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[Comments] (5) How Game Titles Work: 2017 Update: In 2009 as I was writing Constellation Games I researched how game titles work on a rhetorical level. I published my results as a six-part series of blog posts: 1 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. This post is a summary of that post and a bringing it up to date for 2017, based on a talk I gave at Penguicon in March. (Slides are here.)

In my 2009 research I discovered a basic tension: games are works of art, so there's a tendency to name them like movies, but in our society games are packaged and sold like laundry detergent, so there's a tendency to name games like detergents.

Different game-makers resolve this tension differently. In the early days, games were named after real-world activities, or about the very act of playing a game mediated through a computer; otherwise, it was difficult to get people to understand what was going on. You don't see that much anymore; nowadays it's common for games to have names that resemble (in formal terms) the names of 19th-century novels, laundry detergents, episodes of TV shows, or rock albums.

But all games have two things in common: the second person and the present tense. A movie can be the story of something that happened to someone else long ago, but a game is always the story of what you are doing right now to complete the feedback loop. So most games are named in the second person present tense, e.g. named after your character within the game.

I originally had to figure out How Game Titles Work because for my story "Mallory" I spent a long time making up titles for six fictional classic arcade games, and despite all the work I was unhappy with the results. The final draft of Constellation Games mentions thirty-three fictional human games, plus thirty-five games made by space aliens from various alien cultures. Since cultural artifacts are created and named by people embedded within that culture, I had to figure out the underlying rules for games so I could apply those rules to the various extraterrestrial cultures. I also worked this process in reverse: came up with a weird game and used it to figure out what kind of culture would create that game.

I decided to update the series because one of my conclusions in 2009 was that shareware games in the 1990s, and indie games generally, have better titles than contemporaneous big-budget games. Since 2009 the indie scene has exploded, so I decided it was time to take another look and see how naming techniques have evolved.

I used the MobyGames API to get the names of all games published since 2009, and went through them looking for interesting names. Although AAA titles still have boring names, indie games have dramatically expanded into more artistic naming spaces. It's now fairly common for a game to have a title that's not in second person ("Papers, Please", "This War of Mine"). More frequent than in 2009, but still not common, is a game whose name is not in the present tense ("Gone Home", "Thomas Was Alone"). The games themselves are still second-person-present-tense, but their titles play with tense and person to zoom in or out emotionally.

Even more common, though, are games whose names transcend synecdoche to convey the mood of the game rather than referencing specific elements: "The Flame in the Flood", "No Man's Sky", "Sir, You Are Being Hunted". An older example of this is "Grim Fandango" and I think this quote from a Tim Schafer interview provides some insight into the naming process as well as the function of a game's name:

"The original title, when I was pitching it, was Deeds of the Dead.. The Last Siesta was one [working title]. Dirt Nap I think was in there somewhere..."

"And then I finally came up with the name and was like, 'I'm so smart! This is the best name ever!' I remember I ran out of my office and I told someone... [a]nd they were like 'That's terrible. You'll never sell a game called Grim Fandango. What does that even mean?' But I've always loved it... I mean Grim Fandango just as a metaphor for what? For life or death depending on how you're looking at it."

Schaefer starts off with punny titles, like you would see in the title of a TV episode, and genre references, like you would see in the title of a film, but he settles on something evocative, like the title of a modern novel. "Deeds of the Dead" sounds kind of goofy, "Dirt Nap" sounds more hard-boiled. "Grim Fandango" evokes grandeur, tragedy, and inevitability.

In my talk I performed some close readings of really good game names, and if you post your favorites in comments I'll do the same here, as I did in the comments to part 5. I want to close with an example from 2009: "Just Dance". This is different from every other title I've encountered, because its job is to convey to a game-averse audience that this isn't "really" a game at all! Other game titles make you play a character or perform a job, but here you just dance! C'mon, give it a try! A very friendly title.


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