< How Game Titles Work, Part 3: Misc. Metonymy and Synecdoche
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[Comments] (6) How Game Titles Work, Part 4: The Voyage Home: I thought I had come up with a hard-and-fast rule about games that mention celebrities' names: that they're limited to the category of sports games and other games based on real-world activities. My reasoning is that celebrities (as opposed to any characters they play) engage in real-world activities, so that's what the games would be about. Then I remembered "Shaq-Fu" and "Michael Jackson's Moonwalker". In defense of the rule, Shaq and Michael Jackson are kinda crazy, albeit in different ways.

I have three other naming techniques to talk about. Combined with the previous rules I think I've classified most of the interesting and a lot of the not-so-interesting English game names ever created. Of course this is mostly because "metonymy" is such a vague term.

All three of these naming techniques seem to take a cue from some other kind of media. It would be interesting to explore how these work in more detail, but not right now. Also I haven't come up with a lot of examples.

Sometimes the title gets in your face with some attitude. (You Don't Know Jack, No More Heroes, The World Ends With You, Devil May Cry, Doom) Most of these could also be the names of rock albums. These names have only a tenative connection to the game's subject matter; they're more oriented towards describing the mood or atmosphere of the game.

Some games have names based on cliches. Either you adopt the cliche wholesale or you modify it to make a pun. (A Boy and His Blob, Grand Theft Auto, Deus Ex, Devil May Cry again). Episodes of TV shows are also frequently named this way. I don't know why episodes of TV shows have these stupid punny titles, but if I ever figure that out I bet the reason will be similar for games. These tend to be games from Western developers, though presumably there are similar names in Japanese that don't translate. A lot of licensed and franchise games have subtitles based on cliches.

Some games are named the way you would name a book or short story. Well, lots of these rules also apply to story titles. I've mentioned before stories named after characters or settings. But here's what I think I mean in this instance.

When game titles have a tense or a person, it tends to be present tense and second person. All those job-title names have an implicit "You are the" prepended to them. "Hunt the Wumpus" is one game that makes this more explicit. Titles of stories are more commonly third person and past tense, so pretty much any game title you come up with that fits those criteria will have a literary, un-gamelike feel. This is why those seen-from-outside titles like "Leisure Suit Larry" are so interesting: they're implicitly third person.

A lot of Infocom's games fit this pattern. Sometimes they used the "job" type of synecdoche, which almost never appears in book titles, but the "jobs" were things like "Witness", "Suspect", and "Infidel": descriptions with a third-person, seen-from-outside quality rarely seen in video games. It's hard to say whether "Suspended" is second or third person, which is also true of the gameplay. "Leather Goddesses of Phobos" achieves a literary sensibility (albeit a lowbrow one) with a neat third-person trick. The singular, "Leather Goddess of Phobos" could conceivably be second person, but you can't use the second person plural in a single-player game. ("Mario Bros." is second person plural, as I'll mention later.)

Now let's move on to sequel rules. The obvious way to name a sequel is to tack a number onto the name of the original. This is surprisingly rare. I thought it was more common than it was because a lot of NES games had one or two numbered sequels, as did some computer games when I was growing up. All those Sierra adventure series used this technique, and the Mega Man, Final Fantasy, and Metal Slug series still do. (I like to imagine the Metal Slug series sticks to numbered sequels so it can be the video game equivalent of the Rambo series.)

The march of technology makes long-term sequel numbering (ie. more than two sequels) untenable. Those NES games were all on the same system. Someone who bought Zelda II wasn't left wondering where the original Zelda was. But I still don't know where Mega Man 8 is. The Playstation or something. When a series spans consoles, you need to name your games such that people don't feel like they're missing out.

So how are sequels named? Sometimes they get totally different names and you're just supposed to know it's a sequel. The problem with this is illustrated by the Riven box, where it says "THE SEQUEL TO MYST" in big letters. More often, subtitles are deployed.

A subtitle is just another game name stuck onto the name of the franchise. When people talk about the game they use the subtitle as shorthand. Applicable are a subset of the rules for naming games. The trademarkability rules don't really apply because you've already trademarked the francise name, and because "Sensible Phrase: Nonsenseword" looks stupid and "Nonsenseword: Anothernonsenseword" looks stupider. But the name-it-after-a-cliche rule is in full force. Maybe for the same reasons it works for episodes of TV shows but not so well for the TV shows themselves.

Metonymy and synecdoche also work well (the Castlevania series uses this). Even franchises that use a numbering system (Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto) need to also use subtitles when the family tree passes a complexity threshold.

Sometimes instead of a subtitle the original title gets mutated using one of the rules mentioned earlier. This is how you get tech-demo titles like "Super Mario 64". This avoids the Riven problem while keeping the game name down to a reasonable size. There are also a couple sequel-specific mutation rules that I don't want to discuss in detail. (Super [whatever], Ms. Pac-Man, N+)

Although movie sequels often have subtitles, the rules for movie subtitles are different from the rules for game subtitles. I don't have a good grasp of how they differ, but try this thought experiment. Take the most famous set of movie subtitles, for the Star Trek series, and apply them to The Legend of Zelda, the most famous video game series.

Though they're in different genres, both Zelda and Trek are fundamentally about exploration. There's no thematic reason why you couldn't have a Zelda game called "The Wrath Of Ganon" or "The Search For Link" or "The Voyage Home" or "The Undiscovered Country". They just don't feel like game subtitles (except for the single-word subtitles, "Insurrection" and "Nemesis", which might be a clue).

Next time: close readings of my favorite game names.

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Posted by mwchase at Wed Feb 04 2009 01:08

"Episodes of TV shows are also frequently named this way."

I think it's clear where we need to go from here: 'Tonight's Game Episode'.

"Zero-Blood Game". "Dying to Play". "The Hilt-y Party". "The Worst I've Ever Spleen". "Plug Play and Murder".

I think that's enough throwing clich├ęs and bad puns at the screen for me.

Posted by jacob at Wed Feb 04 2009 13:00

shaq-fu came about because shaq guested on an album by the group fu-shnickens, all of whom have fu- or -fu names: Chip Fu, Moc Fu, and Poc Fu. wikipedia says that "'Fu' stood for 'For Unity' and 'Schnicken' was a made-up word which apparently meant 'coalition'.". then he had the name and someone said "hmm...". other musical acts with video games include guns n roses ("guns n' roses pinball"), aerosmith (some sort of shooting game where you shoot cds at zombies), wu tang clan ("wu tang: shaolin style"). what i'm saying is that shaq had a game by virtue of being a celebrity, not specifically a sports star, so he wasn't tied to the real-world activity you might connect him with (basketball), he was just a franchisable thing, like, uh, the 7up dot guy.

Posted by kirkjerk at Thu Feb 05 2009 11:33

The cross platform thing got really weird when Nintendo started redoing its Mario series on GBA;
Super Mario Advance <= Super Mario Bros 2 (NES)
Super Mario World: Super Mario Advance 2 <= Super Mario World (SNES)
Yoshi's Island: Super Mario Advance 3 <= Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (SNES)
Super Mario Bros. 3: Super Mario Advance 4 <= Super Mario Bros 3 (NES)

Posted by kirkjerk at Thu Feb 05 2009 11:50

Another problematic (but absolutely brilliant) game for Nintendo was originally "Panel de Pon", with a theme of happy fairies ... it was given a Yoshi's Island coat of paint for the American release, and then titled "Tetris Attack" with Tetris as a signifier for "game about moving blocks around to prevent the screen from being overrun"

They then rebranded the game yet again as "Pokemon Puzzle League" and lately have been content with a more generic "Puzzle League". The thing is, I think the "League" aspect made more sense in the games that had a story where you advanced through more challenging opponents, I think the generic "Puzzle League" doesn't have that.

"Puyo Puyo" (a cuter but inferior game, which I am prepared to argue at length) has the same issue: "Puyo Pop", "Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine", "Kirby's Ghost Trap", "Kirby's Avalanche" etc. This one has seemingly stabilized, with sequels starting with "Puyo Puyo" and adding some kind of suffix.

Posted by kirkjerk at Thu Feb 05 2009 12:44

Other ideas...

Final Fantasy series had a similar problem for a bit, with different numbering schemes in Japan vs USA... I think they just skipped in one set to synchronize.

"Advance Wars" is a bit odd... it started a pattern of naming itself after the system (fairly early to do that, actually) with "Famicom Wars", then then some "Game Boy Wars" series and "Super Famicom Wars". The GBA version was, sensibly enough "Advance Wars", but then it moved to the USA and it was the full name that stuck, rather than the "Wars" part. So they went with "Advance Wars" rather than "DS Wars" but cleverly called it "Advance Wars: Dual Strike". I guess the console variants are now switching to "Battalion Wars" to sidestep the issue entirely.

Posted by Philip Taylor at Tue Feb 10 2009 06:48

"Super Mario 64 DS" is a fairly extreme example of tech-demo titles.

Several DS games took the approach of choosing a subtitle that abbreviates to "DS": "Advance Wars: Dual Strike", "Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow", "Resident Evil: Deadly Silence", ... oh, I thought there were more, but I can't find any. Seems like a compromise between marketing considerations ('people need to know this is a DS game, so stick "DS" onto the end of the title') and aesthetic considerations ('plain "DS" is ugly so let's expand it into an appropriate phrase'). It's not something I remember seeing for any other console system - maybe that's simply because none of them had names that could be easily expanded into phrases?

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