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The Kid Asks About A Typeface

Game:Bastion Release: 2011 Platform: XBLA/Steam Art Director:Jen Zee

Bastion is a game that feels a little torn between time periods. On one hand, the game is a veritable shrine to the roleplaying and adventure games of the 16 and 8-bit eras. The isometric camera view, the varied level design, the strict adherence to playing in two-dimensions, and the cohesiveness of its unique “western-punk” fantasy aesthetic all recall a myriad of the best moments from best games of the early 1990s. On the other, the game benefits from things that only exist in the current generation: online distribution, the relative ease and availability of developing games on a small budget (with a small team cramped inside a single house), and most importantly the advent of high-definition graphics.

It’s this last current-gen advantage that really enables the world of Bastion to come alive and be realized to an extent that its pixellated forefathers could only infer and hint toward. With Bastion , the ability to include high-resolution textures and art assets allowed its creators to really imbue the world with a rich history and meaning. As I’ve noted in previous articles, I’m a big proponent of world-building. The practice of fleshing out the virtual universe of a game (or games) with information that taken alone may seem trivial or irrelevant, but collected together into a package of sight and sound really inform both the game and the gamer and provides a richer experience.

The colorful world of Bastion is exactingly rendered in high-definition 2D artwork. Seen here are two examples of the Caelondian language on the top and side of the Distillery building.

One such aspect of world building that I’ve covered previously is typeface design and language creation. A lot of work goes into the creation of a font: what does it say about the language it represents, does it infer anything about the people who use it, and what kind of visual “rules” will you abide by in its creation? All of these questions and others are raised when dealing with fonts and typefaces.

This level of consideration is even higher when the language your typeface depicts doesn’t even exist in the real world. In Bastion the language of the protagonist, Caelondian, not only establishes a language (spoken exactly like English but written very differently), but a corresponding typeface that adorns signs, shops, and the game’s interface itself.

Detail of Cinderbrick Stout bottle with Cael text label

I was able to recently contact and chat with Jen Zee, Art Director for developer Supergiant Games, at the 2011 Penny Arcade Expo. From our chat I decided to interview her and Greg Kasavin, the game’s lead writer and level designer for Supergiant Games. Below is our interview, conducted via email:

To start things off, would you briefly describe your main roles in the production of Bastion :

Jen: Hello! I’m Jen Zee and I served as the Art Director for Bastion . I worked in conjunction with Greg, our Creative Director, in order to visualize, create and unify the look and feel of Caelondia. Other than 3D and FX work, I was also responsible for the creation of all 2D art assets.

Greg: And I’m Greg Kasavin. I did the writing and roughly half of the level design on Bastion .

Jen, what is your primary background as an artist?

Jen: I’d like to think of myself as an artist of many endeavors, though currently I’m primarily a 2D artist. When it comes to my personal work, I have a strong passion for illustration and concept design. For the purposes of Bastion , I essentially handled anything two-dimensional. I don’t have any formal training with relation to art as my studies were largely composed of the sciences, but my parents brought me to a lot of museums starting from an early age so I like to think that those artists who have come before me, my peers, and the beautiful world around me were (and still are) my professor and classroom! I also believe that the quality of an artist is largely tied to the sum of their experiences… so in that sense studying in fields which aren’t directly related to art has had an indirect impact on my growth as an artist.

Greg, as someone with a background in writing for print and for games, was Caelondian your first attempt at creating a new language? What experience if any do you have with reading/writing other languages?

Greg: Bastion is the first game I’ve worked on in a writer/creative director capacity so it does contain my first real attempts at creating anything like a new language. The game’s narrator of course speaks English, so I came up with the basis for an exotic-sounding language for the Ura, to make those characters seem more fully realized and better express the contrast and lack of understanding between the two groups people.

As a writer, I’ve long been interested in languages and etymology. It probably helps that I’m originally from Russia so English technically isn’t my first language. Growing up bilingual, I took a little more naturally to learning other languages and picked up some Spanish and Japanese in high school. I also grew up playing a lot of games, like the Ultima series – several of those games had a full runic alphabet and lots of encoded messages, and as a kid I got to where I could read and write it fluently. This contributed to making the worlds of those games feel very immersive.

Likewise Jen, was the Caelondian character set in Bastion your first attempt at creating a typeface?

Jen: I’m sure I’ve doodled typefaces or fragments of something similar in my past, but this is the first time I’ve moved forward with creation of a fictitious language for a people and world with established qualities. I speak Cantonese, have a loose grasp of Japanese and read Korean. I’m not too sure if my exposure to those languages had anything beyond a subliminal impact on my Cael design decisions, but it’s quite possible!

Cael text adorning in-game menu

Does an English translation exist for Caelondian?

Jen: Considering the both of us are very into worlds with fictitious languages, I’m pretty surprised that we didn’t meditate heavily upon this, but consider it an oversight on my part since I was the first to start working with the language. This is one of the cases where it’s both a blessing and a curse to work quickly with a small team. There were some attempts to retroactively create a fully translatable alphabet using what we already had, but ultimately we would have had to recreate enough art that the goal was something we reluctantly set aside for Bastion , but certainly not for any of our future projects.

Greg: What we ended up doing as sort of a compromise was to assign meaning to the uses of the alphabet where it appeared in the game. There are a number of games with their own made-up alphabets whose character sets all conveniently map to the 27-letter English alphabet and whose words coincidentally map to English words. We didn’t want to use the Caelondian alphabet as some kind of a code, so we settled for it having no direct English analog.

I felt like a guy studying hieroglyphics, trying to determine the meaning. That process felt more honest to me than just letting it all go as meaningless, and besides, all language is meaningless until somebody decides to start associating meanings with sounds or symbols. We do have an idea for what it means in the main contexts in which we use it, though. For example, we decided that the symbols on the loading screens are the lyrics to the song “Build That Wall”, which plays in the game on a few occasions.

Are there any “words” in Caelondian? In other words are there specific series of characters that were devised to stand for some concept or idea in the game (i.e. the Armory) or were they chosen more for aesthetic value?

Jen: For my part, the decisions I made were largely aesthetic when it came to their placement in the game world. Text on buildings and signs were created to be somewhat enigmatic but “believable” … I loosely stuck with the idea of substituting Cael to English at a 1:1 ratio, though I didn’t meditate at any great length to arrive at the decision. I didn’t want the building signs to be particularly attention-grabbing lest we go too far and alienate players by presenting something completely unfamiliar.

Greg: There aren’t any words in Caelondian since the game’s whole script is in English. It’s an analogy for English, though we have the unique alphabet in order to give the world of the game its own flavor that tells you straightaway that this game isn’t set in a common place or time.

As mentioned, though, I did develop the basis of a language and etymology for the Ura. The contrast there is you never see the Ura language written out, though you do hear it spoken. This is meant to be expressive of the cultural barrier between the two groups of people.

Players won’t hear the Ura language in any great length in the game, and the context for it is in combat. So most of it consists of various barks and shouts, but it should sound like sentences rather than gibberish. There are close to 20 different Ura expressions heard in the game. A simple example is “Slah zet!” or, “It’s him!”. Another is “Marazim!”, which means, “Impossible!”

I never intended to release translations because I think the meanings are fairly self-evident in context.

What were the primary influences on the look of Caelondian? Did you look at other existing languages (living or dead) for inspiration?

Jen: Early in the production of Bastion , the team settled on the foundational concepts of a largely western frontier-type world infused with dashes of Babylonian aesthetic. Additionally, the pre-calamity Caels were envisioned as a strong, powerful society – my approach to creating their architecture came first and I chose to use square, very solid feeling shapes and structures in order to emphasize that strength. It stands to reason that a society’s language should be a reflection of their culture, so I ended up blending those same ideas with the more triangular shapes of Babylonian script.

Thankfully, Babylonian script lent itself pretty well to the more rigid look of the characters as it’s mainly composed of lines and triangles. Some have said the end result bears a strong resemblance to the Runic alphabet which I suppose I have no problem with, since as far as I know that language is associated with cultures which seem to share similar qualities to our Caels.

Caelondian text as compared to Babylonian characters

Visually Caelondian shares qualities with the overall whimsical, fairytale look of Bastion . Elements like swirls, uneven lines and rough angles appear in the character shapes as well as in things like stonework and shop icons. Did the typeface change over time or was it more-or-less created simultaneously with the other art assets?

Jen: The typeface didn’t change much. Once integrated, the symbols were more or less considered final. Mostly, the only change was the on-the-fly addition of new characters to bring enough visual variety to the language.

How many total characters are there in the Caelondian language?

Jen: I’ve never really bothered to count, actually! I would estimate that there are approximately 20-30 characters in the set.

Greg: It’s more than 30 if you count the mirrored versions of the characters! This has precedent in some real-world languages and is suggestive of accented syllables or other such details.

Was that number arrived at out of any particular concern? Or was it mostly out of an aesthetic choice so as to avoid over-repetition of the same characters?

Jen: A combination of the two, actually! Sometime during the creative process, I had either decided or defaulted to the idea of creating an alphabet-based language along the lines of English, Japanese or Korean rather than a character-based one, like Chinese. I didn’t do a whole lot of research; but given my brushes with the afore-mentioned alphabet-based languages, it seemed pretty intuitive to limit the number of characters.

What was the initial creation of the typeface like? Did you sit down with some idea of a unifying style for the typeface or was its appearance evolved organically out of the other artworks?

Jen: Mostly the latter – The first appearance of the language in any art was its integration with the buildings. It was really a matter of necessity – a forge has GOT to have a sign saying “Forge” right?! I did a little research as mentioned in Q7 (the Babylonian influences) and then allowed the pen to guide me!

Map with Caelondian text mark-up

In terms of the “Bastion -verse”, does the design of the Caelondian language convey something larger about the people of Caelondia? Were there additional plans for the language or for the language of the Windbags and the Ura?

Jen: Yeah, absolutely. As I mentioned before, I had designed the language with a desire to visually communicate the strength, power and structure of the culture. I imagined the Caels as people who would appreciate the grace of strong shapes and hoped to illustrate that sentiment via their written language.

Greg: As with English, the Cael alphabet was meant to look old, and to contrast with the idea that Caelondia the city wasn’t all that old – like there was a lot of cultural borrowing that had taken place. Separately there’s the Ura language, which as mentioned, is never seen written out, only heard spoken. The Ura’s written language is described to be something of a mystery so we didn’t want to show it since the imagination is more powerful than whatever we could have come up with there.

I did want to establish the idea that the world of the game has these different organized factions in it, and that even these creatures like the Windbags could communicate with each other in a way. The Windbags aren’t exactly the literate sort, though.

Lastly, are there any interesting tidbits or other facts about the Caelondian language and typeface that you’d like to discuss here?

Greg: Caelondia mashes up a lot of ideas from Western civilization with the goal of making a familiar-feeling culture in a fantasy setting, without it feeling allegorical or derived from any one culture or ethnicity. The language is an expression of that. Likewise the Ura are meant to embody the foreign and the exotic, relative to a Western viewpoint, again without aping any one culture. While the use of an original alphabet or made-up words and expressions in Bastion isn’t necessarily a major component of the game, we hoped that these kinds of details would enhance the world, and make it feel like it had a real history to it.

Whats on the horizon for Supergiant Games?

Greg: We’re in between projects now so we’ll be keeping pretty quiet for a while, though anyone interested in Bastion or what we’re up to next should keep an eye on our @SupergiantGames Twitter feed. Also thank you for taking the time to dig into this aspect of the game!

I’d like to extend endless thanks to both Greg and Jen for taking some time out of their schedule to complete the interview and to the rest of the Supergiant crew for making Bastion . The team is clearly a very passionate group of people and it’s games like Bastion that really appeal to both my gamer and designer sides equally. The Cael language and its font is just one of a dozen things I could cover about the game. So often with articles on Visual Attack Formation I am left to my own devices to derive the meaning and the motive behind the visual design of a title. It’s great to get confirmation that artists and writers who truly have a passion for imbuing their creations with meaning and an inherent history are working in the industry.

You can visit Jen Zee’s personal blog at: http://jenzeejunk.blogspot.com/ and the Supergiant website at: http://supergiantgames.com/

Posted in Art & Design, Bastion, Games, Typography

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