The Aurebesh is a lot like Boba Fett -- it is a facet of the Star Wars phenomenon that had its origin as a cinematic aside, but which has come to be widely embraced, far out of proportion to its humble origins.
Well, all right, Mr. Fett wasn't quite that insignificant, but the Star Wars alphabet that inspired the Aurebesh appears on screen for a span of mere seconds. That was enough time for me to notice them, though. As a graphic designer who worked (and still works) with fonts on a daily basis, I was intrigued by these glowing symbols on a Death Star readout.
Another factor that fueled my interest in these characters was my involvement in the gaming industry.
I was employed as a graphic artist at West End Games for close to 13 years during its heyday -- and spent ten of those years as the company's art director. In that capacity I was closely involved with all of West End's game lines, particularly with its flagship product: The Star Wars Roleplaying Game. I was directly responsible for the look of the game from its inception, and created many of the diagrams, maps and graphics used in Star Wars products. Designing roleplaying games often includes preparing player handouts, and a distinctly Star Wars alphabet would be a major asset to setting the tone of a game.
With that interest percolating in the back of my brain, time passed. West End not only published a great many Star Wars game supplements, but also came out with a line of metal miniatures for the game. Where miniature figurines tread, rules for using them soon follow. As an avid miniatures gamer, I was tapped to write the rules for the Star Wars miniatures game. As work began, Paul Murphy arrived back at West End Games after a stint with Games Workshop (a major producer of miniatures games). We decided to collaborate on the game. Star Wars Miniatures Battles was published in 1991, and won the Origins Award of the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Sciences for best miniatures rules of that year.
Like a successful movie, a successful game practically demands a sequel. It was while I was writing the Star Wars Miniatures Battles Companion in 1993 that I conceived the idea of developing an alphabet for Star Wars gamers to use. It was a way to add "color" to the miniatures. One of the appeals of a miniatures game is the vista of colorfully painted figures arrayed on the playing surface. The Aurebesh could be used to decorate figures, scenery and handouts and would serve to further emphasize the feel of the Star Wars universe.
Using Star Wars-y characters had been done before. The Dark Forces computer game used some characters resembling the proto-Aurebesh in a combination-lock puzzle (whether they were actually from a scene in the movie is a mystery to me). What would be different this time was that a complete alphabet would be available, allowing fans to write their names or their characters' names or anything else they chose as a part of that galaxy far, far away.
My idea was to render the alphabet displayed on the monitor readouts of the Death Star. Most of the characters were culled from one particular scene -- at the beginning of Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader's shuttle is scanned while approaching the new Death Star. I used freeze frame and sketched out the characters I saw, then worked at narrowing down how many distinct characters there were. The sketched characters were scanned and placed in FreeHand (version 3.1 back then). Then I cleaned up the edges and standardized the look of the letters. Since many of the characters seemed to be wide, I based their general shapes on the Earth font Eurostile Extended.
While I was working on the book and drafting the Aurebesh, my editor, Bill Smith, expressed concerns about whether Lucasfilm (LFL) would want to have their alphabet essentially set in stone. I wrote to Lucasfilm explaining the purpose and origin of the Aurebesh and asking their opinion on the matter. They told us that as long as we didn't state that it was THE alphabet of the Star Wars galaxy, it was all right to include it. The Aurebesh was described as one of many alphabets in use (like the various languages we hear), and it was used primarily in commercial and military applications (hence its use on the Death Star).
I gave each character a corresponding English letter or letter combination. There are more than 26 characters because I based the letter combinations on the Norse Futhork runes. Rather than just set up a symbol-to-letter correspondence, I chose to name each character, just as in our alphabet. I derived the name Aurebesh from the first two letters, Aurek and Besh (just as the word alphabet comes from Alpha and Beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet).
At first I thought about assigning letters so that the Death Star monitor could be translated, but realized that it would be an almost impossible task. So as the Aurebesh stands, you can't translate the monitors directly. The reason is that the letter correspondences give a transliteration of the display, not a translation of the text. As an example, you can transliterate Cyrillic characters into English letters, but you still can't read the Russian they represent. What appears on the Death Star's monitors is in another language -- one we cannot yet translate.
After the Aurebesh was completed, LFL asked for a hard copy of it that they could distribute to licensees. I output a few high-resolution prints of the FreeHand file and we sent them to Lucasfilm. One of the first appearances of the alphabet (outside of the game) was in an ad for the Fisher Star Wars pen in the Star Wars Adventure Journal (page 99 of Volume 1, Number 7, the November, 1995 issue). Of course, we also started using it in the roleplaying game. On their own, some of our artists also began incorporating words in Aurebesh in their illustrations.
The Aurebesh, as conceived, was good for writing names, unit designations, or short phrases on handouts -- basically for various display applications. Many fans wanted to use the alphabet to write out entire player handouts or datapad entries. At West End we also realized that something was missing.
When the next supplement was planned for Star Wars Miniatures Battles, I expanded the Aurebesh to include punctuation. Now it could be used to write whole sentences and paragraphs. The expanded Aurebesh appeared in Imperial Entanglements in 1996. Although it was primarily a scenario book for Star Wars Miniatures Battles, Imperial Entanglements included a Rules Upgrade section, and the revised alphabet fit right in.
When Parker Brothers designed the Star Wars Monopoly game, they incorporated the Aurebesh, also. The 1000-credit coin was taken from a design I had done for a West End product proposal, but which we had passed on to Lucasfilm when the product was not approved. The original was a two-credit coin (other coins were designed, as well, but that's a story for another time). The credit bills incorporated the coin front as part of their design, but were designed by Parker Brothers' artists. Sharp-eyed readers may notice that the word "credit" was misspelled on the coin part of the bill -- I believe this was fixed in later editions of the game. The sample sheet printed on the back of the rulebook was a reproduction of the sample sheet in Imperial Entanglements. Parker Brothers made a contribution to the Aurebesh, too. They created the credits sign.
Now the Aurebesh seems to be everywhere. It is certainly widespread among the fans, embellishing many a Web site. And, much to my satisfaction, it has even appeared in Episode I - The Phantom Menace. It crops up on a dashboard readout screen of Anakin's Naboo fighter during the final space battle (although the A-characters were flopped for some reason). As Anakin heads toward the battle, R2-D2 or someone else signals him with "Anakin turn the ship around and go back home right away."
While at West End Games I was working on digitizing the Aurebesh (using Fontographer, a font editing and creation program). Whenever we wanted to use the Aurebesh in a diagram or as a decorative element, we had to painstakingly place one FreeHand character after another, visually spacing the word or phrase (much like the old-time method of setting type by hand). We then saved it as an EPS file for placement in our page-layout program. Having the Aurebesh as a font would've made things a lot easier. With the workload at West End, though, digitizing the alphabet was only a backburner project. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to complete the font, due to economic downturns and subsequent downsizing.
The lack of a font merely served as a catalyst for fans, though. Various versions of the Aurebesh have appeared on the Internet. Some are better than others. I never created numbers for the Aurebesh because the Death Star monitors showed regular Arabic numerals. When I need to use numerals, I use the Eurostile Extended font, as mentioned above. However, some of the fonts available do include numbers in their character set. My Aurebesh was designed as a caseless letter set, but some fonts use slightly enlarged versions of the characters to make an upper case. One of the fonts I particularly like is Aurek-Besh Hand, a handwritten version of the Aurebesh. At West End we sometimes hand-lettered Moffs' signatures and character notes in Aurebesh. Now it's as easy as applying a font.
Some readers may have noticed that all of the West End Games Star Wars products are copyrighted and trademarked by Lucasfilm. By their contract, the rights in any product produced for Star Wars were assigned to Lucasfilm. Freelancers working on Star Wars projects assigned all rights to WEG, which then assigned them to LFL. Work done by staffers on company time was considered "work for hire" and property of WEG, and was subsequently assigned to LFL as well. Therefore, I have no rights to the Aurebesh (which fell under the freelance category) -- it belongs to Lucasfilm. So even though there has been a proliferation of Aurebesh fonts, as far as I know only the Aurebesh that appears in the WEG books (and Monopoly game) has been officially sanctioned, and Lucasfilm has not produced an official Aurebesh font. Whatever you find out on the Web is a homebrewed font, although they are all based on an authoritative source.
The popularity of the Aurebesh may be responsible for the newest Star Wars alphabet. The Trade Federation characters used on the battle droids are actually part of an entire character set. You can see most of it on Lucasfilm's Web site. Go to http://www.starwars.com/droids/viewer/ to find the Federation Droid Viewer, an interactive display of the Trade Federation's droids with callouts of their details (but you'll need Shockwave 7 and a Flash player). When the callout first appears, it is written in the Trade Federation alphabet, then transforms into Roman characters. There is a direct one-to-one correspondence between the characters. Unfortunately, one letter is not used in the Viewer: "X". They even have a period, comma, double quote mark and hyphen. My guess is that the entire alphabet will probably show up in Wizards of the Coasts' new Star Wars roleplaying game. It is already being used to adorn their Web site for the Star Wars game. If we're lucky, maybe this will be the start a new trend, and each of the new movies will come with their own new font.
(Stephen Crane is a graphic designer and freelance writer who had the pleasure to work in the universe of Star Wars for 10 years as the art director of West End Games. Designing starships, weapons, equipment and other details of a long time ago and mapping a galaxy far, far away is cool beans, you betcha. While waiting to hitch a return ride he occupies himself with more mundane pursuits in the field of graphic arts. You can send him a comm signal at AurebeshArtist@hotmail.com.)