As I continue developing my personal game project, a little worry keeps on nibbling at the back of my mind– and, at this point, it’s probably had enough time to chew away a substantial portion of my brain stem, which is unfortunate because soap gutter sandwich fishpipe copal mignant farmeuse
Sorry. That happens sometimes now. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Coming up with a title. Titles are hard, am I right guys?
What makes a good title? Or, for that matter, a bad one? First, most obviously, it needs to differentiate one’s game or film or book or what-have-you from everyone else’s. It’s like a serial number, except if you get one tattooed on you people think it’s stupid instead of terrifying. This is why shorter, and therefore easier to remember, titles are generally considered better. This is also, tangentially, why using the same name as a completely different project is dumb.
But there’s a bit more to it than that– because, you see, the title should also communicate something about the content, and sometimes it’s hard to do that without using a name someone else has used before. Even if the thing they used it for has nothing to do with the name and they picked it just because it sounded cool, you have to live with the consequences of their poor decision.
No, I ain’t bitter, shut up.
Really outstanding titles are rare, and they are made really outstanding by the same mechanism that makes other titles really terrible: They evoke something. The question is whether what they evoke is a) desirable and b) suitable to the piece in question. Thief is a great title, because it tells you exactly what you’re going to be doing in the game: Stealing shit. Conversely, Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP is, I’m sorry, a wretched goddamn title. First, it’s super long, which wouldn’t be that big a problem if it was also really distinctive and memorable and usefully evocative. It’s not. Superbrothers suggests some kind of superhero story, and Sword & Sorcery is a cliche and suggests a hack and slash game completely different from the actual gameplay– the only part that fits is ‘EP’, which communicates that it’s a musical experience and probably not all that long.
A really good pair of examples within the same series: Amnesia: The Dark Descent is useful as an identifier but quite generic, especially the subtitle. Together, the title and subtitle manage to suggest mystery and horror, but not to evoke it very strongly. However, the in-development sequel, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, has an incredible title. It makes one uncomfortable just to say it out loud, or even just think it.
Supposedly shorter is better. Easier to say, easier to remember. These are certainly worthy advantages, but it’s difficult to be very evocative with a snappy one-word title. Games with really good single-word titles are quite difficult to think of– the only really outstanding ones that come to mind are Portal and Thief. It doesn’t get much easier if you expand out to other media. The bulk of single word titles which are, if not necessarily excellent, at least sufficient, are mostly taken by character names. Hamlet, Shaft, Milk, etcetera. Wow– that got suggestive fast.
Place names are also popular for titles, though these are seldom one word: Silent Hill, Mulholland Drive, Sunset Boulevard. These are usually sufficient titles for much the same reason that these are sufficient place names, they serve as adequate unique identification to help people remember which creepy movie is which. However, these titles tend to tell you very little about the content. Yeah, it’s about Hamlet, or yeah, it takes place on Sunset Blvd, so what? These names are memorable because we know them now, but as a title they are, at most, functional.
Context is important too. Starcraft would be an abysmal title if it hadn’t been the spiritual successor to Warcraft. If you start your title with ‘World’, ‘Age’, or ‘Lords’ everyone will assume it’s a strategy game or an MMORPG. If it’s one manly sounding word, like ‘RAGE’ or ‘DOOM’ or ‘PECS’, it’s a run and gun first person shooter. Vast swaths of words are basically off limits now because they’re so associated with particular games of franchises: “Duty”. “Craft”. “Shock”. “Cry”. “Portal”.
I think we all must love the bizarre titles we see on Japanese games– we’ve gotten used to a lot of them but, let’s face it, Metal Gear Solid, Chrono Trigger, Kingdom Hearts, these names don’t make any sense. These are words that don’t go together. It’s magnificent! And, what’s even better, more often than not they somehow end up writing a story where these names actually do end up making sense. It’s like video game Madlibs.
Gibberish names have a way of working out. When we’re trying to be creative, when we’re trying to think of things that have never been thought of before, the last thing we need is to be constrained by the cliches of language. If people like the piece we’ve titled, the title becomes its own force and has its own influence to shape other titles. A new title, even if it’s nonsensical, represents a new idea, and has to be taken on that merit. It might not be good marketing, but maybe its good art. Give it the weird title, the title that expresses the weird idea at the weird heard of your weird game, and just go with it.
It will probably work out– unless it doesn’t. But, either way, it will be entirely your own. And, if that’s not important to you, then why are you creating in the first place?