Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
James Leach on how naming a game can be as hard as making it
I can’t even take comfort in the idea of letting The People decide. We do not need Gamey McGameface
I’ve just been asked to do one of my favourite things. Something I love but I still find important to the point of being scary. Some friends who run an independent game development company Skyped me to see if I’d give their next project a decent name.
Names are such a big deal that it beats me how anyone is actually brave enough to name anything. And I speak as one who’s named lots of things, including a child. If you actually stop to imagine the thing you’ve named being used, printed on things, talked about and judged, you’d be forgiven for calling everything ‘Project X’. Although that doesn’t work as well with children, as my daughter PlaceHolder_Title would attest.
People who bother to share their opinions on the Internet are largely agreed that the best game names are Metal Gear Solid, Deus Ex and Max Payne, and it’s easy to see why. They’re tough, powerful and you’re not embarrassed to say them in public. That’s the key, although I once had a conversation with someone that went on far too long as I tried to work out why he was so looking forward to, as he called it, Due Sex. It reminded me of the magazine I once worked at, where we would put 5p into a cup every time a reader referred to ‘Rouge Trooper’. By that Christmas we had enough for a large night out.
So as I sat and failed to think of a decent name for the indie game, I thought of my all-time favourite. It was a Mega Drive effort (I know, I know) by Technosoft called Herzog
Zwei. I have no idea why I loved it, really, but I did and still do. At a pinch, I’d say it was the toughness thing, coupled with the exotic Germanic vibe. I never played the original
Herzog because the name wasn’t as cool, and because it was only available on MSX, which nobody can remember, but Herzog Zwei was, as far as I’m concerned, the dog’s as a name and as a game.
Names, it seems, work better if they don’t entirely make sense. As I say, they’re good in German, an entirely made-up language, Latin, a dead language, or simply just words. After
Theme Park, Bullfrog Productions, where I worked, made a similar game set in a hospital. We angsted about what to call it and I pushed hard for Theme Hospital, because it made no sense, and because if we’d done loads more, we could have put ‘ Theme’ in front of all of them. I still wish we’d made
Theme Prison, although I would possibly have fought to name it Umkreisen Enten Zehn, just because, you know.
Such random title bravery can go too far, though. There was, in 1989, a game called
Tongue Of The Fatman. That’s like taking the delicate world of naming and carpet-bombing it. I have no idea if the game itself was any good, and neither do you, because you were in no way prepared to even pick it off a shelf.
Tongue Of The Fatman. ‘Fatman’ was actually one word, but not even that rescues it. I mean, people presumably slaved over creating that game. And not even ironically, because you cannot slave ironically for more than a day, and Lord knows I’ve tried.
The civilian version of game naming is of course the gamertag. I’ve had profound Xbox battles with someone called, pleasingly, MortalWombat, and have both buttocks handed to me on several occasions in Grand
Theft Auto V by Apocalypstick. These people know what they’re doing. They treat gamertags like celebrities treat the naming of their real-life children; it can be silly and fun for both because they know they’ll always win. The world is a better place owing to all this. As a kid I used to feel sorry for the Sovietera children my age who’d have to drudge through icy darkness to attend soul-crushingly titled places like, for example, School 16. Nowadays, as a parent, I simply wonder whether little Ivan had lived just outside the catchment area for schools 1 to 15. I bet School 1 was oversubscribed.
Anyway, I have yet to come up with a good name for the indie game. Distracted by the likes of Ninjabread Man, Spanky’s Quest and Frogger: Helmet Chaos, which are all real games, I can’t even take comfort in the idea of letting The People decide. We do not need
Gamey McGameface. Although on the flipside I’d happily play Call Of Duty: Hitler Did
Nothing Wrong. Nope, the trick is simply to name with honest confidence. Back in the day, Taito once went with Panic Restaurant. That tells you so much about the game, you didn’t even need to play it. The last word must surely go to the brand-new tester at Bullfrog who once watched us ‘working late’, playing Tom
Clancy’s Rainbow Six on LAN: “With a name like that, I reckon the first five were cuter”.