IN THE RETRO-futuristic, post-apocalyptic world of the Fallout series, legible printed matter is a rare and valuable commodity. Finding an intact magazine or comic book gives valuable stats and perks, from increased know-how with machines to improved conversation skills to unlockable tattoos. Presumably, most books and magazines were far too delicate to survive the nuclear apocalypse, appearing as the junk-class items “burnt book” and “burnt trade magazine” (though the high-Nordic-fantasy world of Skyrim, also from Bethesda, certainly has its share of “Ruined Books” as well).
WHEN IT COMES to truly iconic touchstones of fantasy and sci-fi, Dungeons and Dragons is in a plane of its own. After four-plus decades of existence, the cultural significance of its universe is rivaled by only a small handful of other heavy hitters like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Its early design and aesthetics borrowed liberally from Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, pulp novels and comics, and of course Tolkien, but its DNA – its “source code” – were the rigorous rulesets of the strategic wargaming community, which preceded it by decades.
THE UK-BASED Bitmap Books is steadily becoming one of the foremost chroniclers of everything that falls under the umbrella of “retro gaming”. Their exhaustive, full-color volumes trace various threads running through the history of videogames, and while the majority of their titles are dedicated to a specific console, other volumes cover everything from vintage arcade cabinets to the lost world of game box art.
THE UNIVERSE IN which the three Samorost games takes place is a heady blend of psychedelia, space-based sci-fi, and charming (if often dark) fable-like stories. Aesthetically, the games are like modernist Czech film posters come to life, pairing strange, twisted landscapes with archetypal, folkloric characters, all backgrounded by the blackness of space.