Typing Games: how and why?

Typing words as an input

We just defined typing games as having typing words (or sentences) input as the core of the game. We don’t use the keyboard as an original controller like Keyboard Sports does, nor do we use natural language processing to respond to whatever the players type. Typing controls are not a revolutionary way to control something you couldn’t control before, like the N64 controller’s thumbstick which allowed for 360-degree movement controls and made 3D platforming more playable. Typing is uncommon in games, but very common for anyone who has ever used a computer.

If typing one word corresponds to one action, then it’s a very basic type of command. When asked if there were things done with typing that wouldn’t work with conventional controls, Malte Hoffmann told me “You can imagine changing every word to a clickable button and it would be the same. You can definitely do it without typing. Maybe it would feel like a mobile game because there are so many buttons which you have to click with your mouse, but it’s nothing that can’t be done without typing.” One of the advantages of typing is that it allows you to perform many actions simultaneously. The limit is the number of words you can display on screen or that players can remember, but never the number of words in a language.

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Malte Hoffmann again: “To me, typing feels like a very satisfying thing once you get a little good at it.” If you can touch type, you have all the game’s controls at your fingertips, without having to move your hands to reach a hotkey or to use the mouse. “Having everything on the keyboard is its own special kind of feeling”. That’s why most of the menus in Epistory and Nanotale can also be navigated with typing. Asking players to reach for their mouse to click to choose an upgrade would break that flow.

Note that this only works with words known to the players and sentences that make sense. Random strings of letters or made-up words are harder to read and remember because they cannot be merged into one memory chunk. The same goes if the player has to type quickly. This is a type of challenge unique to typing games, but one that depends heavily on the players’ familiarity with what they have to type. We’ll come back to this when we talk about balancing difficulty and adding variety.

A typing game has typing words as an input.
Tap into the players’ muscle memory to make the inputs feel immediate. Use one word (or a short sentence) as one input.
Keep in mind that random strings of letters or very uncommon words will focus the players’ attention on the fact that they are typing.
Try to use typing for all interactions and avoid using mouse controls.

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On that topic, Diego Sacchetti (game designer on Textorcist at MorbidWare) compared performing a sequence to throw a fireball: ”↓ ↘ → A B B A” to writing a sentence like “TAKE THIS!”. “Typing is like performing combos with meaning within the control scheme itself and I find that fascinating.” Both inputs are similar, but the former takes its meaning from the movements you have to make with your thumbs, while the latter has meaning in the words you type. Typing words conveys both the meaning of typing (or writing or talking) and the actual meaning of the words typed.

Diego Sacchetti: “Although The Typing of the Dead is to me one of the best typing games ever made, I’ve always thought using random words in typing games is certainly a good fit, but at the same time a big loss on meaning. Players read and type tons of words during the game but all those words never hold any deeper meaning / relationship. I wanted to avoid that by actually putting meaningful sentences in Textorcist that fit the fight, have increasing length and difficulty, are coherent with the fight and the task to perform and the story.” Epistory has words drawn from different dictionaries (lists of words with a common theme) depending on the action you perform or the object you interact with. You break a rock by typing “GRANITE” and make flowers grow by typing “ORCHID”.

Enemies, on the other hand, had no thematic words. Quantity and variety were favored over meaning, which led to some fun random combinations. But even random words have meaning, and you can’t expect players to ignore it. I remember some Epistory streamers making up stories from the words they typed while playing. One of the many random words we had was “BARBECUE”. It stuck out as the example of out-of-context words that we always used during the development of Nanotale. We didn’t want players to type “BARBECUE” to analyze a fantasy creature or defeat the final boss. So for Nanotale (2021), we use lexical fields for each type of enemy. The fastest enemy has words like “RUSH”, “IMPATIENT” and “HECTIC”, while the enemy who protects itself in a shell has words such as “COWARD”, “DISGUISE” and “COY”.

Typing Hearts (TBA)

Typing hearts is a dating sim in which you type words to simulate a discussion during a date, so players use their imagination to figure out what’s behind the words. “I find it very interesting to play with the double meaning of words,” Ettome said in describing the feature. The words you get to type change as the relationship progresses. “For example, if you chose to talk about food or cookies in the dialog branches, those words will come back in the typing game in a subtle way. As a player, you will notice “that’s funny, she’s talking about that thing we talked about before”. Later on, I play with that in weird ways, like forcing the player to type the same word multiple times.”

In Backspace Bouken you have to type entire sentences to defeat enemies, and the whole story is conveyed through this typable text. For Benjamin Bushe and Jake White (designers of Backspace Bouken at RNG Party), typing has the advantage that “you’re forced to read the story.” Each boss has a different writing style, which gives them unique personalities.

You can even leverage the immediate understanding of the words you read to subconsciously influence the players. Outshine (2022) has different themed word pools to establish a particular mood for each world. Each level of Epistory has a unique list of words that fit the backstory—a backstory that is never explicitly revealed to players, but that most have pieced together. 20% of enemy words are drawn from this list, so at least a part of what you type fits the context and mood of the level.

The purpose of language is to convey meaning.
All words or sentences used as inputs have to be read, understood and typed by the players. Their meaning is passed on, even subconsciously. Use it to your advantage and avoid creating dissonance with out-of-context words.

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I wrote earlier that the typing mechanic had the meaning of the word typed and the meaning of the action of typing. Allow me a little digression: in board game design, there are multiple ways to generate a random outcome. You can roll dice, draw cards, take tokens from a bag, use a mobile companion app… Let’s say we balance them so that they have similar probabilities. We can choose the one whose physical manipulation best fits the fantasy of the game. Now, if we are required to have a dice mechanic, we ask ourselves what actions are a good fit for the dice roll? Back to typing, we can ask ourselves: what actions are best suited for a typing mechanic?

Spell casting in Nanotale (2021)

The most straightforward answer is a typing game in which your character is actually typing at a computer (like Hacknet). But there are other ways to contextualize the typing, and that’s what I was looking for at the beginning of Nanotale’s development. In the final game, the main character casts magic spells when the player types in a combination of keywords, such as RAY, LARGE and FIRE for a large fire beam that burns away enemies and obstacles, as if speaking an incantation. In dialogues, typable keywords are highlighted in the NPC’s text to select a branch of dialogue, as if you were asking questions about it. Similarly, Typing Hearts’ typing is a representation of a discussion during a date, even if the full discussion is left to the player’s imagination.

One more thing about Nanotale: a large part of the game is gathering knowledge about the world by analyzing plants, creatures and talking to NPCs. After doing so, the main character takes notes about what she learned in her notebook, and the player has to type a few words from the text (selected to be the most representative). In early versions, the text would write itself and stop at the keywords until the player had typed them, making it feel like you were actually typing, without having to type entire paragraphs. This was changed to typing all the keywords at once when we added a voice over to allow players to continue playing while listening to the lore. But typing still has the meaning of taking notes.

Note that even though the typing is a representation of saying or writing full sentences, its execution is always simplified to typing only keywords.

The Textorcist: The Story of Ray Bibbia (2019)

Textorcist, on the contrary, asks players to type whole sentences to exorcise demons. I’ll let Diego Sacchetti explain: “In Textorcist, you play as a private exorcist and I wanted to create that feeling from the movie where the task to perform is easy (reading the verses, typing the spell) but made nearly impossible from the large amount of noise generated (demonic powers, bullets). The typing in our case is not only a game mechanic, instead it fits the story and the character you play, it’s spread across the entire game, not only the fights.” The difficulty for the player to move their hand from the keyboard to the arrow keys fast enough to dodge bullets is a representation of the main character trying to read the bible while avoiding the demon’s attacks. “Our game is meant to be played with the arrow keys because switching from one side to another of the keyboard is part of the experience.”

Actions controlled through typing have
to justify the use of that unusual input.
The typing interaction makes more sense and is more easily accepted if your character is actually typing, writing, talking, etc.


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