This Essay on Names has no Title

2019-12-04 · by Sharang Biswas
tagged Columns

In Planescape: Torment [1], you play a scarred immortal searching a fantastical metropolis for the truth about your identity. You’ve forgotten everything about yourself, including your name. If you lie to enough people and give them the false name “Adahn,” the city, empowered by the strong belief that an individual with this name exists, spontaneously generates a confused stranger who knows only that their name is Adahn.

Unlike most roleplaying games, Planescape: Torment never gives you the option to pick a name. Much like your character’s combat role (which can switch freely) and history (which depends on which of your innumerable memories you unearth) your name remains inchoate, a formless potential that you can choose to define much as you define your journey. If your name is a blank canvas, perhaps so is your destiny?

* * *

Names give shape to thoughts, provide a skeleton onto which ideas can be strung. In the popular Dungeons & Dragons podcast The Adventure Zone’s “Graduation” season, the party becomes almost paralyzed with indecision when one of the protagonists refused to either give a name or to accept a nickname from the others [2]. ‘How do we refer to you?’ their hesitation asks. ‘How do we organize you in our thoughts?’

The act of naming is non-trivial. “Names can connect children to their ancestors, country of origin or ethnic group, and often have deep meaning or symbolism for parents and families,” write Rita Kohli and Daniel G. Solórzano [3]. By bestowing a name, we bestow the rudiment of form, a way to conceptualize our creation. For a player, creating a name for a character can be part of what Aaron Reed calls “expressive input,” allowing players to “express their distinctive intentions through it,” and to feel “feel ownership, discovery, or surprise.” [4] By naming my rival “Idiot” in Pokémon Red Version [5], my 10-year-old self was imposing a bespoke order upon the Pokémon world, an imperious order, one that reflected a protagonist determined—nay, prophesied—to “be the very best, like no one ever was.” By allowing me to name the monographs my scribe character pens in Chronicon Apocalyptica [6], the game offers me the chance to make my own, unique a mark in the world. The contents of said monographs will forever remain nebulous, but their naming instantiates them in myth.

* * *

A New Old Name

a durational microlarp

by Lucian Kahn

You already changed your name. Now change your old name. Decide what name you would rather have had before you changed it. Whenever someone asks, “What was your name before?” answer with your new old name.

-Lucian Kahn [7]

* * *

The power of naming in games extends further, into the system level. As Robert Yang notes in his blog post Queer Game Studies, “On FeministWhorePurna and the Ludo-material Politics of Gendered Damage Power-ups in Open-World RPG Video Games,” the naming of skills and abilities in videogames, what with such mechanics representing the will and power of the player, absolutely contributes to the political argument the game makes [8]. Yang notes that in an early build of the game Dead Island, the character Purna, an Aboriginal woman of colour, could learn a skill titled, “Feminist Whore” to gain a damage bonus against male characters. While Yang delves deeper into mechanics and representation, the name itself—later changed to “Gender Wars” in the released version of the game—betrays an argument about the identity and motivation of a feminist is: a woman worthy of our disgust who wants nothing more than to hurt men.

On a less inflammatory note, Clio Davis, in her teen-horror interactive novel The Fog Knows Your Name [9], eschews the traditional morality metric of Good Vs Evil (and similar) to present the player with choices that moves the player along an axis of “Beautiful Cinnamon Roll Vs Rotten Apple.” While teenage humour shines joyously through this choice of nomenclature, adding levity to the game’s dark narrative, perhaps Davis is also slyly commenting on the mechanics of gamified morality itself? That they’re there solely to be consumed by the player, in a desperate hunger for the “best” ending?

Indie RPG Disco Elysium [10] hurtles headlong into wild territory when it comes to naming players’ attributes. While your character can level up their “Logic” or “Reaction Speed,” they can also invest points in skills such as “Inland Empire,” “Shivers,” “Esprit de Corps,” and “Physical Instrument.” In the delightfully weird game about an amnesiac cop, the esoteric naming of one’s own capabilities mirrors the confused soul-searching and frantic battling of one’s own inner demons that the protagonist undertakes throughout the story.

* * *

Names have power. They reveal intent, hope and desire. Even at their very least, they help us conceptualize a thing, help us formulate thoughts about it. In the realm of interactive fiction, where action and drama occur not within screen pixels but within psychic, literary landscapes, names are not just tools, but potent ones at that.

“Your name should be deep gold and orange, like a forest fire on the horizon, but mixed with the stench of liquor rising from your breath.”

-Disco Elysium

 

Works Cited

[1] Black Isle Studios, Planescape: Torment, Interplay Entertainment, 1999.
[2] G. McElroy, T. McElroy, J. McElroy and C. McElroy, Graduaton Episode 1: “Orientation,” The Adventure Zone, 2019.
[3] R. Kohli and D. G. Solórzano, “Teachers, please learn our names!: racial microagressions and the K-12 classroom,” Race, Ethnicity and Education, vol. 15, No. 4, pp. 441-462, 2012.
[4] A. Reed, Changeful Tales: Design-Driven Approaches Toward More Expressive Storygames, University of California Santa Cruz, 2017.
[5] Game Freak, Pokemon Red Version, Nintendo, 1996.
[6] R. Davis, Chronicon Apocalyptica, Choice of Games, 2019.
[7] L. Kahn, New Old Name, 2019. Game reproduced here by permission of the author.
[8] R. Yang, “Queer Game Studies, “On FeministWhorePurna and the Ludo-material Politics of Gendered Damage Power-ups in Open-World RPG Video Games,”” 25 January 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2017/01/queer-game-studies-on.html. [Accessed 27 November 2019].
[9] C. Y.-S. Davis, The Fog Knows Your Name, Choice of Games, 2019.
[10] ZA/UM, Disco Elysium, 2019.

Sharang Biswas

Sharang Biswas is an award-winning game designer, an internationally exhibited artist, and a published writer based in New York. He has exhibited work at numerous museums, galleries, and art fairs including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and the Toronto Reference Library. He has designed curricula for the Museum of the Moving Image, created learning games for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and written about games, interactivity, and culture for publications including Kill Screen, Sub Q, ZAM and First-Person Scholar. His two food-based games, “Feast” and “Verdure”, have garnered numerous accolades, including an IndieCade Award and and IGDN Indie Groundbreaker Award. Sharang has lectured or taught courses on game design at various universities and cultural institutions including Dartmouth, Columbia Teacher’s College, New York University, The International Center of Photography, and the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as spoken at conferences such as Game Devs of Color, GaymerX, Living Games, IndieCade and Boston FIG Talks.

Sharang holds a bachelor’s in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering from Dartmouth College and a master’s in Interactive Design from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is the Experience Designer for The Medici Group, a consulting firm focusing on diversity and innovation.

You can find him on Twitter @SharangBiswas, his website https://sharangbiswas.myportfolio.com/ , or on his Itch IO page https://astrolingus.itch.io/

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