The Secret Alphabet of Gravity Rush
Crazy letters! Not long until you should be able to read these...
There’s a lot to like about Gravity Rush, Sony’s first-year Playstation Vita title that takes advantage of the next-generation handheld platform’s improved specs – and, appropriately, new gravity sensors – to deliver a beautiful game with a Moebius-inspired art style and a jazzy soundtrack. You’ll tilt and rotate your Vita to control protagonist Kat as she shifts gravity every which way while exploring Hekseville’s multi-level cityscapes that are straight out of Belgian-French bande dessinée comic books.
Exotic dreamscapes that incorporate otherworldly plants, lava fields, crystal panels, and the innards of a giant pillar that appears to be holding up the known world are merely supporting locations surrounding the four-borough city that will leave its mark on you: Hekseville, Kat’s adopted home and your playground for gravity-shifting frolicking. The names of the areas offer hints as to their themes: Auldnoir, the first area, is an older part of town; Pleajeune is the pleasure district; Endestria is full of factories; Vendecentre is where goods are sold. Each has its own distinct flavor and culture.
But for those of us who like to go after the really hidden treasures, there’s more: they even invented a somewhat-French-like language, and some written characters to go with it. The language is heard all through the game, and the written characters are on signposts and television screens everywhere. But is it just there for atmosphere, or could there be structure to it?
In an interview with Playstation Magazine (in Japanese here), Keiichiro Toyama talks about this. At one point, when asked about the lettering on the signs, he answers that while the number of letters is consistent with an alphabet, 「解読できないように変換しています」 (kaidoku dekinai yō ni henkan shite imasu "We've changed things around so that (people) can't read it."). Well, Mr. Toyama, the enjoyment I got from this game and the admiration I have for you, the creators, virtually compel me to answer with two words: Challenge. Accepted.
So let’s get started. Looking at the comic strips between chapters and the newspapers, and where the question marks and exclamation points are – to the left of the text, for the most part, but not always – this language might be written left-to-right and it might be right-to-left.
It’s not obvious at all, so let’s start with a vertically written sign. How about this one in Pleajeune, the second area you’ll spend time in? This building looks like a hotel, and it has a sign that says MOTEL:
Let’s keep those five letters in mind and see how many more we can confirm. I’ll skip over all the false leads and go right to the places where we’ll make progress.
Now let’s go back to Auldnoir, the first area of the game, and have a look at this elevator. If MOTEL is right, then we can be pretty confident that the first three letters on this sign are ELE, with T and O towards the end. Let’s plug those in and take this word as ELEVATOR:
Staying in Auldnoir, we can return to the central square where we see some shops with signs. With the letters O, T, E, and R under our belts, I think we can take a stab at this sign as well. Do you like the Foo Fighters? The proprietor of the FOO FIGHTER sure does:
With the letters F, G, and H solved, let’s go back to Pleajeune and look at this sign on the city’s solar power plant. The only unfamiliar letter is the last one: it looks enough like a letter X; let’s plug ENE HEX in for this one.
This is almost too small to read, but that small label at the top has to be TELEPHONE. This gives us the letter P.
Even more common than phone booths are the television screens that are all over the city. Let’s have a look at just one of those.
We know every letter here except the fourth one on the top. MAR_ET is surely market, and the bottom word is PORK. You don’t need to look at that hunk of meat on the left to guess that this is probably MARKET PORK.
A bit of complexity
All the words we’ve seen so far have been pretty straightforward, and they go left-to-right like English does. But remember how, in some of the comic strips you see between chapters, the exclamation points and question marks are on the left? Let's assume that this language can also go right-to-left; as it turns out, it's like that more than half the time.
And since some of the words seem meaningless, but would make sense if letters were inserted at various positions, let's also imagine that one of the features of Toyama's language-convoluter is that certain letters are removed. In the artbook, they make a comment that in creating the spoken language, they took some of the consonants out, so this is pretty consistent.
You might think this is a stretch, but if we allow it, we can possibly read all kinds of things. I’m going to fast-forward past how some of the other letters were deduced. Let’s head down to the high towers of Vendecentre, the busy southern shopping district. We’ve got thirteen of the twenty-six letters down, and this will be enough to fill in all the rest.
The top line, REOTKCLC OT EMCL_, is certainly welcome to clock tower -- this gives us W -- and the stuff on the bottom, ETG S NWT YONE ESEL, has got to be please enjoy town's gate.
Right nearby is:
The yellow writing says ETGSNWT, which has got to be town's gate.
So we’ve established that we’re dealing with English, but written right-to-left and with letters removed on occasion. Let’s go to some other districts and see if this is consistent. And with nineteen letters now certain, we don’t have many more to go.
In Auldnoir, this sign says YRNUL NIC. That’s probably coin laundry, the usual English-derived Japanese word for a laundromat.
Moving to the upper level, we find this sign, which says NAETTIAY. There’s not much we can do with this as English, but the Japanese word yakitate pan, or “freshly-baked bread” certainly fits!
Back in Pleajeune, we've got a neon sign that says LITTC RA. One possibility is Bar Cattail.
And this place is a café, judging by the logo, and while the letters are hard to make out, I think we’re looking at STC FFC, which might be Caffe Cats.
We’ve also got a fruit stand that says ONMAUK:
Armed with Japanese knowledge, by inserting letters we can get kudamono, which is Japanese for "fruit" – and that’s just what they’re selling!
Kat’s rival Raven, called Crow in the Japanese original, has a bar named for her too, evidently. Here’s a sign saying ORK RA, which might be Bar Crow if you’ll also permit some odd spelling.
A brief interlude
With the “skipping letters” quirk established, we can also start looking at the cut scenes in between chapters. Chapter 2, “Shadows Over The City”, features this wanted poster; the authorities are trying to chase down Raven, a woman with similar powers to protagonist Kat. Kat has a kitten as her familiar, and Raven (called ‘Crow’ in Japanese) has a crow:
It looks a little quirky, but the first line is IAETEMHS, and if we read right to left and insert some extra letters, we get shimei tehai 指名手配, which is the standard wording at the top of any Japanese "Wanted" poster. The next line might be UZWO OW IHIE, which, using the same rules, can be seishi wo towazu 生死を問わず , meaning, "dead or alive". If this is correct, we’ve confirmed the letter Z.
At the bottom is NIUOS, which is surely shoukin 賞金, "reward", and then there's a number expressed in whatever currency Hekseville uses, but it's a Y with a line through it, just like Japan's yen sign. Over to the right, below the picture of the crow – too small to make out in this screenshot – is IMN USRA_, which could be karasu nomi 烏のみ ‘only the crow’, referring to the crow itself. (The Japanese subtitles in the original game confirm the words shimei tehai, but also claim that the poster says “Crow” or “Raven”. We now know that there’s more to it than that.)
Those beautiful hand-drawn maps
Now let’s look at the maps. These are beautifully hand-drawn and do a wonderful job of adding atmosphere to the game. In all cases, we’re going to assume that some letters are skipped, and my decipherments will restore them.
Across the top: ELIVSKH, which is Hekseville. Below that, ENEJEL and NEKAUSBAUR. The one on the left is Pleajeune, for certain, and to the right of that is the school, which is called アレカビス学園 Arekabisu Gakuen in Japanese, which fits but for the UR at the beginning, which should be ER. Maybe the name – which is Arquebus Academy in English – was changed during production.
At the bottom left is AITSDN, or Endestria. At far right is IMAGE, which could be an English word read from the left, or could be a Japanese-Heksevillian-abbreviated tegami ("letter") or megami ("goddess").
Bottom half of that map:
AITSDN (Endestria) is visible here too, and on the right is RINTUA, which is really close to Auldnoir; maybe it was ‘Aultnoir’ at one point. The very centre, ARSA, is hashira, Japanese for ‘pillar’. And down at the bottom is ERNEEDEV, which is Vendecentre. The small quotation coming out of the airbus on the left isn’t readable just yet.
Our findings so far
By now we claim to have spotted a large collection of words, so let’s see if we can find some rules that govern which letters are being removed. In the list below, I'll highlight the missing letters, and when you look at them together like this, the rule should become clear. (Note that when the original word has two in a row of the same letter, I had to choose the correct one to highlight so as to keep this rule intact.)
From the in-game action shots:
ONMAUK -> ONOMADUK kudamono (‘fruit’)
LITTC RA -> LIATTAC RAB Bar Cattail
YRNUL NIC -> YRDNUAL NIOC coin laundry
REOT KCLC OT EMCLW -> REWOT KCOLC OT EMOCLEW welcome to clock tower
ETG SNWT YONE ESEL -> ETAG S’NWOT YOJNE ESAELP please enjoy town's gate
From the wanted poster:
IAETEMHS -> IAHETIEMIHS shimei tehai (‘wanted’)
UZWO OW IHIE -> UZAWO OW IHSIES seishi wo towazu 生死を問わず (‘dead or alive’)
NIUOS -> NIKUOH shoukin (‘reward money’)
And from the maps:
ELIVSKH -> ELLIVESKEH, Hekseville
ENEJEL -> ENUEJAELP, Pleajeune
NEKAUSBAUR -> NEUKAGUSIBAKURA, Arukabisu Gakuen
AITSDN -> AIRTSEDNE, Endestria
RINTUA -> RIONTLUA, Aultnoir
ERNEEDEV -> ERTNECEDNEV, Vendecentre
ARSA -> ARISAH, hashira (Japanese, ‘pillar’)
See what's going on? Every third letter, starting from the last, is omitted. Sometimes that means that the first letter of the word falls out, which is almost unimaginable in a real writing system, but there you have it.
Most of the words in the game obey this rule: write from right to left and omit every third letter from the last. If they're not behaving like this, then you've got plain left-to-right writing with no omissions. Kat's handwriting doesn't seem to obey a rule -- the monkey quotes don't, and at another point she writes "check" as CHK -- so I wonder if different artists were involved in creating the assets with different writing schemes.
Zooming in on the maps
The maps we just looked at are only the beginning; zoom in and you’ll see detailed drawings of each area; these are the ones you’ll be relying on when exploring those places, and they too are filled with writing.
Let’s return to the main island in Auldnoir, where the game began:
This is the northern island, where the church is. We’ve got our rule for reading the words: right-to-left, and every third letter, starting from the end, is removed. So what can we get out of this? Well, across the top, in the air above the island, is UKT IAUOK. This fits with kyoukai tiku, an irregular romanisation of kyoukai chiku 教会地区, meaning “church district”. Right below the church, obscured by the manhole, is the same word IAUOK: kyoukai, the church. West of that is UO ANKA, from which we can get sakana zou 魚像, or “fish statue”. Above the main island is UKT UUZOK, and using the same romanization, this can be kyozyuu tiku, or kyojū chiku 居住地区 “residential district”.
Let’s visit that main island now. Right in the middle, we can see IRODO, which is ōdōri 大通り, meaning "Main Street". (Note that this word can also be romanised as oodoori, meaning that the whole remove-certain-letters system is intact.)
At the far left is a building with smoke belching out of the top. Its label is IRYS IMG. This is probably gomi syori, an irregular romanisation of gomi shori ゴミ処理, meaning “garbage processing”.
Below the fountain – my map has a red icon there – you can see ABRI hiroba 広場 "public square" in front of the fountain. I can't get much out of the word before it, but southeast of that is UO IBRE, which is probably iterebi tou, "television tower" (see that outdoor TV screen on the building, right next to the red star icon?) and then southeast of that is UKYK NIUU, which is probably yuubin kyoku 郵便局, "post office". Off the edge of the map is that elevator we visited earlier, and the letters say OTHI. That doesn’t look much like “elevator”, but it does look like rihuto, which is the Japanised version of the English word “lift”!
The TV tower in particular is easy to confirm, as the same letters appear right on the building, if we go for a visit:
Everything obeys the rule:
UKT IAUOK -> UKIT IAKUOYK kyoukai tiku (‘church district’)
IAUOK -> IAKUOYK kyoukai (‘church’)
UO ANKA -> UOZ ANAKAS sakana zou (‘fish statue’)
UKT UUZOK -> UKIT UUYZOYK kyozyuu tiku (‘residential district’)
IRODO -> IROODOO oodoori (‘Main Street’)
IRYS IMG -> IROYS IMOG gomi syori (‘garbage processing’)
ABRI -> ABORIH hiroba (‘open space’)
UO IBRE -> UOT IBERET terebi tou (‘television tower’)
UKYK NIUU -> UKOYK NIBUUY yuubin kyoku (‘post office’)
How about in Pleajeune, the second area? Let’s look first at the eastern half of Pleajeune, where the school is:
The legend at the bottom says IAUZ EUAEP on the top and UZT on the bottom. It deviates from our rule somewhat, but that's probably Pleajeune Zukai (プレジューヌ図解; 'Pleajeune Illustrated') on the top, and the bottom could be tizu, which is an irregular romanisation of chizu 地図, "map". And on the island where the school is, right in the centre (and somewhat obscured by the purple manhole icon), you can just make out AYOU UOKA (gakkou kousya 学校校舎; school building). In the air directly south of the school grounds are IAKRA on the left and NEAG on the right. These are probably abbreviations of Arekabisu (アレカビス, Arquebus) and Gakuen (学園, “school”), respectively.
In the bottom left corner of the Pleajeune map, at the top right, we’ve got NONUZ. This is right under the elephant sign, so the first part is probably zou, ‘elephant’. There’s another letter between the first N and the O; could it be “neon”?
Also, in blue pen, Kat has written some notes. Here:
...we see MIZAR! KIR! IWZR!, which, left-to-right, could be an abbreviation for mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru 見ざる、聞かざる、言わざる, meaning "See not, hear not, (and) say not," and refer to the three monkeys at the Tōshōgū in Nikkō who pose so as to not see, hear, or speak evil.
Why Kat would be saying this is something I don't quite get yet – and it doesn’t obey the rules we’ve established so far – but there are other quotes on this map that make far less sense than that!
Vendecentre has a ton of words to spot:
The title at the bottom left says NWT NOD, or down town. Below that is UZHC, or chizu 地図 ("map"; note the more conventional romanization this time). On the map itself, in small letters, on the west side you can make out LEOH, which must be a hotel, and north of that OHUAY, which is yakusho 役所, "city hall".
IAURB in the middle is a bit puzzling, but biru gai ビル街 "street of buildings" is likely. All the way on the right, obscured in this shot by one of the icons, is REOTCOC, or clock tower.
At the top in Kat's handwriting is NAUKB IPADNO, part of which we’re going to see again in Boutoume; I can't figure it out just yet. Also unreadable is the IAU VBUS in the air below the island, though the IAU might be the same zukai ‘illustration’ that we saw in Pleajeune.
Here's the northeast part of Vendecentre:
That yellow ticket at the top says TIDA EN, which is admit one. At the train station on the right we've got AZ TXN; could it start with the word next?
I can't make sense of Kat's !OADAAHN at the top left, nor can I puzzle out the AWNUOBNIUOTIKO ETAGARKRODNAAGTI, though that latter one in particular surely means something.
Southeast part of Vendecentre:
In the top right we see KRP CH; not sure about the first word but the last is probably park. At the bottom is ECARN, which might be entrance with the initial E sliced off; it’s a stairwell leading to the lower level of the city.
At the bottom of the world
The final map to contain writing – simultaneously the most mysterious and the most charming – is the one drawn by the children of Boutoume. This is where my analysis starts to become a lot less sure and a lot more speculative.
First, look at the small orange writing at the bottom. IHKBNOODK. Here I'm going to go out on a limb a little and imagine that the B should really be an M -- these two letters look almost identical, and you can easily imagine a child getting them wrong -- and also imagine that the producers wrote a K when they wanted a C. If you do that, you can read this as kodomo no machi 子供の町, which means "town of children".
The yellow writing next to the Ark says ENBOAH, which is hakobune 箱船, the Japanese word for "ark". The big blue slithery Nevi on the left is a Nushi ヌシ, and that's just what IHUN says.
Moving to the middle of the map, next to the waterfall, in blue, we see IKT (taki 滝, "waterfall". Over at Zaza's house, I'm thinking that he might have had a different name during pre-production, because EINVAZ works out to za_v no ie ___の家, "Za_v's house".
Now the red writing on the top and the bottom is leaving me completely flummoxed. At the top we've got PADNOCCENT, with those Cs possibly being Rs; it's driving me crazy. I can't figure out what it says -- but I know it says something because the word PADNO appears elsewhere in the game. What word could be spelled o_nd_ap? Maybe the blanks are in the wrong spots.
Down at the bottom we have INQON OBDO IJAUODK. If the B in the middle word is an M, we can have kodomo ("children") again; the last word could be a strangely-spelled ...no kuni 〜の国 ("...'s country"), and the first word might also contain kodomo since you can get that out of UODK if you allow multiple omitted letters, but we've only seen that once before (Kat's handwriting on the map) so my guess is it's something else.
And one final easter egg: look carefully at the background of the paper this map is drawn on: it’s the wanted poster from Chapter 2! Even with some portions of this map still unreadable, how can you not love it?
The inner workings of Toyama’s mind
Almost done. Now we're going to get to the totally bizarre stuff that makes absolutely no sense: the small lines of text that appear in the margins of the maps. All four areas have them, so let’s look at each area in turn.
We’ll start with this one in the northeast corner of the map of Pleajeune.
In the frame at the top is: SERE NELA RU FO / EMS REMEER EW / SA KOL A EKT. It sounds like a quote from somewhere: “Of our fallen heroes, we remember some. Take a look as...”
But in fact, it makes even more sense if we read it starting with the bottom line. In that case, we get: Take a look as we remember some of our fallen heroes.
That sounds pedestrian enough, but in fact that exact sentence has only, in the vast oceans of the internet, been written in but one single place: this gameinformer.com article from April 2011, by Dan Ryckert.
You might be thinking that that doesn't prove anything, and that it's probably a coincidence, but read the article and pay close attention to what's just before the sentence about the fallen heroes: “As the industry's storytelling methods have progressed...”
Yes, that's right there on the map in Pleajeune too, towards the middle: GOP EVH SDHTM GNLLTYDT / S YRSUNI EH SA; "As the industry's storytelling methods have prog(ressed)..."
Mr. Toyama must read Game Informer in his spare time! The unusual margin messages are only just beginning. In the margins in Auldnoir, we find this conundrum:
URIBS CTSO URBNS / ON IAISUY OBBICRS / SKTNK J NNN50091.
My efforts on this one are coming up short, but a sign on one of the buildings in the game also says yusiai, so this text is probably right to left; maybe it means something in the language they made up for Kat to speak. On the other hand, it could be the Japanese word yūshikai 有視界, meaning “field of vision”. URIBS could be the Japanese word sobieru そびえる “to tower over”. Can anyone out there figure it out?
Returning to an example that’s more certain, Vendecentre’s northwest margin has this: AGNSABOTNAIIO / IKTUA.ATHSMI / AGNAAAOIOTRA:
These are the opening lines of a story known to every child in Japan: the legend of Momotaro, the “peach boy”. There are many local variations of it, but this one will do fine for deciphering what’s in that text: Ojiisan to obaasan ga imashita. Aru toki, aru toki, obaasan ga...
The aru toki doesn’t necessarily have to be repeated as it is here. And the whole thing means, “There once lived an old man and an old woman. One time, the old woman...”.
Over in the factory district of Endestria, we have something that looks like Portuguese:
ANHA TAO BONIT / A VIDA UMA / NOVA CANCAO / CANT / ANDO SO TEUS. The C in CANTANDO is in fact one of the numerals seen in the wanted poster, but I'm assuming that the fonts the developers are using have this character assigned to capital C, as you'll see with the next entry.
Put an M at the beginning, throw in some tildes, and you get "Manhã, tão bonita. Vida, uma nova canção. Cantando só teus.". I don't know enough Portuguese to say if this sounds natural or not, but Google Translate claims that it means: "Morning, so beautiful. Life, a new song. Singing only yours." The song Manhã de Carnaval, by Silvio Caldas, contains these lyrics (just about; there are a few small changes) and would almost fit into this game.
And finally, this, in the western half of Endestria:
You must allow the diamond-shaped figure in the second line to be a capital A for this to work, but every other character is certain, so I can only imagine that the producers' font has this character at capital A. The text says: "Her in orth America, Atlus releases al"
North America? Atlus? They release all of what? Could this be a shout-out to the developer/publisher Atlus? Atlus does indeed release some great translations of games that might otherwise never leave Japan, but this is a Sony game. Did Toyama ever work for Atlus?
I have no idea. But what I do know is that I was delightfully entertained by this easter-egg-laden alphabet, which was, difficulty-wise, a few levels above what most games offer. I’ve introduced many, but not all, of the readable words, and there are many, many more words and phrases in this game – on the buildings, on the maps, and in the margins of the maps – that remain to be deciphered.
They invented an entire spoken language, so surely knowledge of it will make the rest of the mysterious text clear. But I’ll close with two final pictures from the ending credits. By now you should be able to tell that we’re looking at the GENERAL HOSPITAL in the first, and that the other – with the same word in small horizontal yellow letters on the top of the float, and in bigger bottom-to-top vertical ones on the body, uses the letter-dropping system: HKSVILE is Hekseville!
Mark Rosa is a very clever chap indeed who just loves getting into created languages, especially those made for video games. He first presented and worked on his ideas about the Gravity Rush alphabet (and, indeed, was helped by others) over on Neogaf in the Gravity Rush OT Thread. Go on over and say hi, most of them don't bite...