Custom Fonts Destryoing Your World

I’ve started to post things at the text-mode tumblr (and archive) again. This was prompted by me starting to write on my book about text graphics again. It’s taking forever, but it’s definitely starting to take shape now.

I’ve started digging deeper into character sets and fonts, and it appears to me that customization is becoming more popular. Ray Manta has been experimenting a lot with his own custom charsets in a yet-to-be-released text-mode editor. Now one of his fonts will be in the upcoming version of the Retrospecs app. This app lets you convert images to text, which is certainly not new, but what is new is that you can choose between a wide range of fonts and palettes, mostly from 1980s computers and consoles.

Ray Manta’s custom charset destroying the world

Playscii (formerly Edscii) is one of the first software I heard about that did this, and that also lets you design your own. Polyducks uses it to make interesting merges of ANSI, PETSCII and custom charsets. Some of his works, like the recent Boko Forest, almost doesn’t look like text graphics anymore. It looks more like the tile graphics that for example the NES uses, where everything on the screen is built from these “mosaic blocks”. I call this form of text graphics text mosaics because they often share more with geometric and mosaic art, than with text. Still, it is text graphics on a technical level.

It’s not easy to say where text graphics end and tile graphics begin. A font can be designed to look like graphical tiles, and tiles can be designed to look like text. On a material level we can look at things like colours (text graphics has more limited use of colours) and resolution (tiles often larger). When there is more colours and details, at some point it doesn’t feel like text graphics anymore.

But where that line is drawn, is something that changes. Over time and place and context. For example, I see sceners who say that ANSI graphics that are more than 100 characters wide, is not “real” ANSI anymore. In other contexts it might be fine to make make it 1000 characters width, which basically turns it into pixel art where you don’t see the individual characters, and still call it ANSI. Because that’s what it is. Or?

If custom character sets and fonts become more popular, I think this will push these changes further, in all kinds of directions, in the coming years. And maybe eventually destroy the world. But more about that in the book. It will hopefully be finished before those years have passed…

If you don’t want to miss the book release sign up to this and you can read more on this topic in previous blog posts here.

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4 Responses to “Custom Fonts Destryoing Your World”

  1. drxb2k Says:

    I think with text especially, custom fonts (mappings from the computer symbol to a graphical representation) are crucial to judge what is the thing you’re looking at; the context of usage is important. On today’s internet, users share pixel graphics in the appropriate formats, like PNG and JPEG. The software to turn such file into pixels is available to everybody, so this unit of distribution makes sense, but has asymmetries when it comes to participation (not everyone has Photoshop, Maja, or a beautiful flower to take a photograph of). With text graphics, the idea used to be that everyone who would receive such a file would have the software to turn it into pixels again (sometimes just a computer’s BIOS), and to make and modify them (BASIC, CLI, stock editors). This is not true anymore, which is exemplified by the way these graphics are circulated today: as “pre-rendered” pixel images. A text graphic dependent on a custom font then requires the font being distributed as well for normalizing software environments across creators and viewers to still be regarded as a text graphic. Since nowadays everyone is using Windows 10 or whatever, that has become true for every text graphic that is not based on Unicode, among them newer developments like Font Awesome.

    • goto80 Says:

      It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park to look at text graphics in the 80s or 90s either. Plaintext does not exist! Displaying and editing the text sure, but it wasn’t always easy to decode it right, and not all software supported obscure encodings. Especially not if you wanted to see say Japanese Shift-JIS. And then you also had to know which font to use. With Unicode, I’d still say it’s hard to say if you’re watching it the way it was supposed to look, but perhaps that’s mainly a problem with browsers handling text in different ways. And yeah, at least with ASCII, ANSI and PETSCII there are many popular ways to consume the text graphics as text graphics, instead of images. And there seems to be more coming. So… while I understand that embedding fonts changes the “ontology” of text graphics, I’m not sure about your description that it was all easy and neutral before.

      • drxb2k Says:

        About obscure encodings and the issues of cross-platform access to text graphics in previous times: sure it wasn’t easy in many cases, but with relatively stable computing platforms, platform-specific texts made sense. The stable platform vanishes with custom fonts. The text becomes less performative, and moves closer to pixel graphics.

        About Unicode, I think the “how it was supposed to look” might be not even the right way to think about issues it has. Computing platforms with specific text rendering like MS-DOS, Amiga, etc, have been replaced by social media platforms; as long as my emoji composition looks right on the platform I’m distributing it on, all is good. You’ll run into the same issues as with viewing Shift-JIS on a US system when copying some Unicode text from, for instance, facebook into twitter.

      • goto80 Says:

        Yeah, good points. And could you expand a bit on what you mean that the text becomes less performative and closer to pixel graphics?

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