The typing game genre was born of necessity. These games were designed to teach a new generation of computer users how to type on a keyboard. Software Toolworks’ Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing! and Sega’s Typing of the Dead, released in 1987 and 1999, respectively, used the novelty of the keyboard as a game mechanic to keep people playing, despite the rote mechanics necessary in learning. Though Typing of the Dead may not have been installed on the rows of machines in your middle school computer lab, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing certainly was. There were others, too, like Knowledge Adventure’s JumpStart Typing and PopCap Games’ Typer Shark, among many more.
“Keyboarding was a new skill and computers were driving home the need for everybody [to learn to type],” Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing developer Mike Duffy tells The Verge. “And then suddenly, everybody had to do it and do it reasonably well. People had an interest on their own, but it was also parents thinking of their kids. It was driven by people wanting to use their computers effectively.”
But things are different now.
More than 73 percent of Americans have a computer, according to the Pew Research Center. Kids aren’t being introduced to computers and keyboards when they’re old enough; they’re growing up alongside them. Typing classes — now called keyboarding — are still taught in schools, but it’s no longer a mandatory part of the curriculum. By the time students get to these classes, they already know how to type at a physical keyboard and on a smartphone. Educational typing games have naturally fallen out of fashion. In their absence, a new wave of typing games — among them, The Textorcist: The Story of Ray Bibbia, Nanotale, Keyboard Sports, and Type Knight — is innovating in the space, fighting the notion that the genre has to teach you something.
In fact, Textorcist designer Diego Sacchetti doesn’t want you to call his game a typing game at all. “It’s a ‘type-’em-up.’ A shoot-’em-up when you fight by typing,” Sacchetti says. “It’s not an educational game.”
Putting players in the role of an exorcist called Ray Bibbia, The Textorcist combines typing mechanics with bullet hell–style gameplay. And it’s hard. To beat the bosses, you’ll need to nail the ability to dodge bullets and type out commands to exorcise the game’s demons. The control scheme is set up in a way that encourages players to type with one hand and use the other to dodge bullets. (At the request of typing enthusiasts, the game now also features an option that lets players keep both hands in a standard typing position.)
When The Textorcist was released in February 2019, Sacchetti says that 90 percent of the game’s coverage made comparisons to Mavis Beacon Teaches Teaching. It was frustrating for him. “It’s quite sad because it means so many people still frame typing as an educational-only mechanic,” Sacchetti says.
Keyboard Sports: Saving QWERTY developer Triband is also encouraging players to look at the keyboard as a controller, and not just a typing device. Originally released in 2016 as a mini-game for Humble Bundle, Keyboard Sports is getting a full release this year. Unlike The Textorcist, Keyboard Sports doesn’t require players to type words. Instead, players use the buttons on the keyboard to control how the character on-screen, QWERTY, moves. “We continuously have to remind ourselves when working on [Keyboard Sports] that it’s not a keyboard. It’s a magical weird device with 100 buttons,” Triband director Tim Garbos says.
For the game to be successful, Keyboard Sports must keep reminding the player of that, too. Experienced typists often struggle the most; it’s the players that abandon their expectations of a typing game that take to Keyboard Sports’ innovative gameplay faster. “We keep surprising the player by introducing new ways to interact,” Garbos says. “First, you use one key at a time. Then you learn to hold the key down. Later, you have to use four keys at the same time. It’s a constant fight against [the player’s] habits.” He adds: “It’s extremely hard to get a player to press ALT + F4, even though it’s totally safe to do in this game.”
It’s all part of the humor of the game. ALT + F4, for the uninitiated, is a PC command that closes an open window. There’s an old prank in multiplayer PC games, which is to tell anyone who asks how to do something that the answer is pushing ALT + F4. They won’t accomplish whatever they’re trying to do, and instead will be forced to quit the game.
Early typing games like Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing were purposeful in their approach to teaching players how to type. But this year’s wave of typing games is resolute in using the mechanics as gameplay elements. That could mean a new control scheme, a la Keyboard Sports, or a way to mechanically push a story forward, like in The Textorcist, which has players type out the “prayers” used for exorcising demons, or Fishing Cactus’ Nanotale. Of course, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing does have game-like elements designed so players can have fun while learning, but the core game requires players to type out a story.
“Part of [the development] was just having a story, so there was some reason to be typing these letters,” Duffy says. “One of the things we did was to make it fun to read as you were typing. It’s not just ‘The red fox jumps over the lazy brown dog,’ stuff, but excerpts [of original stories]. We hired a writer to create original content for the game.”
In Nanotale, a top-down role-playing game to be released this year, magic is used as an explanation for the typing mechanic. Much like in Diablo, players are exploring a fantasy world and fighting enemies. But instead of tapping a single button to cast a spell, you’re typing out the incantation, as if you’re speaking it yourself. There are puzzles, magic management, and things to collect, making it a much more involved experienced than something like Typing of the Dead, which also requires typing words to defeat enemies. And most of these elements, from talking to non-playable characters and picking up items, are done through typing.
“We’re trying to use a typing mechanic in a meaningful way so that it makes sense,” Nanotale game designer David Bailly says. “You’re typing this word because the character is writing something down or casting a spell. Words have meaning and magic is carried through incantations.” It’s a slightly different approach to the typing mechanic in Fishing Cactus’ Epistory. (Nanotale is described by the developer as a spiritual successor to Epistory.) In Epistory, a story is written through the actions of the game. It’s literally the power of words that unfold the story in its papercraft world.
Neither game aims to teach a player to type; Bailly explicitly says it’s not an educational game. But the team did employ a design rule that made sure Epistory (and, later, Nanotale) didn’t help a player develop bad habits. Likewise, both games do track how fast you’re typing, but it’s actually to adapt the difficulty to skill. “The game is supposed to calculate how fast you’re typing to adapt metrics of speed of enemies and your skill to make the game interesting to everyone,” Bailly says.
It’s the reason why the game works, but a varying level of keyboard familiarity could also explain why now is the time when typing and keyboard-controlled games are having their moment. Most of us know how to type, often pretty well. And most of us probably don’t even think about it; we just do it, even if we’re not the most skilled typists. That familiarity allows us to think about the device in newer, more interesting ways. The need to learn to type on a keyboard feels a bit more archaic, and that distance from the likes of Typing of the Dead and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing allows typing games to be more than educational tools. We already use keyboards to play video games — WASD to move, specifically — so why not build a whole game around it?
Keyboard Sports director Garbos has a different explanation, though, which is perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek. “Let’s face it, the keyboard is dying,” Garbos says. “Today, more emails are written on phones than on actual keyboards. More games are played with controllers, and that’s just the beginning. You can now interface with your computer through speech, virtual reality, or even by just looking it at.
“It’s too late to save the keyboard, so Keyboard Sports: Saving QWERTY is our final tribute to the wonderful keyboard.”