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:
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.
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.