Down Under

This is a guest post by Bennett Foddy, who named the rooms in VVVVVV! You might know him from his games QWOP or Evacuation.

It occurs to me that I haven’t said very much about Bennett’s involvement with the game on this blog up to this, so allow me to quickly make up for that: The early prototypes of the game from last summer included all sorts of elements that I ended up removing for one reason or another – minor collectibles, one way blocks, a different type of disappearing platform, among other things. One element that was on the chopping block once the game got a bit bigger was the room names.

There were fun to implement at first, but I don’t really have a knack for naming things (hey, I called the bloody game VVVVVV, after all). When the game started to get a lot bigger, the difficulty in naming every single room in the game just seemed like too much for me. So Bennett offered to give it a try. He ended up naming every room in the game.

I can’t stress enough how much I like the roomnames in VVVVVV, and how much I think they add to the game. Bennett did an amazing job, adding a real identity to each of the game’s locations. My favourite roomname from the game is “I’ve Changed My Mind, Thelma…”, which made an otherwise not very interesting room something special.

I asked him to write a little about his approach to naming for the blog, and here’s what he came up with:

GIVING THINGS NAMES

I take the art of naming seriously. I’m not saying that I’m some sort of expert, or even that I’m good at it, but I think I take it more seriously than most people do. I think most people think that names are just arbitrary labels we use to refer to things. I want to say a bit about why I think that those people have the wrong idea.

Creating and naming are separate skills. Creating is hard, slow work, while naming is a flourish that is completed in an instant. That’s why god had to make the animals, if you believe in such things, but the naming of them could be left to a nude man with no education.

Though naming things is instant and effortless, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do a good job of it. And while naming is insubstantial, that doesn’t mean it’s inconsequential. When we create something we give it form. But when we name it we provide a means of apprehending and understanding that form. When we name things we communicate facts about whatever we’re naming, but we also attach new facts to those things.

In case you think I’m being silly, or just really pretentious, let me give a couple of examples. The first comes from the Sydney Morning Herald.

“One son was named Loser, the other Winner.

One became a policeman and was eventually promoted to detective.

The other fell into the life of a small-time crook, racking up at least 31 arrests before being jailed for two years.

But for the brothers Lane it was not a case of their unique names sealing their fates. “I went a totally separate route right from the start,” said Loser Lane, 41, a detective in the South Bronx.

Loser, a star student and athlete, went on scholarship to an elite prep school, on to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and then joined the force.

Winner’s life has gone the other way. Now 44, Winner last month completed a two-year jail sentence for breaking into a car. He is living in a homeless shelter in upstate New York, shuttling back and forth between it and the city trying to get his life on track.

Why did he commit so many crimes? “It’s just some situations I got in,” Winner said.”

Of course, Winner Lane didn’t just get in some situations. His life was mapped out for him when his genius parents decided to call him Winner.

Here’s a more practical example. (Photos courtesy of Jalopnik)

Looks like a fairly cool car. I bet the designers thought it looked chic, modern and clean. But then the guys upstairs named it the ‘Probe’.

Coming off the production line, this must have looked like a fairly macho, practical vehicle. But they called it the ‘Rural Nanny’

There is no pre-existing fact about either of these cars that makes ‘Probe’ or ‘Nanny’ an appropriate name. But now that they are named, it is a fact that the first car is for perverts and the second is for old ladies. These things are now facts about these cars, just as sure as if someone had built mirrors into the ceiling of the first car or put a valence around the tray of the second.

So naming things is Serious Business, and it’s similar to another kind of Serious Business: cutting people in half with a samurai sword.

When you cut someone in half with a samurai sword, you can do it in a long series of timid, half-hearted exploratory swipes. You can stop half-way through and start over. You can constantly second-guess yourself and adjust your progress. But when you do these things, though you end up bisecting your opponent, you will have made a mess. You will have expended more effort than necessary, and the slice will be jagged and ugly. Everyone will know you for the poor swordsman that you are.

No. When you cut someone in half with a samurai sword, it is better to do it all in one go. The same thing goes for giving things names. It has to be done decisively, or you can wind up with hamburger instead of steak.

So that’s why I’m serious about giving things names. That’s why I was honoured to be allowed to contribute names to VVVVVV, a game which needed a whole lot of names. I hope I made clean cuts of most of them.

NAMING THE ROOMS IN VVVVVV

When things go right, room names serve four distinct purposes. First, they evoke something about the room that isn’t there in the graphics. Some names are there to add more to the game world, fleshing it out and adding detail while keeping graphical clutter off-screen.

Sometimes the names need to communicate something about the room or its solution…

… or just communicate a message from the game to its victim!

Third, they’re there to help you locate yourself and remember the rooms without referring to the map. VVVVVV is a huge game, and while it’s hard to get thoroughly lost since there’s a mini-map, the names act as signposts you can read without interrupting your game.

Finally, some of the room names are just there to raise your spirits when you’re attempting that room for the 185th time!

Room names died with the advent of smooth scrolling in video games. They’re one of those once-popular features that were never obsoleted but instead were voluntarily given up in the service of smoother gameplay. Yet here we are in 2010, with a revolutionary, forward-looking flip-screen platformer. With individually-named rooms.

* 18 Comments

18 Comments so far

  1. StephenM3 on January 8th, 2010

    Very interesting! The room names were a nice touch, all the way through. I missed them in the overworld.

  2. Daik on January 8th, 2010

    I wonder why everything that happens here makes me want VVVVVV even more. Seriously.

  3. William on January 8th, 2010

    The “slicing human with a samurai word” metaphor is perfect :) Very original post.

  4. hydra9 on January 8th, 2010

    Really interesting post.

    Plus:

    R. Crumb!

    and

    Evacuation – an excellent puzzle game! Mr. Foddy, you win on all counts.

  5. L on January 9th, 2010

    One of my favourite 90′s games, Glider PRO, has room names. They really did encourage level makers to think about the rooms they were making, or at least provide some meaning or context for them.

  6. WalterD on January 9th, 2010

    Man, I really REALLY want to name something now. Or slice something with a samurai sword.

  7. paul eres on January 10th, 2010

    good article. sd also has individually named rooms, although the rooms are only displayed on the map screen and save file screen. naming them is usually the last thing i do when making a new area.

  8. Anonymous on January 10th, 2010

    Okay, it’s January 10th!!! Drum Roll!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Now lets get the game please ;-)

  9. Zero on January 10th, 2010

    I’ve come to the conclusion that Terry Cavanagh understands games at a deeper level than most mortals. In preparation, I’ve completed Don’t Look Back and *attempted* Self Destruct. I’m really terrible.

    I’ve not even played VVVVVV and yet the love that went into every painstaking minute of the process of its creation is already palpable. I salute you, Terry, and your collaborators, on producing a work of art.

  10. ChrisD on January 11th, 2010

    OMG this post interested the hell outta me. I used to love the room names in old games like Dizzy cos they really gave the rooms a theme kinda thing, I miss those days. I’m making a Dizzy-esue game at the moment (Spuds Quest) and obv it’s got screen names and sometimes I wondered whether it was only me that had a passionate obsession with them XD

  11. ChrisD on January 11th, 2010

    Hmm sure I posted but seems to have evaporated. Anyway, room names are the future.

  12. ChrisD on January 11th, 2010

    and now i look like a tit :)

  13. SoujiroSeta on January 14th, 2010

    Hehe very interesting post! I think that naming the rooms like you guys did was an excellent idea that goes along with an excellent game… :D

  14. [...] VVVVVV’s Jet-Set-Willy-esque room names? The writer discusses it. Splendid stuff. [...]

  15. Jonathan Hartley on January 18th, 2010

    Interesting and great, thanks. I’ve been toying with the idea of naming areas in my own smooth-scrolling game, by labelling invisible polygonal areas with a name that is displayed unobtrusively when you wander into the polygon. That could revive room naming in smooth-scrollers!

  16. Gnome on January 18th, 2010

    An excellent read. Always appreciate JSW references really. Oh, and loved the VVVVV demo too mind. Should be grabbing a copy of the game asap (that’s after managing to put something into my PayPal account).

    Cheers!

  17. [...] critics have claimed Mr. Cavanagh has re-awokened the lost art of naming the static flick-screens. I didn’t even know that it was an art-form, didn’t even think about it, that’s [...]

  18. asdasd on July 21st, 2011

    What Lies Beneath?

    Spikes Do!

    I actually swore.
    :D

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