Creating the alien writing in Infinifactory
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Despite extensive sleuthing by our players, the alien writing in Infinifactory is not a real language. Although it may have no meaning, that doesn’t mean it’s meaningless; on the contrary, we spent a fair amount of time designing a writing system that would look believable, alien, and fit visually within the game. Here’s how we did it.
I am not a linguist, writer, or artist. If you are, you’re probably going to face-palm while reading this. I just make video games, and questionable ones at that.
Step 1: Create a script
Much of the identify of Infinifactory’s alien overlords is communicated by their clothing: formal, alien, and vaguely militaristic. Before we even knew that we wanted to create a writing system for the aliens, the concepting process yielded the following badge, which I immediately adored:
The concept that inspired the alien writing of Infinifactory.
The square form of the letters fit the game’s obsession with cube-shaped objects, and the strokes implied enough variation that it could conceivably encode enough information to be part of a viable script. This image became my starting point for the design of the alien script. From there I turned to one of my all-time favorite articles on the internet.
Yes, everyone knows that Chinese characters look awesome, especially when the guy at the tattoo parlor tells you that it means “fire stallion” or something equally descriptive of who you are on the inside, man. But it turns out that there are tons of amazingly varied scripts used to write the languages of the world, many with additional rules and styles that make them more than “just another alphabet.” Did you know that letters in Arabic look different depending on their position in the word? That’s awesome!
A few of the original characters that made it into the game.
The characters in the badge seemed to fit on a 5x5 grid, so we printed out a few sheets of 5x5 grids and started drawing more characters that felt similar to the ones already created. This led to the development of a basic character set, including characters that felt like numbers or punctuation. To make the writing feel foreign to Western eyes we chose to have characters run vertically from bottom to top. Inspired by the Devanagari alphabet, we added a vertical line that often, but not always, linked characters together.
Step 2: Create rules
After designing the characters of the alien script, I pieced them together into an example “document” that expressed an imaginary syntax for the writing system. I think this is an important step that is often overlooked but creates a strong sense of realism, as actual writing systems have lots of rules beyond their set of letters. In written English, words are separated by spaces, which are then grouped into sentences that end with special symbols and start with larger letters that look completely different from their smaller versions! If the alphabets of Earth have different rules for syntax, why wold alien writing look the same as English with different letters?
The example “document” used to explore the syntax of the alien writing.
- Documents start with the “start document” character and end with the “end document” character. Why? I have no idea. They’re square and frame the body of text nicely. Maybe they’re like quotation marks, or maybe they have something to do with it being stored or viewed by computers. If you’re consistent about applying the rule, implied purpose is just as good as actual purpose.
- Most characters are grouped into “words”, which start with the “start word” character and are connected by a vertical line on the right side. I don’t have a logical reason for why the same character is present at the start of every word, but I think it looks cool and adds some “visual logic” that implies depth to the writing that isn’t actually there.
- Numbers are expressed as stacks of dots and dashes, between one and three grid-units wide. If they’re stacked three at a time they’ll start to look like an alien barcode, which fits with the idea of this being a language designed to be read by both the aliens and their computers.
Step 3: Create a font
In order to make our artists’ lives easier when adding text to in-game textures, I created a font called Overlord that contained all the characters of the alien writing system with the correct spacing to make it easy to align glyphs as shown in the concept document. To make the font easy to use in Photoshop it runs from left to right, which can then be rotated 90 degrees to achieve the proper orientation.
Although creating the font involved some up-front work, in the end I think it was worth it. It made it simple to create and share bodies of text, and resulted in image assets that were easy to style and scaled without losing any fidelity.
A reference sheet for using the Overlord font.
Step 4: Put text everywhere!
We wanted the aliens of Infinifactory to feel believable, to better fit with the game’s “low sci-fi” aesthetic. One way we accomplished this was through the addition of lots of alien text in boring places, like a computer screen or the side of a piece of machinery. Because we had created a font for the alien writing system, this was easy!
Examples of the alien writing used throughout Infinifactory.
Step 5: Accidentally mislead your players (optional)
In the month or so leading up to the release of Infinifactory we launched a very small ARG.
The primary payload of the ARG consisted of three images, encoded in an imaginary image transmission format that was amplitude modulated with noise added to simulate a spotty radio transmission. The scanlines, of course, ran from bottom to top and left to right, just like the alien writing! When decoded, the images looked something like this:
Two images from the Infinifactory ARG, as decoded by a player.
Players quickly figured out how to extract the images, and then proceeded to the ARG’s next phase: figuring out what the text said. Except that it didn’t really say anything at all! Oops.
With the release of the game and the introduction of many more examples of alien writing, players continued in their efforts to crack the code with mixed results... by which I mean they got no where. Sorry about that! I guess next time we’ll have to go full-Tolkien and make it actually mean something.