That phrase may be my most common piece of advice when approaching games. It’s probably a weird thing to say, but I don’t mean it to be forceful or to say that it’s the correct way to go about any game. Still, oftentimes I find myself back at those words when I’m recommending my favorite experiences in this medium.
Naming a cast of characters in a video game is probably trivial to a lot of people, but for every person I’ve met who doesn’t care about the naming screen, I think I’ve met an equal amount of folks who have spent upwards of an hour on it. This essay isn’t really meant to be a dissection of the mechanical or aesthetic properties of the naming screen, though. I’m writing this as more of a personal exercise and to reflect on and share my own gaming experiences, with one central question to act as my guide: Why “name everyone”?
I hope you’ll join me in reflection as you read or, at the very least, relax and enjoy the ramblings of a guy who loves games. Some spoilers ahead.
EarthBound: Age 13
My parents were divorced before I started middle school. Going to stay with my dad in the city was enjoyable, but it did mean having a lot of free time alone; all my friends were in the suburbs and going out in the city alone wasn’t a smart idea. We lived in a loft that doubled as my dad’s house and office, though, which meant I had plenty of time to spend on open workspace computers goofing off on Newgrounds, Google Video, and, eventually, emulation sites (oops). I can’t recall exactly how I came upon it, but given my time trying my best to main Ness in Smash as a kid, I eventually found and downloaded EarthBound to play for the first time.
What surprised me most when I booted up the game for the first time was that Ness wasn’t any set character; beyond the bumping, low-fi beat and Mint flavored color palette I had chosen was a box that read “Please name him.” It’s not like I hadn’t named a character in a video game before, but I didn’t realize that this would be one of those kinds of games. I remember scrolling through all the character screens once before naming them, just to get a sense of who was who.
In my first playthrough, I felt as if I had casted the game with people I knew. The small town boy with the striped shirt and hat became a good friend of mine; the girl in the dress became my middle school crush; I gave my name to the kid with the glasses; another friend I knew from class became the foreign martial artist. The dog was my dog, my favorite food was wings (a pre-vegan favorite), and, of all things, my favorite thing was “Fight’n”—something I perhaps wished I was good at, given my scrawny body and goofy demeanor.
All of this is to say that, because of my outlook on the characters and game world, EarthBound became very personal to me. I took the ROM file back and forth between houses so I could play it at my mom’s whenever I could; despite the game’s admittedly primitive combat, frustratingly long segments and somewhat slow pacing, I couldn’t put it down. To me, EarthBound was, and still is, a game about a boy living with his mother and sibling, with their dad only reachable by phone, who grows up and discovers what makes him and his world special with the help of a small group of friends on a cross-country adventure to save the world (my apologies for the run-on). So much of this game was both what I lived, but also what I needed at that age. That made it mine.
Every time I’ve gone back to play the game, it has been hard to separate it from the way I initially imagined it, with the people I initially cast in the roles of each character along the way. EarthBound allowed me to be part of the adventure I had dreamed of with those I cared about and also helped me see the world more positively; in a weird post-divorce time, this game was a reminder that people are often more humorous, loving, and connective than they may appear to be, and that even a couple of kids can make a difference with enough support and kindness. That’s a lesson I need to keep in mind to this day.
One last note: Partway through the game, you break from your party in Threed to guide the boy with glasses to meet his father, Dr. Andonuts, for the first time in 10 years. When he gets there, the conversation is odd at first, but by the end of the game, the party will have gotten to interact with Dr. Andonuts enough to realize his brilliance and how he cares for his son. Playing this out with the boy in glasses being named “Mitch” on the weekends where I was getting to really know my own dad for the first time is up there with one of my most treasured moments in gaming.
In EarthBound, name everyone.
Nuzlocke: Age 18
This challenge is the closest I’ve came to the way Pokemon felt to play when I was six years old.
That probably sounds weird, given that the whole idea of a Nuzlocke revolves around your Pokemon essentially dying when they’re KO’d, making them unusable for the rest of the playthrough. Let me elaborate.
Pokemon Gold Version is what I consider to be the first game I ever “beat” as a kid (granted, I had a lot of help, but I digress). As a little kid coming off the first season of the anime, diving into Gold Version broke so many expectations for me; I quickly realized that Johto was not the world of the show I had watched, and that most of what I’d be finding in the wild would be completely unfamiliar. With my Totodile by my side (named ICE in all caps, of course), I set out on my first journey in gaming with all the untouched imagination and emotionality of a six-year-old. The giddiness of finding new creatures and the level to which I cared for all of them, silly names aside, was pure.
Fast forward to nowadays: I’ve played and failed at many Nuzlocke runs, including on Black, Diamond, and Red Version. Once again, for all the silliness of the names I’ve given to my Pokemon, I find myself remembering them more fondly because of the restored sense of discovery and value that this challenge gives these old games. It’s easy (and admittedly boring) for me to replay Red Version, grab Bulbasaur, catch a Butterfree in Viridian Forest, and wreck Brock for the fifth time; it’s an entirely different feeling to team up with “The Guy,” hope to find anything worthwhile on our way to Brock, get hyped when I do find a Caterpie (named Bumpadump), and feel like a tight knit team as we try to survive Brock. Furthermore, that’s why I always include “name everyone” as a rule for these runs: I haven’t ran Red Version in a couple years, and I still remember my team’s names. These are playthroughs to remember.
Man, I hope I survive Gold Version when I go back.
Darkest Dungeon: Age 21
Speaking of surviving, let’s get bleak.
There’s a very good argument for why you shouldn’t name anyone in Darkest Dungeon. I feel that content creators have already broke down the thematic implications of the unforgiving mechanics in this game quite thoroughly, and so I won’t be diving much into that area of discussion. I don’t even really plan to discuss much in the way of imagination with this example. Instead, I want to explore how the way I played Darkest Dungeon fundamentally changed once I imposed my own narrative on the game by naming every single character after people I’ve met.
There are many videos discussing the mechanics and ludonarrative of this game (check out Mark Brown or hbomberguy for some of my favorite explorations of these ideas), and there is a recurring focus on how Darkest Dungeon’s difficulty can force the player into the role of a cutthroat business manager; some of the best strategies available in the game rely on one’s willingness to exploit the expendability of characters in the game. For me, choosing to name everyone in my roster after friends and family led me to choosing strategies that, while not optimal, made the difficult risks and challenges of the game even more frightening.
During this run, the parties I decided to send out often relied just as much on how I knew the people in real life would interact in a team setting as they did on class synergy. Choices on whether to keep delving for treasure after completing the quest’s objective felt like an actual risk when I knew that doing so may jeopardize the life of someone I care about. Seeing new positive quirks that suited the person they were attached to was entertaining and seeing bad quirks service made me feel like I let them down somehow. The themes of the game’s mechanics—risk versus reward, life and death, and making the best of a bad situation—became cemented in my mind when those I love were at stake. Much like Pokemon Nuzlocke, greater personal attachment led to an alternative experience.
This choice, of course, led to some difficult moments. Few games have made me feel as torn as Darkest Dungeon has in its final battle, where, despite all the effort and turmoil I spent getting friends up to an appropriate power to take on the finale, two had to die by my own choice. In the end, no matter how many people you’ve saved or victories you’ve had, this game makes you remember how selfish you must be to see its terrible events to the end. It is one of the few experiences I’ve had in gaming where I’ve had to confront genuine helplessness in face of horribleness; we choose to voluntarily engage games like Darkest Dungeon, and in the moments that matter most, it strips us of our agency and makes us responsible for our choices. That’s easily up there in my most uncomfortable memories in gaming, especially when I had chosen loved ones as the avatars.
No matter how well you prepare, Darkest Dungeon sets you up to fail. And by naming everyone, it reminds you that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t be everyone’s hero.
Why “name everyone?”
Stories are subjective: no matter their actual content, what we take away from them are the meanings that we have imposed on them. What makes gaming special is its interactivity as a medium, and through that interactivity we are able play out stories in completely different ways than other people. In analysis, we speak so often to the wider themes that games explore that it’s worth stepping a bit closer sometimes and considering what these experiences specifically meant to us. A game that explores friendship can come at a time when you need it most; a game from your childhood can have a renewed sense of importance in your adolescence; a game can communicate dark themes when the idealism of your high school days is falling away. In all these cases, the moment I experienced these games in were as important as the experience itself, and many games allow for the unique ability to insert the faces you see around you into them. I don’t intend to make some sweeping statement on how life and art imitate each other; I only wish to say I am grateful for the ability to have new ideas and appreciations for the people in my life because of a medium I care for so much.
Name everyone because games can be different for everyone. Name everyone because people are so often what make our lives’ moments special. Name everyone because loved ones are worth caring for, moving for, and fighting for. Or, name no one, and experience games how you choose to. That’s why they’re special.
Do you have any gaming moments that are special to you? What about the games you love made them so memorable? Let me know! ♦