Typing Games: how and why?

Typing depth and versatility

Fortunately, spatial agency is just one way to add depth to a game. The typing input is still largely unexplored, which means there are opportunities for new ways to play with it. How far can we really push it, then? To answer this question, we must once again start with the limitations.

If we stick to our definition of a typing game as having to type words as an input, then the typing input might be a limiting factor to gameplay variety. But we can make deep gameplay with simple controls, right? We all have in mind the classic example of Mario’s jump, very versatile with only one button. Same thing in a shooting game, playing with a mouse: click once to shoot, click in rapid succession to shoot repeatedly, hold to charge a shot and then release, hold and move your aim with a flamethrower, and so on. Sadly, using typing as an input has two major limitations.

The first is the impracticality of having variations equivalent to holding or repeatedly pressing a button. Before we started developing Nanotale, we experimented with unusual ways of handling typing: typing random patterns, numbers or scrambled words is different from normal typing but not really more fun. Typing in rhythm is harder than it seems (you can test that by trying to type along a karaoke video). Having to type at a low speed, for example to whisper as not to wake up a monster, is also quite frustrating. Typing slower than what you’re used to simply goes against your muscle memory. You can try Waves teaches typing (from Ludum Dare 46) to test for yourself. The takeaway from our experiments is that typing works because we are used to type existing words in a straightforward way, and deviating from that becomes unintuitive and frustrating.

The second constraint is the delay between the moment you read a word and the moment you finish typing it. There is what I would call a “natural input lag” with typing that has to be taken into account. As we mentioned earlier, this delay varies widely depending on the player: from almost instantaneous input while focused on the screen, to several seconds long while looking at the keyboard. And if an input requires a combination of words, the gap obviously gets worse. This means that, while you can challenge typing speed, challenging the timing of typing becomes very tricky. It’s tricky as a designer, and it feels wrong to the players. In Nanotale, you type one to three keywords to build a spell, then a target word to cast it. In some cases, you want to cast your spell at a precise moment. To do so, experienced players type the word at normal speed but wait before typing the last letter (making it a one-button input). The ability to prepare a spell in advance is intentional (if you switch to movement mode and back to typing mode, your spell is saved), but the “stop and start” method is emergent. Players feel smart when they think of it, but I don’t want them to play like this all the time.

While there are interesting things to do with the typing input (and probably more to be invented), typing a word, as a physical input, lacks versatility.

Typing words is a simple input with a delay.
Variations on how to type are limited and feel less natural because they go against the players’ muscle memory. In particular, challenging timing pushes players to wait to type the last letter of a word. Games without time pressure will work better with typing.

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In the first section, we said that it’s unavoidable that players understand the meaning of the words they type, and that we should take advantage of this, for example by using words whose meaning corresponds to the action or context. This meaning can be leveraged to create variety simply by changing the lexical field, writing style or language register. Even though the player’s fingers are making the exact same movement (you’re still typing a word), it feels different because of the players’ interpretation of the word. This is not a physical variation but a mental one. I’m not pretending it’s equivalent to the input versatility we can have with gamepad controls, but it’s an opportunity that can be explored specifically with typing.

For Benjamin Bushe and Jake White, in Backspace Bouken (where you have to type lines of dialogues from the enemies), the variation comes a lot from the writing, especially the different style used for each boss. In Ettome’s dating sim Typing Hearts, the different love interests have preferred conversation topics, so typing words matching those scores more points. While you don’t need to read the words to choose which one to type because they are color coded by category, we can imagine a game in which you get to decide which word to type based on your interpretation of their meaning.

In the last part of Textorcist, the spells you have to type switch to Latin. “In the beginning the spells are all in English and while some players may be more comfortable typing in that language than others, we can all say we have already typed those words before in our lives,” explains Diego Sacchetti. “When we reach the final stages and face real ancient demons, the typing switches to Latin. This fits the story and also raises the difficulty accordingly. Switching to Latin also puts all players on the same level because almost nobody is comfortable typing Latin, players just never did it.”

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Each of Textorcist’s bosses also offers a twist on the typing challenge: “Magda barfs at you which covers the text so you must proceed by memory. Matthew generates bombs that must be disarmed by typing words like “DEFUSE” or ”DEMILITARIZE” in a short time span. [There are] upside down words, singing at the microphone (suddenly changing the words to type), characters replaced with 0s and 1s, quakes that mix all characters within a word among the others.” You can see that some challenge reading or memorization and some require typing something other than words. The latter is not typing per se (in the sense that you can’t use muscle memory for it), but it does show that there are clever ways to twist the typing mechanic if you type other things than words.

Backspace Bouken’s boss with glitched text that you have to type carefully.

The boss variations of Backspace Bouken also include complex unusual words, symbols like “#@$!” that represent curse words, and glitched words with randomly capitalized letters or letters replaced with numbers. Those variations don’t take away the meaning of the words (in the case of Backspace Bouken, they even reinforce the theme of the boss) but still change the way you type them. This makes the players think about what and how they type, pay more attention to their keyboard to find the special characters, and, in a way, breaks the fourth wall.

In Epistory, we have doors that are blocked by two mirrored statues, each with a word to type that mirrors the other, like “DRAWER” – “REWARD” or “DENIER” – “REINED”. Independently, those are ordinary words. When typed one after the other, they lead the players to think of them differently. It creates a brief but nice “aha!” moment.

Still in Epistory, we used patterns of letters for variations, like repeating “ASDF ASDF ASDF ASDF” to open a mechanical bridge. There are also paper walls that you slash through by typing a full line of the keyboard (like “QWERTYUIOP”). When players realize that they can do it simply by sliding their finger, it’s another “aha” moment—they understand something new about their keyboard.

I’ll close with Touch Type Tale, which features a side mission with a rhythm game “where you basically use your keyboard as a piano keyboard.” It challenges timing, which I claimed to be frustrating, but here it’s fine because the players aren’t typing words at all. More importantly, these kinds of variations occur exceptionally as a break from the core experience. Malte Hoffmann and his team “try to play around with things like using patterns on the keyboard on bonus missions and extra gimmicky stuff, to have a bit of a playful layer where you can just experience something then move on to the normal gameplay.” Those situations are not the “normal gameplay” because players are using the same controller (the keyboard) but not using typing words as an input—that’s what I would call exotic gameplay.

Do you want exotic typing gameplay?
Typing games are an opportunity to play with the keyboard in fun exotic ways. But the most original variations inevitably stray away from real typing (which is not necessarily bad).
Thinking about the keyboard while playing also breaks the immersion.
Be in control of what you lead your players to expect from the game and decide if and where non-typing gameplay suits the experience. In other words, do you want your players to be aware of their keyboard or not?

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Although they are harder to find, I believe there are ways to make players think critically about typing without resorting to exotic or gimmicky mechanics. Here are two examples of mechanics that add a second layer of depth to the typing.

Remember when we talked about selecting which typed word to highlight if multiple words start with the same letters? I said that Typing Heart highlights all possible words simultaneously, until a differentiating letter is typed. What I left out is that, sometimes, a short word can be included within a longer word. When you type “FLOWERLESS”, for instance, you also type “FLOWER” and “FLOW”. In Epistory, we have avoided these cases by keeping only one of each word in our dictionaries. But for Ettome, “that brought an interesting mechanic: if you have a word with a prefix, you can write a word that contains another word and so write two words in one. The most hardcore of my playtesters kept some words on the grid to wait for their double and score more points.” While he doesn’t make similar words appear together on purpose (that is not the direction he wants for the game), I think it qualifies as typing gameplay depth: advanced players reach a deeper layer of understanding of the system and optimize their play by thinking critically about their typing.

Another example of this lies at the core of Backspace Bouken‘s gameplay. The game started at a ludum dare with the theme “out of space”, which gave them the idea of using space characters as a resource. You collect them from sign posts from which you delete the text, and then consume them when you type to fight enemies. Benjamin Bushe and Jake White told me that it was a real challenge when it came to the writing of the text to be typed, because they had to make sure players could collect enough spaces to type the whole text. But what caught my attention is that it led them to add “the contraction mechanic:” when you type a sentence, you are encouraged to alter the text to use contractions (“Do not” → “Don’t”, “I will” → “I’ll”), saving you precious spaces and a bit of time. They tried to give as many opportunities for contraction as possible in their writing for players who think about using it.

Gameplay depth comes from thinking critically
about what and how you are typing.
Use the meaning conveyed through language to get players to think critically about what they are typing. Examples include lexical fields, word complexity, different registers, and different languages.
If possible, add depth by giving opportunities to optimize how players type, and reward those who do so (radicals included in other words as in Typing Hearts, contractions as in Backspace Bouken…).


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