The Shallow End Of the Reference Pool

It’s been said somewhat dispiritedly that your average videogamer has read one book and seen one movie. That’s a stereotype I think isn’t true, but I think it does represent a particular thought about media consumption from what I think of as the predominant market target of videogames. The demographic most videogame developers think they should target is much like this; with tales of Fuse focus-testing twelve year old boys, or the tales of Bioshock Infinite playing down Elizabeth’s importance to the story on the cover art because 25 year old college fratboys didn’t like it seem to make it clear that whether or not these people represent gaming, marketing departments seem to think they do.

Helping Fox with her latest game project, I’ve been doing less of what I thought I’d do (creating written text for her to stick in places) and more showing her the tools I use when I am creating. One of these was structural narrative, where I started by laying out a narrative I knew worked, then tried to match my new ideas to the same structure. What she has now is a narrative that does not map directly the way my beginning outline did, and is stronger for being hers. The structure inherently references other media – which gives ideas that reference other, other ideas.

One of the other narrative tools I use is when I create characters, I try to use their names as points for reference. To use Age of Sand, Enkudu and Innogen have names that are distortions of older, historical name. Holland’s name is an ambiguous name about a place many people think they know about, but often confuse. Barbara’s name is a threefold reference to Barbara Gordon, Barbie, and Barbarians.

The technique I employ likes to find overlap where I can. Let’s say you’re telling a story about a group of people which touches on themes of entertainment. Just off the top of my head, let’s say you want to name ten characters, and the story features contrasting and conflicting views on entertainment from two groups. You could have a list of names like:

  • Mario
  • Aran
  • Miles
  • Saria
  • Cobain
  • Zimmer
  • Jett
  • Amos

What you have here are two groups that may not obviously stand against one another, but a reader acquainted with some music and some videogames might pick up on parts of it. While Mario and Aran might stick out, are the people who notice notice Hans Zimmer and Joan Jett and Tori Amos? Possibly not. The value of this name-pool design is that sometimes these names will bring their own connections and connotations, and give you possible overtones with which to fill things out; is Zimmer different from Cobain, Jett and Amos, because Hans Zimmer does a totally different style of music to the others? Is Cobain fatalistic and dour, because Kurt Cobain committed suicide? Do Aran and Mario have a hard time connecting with Miles and Saria because of their sidekick-like status? What if Aran and Jett have some common position because both are drawn from women and their depictions in media?

One undocumented bonus of all of this is that if you show a player a lineup of things they recognise with one they don’t, you can sometimes create a curiosity or a surprise with that standout. Someone might well recognise, say, Mario, Aran, and Miles, but not Saria – which can be a way to introduce people to things they wouldn’t have otherwise sought out.

When you’re trying to create a large group of characters, this approach can give you structure you can build around. of course, you needn’t follow the structure off a cliff.

Now, it’s important to make sure these names still fit the overall aesthetic. You don’t want to have a situation known as Aerith and Bob. In this above list, I tried to pick a handful of names that are real enough that they don’t jar with one another, but also didn’t leap out too hard at people about their origin. There’s a risk of course, in any videogame with Mario in it that that will happen – after all, in Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio’s uncle Mario actually flat-out says It’s-a-me, Mario! That however is its own concern and is really part of the aesthetics of the work – and aesthetics is a big, big topic I’m not really well-qualified to handle.