Feature: notes from FF Dog #1: on naming characters in videogames
by tim rogers
07092003


One thing I've observed on any number of forums about videogames is that people can't stop arguing about what makes anyRPG" an "RPG." Some are clever enough to define the name of the genre: "RPG means 'Role-Playing Game' -- an RPG is a game where you play a role." Some people are quick to shoot this down, with much typing of words. Some people quote the significance of naming a character in a pen-and-paper RPG, and having never played any of those, I don't always get what they're driving at. I do know, however, that in the past fourteen days, seven readers of this very website have emailed me, asking for advice on naming a "badass samurai" for their "new campaign." I guess it's that time of the year.

I get lots of weird questions from the people of the internet, and I won't get into most of them. I guess it's best to start this by saying that someone asked me the other day what an RPG was to me, and I said I wasn't really sure. I thought this over while replaying Final Fantasy IV for my Project FF Dog feature, in which we named the hero of the quest "FF Dog" and the summoner, Rydia, "j00dy."

It's like this: An RPG is a game where I name the main character, and/or I don't ever think to change the main character's name.

Supporting evidence of my belief: in Konami's Cybernator for Super Nintendo, I'm offered the choice to change my mecha pilot's name from the options menu. I change it, sometimes. I do not, however, care what his name is. Sure, it's fun to see people call him "Billy" in the cut scenes. That doesn't mean I really, honestly, care. Therefore, Cybernator is not an RPG.

In an RPG, I think, the decision of a character's name should fill me with a kind of anxiety. I decided this today when FF Dog mourned the death of the Sage Tellah by screaming out in vain: "No! g00zer!" Did I really want to name Tellah "g00zer"? Was this not too silly? What did this say about me, or about videogames?

I didn't really come to any conclusion -- just that RPGs sure have changed.

If you were enough of a loser to play Ultima: Exodus on your NES (hey, I was), you know that pretty much the greatest coolism that game offered the player -- aside from the permission to kill any random townsperson -- was the joy of seeing whatever four-letter names you chose for your characters on the sidebar during a battle.

The original Dragon Quest ramped up the level of coolness -- here you were as one lone man on a quest to save a princess and kill a couple of dragons, and the descendent of a hero, no less, and the only name he had was the name you chose. This guy who, in the world of the game, was someone: he bore the name you gave him. That alone kept me playing.

When Dragon Quest II rolled around, we had three heroes, each of them royalty of their respective kingdoms, all of them distantly related to the guy you played in the first one.

The original Final Fantasy took a step in some ambiguous direction for the significance of character-naming: here you were as four heroes from another time period, each of you carrying a Crystal, each of you having a character class and a name of your choosing. In a recent experience of the Final Fantasy Origins edition, I played with a party full of Doug, Billy, FF Dog, and Jules, each one named after I person I, in some form or another, know. Yet I felt this distance between the game and myself: when the king of Cornelia first met my group, he called us by our team name: "Light Warriors." Never once was FF Dog or Billy referred to by name. I felt like I had been tricked into playing, not that I was playing by my own will. When I die in my Gameboy Color edition of Dragon Warrior I, the king wakes me with the words, "Billy! You died!" This urges me to play on more than naming a sexy Red Wizard "Tim" ever could.

Final Fantasy II begins with a plea for the player to name the four main characters. Or, rather, rename -- the characters all have suggested names of their own: Firion, Maria, Gus, and Leon. Whether you name them or not is up to you. Even if you do name them, you're going to find out that the four are children of a town that has just been destroyed. Firion is your hero, Gus is your generic, tough-as-nails mongoloid, Maria is Leon's sister, and Leon himself vanishes after the first battle. When the characters speak, and speak they do -- this isn't Final Fantasy I, you know -- their names precede their lines.

"Maria: I am looking for my brother, Leon."

They even speak about one another in third-person! This must have been fun for Japanese kids in 1988 -- until Mother came along in 1989.

The pile-of-hot-genius-parts-in-a-burlap-sack that is the Mother series takes this pre-gaming naming concept one large bound further. In addition to being asked to name the four main characters at the beginning of the game, the player is asked his favorite food.

And if you can't think up clever names on your own, Mother 2 comes with a whole burlap sack-full of default names -- seven for each nameable thing. In addition to Mario-related names (Ness is "Mario," Paula is "Peach," Jeff is "Luigi," Poo is "Kinopio" ("Toad"), and the dog is "Yoshi), each character has a Beatles-related name (Ness is "John," Paula "Yoko," Jeff "Paul," Poo "George," the dog "Ringo," favorite food "Honey Pie" (also a Haruki Murakami reference?), and favorite thing "LOVE"). Predicting the mischievous natures of its younger and more immature players, Shigesato Itoi applied his genius to make the seventh default name for (the Japanese) Ness "Chinchin." If you don't know what that means, go get a Japanese dictionary. The kind you find on the porno racks.

Watch, with wonder, as your mother cooks what you like to eat most. Feel insulted as the woman at a fancy restaurant in Earthbound says "Tempura? We don't serve such garbage." For a game with a hero who's as much of a blank slate as Ness, this really gets us into the right frame of mind to spend forty hours in his world.

Final Fantasy IV returned to the storytelling outline first attempted in Final Fantasy II, and as such, it was going to have to stuff you with characters you couldn't choose. That doesn't mean you won't like the characters -- in fact, I find FFIV's cast among the more memorable in RPG history -- it just means that you can't choose who they are, or why. You can't even choose their names until they're fully in your party, and you get around to taking them to Namingway -- a kind of turban-wearing, pink . . . cat-. . . thing that lives in every town, offering the curiously free service of name-changing.

While it rocked me and my friend Carl's worlds back in 1991, to rename Cecil and Kain "Billy" and "Carl," it rocks my world significantly less as I've grown older and more critical. For starters, I'm not allowed to name Cecil and Kain until long after Cecil has slaughtered the citizens of the mystic town of Mysidia, doubted the king publicly, been demoted from Captain of the Red Wings to messenger boy, and dragged down poor Kain with him. The dramatic opening story crawl mentions names that are not mine. Yet, in town, when I spend my meager stash of Gil on potions, I have the opportunity to change my heroes' names for free.

Hours later, we meet the Great Sage Tellah, and we know he's the Great Sage Tellah, because the Summoner Rydia tells us so. She's heard of his name. And then we run back into the desert town of Kaipo, and rename the old bastard "g00zer." When we finally meet the mages Porom (p0r0m) and Palom (p4l0m), they're pleased as punch to meet "The Great Sage, g00zer!"

This jars, only if slightly.

Final Fantasy VI did this the right way: when a character is introduced, the screen goes black, shifts that character's sprite to the center, and offers a few short lines of description. We are then shown that character's name, and offered the choice of another. In the English version, I always choose another -- even if I don't feel like changing the character's actual name, having it in all capital letters is needlessly ugly. It also works as a genius plot point in some places: Locke and Celes read a letter from "The Wandering Gambler," inquire as to whom this "Wandering Gambler" is, and are then asked if they were raised on a farm. We then see, flashback-style, the Wandering Gambler in question, standing on the deck of a fanciful airship, hair blowing in the wind. His sprite is centered, and a three-line description pops up. We're then asked the rename the guy, just before the scene snaps back to Locke and Celes in the mansion back in town. And we think: That guy's going to join us at some point!

This is a technique that plays off the habit bred into our subconscious by Final Fantasy I, the same habit Mother's favorite-food-naming wasn't strong enough to break: only the heroes get names.

It's because of this habit that we're not allowed to name super-secret-SPOILER-hidden-character in Chrono Trigger, Magus, until long after he's become un-evil, long after his big-bad-bad-guy legend that will never die has died. He's waiting for us on at the tip of a cape, and when we say we'll let him join us, the screen fades, and he's asking for a name.

In that game, there is a hidden "Nu" creature in a prehistoric forest who will rename any party member for no cost. In Final Fantasy VI, one has to trade an "Imp Halberd" for a "Cat Hood" for a "Merit Award" for a "Rename Card" at the Dragon's Neck Coliseum, and that's a hell of a lot of work. Either way, the end result is the same: a character who was given a name by writers and character designers, was given a new name by the player, is now being given a third name because the player changed his mind. Some games, like Star Ocean: Second Story, let you change your character's name from the damned menu screen! As a bit of a saving grace to the story's integrity, you can only change the character's first name: "Claude Kenni," the main character, can only become "Billy T Kenni," not the too-badass-to-believe "Billy T. Joestar," much as the nameless hero in Konami's original Suikoden is stuck with the dorky last name "McDohl."

The way I see it, RPGs this day come in one of two flavors, with regard to naming. There are games with re-name-able characters who come with writer-given names, and there are games with name-able characters who come with no names at all. When I play the former, I feel like I'm playing an old RPG for the five-hundredth time. When I play the latter, I feel like I'm playing an old RPG for the first time.

An obvious case of the latter is Dragon Quest VII, in which the green-clothed little hero has no name at all. In the instruction manual, he's "Hero." It's up to our thumbs to pick out some name. Later in the game, when we've acquired plenty of supporting party members, we meet a priest in a temple who says he represents the "Goddess of Naming, Nundina." He lets us change our names, if we want to. I never feel too bad for changing my party members' names. The Hero, however, remains "Billy."

It's kind of interesting that we're not offered the choice to change names until after Kiefer, a character in Dragon Quest Monsters: Caravan Heart has departed for good. I used to wonder why they didn't let you change his name. I used to consider it an ambiguous flaw in the game. Now, I consider it marketing genius -- especially when the "letter from Kiefer" pops up at the end of Dragon Quest VII.

The other type of RPG -- with a pre-named character who can be renamed -- is something of a dying breed. I am permitted by Squaresoft Law to rename only Squall, Rinoa, and Rinoa's dog Angelo of all of Final Fantasy VIII's angsty little cast (okay, so I can rename the summon monsters and the final boss, too). In Final Fantasy X, my reason for being prohibited from naming all characters except the hero Tidus is much more obvious: voice-acting. The game's script deftly avoids mentioning Tidus by name, though they certainly couldn't have made the characters avoid everyone's name, could they? Besides, I play the game for the story -- after an hour, Yuna has become "The Pretty, Young Summoner-Girl, Yuna" to my mind; Auron has become "That Big Awesome Guy with a Sword, Auron," and Wakka has become "That Big Wacky Awesome Bastard, Wakka." They're people I watch, and feel, not roles I play.

Xenogears and its sequel in juicy wordiness, Xenosaga, let me rename nothing of any importance. This is understandable: these are games written by people who had a story to tell. That Tetsuya Takahashi believes in his story enough to not let us rename any of his characters is a good thing for his confidence, a good thing for the future (though perhaps not present) of games, and a bad thing for the kids in my middle school who bragged about cleverly using Final Fantasy's four-letter character-name blanks in the cleverest of ways. I certainly won't complain about not being able to name my character if the story is compelling enough and the characters have strong enough personalities. Besides, tales of giant robots in outer space aren't begging for character names the way, say, Sony's Dark Cloud 2 is.

In Dark Cloud 2, you play as plucky young Maxmillian. In the opening seconds, you choose his hat, his shoes, his clothes, and his fabric color. Later in the game, you'll customize Max's giant-barrel-shaped-robot Steve's handheld weapons, replace its feet with tank treads, and put on new headlights. You'll build towns from scratch, perfecting the placement of every boulder and every brushstroke of paint on every house's roof. Yet when the townspeople thank you, sometimes in vapid voiceover and sometimes in text, for whatever heroic deeds you've accomplished, it's always a hearty "Thanks for everything, Max." That the story is a chilled-dead guy-saving-the-future-and-the-past-and-the-present-by-fighting-monsters affair makes being constantly called "Max" mildly insulting, and I couldn't play the game for the hundred-some hours it was asking of me. No, the only RPGs I can play that long must have titles that contain the words "Dragon Quest," and/or "Pokemon."

Though the main character in the television series Pokemon bears the totally un-obvious pun of a name "Ash Ketchum," this does not, at all, influence the way I name my Pokemon trainer. I go with either "Billy" or "Maria," depending on whether I'm playing as a guy or a girl. All things considered, Pokemon gets Genius Points for allowing you to name your Pokemon when you catch them, and then trade them to another player -- who can never rename that same Pokemon. This sort of thing keeps me squinting at my GBA for tens of hours. Not only can the second trainer never rename your Pokemon, every time he looks at its status screen, he sees your name listed as "Original Trainer." Beautiful.

I can see this having equally beautiful consequences when console games finally, really, go online. Though a Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Role-Playing-Game in the world of Pokemon would probably mean that some other little bastard would pick the name "Billy" before I could get my hands on it, I remain hopeful. That a Pokemon I receive from CloudStrife4EverLOL might become my most-used monster makes me shudder. Yet I remain hopeful.

Though I'd honestly prefer to do without the CloudStrife4EverLOLs of the world. Before I let the facts sink in that, in the world of the internet, many thousands of people exist in the same game at the same time, and they couldn't possibly have duplicate names, I couldn't stop thinking, "What the hell is up with all the dumbass screen names?"

I know -- and know of, perhaps more importantly -- people who would never touch a character's name in an RPG. I knew a guy who would never rename Barret in Final Fantasy VII, simply because he believed Barret to be "The Perfect Name." I know similar people who renamed "Aeris" "Aerith," because "That's how it is in the Japanese version." I tried to point out to these people that, in the same press materials where "A-e-ri-su" is Romanized as "Aerith," bad-boy Sephiroth is spelled as "Sephiros," and we all know that's not right -- a "Sephiroth" is, like, something from Hebrew scripture. Right?

My friend Keith, on the other hand, doesn't care what a hero looks like, or who he is -- he names him "Keith." Keith says, "I bought this game -- I am the hero." I could, quite honestly, watch Keith play Final Fantasy VII all day. Sitting in his apartment, smoking cigarettes, drinking Mountain Dew, Keith reads each line of dialogue with care before advancing it with the X button. It doesn't matter that he's logged more than six hundred hours on this game before. He reads it like a scholar rereads his favorite book. He doesn't merely "notice something new every time" -- he looks for something new every time. A one-time student of acting, when playing a Final Fantasy game, Keith becomes the hero. And he becomes that hero well -- he has a 130-something-hour quest of VII in which he never has to touch the controller during a battle.

Last I saw him, Keith was getting his last few characters' "Luck" statistics up to 255 in Final Fantasy X. (Note for those who haven't played the game: this is mostly impossible.) We were slaying Don Tonberries in the Monster Arena and drinking Dr. Peppers, and talking about Final Fantasy XI.

"I don't think I want to play it," Keith said.

"Why not?" I asked him.

"What are the chances I'll be able to name my guy 'Keith'?"

I recalled a few weeks earlier, when, in May of 2002, Keith obtained the Magus Sisters summon in his latest quest of Final Fantasy X. The game gave him the option to rename Sandy, Cindy, and Mindy.

"Why the hell do they ask me to rename them? I mean, shit, they were in Final Fantasy Four. I ain't gonna rename them for shit."

And I remember thinking: he was right.

Keith is one type of RPG-character-namer: he names his characters after himself. I always try to get him to play Dragon Warrior VII. Once, I convinced him to pick up Pokemon Gold, and he didn't put it down for four months.

Others name no characters, to preserve the "integrity" of the game. These are the people who will swear to you up and down that Xenogears is the greatest game in existence, and that Xenosaga "isn't as good as Xenogears." I'd suggest they start reading books, because they might actually like them.

Others still will name their Final Fantasy VI characters after Cecil, and Rosa, and Rydia from Final Fantasy IV. They will name Final Fantasy VIII's Squall after themselves, and they will post on internet forums with a picture of Squall as their avatar, and the word "Squall" in their screen name. I would suggest these people buy Soul Calibur II, start Practice, pick their favorite character twice, set the "mode" on "Vs. Computer," sit the controller on the floor, and watch the computer-controlled character beat their character over and over and over again with neither blood nor loss of life.

Some people will buy an RPG, only to name the characters after their favorite profane words. When asked why, they'll tell you it's because it's just a game, they don't take it seriously, they're grown-up now, they totally have a job and everything. I suggest these people walk over to the local middle school and ask to take seventh grade again. That's when most people read Treasure Island, I think. That's when I read it.

I think it was because I was reading Treasure Island off and on that I respected so much of what Final Fantasy IV was trying to do. My friend Carl and I renamed Cecil and Kain, yet were very specific about who else got renamed. Ever since my RPG-childhood, it's been this way. I've been naming heroes "Billy" (or "Tim," where the four-letter rule applies), and every girl since the androgynous Final Fantasy White Mage "Rose" -- a name chosen on a weird little ten-year-old whim. When there are other girls I feel compelled to name, I usually pick something color-related. Eiko in Final Fantasy IX was "Aoi," Japanese for "Blue," because I thought her original name was too ordinary. "Freyja" became "Magenta," a name that is all at once exotic-sounding enough to be held by a rat-woman, the color of said rat-woman's armor, and the name of the heroine of my soon-to-be-world-famous book series Pyramid. When I'm compelled to name another male character, I usually pick "Roy," the name of my big brother, whose last two games seriously played were Final Fantasy IV and Secret of Mana, in which he insisted on being the ninja Edge and the wacky little sprite, respectively.

*

In a recent twist of odd fate that comes with my having wasted six years of my life studying Japanese when I could have been learning a language "important" to the "job market," like, say, Spanish, I became obsessed with buying used Final Fantasy VI cartridges for 100 yen at a certain game shop in Akihabara, just to see what all the characters had been named. For one thing, the games cost only 100 yen -- cheaper than an okonomiyaki cake from a street vendor. For another thing, I found it morbidly entertaining.

The first time I played through Final Fantasy IV in Japanese, it was a real headache. Being all in hiragana hurt my eyes. I was begging for a single kanji. I didn't get any kanji. All I got was a migraine as I sounded out every hiragana. Pre-1994 videogames must not have been made with the approval of the Indiana University Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. What I did, to ease the pain, was rename every character using English letters -- they offer that option, in all the Final Fantasy games, and many other Japanese RPGs, and I gladly take it. When all the characters have been renamed in English, for half of every battle, when the command menu is not open, English is the dominant language on the screen.

It is perhaps worth noting that, when playing an RPG in Japanese, I'm sure to never give characters any wacky names. I don't even name a character after myself.

What I was looking for when I started buying copies of Final Fantasy VI for 100 yen at this certain store in Akihabara was someone who had named all of the characters in English. I found this, precisely four times out of thirty-six (three quests per game in twelve copies of the game; each individual quest of the four with English names was contained in a separate cartridge). This is to say, if nothing else, that approximately one in nine Japanese gamers name their RPG characters in English.

"And what the hell is that supposed to prove?" my good friend Masako wanted to know. I couldn't finish telling her. And to the woman at the game store -- the owner's wife -- to whom I turned in one copy of Final Fantasy VI only to get another -- I couldn't even begin telling her.

"Let's play Goemon," Masako was always saying. "The first one."

I always had to play the part of the flamboyantly gay ninja Ebisumaru. I asked her why.

"I like Goemon," she always replied.

When asked why she liked Goemon, she replied, "His name is Goemon. I like him, and I like his name."

Masako had always wanted to get a cat, and name him Goemon. She had, at one point, had a hard time deciding between "Goemon" and "Kunio," of Downtown Hot-Blooded High School fame. She decided to name the cat she would never have "Goemon" when she was thirteen. She gave up on that dream shortly before her fourteenth birthday, she explained, and I won't recount her explanation on account of its being too damned weird. Curious parties are encouraged to wait for the eventual publication of my novel pieces of one, which I was writing during my weekly Final Fantasy VI-spelunking.

At a certain point in January, 2002, I'd turned to Final Fantasy V. In that game, the hero has no name outside of the instruction manual. In the manual, his name is "Bartz" or "Butz." Outside the manual, his name is "______." I was quite shocked to see that not a single quest in my six copies of Final Fantasy V had a character named anything other than "Bartz" or "Butz," and that only two of them were named in English -- precisely one "Bartz," and one "Butz."

Sick of passe naming techniques and praying for another miracle -- like when the hero of a Mother 2 quest was named "Bobby" and the martial-artist "Poo" was named "Sasuke" -- I turned in my last Final Fantasy V, and picked up a copy of Front Mission. Masako was relieved to see me picking up something else for a change. She didn't mind so much that it was still by Squaresoft. When I put the game in and loaded up the previous owner's quest, the hero's Romanized name stared me in the face.

"Roy."

I told Masako about my brother, and how he quit playing videogames altogether after Secret of Mana. I told her about how we always used to name our characters after ourselves -- and this required a lot of peripheral explanation as to why and when it's right or wrong to rename a character in an RPG -- and she took it all in, looking a little less than half-interested. When I was done, she looked at the screen, at the name "Roy," and nodded.

"All these weeks, you've been running around, buying used copies of the same game for a hundred yen each, and taking them back here -- you were looking for something like this?"

I shrugged. "Well, not really."

"Wouldn't it be kind of interesting if you were, though?"

I shrugged again. "Maybe."

"You should write something about it," she said.

I shook my head, and decided at once. "Nah," I said, thinking that writing something like this would be like a Japanese person's naming Final Fantasy IV's Great Sage Tellah "g00zer."

--tim rogers will not share his planned pokemon online character name,
because, quite frankly, he's afraid you'd steal it