Designing an Alien Alphabet
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
A screenshot from Spryke, showing various uses of its custom alphabet.
The good news is that the rules are much looser when designing a fictional alphabet, and it can be very fun. But there's more to it than just throwing down some random squiggles! I've recently designed a complete alphabet for Spryke, and I'll take you through my whole process.
The benefits of adding a custom alphabet to your game
- Written language is everywhere, and is a key component of culture (even its absence in oral cultures is a key component of those). If you want your world to feel like it has its own living, breathing culture, then you need to think about its written language.
- If your game is set in a fantasy or sci-fi world, your characters probably don't speak/write English. Which begs the question: what do they speak/write?
- If your game is in a fictional present-day country, a bespoke alphabet shows that you've put some effort into making your country feel unique, rather than just lazily assembled a bunch of general racial stereotypes, à la the Just Cause and Far Cry series.
- Your alphabet could be used as a sort of code that your players need to try and decipher. You could even base puzzles around it.
- A fictional alphabet means you can populate your world with billboards, signs, and slogans, without having to actually write catchy and convincing content for those billboards, signs and slogans.
- If you have a number of different cultures/races/species in your game, using multiple alphabets would be a good way to differentiate between them, even when the characters themselves aren't present. For instance, inscriptions in an ancient ruin could indicate the presence of a long-gone foreign race, while text on an empty space ship could emphasise that it belongs to an enemy.
- Designing a bespoke alphabet is fun!
Step 1: Consider your gameworld's culture
An alphabet's aesthetic and functional aspects reveal a lot about its creators. Its forms naturally spring from the traits of the home culture.
Step 2: Consider your gameworld's technology
Apart from looking cool and a little bit hostile, there's another reason the dragon alphabet above is comprised mainly of long heavy slashes: It was carved by dragons. Dragons didn't have pens, brushes or chisels, but claws, and the clever designers at Bethesda took this into account.
You may not have consciously thought about these logistics when looting Skyrim's tombs, but you probably noticed it unconsciously on some level. By considering not just the alphabet's personality, but also its logistics, the Bethesda crew designed an alphabet that feels right.
There are various technological factors that can influence a successful alphabet. These Anglo-Saxon runes were usually carved into wood, so they avoid curves and horizontal lines (straight lines were easier to carve, and horizontal lines could have caught in the wood grain and split the wood):
As you can see, technological considerations can have a profound impact on the look of your glyphs. Paying attention to technological logistics won't just make your alphabet more believable, but may take it in an exciting aesthetic direction.
Some things to think about:
- What tools would the people/creatures in your game use to write with?
- What surfaces would they use?
- Do they have an abundant culture that would foster artisanship?
- Do they live in a dangerous world and use a minimalist alphabet that is easy to write in a hurry?
Step 3: Research
But if you're like me, inspiration is just a few centimetres away!
Step 4: Choose your elements
Pick a few appropriate shapes that will form the backbone of your alphabet's aesthetic. Remember to peruse existing alphabets for inspiration if need be.
Spryke's alphabet needs to look a bit cartoony, and like it belongs to an alien race. My starting point of Glagolitic is actually a pretty good choice, because it's unique looking and looks quite alien to modern eyes, having gone out of usage long ago. In addition, its hollow circle and equilateral triangle motifs lend it a certain geometric look that fits well with my desired cartoony vibe. To make my alphabet a bit more hi-tech looking, I focused on straight lines and precise angles.
Step 5: Sketches on Paper
Step 6: Vectorise and finalise
- Keep line thickness as consistent as you can
- If a particular character calls for it, feel free to deviate from your core shapes, angles, and line thicknesses. Just don't deviate from them thoughtlessly or by accident.
- As with all design, the secret is in iteration, iteration, iteration.
- Try all of your designs flipped or rotated - they might look better that way
- Decide how the weight of your alphabet will feel. Will your characters be grounded downwards like Latin, pull toward the heavens like Hebrew, or float weightlessly like Chinese? I chose to centre mine weightlessly, as I felt that this made them feel more digital, spacey, and self-contained.
- Only do uppercase/lowercase if you have a really good reason for it, as it'll double your workload. Many real-world alphabets only have one case.
Step 7: Punctuation
Forgot about punctuation, didn't ya? For our purposes, there are two types of punctuation, which I'll call structural and emphatic.
- Structural punctuation - such as commas, dashes, and semicolons - is punctuation that helps readability by organising sentences correctly; we don't really need it here, since our fictional text won't be readable anyway. Though feel free to include it in your alphabet, as it may add: visual interest, authenticity, diversity.
- Emphatic punctuation emphasises the context of a phrase by indicating that the words "came from somewhere else" or that they are very important!! Could emphatic punctuation even be used to emphasise uncertainty? Or perhaps even................................silence?
Whether or not you need punctuation at all is up to you and the specifics of your game. I decided that Spryke won't need structural punctuation, but could benefit from some emphatic punctuation.
If you choose to use emphatic punctuation, you must make it somehow decipherable by your audience, even though the rest of your alphabet isn't. There's no point inventing a question mark symbol to replace "?" if people will think it's just another letter.
There are several ways to tackle this:
- If your game's inhabitants are modern day humans, it may be appropriate to just use English punctuation marks, since some modern-day non-Latin languages also use them.
- You could use creative variations of English punctuation marks that look somewhat original, yet still understandable.
- You could ditch punctuation marks altogether and rely on other methods to emphasise certain words, like colour, spacing, italics, bold, underlining, and size.
- You could make your punctuation marks look so different from your letters that there's no mistaking the two.
I went with the last option, and made three different punctuation marks. My players won't know what exactly they mean, but the marks should stand out enough to make it clear that they imply emphasis of some sort. Their unique design, raised position, and parenthesis-like clumping of other characters should all help with that.
Step 8: Numerals
Step 9: Fonts
I'm writing this in a small home office, yet I can see more than 20 different fonts without even getting off my chair: several across my computer screens, a different one on the logo of almost every appliance and piece of computer hardware in the room, and a few on an old bill on my desk. No matter where you are, I bet you'd find plenty of fonts around you too.
Our world is loaded with different fonts, and things would look weird if everything was suddenly written in only one. So your gameworld should probably have a few fonts too. Making new fonts won't be quite as time-consuming as inventing your glyphs was, but it will still take a lot of work. I suggest making a few fonts, with specific use-cases in mind.
I made four:
- My original font, which works well at small sizes due to its thin, uniform line weight.
- A bolder one suitable for larger uses like building signs or machinery. I added slight curvature to various triangles and lines to give a softer, bolder look.
- A rough, scrawled version for graffiti, cave paintings, etc. This was the only version in raster format.
- A playful, stylised variant, for use on advertisements, neon signs, and the like. To give it a friendlier look, I eliminated most sharp corners, and tweaked the configurations of various characters, ensuring that white space between the various elements was kept loose.
Putting it all together
I hope this helps someone, and if you've designed your own alphabet, I'd love to see it!