Tom Clancy's Bonestorm 2014, and why video game titles need to grow up

Opinion

It’s been almost twenty years since Bart greedily eyed the fictional game Bonestorm through a glass display case on The Simpsons.

Bonestorm was a hilarious prop precisely because it captured the puerile adolescence of '90s games, games with ridiculously masculinized titles like Duke Nukem or Doom or Diablo or Command & Conquer, that catered to boyhood fantasies of violence and domination.

In the two decades since Bonestorm, video games have reached new levels of cultural and artistic legitimacy. Both the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the Grammys now recognize the artistry of game makers. Video games are now featured in museums around the world from The Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian to the recent Alternative Voices in Game Design exhibit at the Museum of Design and Architecture.

But one overlooked aspect of games hasn’t changed nearly enough: their titles. Even though games now have better writing and art than ever before, they still tend to be given titles that are boorish at worst and bland at best. Bulletstorm, after all, is not a far cry from Bonestorm. And while Spec Ops: The Line does something a little deeper than Contra, you wouldn’t know it from its title.

As video games mature as a medium, they need better titles, titles that are beautiful, evocative and unburdened by sequelized numeration or copyrighted phrases. In order to help aid this process along, I want to outline some of the most common pitfalls of video game titling conventions before presenting some examples of titles that take video games seriously as an artistic medium.

The Functional Title

Many game titles are completely functional: the title describes the main action of the game or the protagonist of the game. Bionic Commando is a game about a commando with a bionic arm. 'Splosion Man is a game about an exploding man named 'Splosion Man. Grand Theft Auto is a game about stealing cars. You play as an elite sniper in Sniper Elite.

These functional titles are all denotation and no connotation; they tell you what the game is about and nothing more. Nothing is left to the imagination. What you see is what you get. No one bought a copy of Spec Ops expecting a fanciful platformer and no one goes into Gears of War expecting to pluck daisies.

You play as an elite sniper in Sniper Elite

The straightforwardness of functional titles allows them to function as streamlined, marketing tools. No one driving by a billboard or standing in a store aisle will be confused trying to figure out what your game is on a fundamental level. The title of the work becomes nothing more than a tool for communicating content to an audience.

But functional titles are boring, uncreative ways to communicate that content. The right title can suggest the thematic content of the game without spelling it out entirely. Sleeping Dogs, for instance, evokes the turbulence of criminal life without being called, say, True Crime: Hong Kong.

The Adolescent Title

Adolescent titles are often built around a nostalgia for a certain kind of straight male adolescence that accompanied the rise of the video game medium in the 80s and 90s. Many adolescent titles make explicit reference to death, blood or gore (e.g. Left 4 Dead, Splatterhouse, Red Dead Revolver), the cultural mainstays of young boys in the action movie-obsessed '90s.

More subtle still are adolescent titles that simply evoke values, concepts, or ideas that are traditionally associated with a certain kind of masculine power (e.g. Dishonored, Destiny, Titanfall). These titles don’t explicitly evoke violence and death but they still carry the weight of traditionally masculine ideals of power and honor.

Adolescent titles often accurately reflect the content in the game itself: Splatterhouse isn’t exactly a game that deserves an arthouse title like Being Rick. In these cases, video game titles do serve as an indicator of the maturity of the medium.

But compelling games are sometimes saddled with adolescent titles in a bid for mainstream appeal. The title Red Dead Redemption, for instance, suggests a lethal quest for vengeance when the game itself functions as a tragic rumination on the hollowness of revenge.

There’s a recent trend, too, of video game developers "ironically" deploying adolescent titles like Bulletstorm or Broforce. While these titles can be cute, there’s only a hair-splitting difference between the actual adolescent game and the "ironic" adolescent game. Even the most discerning of video game outsiders would react to a title like Bulletstorm in the same way that Marge Simpson reacts to Bonestorm.

The Restricted Title

Restricted titles are boring amalgamations of intellectual properties, brands, and sequel numbers. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 or Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 are perfect examples of restricted titles that read like a list of bullet points on a corporate memo. They are required by contract to include Tony Hawk and Tom Clancy in the title, they must reference a particular brand for marketing purposes, and they must differentiate the game from its predecessors.

Restricted titles reflect the way in which large-scale video game developers produce content: iterate, iterate, iterate. The leap in title from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, for instance, shows that developers often let market share and brand awareness control the title. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a bid for players of the first three numbered Call of Duty games.

But once the Modern Warfare brand gained massive cultural awareness, the Call of Duty numeration was dropped altogether. Restricted titles, much like functional titles, feel as if they were produced by a machine rather than a creative team.

The argument for good names

Video game titles don’t have to be functional, adolescent or trademarked into oblivion. Video game titles — even mainstream game titles — can be artful, creative and memorable without sacrificing descriptiveness or clarity. Here are some examples of recent video game titles that got it right.

Mirror’s Edge is a beautiful title, perhaps one of the most captivating mainstream game titles in recent memory. Mirror’s Edge could have easily been given a functional title like "Runner" but, instead, the publishers opted for a name that evokes the precariousness of parkour and the glassy exteriors of the game’s futuristic skyscrapers.

It’s important that studios choose thoughtful titles that respect the creativity of the work.

Black Rock’s Pure bucked the trend of ATV games with ridiculous functional and adolescent titles like ATV Offroad Fury or MX vs MTV: Alive. In addition to being an exceptional game, the title Pure communicates the beauty of the game’s natural environments and captures the rush of launching off a cliff on an off-road vehicle.

Beyond the obligatory brand tie-in, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs has an excellent title. The subtitle A Machine for Pigs is dark, mysterious and unconventional. It sparks the imagination while creating a hushed conversation around the game: "What could this possibly mean?" It would have been so easy to call this game Amnesia 2 but The Chinese Room decided to showcase its creativity instead.

Other games like Journey, Gone Home and The Last of Us respect the depth of their content with unique titles that capture the essence of their respective games without overexplaining. But positive examples are all too few for this point in video game history. If you scroll through upcoming releases for 2014 you’ll be hard-pressed to find a mainstream game title that doesn’t fall into one of the three categories outlined in this article.

As video games continue to go through their growing pains as a medium, as writing and characterization improve, and as more talented storytellers are drawn to game development, it’s important that studios choose thoughtful titles that respect the creativity of the work.

After all, a rose by any other name might smell just as sweet, but only a very limited audience would stop to smell a rose called Bonestorm.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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