Categories: nycb | series:game-titles
An in-depth discussion of how the titles of video games work. Early 2009.
(2) Thu Feb 05 2009 20:54 How Game Titles Work, Part 6: Search For Meaning:
It's been a long series, so long that it's even scared people away, but I now have a good idea of what
where game titles come from and at least some guesses as to what
makes them good or bad. For those who demanded an easy way to link to this series as a whole, here you go. It's still in reverse chronological order, though.
One technique I haven't covered is to
combine words without regard for their meaning. ("Melty Blood",
"Radiant Silvergun") A technique favored in Japan and one I don't
know whether or not I like, but one I found I'd been using in the absence of information about how game titles worked. Relatedly, and more common in America,
the technique of making up totally new words with high-scoring
Scrabble letters. (Zaxxon, Qix, Sqoon, Zzyzzyxx) Which I'd also used, but intentionally, to create a game name that wasn't very good.
And really, that's it. I wrote down a bunch more interesting game
names that I wanted to look at, but they were all classifiable under
these millions of rules without much further complication.
So, why these rules and not some other rules? The big reason, I
think, is that games are experienced in the second person and the
present tense. This is most obvious in text adventures, but every
game ever made tells you what is happening to "you", and then you
complete the feedback loop with the controls. The title of a game is
a promise of what that experience will be like.
This models the early no-frills game titles like "Soccer", and all
synecdochal games, but especially the ones named after the
protagonist or the protagonist's job. Such titles explain what
role you adopt when you complete the feedback loop. Games named
after the antagonist, the goal, or a weapon or tool, make a promise
of what the overall gameplay experience will be like for you, as do
a lot of metonymal game names.
The societal context is also relevant. Nearly all the games I've
talked about are commercial products developed in capitalist
societies and sold separately in individual boxes. They were made as works for hire
and the copyrights are owned by corporations rather than
individuals. They run on hardware that's soon to be obsolete, so
they'll either make people happy (or not) and sink into obscurity,
or they'll be brought back again and again in different guises. It's
a lot like the context for film.
What effects does this have on naming? Well, games get named like
cleaning products. It used to happen for all kinds of games. Now it
mostly happens for casual and child-friendly games (Bejeweled,
Peggle, Boom Blox, Petz). Steven Spielberg wouldn't name a film like
a cleaning product, but he presumably had some say in the naming of
"Boom Blox" and it seemed okay to him, because a game
gets used. It's picked up in the hands (via the controller) and
manipulated and eventually used up.
One alternative is the world glimpsed briefly in the time before video games were a commercial concern. In that 10-year period you got, yes, "Baseball" and "Star Trek", but also "Hunt the Wumpus" and "Spacewar!", which--look at it!--is named like a musical.
And maybe I'm sentimental but I think the amateur spirit is the surest route to a good game name.
90s shareware was full of unmemorable names that tried to copy the big-name names. The only two that come to mind right now are "Mission: Mainframe", which I should have analyzed yesterday, and "Reaping Jupiter", which isn't that good a name but I just love that game. But today the big buzz is around the indie games and, whatever you think of the games, they've got great titles, whether or not they're commercial endeavors. (In addition to the titles I mentioned earlier: Everyday Shooter, Meat Boy, Everybody Dies, Crayon Physics, Karoshi Suicide Salaryman, Cave Story) They've even brought new life to the cheap name-design tricks I denigrate in this series (Spelunky, Dwarf Fortress, Castle Crashers, Desktop Tower Defense--spot the cheap tricks!)
The secret to better titles is not to name games like films, as
happens with today's big-name titles. They're not films--films are
third person. Just to pick another divergence, you never see a
flashback in a game outside a cut scene (ie. movie). But if you really understand the gameplay and you put the
same respect into naming your game as you would
your movie, you'll get a title that says something. Indie
game titles are much better than big-name titles, which is
interesting because I don't think the same is true for movies.
As I write this I'm discovering I could go on and on, but think
about "Citizen Kane". Not the movie, the title. Kind of a sarcastic
title. In fact, it works much the same way as "Leisure Suit Larry."
It wouldn't make a good game title, and "Leisure Suit Larry" wouldn't make a very
good movie title. But there's some subtle work in fixing on that one
of all possible titles for the movie--a title with some sarcasm and
some sympathy--and that's the same kind of work you need to do to
come up with a good game title.
 Lightning round. Alliteration, cliche-kitbashing (would make a great TV episode), comic register shift achieved by using an everyday concrete noun as the predicate of "Mission:". Whew!
 Actually, just after I wrote this, I saw what looked like a playable flashback in The Spoony Experiment's video review of Final Fantasy VIII. But it's very rare, right?
(6) Wed Feb 04 2009 19:31 How Game Titles Work, Part 5: Selected Titles:
Overall, I think game titles have gotten better over time. Not because
we've gotten better at naming games, but because all the obvious
names were taken in the 1970s and early 1980s. And then in the 1980s
and 1990s, the trademarkable-word technique and basic metonymy were
used to gobble up big chunks of the namespace. So if you're making a
game in 2009, you have to be creative. It's like domain
names. Everything that's not a little bit out there has already been
Today I'm going to look in-depth at some titles I like. These
titles don't break the rules I laid out earlier, but rather exploit
the rules to create a sense of action. A game title is usually a
single word or a short phrase: if something that short can do some
character development or advance a conflict, it's probably a good
title. So I don't like trademarky titles or most synecdoche. I also
don't like the attitude-laden titles, but I think that's just
Anyway, here are some of my favorite titles (never mind how I feel
about the games), with explanations of how I think they work.
I've mentioned "Spacewar!" before, but that exclamation mark is
great. It takes what's objectively a horrible concept and treats it
with Dr. Strangelove-like comic fatalism. Given that "Spacewar!"
was developed at a time when computers mainly did the bidding of the
military and big business, this is also a title with attitude.
"Hunt the Wumpus" is not the best title, but it's probably the
first one to exploit the second-person nature of games. For
reference, it came out around the same time as "Pong".
"Grand Theft Auto" uses synecdoche to describe the lifestyle of the
protagonist (a criminal) in the vocabulary of the antagonist (the
police). It's also got a bit of attitude, in that this is also the
vocabulary of those purple-lipped censors who blame violent video games
such as GTA for society's ills.
"Leisure Suit Larry" is a great title for a similar reason: the
protagonist is being described the way the player sees him, not
according to his own self-image.
"Gauntlet" is a pun, describing both the gameplay and the fantasy
setting. Again, not the best title, but a cut above most 80s
"Mario Bros." says "this game has two-player simultaneous play" in
a subtle way.
"Harvest Moon" combines the mundane with the fantastic
effectively. It's a bit of metonymy that implies a job, a setting, an
activity, a time of year, and a mood, all in two words. Great title.
"Grim Fandango" uses metonymy to describe the mood, the subject
matter, and the setting.
"Altered Beast" smashes the antiseptic, ass-covering passive voice
of corporate mad science ("Altered") into the feral immediacy and
Victorian judgementalism of "Beast". It's a case of a game that
doesn't live up to its title.
"Startropics": Remember how I said that "Star" could be either
familiar or alienating imagery? This title uses it both ways at
once. At first the title gives the impression of being on a tropical
island looking at the stars, away from the light pollution. This is
the imagery used on the box cover and title screen. But why are the
words jumbled together? How can "star" modify "tropics"? "Star
Ocean" is clearly a metaphor, but "star tropics"?. Suddenly "star"
in the title looks like an intruder. And indeed, that's what happens
in the game. The stars have come down to the tropics for nefarious
purposes. This is a one-word title with a plot.
"Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden" is a great satirical title,
taking another game's terrible title and appending a
pretentious-sounding (at least in English) suffix. On the other hand,
"I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game" would be a stronger title if
it lost the suffixes and became just "I Wanna Be The Guy". Its
strength comes from its unusual use of the first person. Relatedly,
BSUaJ is a terrible title because it's unclear whether it's supposed
to be first, second, or third person.
"Mighty Jill Off" is not really satirical, per se, but it's another
example of an effective title that parodies an earlier title.
I tenatively like game titles that adopt a person other than the
second. "I Wanna Be The Guy" is great, as mentioned earlier, and "No
One Can Stop Mr. Domino!" does a good job breaking the rule that a
game named after the protagonist is implicitly in second person. But
the more recent "I Fell In Love With The Majesty Of Colors" doesn't
work for me. Possibly because it also uses the past tense, which
doesn't exactly scream "gameplay".
"Nobunaga's Ambition" is a strong third-person title that does a
lot of character development in two words, one of which is a
person's name. Oda Nobunaga was so ambitious they made a game about it!
A lot of game titles are just boring (most media tie-in games fall
into his category) so I haven't covered them. I would like to
highlight another title I don't like, even though it's an interesting
title from a good game: "Q*Bert". I always felt Q*Bert was trying
too hard, the Bonk the Caveman to Pac-Man's Sonic. It's a short step
from the trademarkable misspelling and random punctuation to
nonsensical Japanese-style names on the one hand, and "extreme"
comic-book-style names on the other. I wrote a little rant about
Q*Bert here, but I think I'll save it and maybe use it for the
"Dactyl Nightmare" is so-bad-it's-good. Unlike "Nightmare on Elm
Street", which is third-person and merely promises to recount
someone else's nightmare, "Dactyl Nightmare" pledges that you
will live the nightmare. But "Nightmare" takes the stage after
"Dactyl", which although technically an English word, is a word that
refers to poetic meter. Sure, it's an abbreviation for
"Pterodactyl", but that kind of chatty informality isn't really
appropriate for a nightmare. And even "Pterodactyl Nightmare" is
kind of silly. So the two bits of incompatible imagery create a
humorous instead of a terrifying effect.
I think it would be fun to go over other peoples' favorite
game names with these newly-developed tools, so leave a comment.
(6) Tue Feb 03 2009 22:19 How Game Titles Work, Part 4: The Voyage Home:
I thought I had come up with a hard-and-fast rule about games that
mention celebrities' names: that they're limited to the
category of sports games and other games based on real-world
activities. My reasoning is that celebrities (as opposed to any
characters they play) engage in real-world activities, so that's
what the games would be about. Then I remembered "Shaq-Fu" and
"Michael Jackson's Moonwalker". In defense of the rule, Shaq and
Michael Jackson are kinda crazy, albeit in different ways.
I have three other naming techniques to talk about. Combined with
the previous rules I think I've classified most of the interesting and
a lot of the not-so-interesting English game names ever created. Of
course this is mostly because "metonymy" is such a vague term.
All three of these naming techniques seem to take a cue from some
other kind of media. It would be interesting to explore how these
work in more detail, but not right now. Also I haven't come up with
a lot of examples.
Sometimes the title gets in your face with some attitude. (You
Don't Know Jack, No More Heroes, The World Ends With You, Devil May
Cry, Doom) Most of these could also be the names of rock
albums. These names have only a tenative connection to the game's
subject matter; they're more oriented towards describing the mood or
atmosphere of the game.
Some games have names based on cliches. Either you adopt the cliche
wholesale or you modify it to make a pun. (A Boy and His Blob, Grand
Theft Auto, Deus Ex, Devil May Cry again). Episodes of TV shows are
also frequently named this way. I don't know why episodes of TV
shows have these stupid punny titles, but if I ever figure that out
I bet the reason will be similar for games. These tend to be games
from Western developers, though presumably there are similar names
in Japanese that don't translate. A lot of licensed and
franchise games have subtitles based on cliches.
Some games are named the way you would name a book or short
story. Well, lots of these rules also apply to story titles. I've
mentioned before stories named after characters or settings. But
here's what I think I mean in this instance.
When game titles have a tense or a person, it tends to be present
tense and second person. All those job-title names have an implicit
"You are the" prepended to them. "Hunt the Wumpus" is one game that
makes this more explicit. Titles of stories are more commonly third
person and past tense, so pretty much any game title you come up
with that fits those criteria will have a literary, un-gamelike
feel. This is why those seen-from-outside titles like "Leisure Suit
Larry" are so interesting: they're implicitly third person.
A lot of Infocom's games fit this pattern. Sometimes they used the
"job" type of synecdoche, which almost never appears in book titles,
but the "jobs" were things like "Witness", "Suspect", and "Infidel":
descriptions with a third-person, seen-from-outside quality rarely
seen in video games. It's hard to say whether "Suspended" is second
or third person, which is also true of the gameplay. "Leather
Goddesses of Phobos" achieves a literary sensibility (albeit a
lowbrow one) with a neat third-person trick. The singular, "Leather
Goddess of Phobos" could conceivably be second person, but you can't
use the second person plural in a single-player game. ("Mario Bros."
is second person plural, as I'll mention later.)
Now let's move on to sequel rules. The obvious way to name a
sequel is to tack a number onto the name of the original. This is
surprisingly rare. I thought it was more common than it was because
a lot of NES games had one or two numbered sequels, as did some
computer games when I was growing up. All those Sierra adventure
series used this technique, and the Mega Man, Final Fantasy, and
Metal Slug series still do. (I like to imagine the Metal Slug series
sticks to numbered sequels so it can be the video game equivalent of
the Rambo series.)
The march of technology makes long-term sequel numbering (ie. more
than two sequels) untenable. Those NES games were all on the same
system. Someone who bought Zelda II wasn't left wondering where the
original Zelda was. But I still don't know where Mega Man 8
is. The Playstation or something. When a series spans consoles, you
need to name your games such that people don't feel like they're
So how are sequels named? Sometimes they get totally different
names and you're just supposed to know it's a sequel. The problem with
this is illustrated by the Riven box, where it says "THE SEQUEL TO
MYST" in big letters. More often, subtitles are deployed.
A subtitle is just another game name stuck onto the name of the
franchise. When people talk about the game they use the subtitle as
shorthand. Applicable are a subset of the rules for naming
games. The trademarkability rules don't really apply because you've
already trademarked the francise name, and because "Sensible Phrase:
Nonsenseword" looks stupid and "Nonsenseword: Anothernonsenseword"
looks stupider. But the name-it-after-a-cliche rule is in full
force. Maybe for the same reasons it works for episodes of TV shows
but not so well for the TV shows themselves.
Metonymy and synecdoche also work well (the Castlevania series uses
this). Even franchises that use a numbering system (Mega Man, Final
Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto) need to also use subtitles when the
family tree passes a complexity threshold.
Sometimes instead of a subtitle the original title gets mutated using one of the rules mentioned earlier. This is how you get tech-demo titles like "Super Mario 64". This avoids the Riven problem while keeping the game name down to a reasonable size. There are also a couple sequel-specific mutation rules that I don't want to discuss in detail. (Super [whatever], Ms. Pac-Man, N+)
Although movie sequels often have subtitles, the rules for movie
subtitles are different from the rules for game subtitles. I don't
have a good grasp of how they differ, but try this thought
experiment. Take the most famous set of movie subtitles, for the
Star Trek series, and apply them to The Legend of Zelda, the most
famous video game series.
Though they're in different genres, both Zelda and Trek are
fundamentally about exploration. There's no thematic reason why you
couldn't have a Zelda game called "The Wrath Of Ganon" or "The
Search For Link" or "The Voyage Home" or "The Undiscovered
Country". They just don't feel like game subtitles (except for the
single-word subtitles, "Insurrection" and "Nemesis", which might be
Next time: close readings of my favorite game names.
(1) Mon Feb 02 2009 20:29 How Game Titles Work, Part 3: Misc. Metonymy and Synecdoche:
One thing I didn't mention earlier (because I didn't realize it
earlier) is that war-themed games, like sports games, make heavier use of metonymy and
synecdoche (America's Army, Counter-Strike, Medal of Honor, Delta
Force, 1942) because they're based on real-world activities and even specific historical periods. This is reinforced by the
fact that you don't want to give a war game a cutesy name. (Unless
it's Rush'n Attack, which is a frightening game when you're a kid
playing it in 1987.)
Kris commented on an earlier entry saying basically, why is this a
mystery? When you name your game you pick a name that has something
to do with the gameplay and that hasn't been chosen before. But even
this high-level overview of game names is different from the way
other things are named. You wouldn't name a book or movie or album or any other cultural artifact using the
techniques normally associated with cleaning products. Books and movies are
often named with synecdoche (name the book after something in the
book), but full-blown metonymy (name the book after something
thematically related) is less common and can seem pretentious, where
it usually doesn't for games.
I haven't found any rules for metonymy, because there probably
aren't any, but there are some interesting patterns. Fantasy games
have epic names, as you might expect--specifically, they have names
that sound like bad fantasy novels. This connection is strong enough
that fantasy RPGs often have literary imagery in their
names. ("Adventures of", "Legend of", "Tales of", "Book", "Scroll",
Naturalistic imagery is also common. In fantasy RPGs the imagery is
familiar ("Mountain", "Ocean", "Wind", "Rain", "Tree"). In science-fictional
games of all kinds it's alienating ("Space", "Planet", "Galaxy",
"Asteroid"). "Star" and "Moon", astronomical phenomena you can see
from Earth, can be either comforting or alienating. Compare "Harvest Moon" to "Moon Patrol".
One unexpected thing I found was a vein of aspirational language in
the names of fighting games. (Karate Champ, King of Fighters, Urban
Like I say, any rule about metonymy is shaky. But there are
some pretty well-defined kinds of synecdoche that cover a lot
of game-naming ground.
- Games whose name is a reference to the protagonist are very
common. The reference may be the protagonist's name or title. (Super
Mario Bros., The Sims, Duke Nukem, Commander Keen, Dangerous Dave,
Mega Man, Max Payne, Serious Sam, Pac-Man, Kid Icarus, Anteater,
Lunar Lander, Sonic the Hedgehog) Trivia: "Quake" was
originally the name of the protagonist. Less often the title is a
nickname or label for the protagonist, a name the protagonist would
not use to refer to themselves. (Rogue, Leisure Suit Larry, Bad
Dudes) This is common in literature, though more the literature of
150 years ago than today's.
- Also popular is a game named after the protagonist's job, or
the player's job within the game. (Paperboy, Sokoban, Tapper, NARC,
Railroad Tycoon, Ice Climber, Zoo Keeper, Wing Commander, Tomb
Raider, Pirates!, Street Fighter, Wrecking Crew). This is very
uncommon in literature. Sometimes there's
some metonymy here. For instance, "Missile Command" and "Moon
Patrol" are presumably the place where the protagonist
works. "Joust" is the event taking place.
- Names that refer to the antagonist are also common,
especially in older games. (Metroid, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, Space
Invaders, Centipede, Diablo.) Sumana suggested "Skulljagger", a SNES
game that no one has ever heard of or cared enough about to do a
real web page for, but yes, it's a game named after the main
antagonist. You could expand this to cover games whose names refer
to the ultimate goal of the game.
- It's pretty rare you get a game named after a character who's
neither protagonist nor antagonist, but the Zelda series is a
- Some names refer to the setting. (Super Mario
Land/World/Galaxy, Maniac Mansion, Area 51, Angband, Castlevania,
River City Ransom, Wolfenstein, New Zealand Story)
- There are a few games named after weapons. (Golden Axe, Daikatana,
Pokemon, Soul Calibur, Metal Slug, Metal Gear) Expand this idea to
include tools and you'd pick up many of the Zelda games.
- Sometimes the title refers to some aspect of the gameplay,
hardware, or software. I mentioned these earlier.
- Rarely, but awesomely, you get titles that refer behind the scenes
to the development of the game itself. The only examples I can think
of are Nethack and Final Fantasy.
What's left in this series? There are two more interesting title
patterns I'll cover next time, as well as rules for constructing
sequel names. Then I'd like to analyze some of my favorite game
names in detail. I tend to like game names for their complexity and
literary value, attributes not traditionally associated with
trademarky or synecdochal names. Finally, I need to figure out which of these
patterns happened because of the nature of video games, and which
are artifacts of the economic context in which most games were developed.
(3) Sun Feb 01 2009 10:20 How Game Titles Work, Part 2: Trademarkability:
I'm not gonna keep posting these huge entries one after another, but here's another big entry. First, a summary of the previous entry.
- It took a while for non-nerds to grasp the concept of electronic
games. Naming games after real-world activities (whether or not there
was actually a resemblance) created a bridge between the real world
and the electronic world.
- If a game is based on a real-world activity, it's a good bet its
name will be based on synecdoche or metonomy, assuming it's not just
flat-out named after the activity. Random examples: Pong,
Pole Position, Double Dribble, Pro Wrestling.
- All else being equal, a game that demonstrates some new
technology--hardware, software, game mechanic--will have a more
generic name than a game that doesn't. It's likely the game will
just mention the new technology in its name. Hardware examples:
Computer Space, Super Glove Ball, Sonic CD, Yoshi Touch and Go, Wii
Sports. Software examples: Wolfenstein 3D, Virtua Fighter. Game
mechanic examples: Portal, World of Goo.
Now I'll carve off another chunk of the space of possible game names. Game names can be constructed with techniques used to come up
with other trademarkable words and phrases. Misspelling doesn't happen
as much in game titles as in, say, cleaning supplies, but it's pretty
common, especially the fake abbreviation. (Petz, Cruis'n, Mortal
Kombat, Rush'n Attack, Toobin'). Alliteration and assonance happen pretty
often. (Excitebike, Final Fight, Bubble Bobble). I'd like to give
special notice to "Elevator Action", which really seems like there's
alliteration there but it's actually just very easy to say.
compound portmanteau words happen very often, possibly because
this construction is common in Japanese (Excitebike again,
Gradius, Gyruss, Pengo). But it happens even in non-Japanese games
(Tetris, Myst, Skulljagger (see future entry), BioShock, Starcraft, Carmageddon,
Populous, Gravitar, Q*Bert). Combine with metonymy and you can come
up with many plausible-sounding game titles for a given game.
Metonymy, you say? Yes! Even games not based on a real-world
activity usually have some connection to reality, and the
title can use metonymy on those parts. Just as an example, consider
(the game) Bubble Bobble. It's a pretty nonsensical game but there
are two points of contact with reality: dinosaurs and bubbles. The
main game mechanics are blowing bubbles, popping them, and jumping.
Metonymy on "dinosaur" yields lizard, reptile, dino-,
-saurus. Metonymy on "bubble" yields blow, pop, and float. Bubble
Bobble could be called "Float Fight", "Dino Pop", "Pop 'n Drop", or
(with less cutesy graphics) "Reptile Rage". That's just names that
are the same kind of name as "Bubble Bobble." They're not as good as
"Bubble Bobble," though "Reptile Rage" has an interesting baby-Godzilla thing going on, but I bet similar names were considered during
development. And this is a common pattern. "Dig Dug" is the same
name as "Bubble Bobble", just for a different game.
"Populous" happens to be a real word, but I think whoever named
the game liked the Greek-myth-sounding "ous" suffix better than the
dictionary meaning of the word.
(9) Sat Jan 31 2009 22:17 How Game Titles Work, Part 1:
Skip to: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.
My secret project stalled recently, and today I figured out why. I
don't really understand how the names of video games work. For
"Mallory" I made up a bunch of fake arcade game names, and they're
pretty OK, but it took a long time to come up with them, and
some of them (mainly "Mutant's Revenge") don't quite ring true to
Looking on the Internet, repository of all video game
related-knowledge, I discovered that no one has really looked
in-depth at the names of games. There are lists
game names, but no one has tried to figure out a set of genres and
rules for game names. Which is odd because when I started thinking
about it I came up with a lot of patterns and even a rule of
historical development. Which I now present in part 1 of an epic
A couple bits of logistics, as they say in college. First, when I
mention a game, eg. Pong, I'm generally talking about the name of
the game and not the actual game. Second, these are not ironclad
rules because we're talking about the fruits of creativity here. I'm
trying to ferret out the underlying rules of game names so that I
can tweak them and apply them to my own purposes. Also, I'm not really clear on where to draw the line between synecdoche and metonymy.
Electronic games started out as representations of real-world
activities, and they started out being named after those activities:
Noughts and Crosses, Tennis for Two, Football, Pong, Tank, Gunfight,
Watergate Caper. The most abstract names from this era are Gran Trak
10 (a racing game) and Simon, where the name has only a metaphorical
relationship to the game. (Simon is a rare case of a game's
name referencing a different game!)
The big exception is Spacewar!, which was way ahead of its time
both in terms of gameplay and naming. Even if you consider Spacewar!
a representation of a real-world activity that's not possible yet,
that exclamation mark makes it clear the designers considered the
name of a game to be the same kind of thing as the name of a movie
or book. There are some more games for computer nerds in this category, like Hunt the Wumpus and Adventure. (Later I'll talk about "Computer Space", an attempt to market Spacewar! to non-nerds.)
Why this pattern? I can think of a couple reasons. People had to
become acclimated to the idea that you could inhabit the virtual
space of an electronic device and play a game there. It made sense
to create games that simulated or could be tied to real-world
activities. Also, because graphics were so primitive, the name of
the game had to do a lot of the heavy lifting. All the 2600 sports
games are basically Pong. If Spacewar! had had 2600-quality
graphics, it would have been Combat.
Over time the graphics got better, and two things happened. First,
you started seeing games that were not based on familiar everyday
activities. Sometimes they had generic names anyway:
Asteroids. Sometimes the names were more abstract: Space Invaders,
Battlezone, Breakout, Defender, Pac-Man.
Second, games that were based on familiar everyday activities
started using synecdoche. You can't have more than one game called
"Sprint" so you got "Night Driver", which was a little more
abstract, and then "Speed Freaks", "Turbo", and "Pole Position." A
single aspect of racing is used as shorthand to inform you that this
is a racing game.
At this point technological progress acts as a reset switch for the
synecdoche. On a home system, the graphics suck
compared to the arcade. Home systems go right back to games that are named directly after the real-world activities they replicate.
Here are some titles for the Magnavox Odyssey: Baseball,
Basketball, Dogfight, Football, Handball, Hockey, Roulette, Shooting
Gallery, Shootout, Ski, Soccer, Tennis, Volleyball. But there are
some more abstract titles: Analogic, Cat and Mouse, Interplanetary
Voyage, Percepts, Prehistoric Safari, Win (?). And even some
synecdoche, with "Wipeout".
Here are some Channel F titles: Tennis/Hockey,
Baseball, Slot Machine, Bowling, Backgammon. Some more abstract
titles: Casino Royale (an early media tie-in?), Alien Invasion,
Pac-Man, Cat and Mouse, Dodge'It, Pinball Challenge, Space War. A
little synecdoche here too, with "Drag Strip" and "Torpedo Alley".
One more. Here are some Atari 2600 titles from the year the system
launched: Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat, Flag
Capture, Race. Some more abstract names from
the same year: Canyon Bomber, Brain Games, Maze Craze: A Game of
Cops and Robbers. Now there's significant synecdoche and metonomy with "Home Run", "Outer Space". "Indy 500", and "Video Olympics".
Here are some games from Nintendo's sports series for the NES:
Golf, Ice Hockey, Tennis, Baseball, Volleyball, Pro Wrestling,
Slalom, Soccer. Other notable early NES titles reproducing
real-world activities: Pinball, Duck Hunt. But by this time, people
are comfortable enough with video games that you can call a game
based on a real-world activity Excitebike (alliteration, nonsense
compound word), 10 Yard Fight (synecdoche), Mach Rider, Urban
Champion, or Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (synecdoche, celebrity tie-in,
gratuitous exclamation marks). Even if there wasn't previously a
game called "Football" or "Boxing" on the system.
History progresses from this point and we start seeing
franchises. We get RBI Baseball 1, 2, and 3 (synecdoche), Tecmo Bowl
and Tecmo Super Bowl (synecdoche, corporate self-insertion, sequel naming by word association), up to today's tie-in-laden Madden, NBA
Live, FIFA Soccer, MLB 2K, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, etc. etc. These are
"canonical" game series based closely on the comings and goings of
the real-world sports franchises.
Today these franchises have pretty much taken over the market for
sports games. Their names are very predictable. On the other hand, games that don't
simulate real-world activities have had their names get more and
more unpredictable since the days of Breakout and Battlezone.
But when a new technology or console is introduced you get some
generic-sounding names. A generic name or franchise name gets the
name of the new technology stuck onto it: Sonic CD. Super Mario 64
or Advance. Virtual League Baseball. Wii Sports. There was a published game called "Golf" as late as the Virtual Boy.
Sometimes you get a
game name that sounds like a tech demo: Super Glove Ball. Virtua
Fighter. Computer Space is kind of in this category; the technology being pitched is the very act of playing a game on a computer.
It looks like the same pattern occured earlier, in the world of
electromechanical games. Games based on sports were the first to
show up in arcades in the 1930s. The first baseball-style pinball games (in 1932)
were called "All-Star Baseball" and "All-American Baseball
Game". Then you got the synecdotal "World Series 1934", "All Stars",
"Box Score", and so on. Sega put out a submarine game called
"Periscope" (synecdoche) in 1968, and then Midway ripped them off
with the even more abstract Sea Raider, Sea Devil, and Sea Wolf.
I find it even more interesting that this did not happen for
pinball in general. Pinball games have always had abstract names:
the first four names I could find are "Bagatelle Table", "Baffle
Ball", "Whiffle Board", and "Ballyhoo". Pinball games are usually
skinned to remind the player of some non-pinball field of endeavor,
but when that happens the games tend to have abstract or synecdochal names. 1972, the year Pong was released, also saw the release of pinball games with names like "Fireball", "Sky Kings", "Magic Carpet" and "Grand Slam". (In 1973, Williams released a Skylab-themed pinball game!) You could think of pinball as being
less like a video game and more like a sport: the kind of real-world
activity being simulated by video games up to the present day.
 Of course such lists are highly subjective. One of my favorite game names of all time is "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!", which makes #11 in that "worst names" list.
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