The Bittersweetest Thing

Lead Writer of BioWare's Dragon Age game series, lover of fan tears. This is where I blog about game development, fandom, and narrative design. Anything I say here is my opinion alone.


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On Narrative Design (Part 5 - Naming Things)

(Part 4 available here.)

I know I said the next entry would be on designing quests, but whatever. I am nothing if not powered by whimsy.

That and because naming things is a huge source of frustration for me— something so ultimately irrelevant should not cause as many problems as it does! But it does! I swear to God, the naming of a select three things probably causes more consternation and fuss than almost everything else we do: major characters, places and the project names.

Possibly the reason we argue about this stuff so much is simply because anyone can have an opinion on a name. There’s no objective bar for evaluating how good or bad a name is. You can do that with art and, to a lesser degree, with story. With those, you can articulate exactly what is right or wrong with them. With a name, it’s all about liking it. Does it strike your fancy sufficiently?

"I don’t know, it doesn’t sing it doesn’t dance" is NOT. HELPFUL.

So. In the many years where I’ve had to sit through numerous excruciating ways of trying to name things— even one meeting where seventeen people sat in a room for three hours trying to come to a consensus on a name, and ultimately coming up with something so banal we may as well have grabbed a random person passing in the hallway and demanded they produce something on the spot, and we would very likely have had just as good a result— so I arrived at two laws about it.

These are laws that, since I created them, have yet to fail me.

Gaider’s Laws of Naming Things

1) If the name is a made-up word for something, everyone will have different connotations and immediately dislike it.

2) Within 3-6 months, people will begin to associate that made-up word with the thing… and they will forget that they ever had an objection. Of course it’s that name. What else could it be called?

You think I’m kidding? I am not kidding.

"Qunari" was initially despised. Some people thought it sounded too much like canary. Some people thought "the Qun" was difficult to pronounce, and sounded too much like a bad word (seriously?). It was allowed to remain as a temp name, and we would look at it later for what it would actually be. Lo and behold, when we turned around 6 months later, suddenly nobody wanted to change it. That’s what they were. What else could they be?

The Dragon Age world was not initially called “Thedas”. There was a name that existed, but I didn’t like it and refused to use it in the documentation or in conversation… so, when we had to refer to it at all, we called it “the Dragon Age world” or “the Dragon Age setting” (with the understanding that eventually we would have to give it a real name).

It amused us to find on our forums that, lacking a provided alternative, someone had begun using the acronym “TheDAS” (The Dragon Age Setting) …and it stuck. Funny! So we started calling it Thedas in conversation, mostly because that was shorter. Then, lo and behold, when we sat down for the meeting to give the world its real name, we couldn’t settle on anything. Every option didn’t seem right. Nothing fit. Sheryl asked, “Can’t we just call it Thedas?”… and we realized the truth. For good or ill, Law #2 had already taken hold.

"Grey Wardens". What else could they be called? Plenty! The oldest name I recall (it may not be the first) was the “White Rangers”. First we had to change the word ‘rangers’ because that was felt to be too close to the Tolkien group. There was, oh, about twenty different iterations. My frustration began to mount as each was was countered with, “Oh, I don’t know… I just don’t like it.” No suggestions, just concern about how important this group would be for DAO and how the name had to really sparkle. Ugh. I eventually threw out ‘wardens’ in desperation, and was surprised it stuck. Then the conversation turned to whether ‘White’ made them sound too much like good guys. Cue me losing more hair.

So when I became Lead Writer, I immediately imposed two rules which were based on the two laws:

Gaider’s Rules of Naming Things

1) If you don’t like it, but can’t suggest something better, I don’t want to hear it.

2) If we can’t agree, let’s go with this as a temp name and talk about it in a few months.

Rule #1 serves me well. Lots of people like to bitch about names, but are far less willing to actually risk offering an alternative which will in turn be criticized by everyone else. Mike Laidlaw gets a free pass on this one. Well, actually he gets a veto. To his credit, he only invokes it rarely as using it too liberally makes me use The Face (and nobody wants that).

Rule #2 is me being tricksy, because of Law #2. Yet to date this tactic has also not failed me.

The one caveat of the laws of naming? Do NOT give something a temporary name unless you’re willing to risk that name eventually being PERMANENT. If a name is honestly, truly temp then make it terrible. As in nobody would ever be willing to risk leaving it that way. Artists do this with temp textures… they’re garish colors which are obviously temp, because otherwise someone might forget to change them. Name your project ‘Purple Monkey Balls’. Name your character ‘Dude McSmilesALot’. This has the added bonus of encouraging the permanent name to come along much more quickly.

Every now and again a name will come along which everyone will like immediately, however. I cannot account for why or how, but it’s pretty rare. “Morrigan” was that way. “Ferelden” as well, oddly, though every other country in Thedas has changed at least once (I will still, on occasion, refer to Antiva as “Calabria” or Anderfels as “Orthland”).

Point of Trivia: Whenever we talk about a location which has to be too cool for school, our Art Director Matt Goldman always offers up a single suggestion: “Hatecastle!” He says this with a fuckyeah! intonation, and it’s inevitably to yank my chain. Why? Because Matt Goldman’s spirit animal is a troll, that’s why. This has happened with enough frequency that, when we needed to name the castle in the DA2 “Mark of the Assassin” DLC we declared it Chateau Haine (“Castle Hate”) in his honor.

It made him laugh. We writers are givers.

Next: Part 6 - Creating Quests


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