The process of naming a protagonist has never sat right with me. Even in my early childhood, I would argue with friends at the lunch table that the green clad elf was indeed named Link and not Zelda although the game was entitled “the Legend of Zelda”. That in the Super Mario Bros. our red capped, Gomba stomping friend wasn’t named “Super Mario”, but was, in fact, just Mario.
When I finally upgraded to more adult games, I struggled with this naming convention again. The Final Fantasy series always confused me with the prompt to change the character’s name at the start. Sure, I could adjust it to separate my saved game file from the others in my family. Name it after something I could recognize like my own name or a silly internet nom de plume. But I never knew who these characters even were. How would I feel if I named a character after myself if he turned out to be some narcissistic baby killer? Sure that might be a bit much but, these characters were never mine to name and I always went with the defaults that were lended to them.
It wasn’t until I played Pokemon Blue that it became apparent that developers have no idea how to give the player the option of naming the main character in a conventional sense. Upon journeying into Professor Oak’s lab, he describes the world of Pokemon: these strange and wonderful creatures that roam about the lands, can befriended and used in competitive combat. Not to the death, mind you, that would be barbaric apparently. But before you begin, he needs help remembering your name.
Not only your name, but he also has trouble remembering his own grandson, who becomes your arch rival for the remainder of the game. Now, I am aware of such mental issues that come with age such as Alzheimer’s or just simple memory loss, but your own grandson? Hard to believe. It comes off as a forced attempt to name the main character that breaks the atmosphere with silly and unbelievable requests. This trend of naming conventions continued into more hilarity in other console generations such as Chrono Trigger where the cannon for the sword swinging frog is named “Frog”. Now that is extremely thought provoking character design.
Or, in the instance of Startropics for the NES, going through this naming selection at the beginning of the game has no difference on your play through what so ever except for separating the save game files. It was definitely a head scratcher when naming the character “Eric” only to have the NPCs refer to you as “Mike”. As a child, I couldn’t figure out who Mike was until after fighting through the first dungeon that, yes, I am indeed Mike and naming the game file means nothing except for identification. Where traditionally being forced to name your game file to reflect the game’s protagonist shows no meaning in Startropics. What is going on here?
How could allowing your players to name the characters come off so childish and juvenile? We aren’t talking about a puppy that gets lost in the snow only to come back at the end of the book happy and hungry. These are magic casting, demon banishing, last hopes for humanity. Frog? Sure, giving the player a chance to select names at the beginning of the game before any gameplay is a little awkward and even sometimes annoying because, at the moment, you still have no connection to the characters you’re naming, but it’s a lot better than writing your character’s dialogue to have selective memory loss or just appear completely ignorant. The question still remains: is there a better way?
Filing through my many Humble Bundle purchases, I came across an RPG game entitled “Always, Sometimes Monsters”. The name alone was intriguing enough for me to install and power it up. An indie game developed by Vagabond Dog, Always, Sometimes Monsters starts with a prelude simply titled “Larry’s party”. From here you can roam about the apartment, journey to the balcony, and speak to anyone you want. You have your choice of twelve different characters; six female and six male with a variety of racial options and backgrounds to select as your character. After selecting the main character, you take a step to the balcony to fetch your significant other to introduce to Larry. Here you also have your choice of a different set of twelve individuals; six female and six male again. After finding the one for you, the text option of “He’s waiting on us.” he being Larry, becomes available. After choosing your love interest, you need to sign his birthday card. This is the point you name both characters.
A smart, clever way that takes the surrounding environment and those that live in it to create a unique experience of something so simple that we’ve all done; signing a birthday card. This opportunity allows the player to step into a natural setting and yet has a huge impact on the rest of the game. It’s almost impossible to not name the main character after yourself and the partner after your own (provided you have one, I know, we’re all geeks).
This gesture sent me through a spiral that had me going back through all of the games I’ve played previous. All of the fourth wall breaking, side steps, and silly mistakes that a game has to go through simply to name a character. It took me this long to finally find that natural walk through character development that most of us don’t even bat an eye at because it’s just a game, right? Not to me. Not every time, anyway. Sure, there’s those that you simply say “OK, it’s a game after all. They can’t get it right 100% of time.” Which is complete nonsense.
These naming rights are given to us by the developers either because they are trying to personalize their title as much as possible to make those connections to the player more deep or because it’s something everyone else is doing. Either way, this is an enormous amount of power that can be used for good or evil. It shouldn’t just be something you give to a junior programmer looking to get his feet wet. It can have an even bigger impact to the player and the gameplay if it’s written as a part that actually matters such is the case with Always, Sometimes Monsters rather than a joke that is abused by childish minds and internet trolls. Developers need to realize that this naming power makes a strong bond to the game’s characters than any cut scene, piece of dialogue, or graphical effects could possible do. Stumbling your way through this character development looks lazy and awkward and can easily break whatever momentum you were trying to create in the beginning.
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