< How Game Titles Work, Part 4: The Voyage Home
How Game Titles Work, Part 6: Search For Meaning >

[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.

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Posted by Albert Kookyham Alcatraz at Wed Feb 04 2009 23:45

Maze mission adventure game, by william soleau! Lode runner, Avoid the Noid, Biomenace, Chip's challenge, Deadly Rooms of Death, ZZT.

Posted by Leonard at Thu Feb 05 2009 12:50

Avoid the Noid comes directly from an assonant advertising slogan. One of the few slogans that sound like instructions for games.

Deadly Rooms of Death is a parody of the bad-fantasy-novel names. Not just the repetition of "Death" but the reduction of the setting to a series of "Rooms".

Lode Runner is similar to Bubble Bobble. They took concepts related to the gameplay (running, gold -> "lode") and made a pun of a common phrase that has nothing to do with the game ("roadrunner").

Biomenace is a fake compound word with a register shift--"bio" is a technical term and "menace" is OH NO IT HAS TURNED AGAINST US. Kind of the same name as "Altered Beast."

Chip's Challenge uses alliteration. I don't really like this title. Who cares if Chip has a challenge? It doesn't affect my life the way Nobunaga's ambition would. It sounds like the name of a minigame or a single level of a larger game. Sorry to dis a game title you like, but them's the breaks. It's also got some dissonance in the "p's Ch".

Maze Mission Adventure Game -- is that meant to be serious or campy? The whole title is made of generic video-game title words, and it's even got "Game" in the title. It sounds like the video games I made up when I was ten. I guess it describes the game pretty well? I'd call this a utilitarian title at best.

ZZT was chosen for a specific marketing purpose (showing up last in lists, unlike other Epic games which put exclamation marks in the ZIP filenames so they'd show up first). If you're gonna do that, of all the possible third letters, "T" is probably the best one because it creates a Wizard of Id-like sound effect. The fact that the abbreviation is never explained actually kind of ties in to the game editor where you create your own meaning. Just don't get me started on all the "Whatever of ZZT" things in the games. I already wrote a ZZT game satirizing that.

Posted by Leonard at Thu Feb 05 2009 12:53

Oh, man, this is hilarious. They named ZZT that so it would show up last in lists, and then they put files up on their BBSes like "!ZZTTL14.ZIP"! I never noticed that before.

Posted by kirkjerk at Thu Feb 05 2009 12:54

It's very difficult to summon to mind a list of game titles so as to pick my favorite names. So I'll start with talking about myself.

Years ago I made a mashup that was Pong with Joust's flap button. "JoustPong" After I ported it to the Atari 2600 i found out that, lawyer-wise, Atari feels it owns the namespace of everything with "Pong". I was impressed with one suggestion for a new name: "Flap-Ping" (sometimes FlapPing; it's not 100% determined) so that's the new title.

"Archon" I guess is metonymy and not synecdoche; presumably it refers to the player's role as leader of the chess-piece like army. (And the player gets an upgrade in the sequel, "Archon 2: Adept"

"Space Station Silicon Valley" is interesting. The Space Station is said to be amusement park; I wonder if in the the sci fi context of the story it was meant to be a retro signifier, but to the player it means "technology".

"Jet Grind Radio" / "Jet Set Radio", (sequel "Jet Set Radio Future") skirts the line of meaning. It's kind of the name of the radio station in the game, maybe.

For some reason I'm drawn to "TimeSplitters", a vague reference to the "time travel" theme (mostly just an excuse to use lots of different locales w/o sweating story too much), esp. the sequel subtitle "Future Imperfect"

Posted by Martin at Thu Feb 05 2009 20:07

Dactyl Nightmare would have been much scarier if they'd just translated it. Finger Nightmare! I, for one, am both terrified and intrigued.

Posted by Zack at Thu Feb 05 2009 23:20

What do you make of the .hack// series? (specifically the games -- .hack//Infection, //Mutation, //Outbreak, //Quarantine)


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