<D <M <Y
Y> M> D>

[Comments] (6) How Game Titles Work, Part 5: Selected Titles: Overall, I think game titles have gotten better over time. Not because we've gotten better at naming games, but because all the obvious names were taken in the 1970s and early 1980s. And then in the 1980s and 1990s, the trademarkable-word technique and basic metonymy were used to gobble up big chunks of the namespace. So if you're making a game in 2009, you have to be creative. It's like domain names. Everything that's not a little bit out there has already been taken.

Today I'm going to look in-depth at some titles I like. These titles don't break the rules I laid out earlier, but rather exploit the rules to create a sense of action. A game title is usually a single word or a short phrase: if something that short can do some character development or advance a conflict, it's probably a good title. So I don't like trademarky titles or most synecdoche. I also don't like the attitude-laden titles, but I think that's just personal taste.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite titles (never mind how I feel about the games), with explanations of how I think they work.

I've mentioned "Spacewar!" before, but that exclamation mark is great. It takes what's objectively a horrible concept and treats it with Dr. Strangelove-like comic fatalism. Given that "Spacewar!" was developed at a time when computers mainly did the bidding of the military and big business, this is also a title with attitude.

"Hunt the Wumpus" is not the best title, but it's probably the first one to exploit the second-person nature of games. For reference, it came out around the same time as "Pong".

"Grand Theft Auto" uses synecdoche to describe the lifestyle of the protagonist (a criminal) in the vocabulary of the antagonist (the police). It's also got a bit of attitude, in that this is also the vocabulary of those purple-lipped censors who blame violent video games such as GTA for society's ills.

"Leisure Suit Larry" is a great title for a similar reason: the protagonist is being described the way the player sees him, not according to his own self-image.

"Gauntlet" is a pun, describing both the gameplay and the fantasy setting. Again, not the best title, but a cut above most 80s arcade titles.

"Mario Bros." says "this game has two-player simultaneous play" in a subtle way.

"Harvest Moon" combines the mundane with the fantastic effectively. It's a bit of metonymy that implies a job, a setting, an activity, a time of year, and a mood, all in two words. Great title.

"Grim Fandango" uses metonymy to describe the mood, the subject matter, and the setting.

"Altered Beast" smashes the antiseptic, ass-covering passive voice of corporate mad science ("Altered") into the feral immediacy and Victorian judgementalism of "Beast". It's a case of a game that doesn't live up to its title.

"Startropics": Remember how I said that "Star" could be either familiar or alienating imagery? This title uses it both ways at once. At first the title gives the impression of being on a tropical island looking at the stars, away from the light pollution. This is the imagery used on the box cover and title screen. But why are the words jumbled together? How can "star" modify "tropics"? "Star Ocean" is clearly a metaphor, but "star tropics"?. Suddenly "star" in the title looks like an intruder. And indeed, that's what happens in the game. The stars have come down to the tropics for nefarious purposes. This is a one-word title with a plot.

"Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden" is a great satirical title, taking another game's terrible title and appending a pretentious-sounding (at least in English) suffix. On the other hand, "I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game" would be a stronger title if it lost the suffixes and became just "I Wanna Be The Guy". Its strength comes from its unusual use of the first person. Relatedly, BSUaJ is a terrible title because it's unclear whether it's supposed to be first, second, or third person.

"Mighty Jill Off" is not really satirical, per se, but it's another example of an effective title that parodies an earlier title.

I tenatively like game titles that adopt a person other than the second. "I Wanna Be The Guy" is great, as mentioned earlier, and "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!" does a good job breaking the rule that a game named after the protagonist is implicitly in second person. But the more recent "I Fell In Love With The Majesty Of Colors" doesn't work for me. Possibly because it also uses the past tense, which doesn't exactly scream "gameplay".

"Nobunaga's Ambition" is a strong third-person title that does a lot of character development in two words, one of which is a person's name. Oda Nobunaga was so ambitious they made a game about it!

A lot of game titles are just boring (most media tie-in games fall into his category) so I haven't covered them. I would like to highlight another title I don't like, even though it's an interesting title from a good game: "Q*Bert". I always felt Q*Bert was trying too hard, the Bonk the Caveman to Pac-Man's Sonic. It's a short step from the trademarkable misspelling and random punctuation to nonsensical Japanese-style names on the one hand, and "extreme" comic-book-style names on the other. I wrote a little rant about Q*Bert here, but I think I'll save it and maybe use it for the secret project.

"Dactyl Nightmare" is so-bad-it's-good. Unlike "Nightmare on Elm Street", which is third-person and merely promises to recount someone else's nightmare, "Dactyl Nightmare" pledges that you will live the nightmare. But "Nightmare" takes the stage after "Dactyl", which although technically an English word, is a word that refers to poetic meter. Sure, it's an abbreviation for "Pterodactyl", but that kind of chatty informality isn't really appropriate for a nightmare. And even "Pterodactyl Nightmare" is kind of silly. So the two bits of incompatible imagery create a humorous instead of a terrifying effect.

I think it would be fun to go over other peoples' favorite game names with these newly-developed tools, so leave a comment.


[Main]

Unless otherwise noted, all content licensed by Leonard Richardson
under a Creative Commons License.