Interface? Interferes, morelike!

Inspired by Marek Bronstring’s tirade, well, arguments against the use of comic sans and curlz in games I mulled over the problems with Japanese interfaces for a while. It’s not a terribly deep subject, mind you, and probably not worth a post, but if, like me, you have had occasion to get involved with interface or GUI design for a Japanese title you may have come across some of the problems associated with it.

Firstly, let it be said that only people who have studied or are interested in typography can get this upset about the use or misuse of fonts. I have my own favourite and much hated fonts, though I wouldn’t necessarily organize a campaign against any of them. I do feel that developers should make an effort to develop their own typography for a game, have one custom-made or at least have the decency to stay away from DaFont or 1001FreeFonts. Novelty fonts are like Photoshop filters in that they look like what they are and can only ever be used for the home-made invitation cards for an accountants’ office party; they certainly have no business being used in video games.

So why do we always see Arial and Helvetica in games? Aside from the fact these are work-horse fonts that have, in essence, nothing wrong with them, it’s usually publishers who get wet feet over weird typography and, under the blanket excuse of “readability” will hoist either of these two fonts upon the poor graphic designer tasked with having an interface design credit attached to his name.

In Japan though, especially as a foreign designer, there are plenty of other pitfalls when it comes to text in games. I, for one, have apparently no sense of what is deemed “cool” when it comes to Japanese typography. Possibly because kanji has that effect on westerners I find slightly calligraphically designed letters and square or bubble techno fonts pretty damn cool. My colleagues, however, will twist their faces and exclaim it looks old-fashioned, ugly or childish. In retaliation I am often bemused by them sprinkling texts with the occasional English, as that is considered cool, no matter if it’s erroneous. No, there is definitely a cultural barrier here and if the onerous task of graphic design falls on me I am usually not too proud to let a colleague suggest a font.

With today’s technology you really want an anti-aliased font. On old televisions a wrongly aligned bit of blurring or a single pixel line could cause flickering as it fell in between scan lines. Today’s televisions don’t really have that problem anymore but show things in their gory crispness that some smoothing is desired. If you don’t smooth properly at the very least you’ll get a long bug list with comments on how the slant in the “fu” is every so slightly pixilated. TrueType is right out, of course. Your average Japanese font is around 2 to 4 megabytes in size, compared to the 200 kilobytes of a western font. So bitmapping it is!

However, I found, from personal experience, you simply cannot go below 14 pts in size when you’re using kanji. Some of the more difficult kanji use so many horizontals and verticals hat anything smaller just reduces it to a mess of pixels, more resembling a square barcode than a letter. Even so, some hand-adjusting is often desired. I have spent days going in with the pencil and block eraser tool scanning the hundreds of kanji used in the game to just clear up the occasional anti-aliasing slip. It’s the dictionary definition of tedium.

For this reason, as well as general readability, and of course because they are free, regular Windows fonts usually end up doing the trick. A lot, if not exactly all western imported and localized games end up using one of the MS fonts, often jarring with the rest of the design or image. At least, jarring to me, but maybe not my Japanese peers. For Japanese titles a rounded font, the Japanese version of comic sans, crops up in games aimed squarely at children, and these often don’t use kanji anyway. Calligraphy fonts may be used for historic battle games (with or without giant enemy crabs). This is not a hard and fast rule. And that’s about all there is to say on the subject.

It’s a shame really. Typography is one of those hobby interests of mine; I am by no measure an expert, but I do want to learn more about these things. Kanji, though, and the cultural way the Japanese read and react to them is such a closed book to me I wouldn’t know where to start. I’ve watched calligraphy masters stare at paper for minutes before quickly putting down a word, which admittedly looked beautiful but can also transmit emotion and deeper meaning to a Japanese audience while I am left to only admire the simple aesthetics.

Just beware that when you, as a non-Japanese add some kanji or kana to your designs, and we’ve all done it, fess up, the Japanese will probably just giggle and point. We think having some techno-kana in the background looks cool and DR, but to them it often simply does not. But that’s okay. You may laugh at their use of English, the way the film “Akira” was written in romaji because that’s just so damn cool. Maybe we should all just switch scripts and languages and call it a day. But whatever you do, spare a thought for that poor bastard who spent days cleaning up bitmapped font files for any Japanese release. Tighten up those graphics, proud solider!


  1. I kind of know you pain. I had to do a lot of converting text in images for Starfox Command from Japanese to other languages (thankfully not TO Japanese) using a script that came from the translators. Often it doesn't fit on the screen properly or you can't divide the sentence so that it looks balanced because of some huge word that can't be split (thanks, Germany).

    It must have been loads worse for my Japanese colleagues who had to do the Japanese text AND add the stupid furigana above the kanji. That must have been a nightmare - it was a DS game of course, so there were just 256x192 pixels on the screen, and most of that was occupied by characters with flappy mouths.

    I really fucking hate that whole futuristic city with kana everywhere look that Western designers often go for. It's ok if they study a little bit and make some sensible words from the kana and have them fit properly into the environment, but when things are back to front and/or make no sense it really annoys me and feels like the writing was put there simply because the artist thought that Japanese was cool.

  2. Interesting read, again !
    Do you know these guys ?
    Great fonts (and almost free):

  3. Suny, yeah, I've seen those fonts before, pretty cool stuff. I did, in fact, suggested one of theirs for the last interface I worked on, but the suggestion was just viewed with astonished skepticism. In the end the answer was an emphatic "no", which in Japan is quite a thing.

    Anon above, I hear you. Furigana on a small screen is HELL. You're lucky you've never had to work on that yourself. That's why I really want to work on kids' games: only kana, a 100 odd characters and you're done. :)

  4. simply because the artist thought that Japanese was cool

    To be fair, it's not just artists...

    (here ends my shameless cross-promotion :)

  5. Wow. Working with kanji sounds like a nightmare. I've only once had to create a bitmap font by hand (for English text) and it was a horrible task, so I can't imagine how that must be when you're facing an overwhelming number of Japanese characters.

    By the way, while indeed only people who have studied or are interested in typography will get upset about mistakes, I believe (hope?) most gamers will intuitively sense them too. Particularly when it's done right.

    Random example: I was just playing NBA Street Homecourt. It's not the kind of game I usually play. But it left a good impression on me in a small part thanks to the very well designed menus and excellent font use. I mentioned this to some friends and they heartily agreed. It's probably part of what many people so vaguely refer to as the "polish".

    Anyway, glad my ... umm ... tirade motivated you to write a post. :)

  6. Dear god! interesting web site you got here.
    But I think you should change the name to Japanfrustration

    Good luck!

  7. ライブチャット初心者でもすぐチャットがはじめる事ができるチャットランキングを紹介

  8. I really, really enjoyed this. The humor works brilliantly, and the animation is much better than I had imagined. The way you have “blended” (hehe) it all together makes this look like a solid, whole product, as good as any Pixar short. Probably better. But then again: That’s my opinion.
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