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20 Apr 2015

Creatively Naming In-Game Items And Locations

It was almost a year ago that I wrote one of my favorite posts here at Game Academy regarding naming your indie game; an article half about how some of gaming’s most influential franchises got their names and half about how to name your indie games quite easily. So you can imagine how surprised I was whenever I read a post over the weekend that could very well be seen as that article’s sister post. Rob Lockhart published a post over at Gamasutra last month titled, Memorable Names for Virtual Things. It is well worth the read, and I’m going to emphasize a few things Rob says throughout his excellent piece while giving my two cents on naming in-game items.

The reason Lockhart wrote the post in the first place stemmed from his confusion while reading Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. He mentions that although the book was excellent, many of the names in the book were so original and unique that he actually had a hard time keeping up with everything. For anyone that has read their fair share of epic fantasy and/or science fiction novels, you know exactly what he’s talking about.

He also mentions that this sort of thing does not really work when it comes to indie games. Certainly, there are games out there that try to give an original term and name to every object, race, location and beyond for the sake of originality (The Elder Scrolls series is a perfect example of this – Myst is another). Yet, this is confusing – and if you want to appeal to the most people in your target audience, you need to know when to dial back the originality and opt for playing it safe.

Rob gives a perfect example of this using the locations in Metroid Prime – one of the most memorable games of its generation. Rob highlights a map from the game and mentions that:

“Of [the] 10 named places, only 2 include proper names. The rest are simply descriptive.”

And it works! Imagine how confusing the game would be if locations such as ‘Canyon Cavern,’ were referred to as ‘Nebucan,’ or ‘Root Tunnel’ was referred to as, ‘Daikatil.’ Obviously I am making up words, but you get the idea: Metroid Prime only uses unique names whenever it makes sense. There is an emphasis on using descriptive names that are easy to reference in-game rather than being 100% original at all times. The Legend of Zelda series does this to perfection with almost every in-game name. Before you even visit the Water Temple or take a shot using a fire arrow, you know exactly what you are in for.

Let’s look at an example and assume that you want to include a power up in your next indie game that causes the ground to shake and damages every on-screen enemy. You want your players to have a general idea how this power up works before they even obtain it, so you have two options:

  1. Use an original name for the power up (in this example, let’s use the name ‘Rumikai’) but force the player to learn about the name of the power up and what it does before they even get it (via a conversation with an NPC, a dialogue box, etc.).
  2. Call the power up a ‘Ground Quaker’ and bypass all of the unnecessary logistics.

The choice is pretty obvious, isn’t it? Yet, choice number one isn’t always the wrong decision. As another example, what if the power up was actually a tool that the player used throughout the game and played a significant role in the storyline? Then you would definitely want to think about choosing the first choice since giving it a proper name elevates its importance to the player! The mythical lightsaber in the Star Wars films doesn’t have the same ring to it if it was merely referred to as a ‘sword lazer,’ does it?

As you can see, the proper choice to make is all about context. If it makes sense giving proper names to in-game items, locations – essentially anything – then do it. Just be sure that it is not going to cause any unneeded confusion (the main idea behind naming anything in your indie game). You can get away with calling any sword in The Legend of Zelda a sword, but when it comes to the sword? Calling it the Master Sword (i.e. giving it a proper name) is the best course of action.

This is a pretty important subject (and a fun subject at that). In the near future, I’m going to go more in depth about how to name places, locations, characters, and so on in an effort to create a formula that will make it easier for you. For now, give Rob’s article a read – bookmark it even! It is a fantastic and thought-provoking read that every indie developer needs to keep in mind.

Do you have any questions or comments about naming in-game items and locations? Let us know in the comments below!

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