I love the art of names. I am entirely unreasonable about this. I spend entirely too much time on sites like The Baby Name Wizard even though I am highly unlikely to produce any babies. I cringe at speculative fiction when its naming system is a grab-bag of garbled Tolkien and names trendy in 2010s US. I get a warm glow when I read back over the list of unused pseudonyms from ShuffleComp.
One of the recurring themes of the BNW blog is that while baby-naming books often present ‘meanings’ – boiled-down, fluffed-up versions of the name’s etymological derivation – the connotations of a name are far more significant, at least in modern anglophone contexts. (My non-religious parents, for instance, were in no way motivated by the etymological sense of the ‘-el’ root of Samuel.) The breadth, complexity and nuance of that choice is a big part of why I find naming so interesting as an artistic device; even in poetry, there are few contexts where a single word can suggest so many things at once.
A game designer is always in the position of a more pragmatic Prospero, working out exactly which spellbooks to give up to the sea; and to give up the right to name the most important characters in the game – the player-controlled ones – is a small but potent concession, whether it’s to player choice, generated text, or some hybrid form. But it’s easy to see why this concession is made so often: we tend to think of naming as close to the heart of identity, and enactment of identity is a huge element of narrative games.
How much control is given up, and how the choice is steered, is important. Most simply, a game can offer you the choice but nerf it. A number of CRPGs let you have a name, but ignore it in favour of a canonical title: the Dragonborn, the Vault Dweller. More strongly, the Mass Effect series allows you to choose a first name for its protagonist, but enforces (and always uses) their surname, Shepard. In this case, the baptismal act is almost wholly symbolic, its aesthetic significance no more than a brief glimmer; the character is always Shep, reflecting a basic consistency in the character regardless of the choices you make for them.
Simple Player Entry
The IF Comp 2014 entry Hill 160 opens, cold, on a question:
Enter your last name:
This is kind of an ‘oh, honey, no’ moment.
Offering the player the right to name the PC grants them power, but asks for investment in return – a common kind of game trade-off. How I personally respond to that offer depends on how much work has already been done to make me take the game’s world and narrative seriously, which is to say building trust. If the answer is ‘little or none’, I generally go with Spankford. Or Spankette, or Lord Spankington. That’s a distancing mechanism, a refusal to put too much of myself into the game, because the game not yet done anything to merit it. You don’t get me, game, you get a silly cartoon character. Spankford is not me, or even a character whose narrative integrity I care about. The first time I used the name was in some little early-00s browser game where you raised a pet goat. It was kind of boring, and I didn’t check in for a while, and when I did Spankford was a small pile of goat bones. I felt no remorse. Spankford, y’see. (Below the Spankford level, there’s the purely-disruptive name, naming a character ‘asshole’ to make a nincompoop out of the game text.)
If the game gives me a little more reason to take it on its own terms, but doesn’t give me any cues about the kinds of names that make sense in its world, I go with a long-established handle or the name of a character I’ve been using for a long time; I’m using a persona I have some investment in, and I’m not trying to disrupt your world, but I am not part of it.
When is simple player entry a good approach? The most obvious game I can think of where it’s the perfect choice is the Sims series. Those are sandboxy, light-hearted works with little in the way of serious scripted narrative – and the player has relatively broad control over tone. If the player wants to go with a goofy name, nothing very much is lost – rather, it’s an effective way of cementing a goofy, subversive style of play. If the player wants to self-insert and model a dream home for themselves, they can do that. If they want to make an original character who is treated with some degree of seriousness, again, no problem.
So a central effect of open naming is to reinforce the attitude the player already has towards a game. The author should pick a moment when the attitudes they want reinforced are budding, then offer them a choice that cements their willingness to play along. To do that, the player needs some sense of what ‘playing along’ is likely to entail.
Hill 160 presents itself in a way that makes it pretty clear that you’ll be playing a soldier in WWI, but this is about all you get. But that leaves a lot of questions open – most obviously, this is a context in which nationality and social class will matter immensely. Is this a story about an upper-middle-class British officer, a conscripted Russian peasant, a South African in the Native Labour Corps? What does the story expect of me? Why shouldn’t I choose Spankford? More to the point, what can the author do to encourage a less disruptive choice?
Steered Player Entry
Sunless Sea offers you an open choice of name, but it is situated in context. If you’ve heard about the game you probably know that it’s gaslamp fantasy centred around a version of London; the opening music and art suggest a certain mood, and before you get to the name-entry, you have already made a number of choices about your character’s background, ambitions and form of address. Finally, you get a screen of silhouette portraits and the name choice. You’ve got a lot of material to draw from when you make this choice: Victorian British, yes, but a diverse version thereof, decidedly Gothic-toned, and with enough weirdness (tentacle hat!) that you’d have to get very strange indeed to break tone.
When I first played Skyrim, by the time I got to the character-creation process the world’s cultural flavour had been well-established enough (through a long-ish cut-scene) that I wanted to pick a name that wouldn’t feel out-of-place, and had a good idea of what that might be. (In fact, the name I chose fit into the world so well that it turned out to already be the name of a somewhat-major NPC. Oops.) Like many works, Skyrim hastens the process by piggybacking on the naming styles of real-world cultures: characters in the intro have Scandinavian- and Roman-styled names. This last is more helpful the more familiar your players are with that naming style.
Name Menus and Diversity
A less subtle approach to steering name choices is to give the players a list of likely options, perhaps with ‘enter your own choice’ as an entry among them. Choice of Games uses this by default, downplaying the text-entry option by including it last and requiring an extra step to reach it. First and last names – when they’re both offered – can be selected independently.
What this does is present a list of names. Often, a name-list’s main effect isn’t to home in on a particular style, but to offer a palette of styles; this is the norm in Choice of Games. Dan Fabulich:
…use NPC names to convey hints about a character without belaboring a description of their age, skin color or making a Thing about their ethnicity.
Which is to say, if you name your scientist Leticia, you don’t have to say a lot (or even anything at all) about the character’s ethnicity–you don’t even have to decide for yourself what the character looks like–but players may be better able to “fill in the blanks” better.
In the reverse direction, you can convey a lack of diversity by using a selection of NPC names that are common among WASP Americans, even if you don’t say anything at all about skin color or diversity.
It’s often the case with menu choices that the range of perceived options is more important than the option the player actually chooses: never more so than here. There are several effects here, but a big one is to bracket the game’s world, suggesting both its breadth and its centre – race and culture, gender, age/historical period, and social class. Even if a given player always picks the same kind of options, the range of unchosen options make them conscious of the sort of person who could be a protagonist in this world.
There’s no such thing as neutral diversity. Any given range of options will suggest what is central, what is peripheral, and – if the audience is particularly attentive – what is absent; and it will do so through the lens of the audience’s expectations.
Beyond the obvious gender/culture/class categories, fiction authors have long recognised the ability of names to imply personality and narrative role. One of my favourite approaches in gaming comes from tabletop RPGs.
In storygames, characters get created frequently, off-the-cuff, over and over, and some players find this really challenging. Scylla, players get hung up on picking the right name, feel stuck, and you lose play time; Charybdis, they flub a great opportunity for characterisation, or come up with a tone-deaf name that disrupts the setting. It’s a regular enough problem that Fiasco author Jason Morningstar compiled a book, The Story Games Name Project, which is just a big compilation of name-lists organised by culture and context. Everyone picks from the same list, bam, the naming in your brand-new fantasy kingdom is now Maori. It’s appropriate technology: you get tonal consistency without reverting to a boring default.
But that only gets you so far: what if you want a name that doesn’t just imply culture, class, historical period, but offers some hints about personality and narrative role?
My favourite approach to this comes from Monsterhearts; as in its ancestor Apocalypse World, you’re strongly encouraged to give characters “symbolically-appropriate” names. Player-character personalities are strongly tied to monster types, each comes with a list of suggested names, and – this is the novel part – some descriptions of style. Here’s the Vampire’s list:
Amanda, Cassius, Clayton, Helene, Isaiah, Jessamine, Jong, Lucian, Marcell, Morana, Serina
A stately name, an antiquated name, a biblical name, a brooding name, a snobby name
You might not think that the content is perfect, but the method of player guidance is pretty amazing: it establishes a style, briefly explains what that style is intended to evoke, and gives concrete options for when the player can’t come up with anything. It’s fairly close to the CoG name-list approach, except that it outright explains the style it’s meant to suggest. The player is encouraged to commit to a particular style through imprinting something of themselves on it; the two factors aren’t in conflict. (There’s some similarity here with the skin-drawing element of With Those We Love Alive).
What the Monsterhearts method isn’t is subtle. Dickensian names would be far less magnificent (or, at least, more self-consciously Tristram Shandyesque) if Dickens had provided an exegesis of every character’s name as they were introduced. But if setting expectations about who a player-character is and how they behave is the core goal, it’s a powerful approach.