< How Game Titles Work, Part 5: Selected Titles
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[Comments] (2) How Game Titles Work, Part 6: Search For Meaning: It's been a long series, so long that it's even scared people away, but I now have a good idea of what where game titles come from and at least some guesses as to what makes them good or bad. For those who demanded an easy way to link to this series as a whole, here you go. It's still in reverse chronological order, though.

One technique I haven't covered is to combine words without regard for their meaning. ("Melty Blood", "Radiant Silvergun") A technique favored in Japan and one I don't know whether or not I like, but one I found I'd been using in the absence of information about how game titles worked. Relatedly, and more common in America, the technique of making up totally new words with high-scoring Scrabble letters. (Zaxxon, Qix, Sqoon, Zzyzzyxx) Which I'd also used, but intentionally, to create a game name that wasn't very good.

And really, that's it. I wrote down a bunch more interesting game names that I wanted to look at, but they were all classifiable under these millions of rules without much further complication.

So, why these rules and not some other rules? The big reason, I think, is that games are experienced in the second person and the present tense. This is most obvious in text adventures, but every game ever made tells you what is happening to "you", and then you complete the feedback loop with the controls. The title of a game is a promise of what that experience will be like.

This models the early no-frills game titles like "Soccer", and all synecdochal games, but especially the ones named after the protagonist or the protagonist's job. Such titles explain what role you adopt when you complete the feedback loop. Games named after the antagonist, the goal, or a weapon or tool, make a promise of what the overall gameplay experience will be like for you, as do a lot of metonymal game names.

The societal context is also relevant. Nearly all the games I've talked about are commercial products developed in capitalist societies and sold separately in individual boxes. They were made as works for hire and the copyrights are owned by corporations rather than individuals. They run on hardware that's soon to be obsolete, so they'll either make people happy (or not) and sink into obscurity, or they'll be brought back again and again in different guises. It's a lot like the context for film.

What effects does this have on naming? Well, games get named like cleaning products. It used to happen for all kinds of games. Now it mostly happens for casual and child-friendly games (Bejeweled, Peggle, Boom Blox, Petz). Steven Spielberg wouldn't name a film like a cleaning product, but he presumably had some say in the naming of "Boom Blox" and it seemed okay to him, because a game gets used. It's picked up in the hands (via the controller) and manipulated and eventually used up.

One alternative is the world glimpsed briefly in the time before video games were a commercial concern. In that 10-year period you got, yes, "Baseball" and "Star Trek", but also "Hunt the Wumpus" and "Spacewar!", which--look at it!--is named like a musical. And maybe I'm sentimental but I think the amateur spirit is the surest route to a good game name.

90s shareware was full of unmemorable names that tried to copy the big-name names. The only two that come to mind right now are "Mission: Mainframe", which I should have analyzed yesterday[0], and "Reaping Jupiter", which isn't that good a name but I just love that game. But today the big buzz is around the indie games and, whatever you think of the games, they've got great titles, whether or not they're commercial endeavors. (In addition to the titles I mentioned earlier: Everyday Shooter, Meat Boy, Everybody Dies, Crayon Physics, Karoshi Suicide Salaryman, Cave Story) They've even brought new life to the cheap name-design tricks I denigrate in this series (Spelunky, Dwarf Fortress, Castle Crashers, Desktop Tower Defense--spot the cheap tricks!)

The secret to better titles is not to name games like films, as happens with today's big-name titles. They're not films--films are third person. Just to pick another divergence, you never see a flashback in a game outside a cut scene (ie. movie).[1] But if you really understand the gameplay and you put the same respect into naming your game as you would your movie, you'll get a title that says something. Indie game titles are much better than big-name titles, which is interesting because I don't think the same is true for movies.

As I write this I'm discovering I could go on and on, but think about "Citizen Kane". Not the movie, the title. Kind of a sarcastic title. In fact, it works much the same way as "Leisure Suit Larry." It wouldn't make a good game title, and "Leisure Suit Larry" wouldn't make a very good movie title. But there's some subtle work in fixing on that one of all possible titles for the movie--a title with some sarcasm and some sympathy--and that's the same kind of work you need to do to come up with a good game title.

[0] Lightning round. Alliteration, cliche-kitbashing (would make a great TV episode), comic register shift achieved by using an everyday concrete noun as the predicate of "Mission:". Whew!

[1] Actually, just after I wrote this, I saw what looked like a playable flashback in The Spoony Experiment's video review of Final Fantasy VIII. But it's very rare, right?

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Posted by kirkjerk at Sat Feb 07 2009 00:45

"Duece Bigalow, Male Gigolo" is equivalent in most important ways to "Lesiure Suit Larry"

And you're right, it's not a very good movie!

Oh, wait, you specified name...hmmm

Posted by Grant Hutchins at Sun Feb 22 2009 23:57

Warning Forever is an interesting game title. In this vertical scroller, you face an endless stream of bosses.

It makes fun of the gameplay itself, and describes a state that you are in rather than yourself directly.

Hmm perhaps that makes it synecdoche. But it has a nice irony to it, in that warning connotes immediacy and forever connotes perpetuity.


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