Visualizing Text Adventures

thy dungeonman screenshot

I used to be a regular viewer of Homestarrunner -- my wife and I faithfully watched each new Strongbad Email the moment it went up on the site -- but for whatever reason, as with most things, I gradually lost interest and found my way into new habits. On a whim, I checked up on Strongbad today, and was pleasantly surprised to find a good Strongbad Email that also gives me an excuse to write a blog on the dissertation chapter I'm currently working on.

The SBEmail itself is a riff on web comics, and Strongbad take shots at Penny Arcade, 8-Bit Theatre, and other. What got me interested, though, was his presentation of Saturday morning cartoons based on videogames. The premise is that all web comics are about video games, but videogames have historically suffered worse fates in the form of crappy cartoons. Especially in light of our recent conversation on abstraction, it's interesting to see how the challenges of negotiating abstraction through an adaptation are deployed for the purposes of humor -- especially the cartoon adaptation of the text adventure Thy Dungeonman.

Thy Dungeonman Cartoon 3

As you can see in this image, the joke is that the text fragments which make up the game have been given faces and are interacting with one another as characters. Funny stuff, but I couldn't help but notice the font they chose for these text-characters. As best as I can tell, it's Orbit-B (or a close knock-off) which is significant for a few probably unintentional reasons.

As best I can tell (and I admit I haven't yet researched it as thoroughly as some other fonts I'm writing about), Orbit-B originated as a VGC-commissioned design by Stan Biggenden in 1972. It joined two similar fonts, Data 70 (1970), and Moore Computer (1968[1]) in appearing quite frequently on arcade cabinets, flyers, consoles, boxes, etc. etc. As used in these contexts, these three fonts express something futuristic or computerized, but their origin and common referent is rather pedestrian.

Magnetic Ink Character Recognition (MICR) is a technology that first appeared in the 1940s, and it saw its most widespread (and continuing) use in the automatic processing and tracking of checks. If you have a checkbook handy, those numbers at the bottom are E-13B (unless you're in France). The font E-13B was designed for MICR to be both human and machine-readable, and the blocky characters' odd shapes ensure that each numeral generates a sufficiently unique waveform. Moore Computer, Data 70, and Orbit-B all extended or echoed the blocky shapes into a full letter set (E-13B just has numbers and some special characters), and they frequently appear in contexts where they are meant to invoke retro gaming or computing.

So what's interesting about this, at least to me, is that a visual characteristic created for the purpose of computational communicating via print has gradually come to signify something originating in the screen.

Now, I realize that interactive fiction has a less necessary relationship to the screen than Atari games do, but I would argue that since Orbit-B et al are used to signify gaming and are used within gaming to signify the presence of a screen,[2] their association with the screen is clear enough that it appears to be used consistently in this manner in graphic design. In the case of the Thy Dungeonman cartoon, that association seems to be intended, since the joke is that the text from the game has literally been removed, anthropomorphized, and placed in a different, 3D environment.

Thy Dungeonman Cartoon 1

So that's just a glimpse into what I'm working on. I know I'm fascinated by this stuff about the history of typefaces, but I'd be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about how relevant or interesting it is.

[1] Very few type specimen books have any information on Moore Computer (commonly sold as just "Computer"), and the earliest reference to it that I can corroborate is 1970. I have only a single reference to the 1968 date, but it is not as reliable as I'd like. I also have evidence that it's designer was named David Moore, but again, that's not from a corroborated source. I've looked pretty hard, but can't find a published source that confirms these facts. It's generic name doesn't help. If you happen to have any information about this typeface, please let me know.

[2] I'm still researching this for better and more examples, but the main uses of Data 70 within actual videogames occur as part of a cockpit-syle HUD.



The font is actually Westminister. Notice the lower case "o" doesn't have that extra bit inside on the lower right that Orbit B does.

See the Homestar Runner Wiki article on fonts and article on the Strong Bad Email web comics for even more information.


Thanks, Tom. You do appear to be correct about Westminster.

However, I have a strong suspicion that the Wikipedia article you link to is incorrect, especially since it doesn't cite its source (though it seems to draw its information from here.) Westminster and Orbit-B share so many identical or nearly-identical shapes that I wouldn't be surprised if Westminster was created as a knock off of Orbit-B.

I'll have to research that of course, and I could be wrong. Still I'd be very surprised if Westminster pre-dates Moore Computer as the wikipedia article implies.

Unfortunately, my type reference books are at school, so I'll have to check tomorrow.

In any case, Westminster is one of this group of fonts which borrow forms originating in E-13B that end up being a complex and (to some extent) anachronistic reference to 70s videogames.


I'm still laughing at this video. Thanks for sharing it!

Speaking of typefaces, I was just talking with someone about the names of fonts. The system fonts on the Amiga were named after precious stones; Topaz, Ruby, Garnet, Sapphire, etc. As far as I can tell, though, there was no correlation between the name and the actual font. Topaz (as I recall) was the default, and Sapphire was a Medieval-looking script. I'm sure I had a point there somewhere. ;-)