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  • Writer's picturePablo Cidade

Fallout and Borderlands’ Narrative Strategy through Naming

(A 5 minutes reading, approx)

The Academic framework for this Analysis is taken from:

The Narrator as Nomenclator: Narrative Strategy Through Naming by Margaret M.Dunn and Ann R.Morris from Indiana University and Stetson University.

Before talking about Borderlands and Fallout I would like to provide a brief overview on how other mediums, in this case a book from 1968, uses naming as a narrative tool. 

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc, written by Michael Cooke, tells the story of an accountant named J. Henry Waugh, who has invented a dice-game inspired by baseball. As a part of this game Henry has created an entire baseball league, even inventing personal histories for each player. The book tells us that "Henry was always careful about names" and it shows Henry thinking about the importance of naming in connection with his players. 

Henry reflects; "Name a man and you make him what he is.”.

The naming or not-naming of a character is an integral part of the narrative of the book, with characters who have no name symbolizing the everyman, all those who are unnoticed and thus nameless in contemporary society.

In an issue of the Yale Review, Michael Cooke spoke of the necessity of "naming" before "being" particularly in this modern age in which he ponders the weakening of traditional family ties and the ubiquitous dehumanization of technology are "undermining our sense of names." 

A name is a form of shorthand, ... a synecdoche for an intricate pattern of values and expectations and obligations. ... To have a name is to have a means of locating, extending, and preserving oneself in the human community, so as to be able to answer the question "who?" with reference to ancestry, current status, and particular bearing. 

In short, Cooke fundamental idea is that having a name gives humans a sense of identity and a place in society. 

It should then come with no surprise the reasoning behind why the mindless enemies that you need to kill with no regard in Fallout 4 often have names such as Raider Scum, Raider Psycho, Raider Waster or even Lazy Raider (in the Spanish version of the game). Often these characters even have their faces covered by rudimentary masks, further dehumanizing them and accentuating their otherness and low-life status.

On the opposite side, named raiders like Walter and his band members (all with unique names) can offer a lot of backstory and personality if the player just stays hidden listening to their conversations, or even after killing them if the player searches documents in terminals nearby.

Borderlands use a similar method to name their characters, with the terms Psycho and Raider again being used on some of the most common disposable enemies, and masks playing a role, once again in dehumanizing them.

Mutant Midget Psycho…I rest my case.

On the contrair, special named enemies, usually bosses, have bombastic introductions with animations and their unique names displayed front and center with custom typography for the player to see.

Furthermore, in Fallout 4 names are often also used to give identity to enemies we would not think twice about before killing, such as ghouls or super-mutants. 

Some named mutants like Swan have enough visual differentiation (the special swan boat armor in that case) alongside their unique name and backstory that I feel don't fit the purpose of this analysis, at least not entirely.

I will focus on two ghoul encounters in particular.

Wayne Gorski was a survivalist and self-taught bomb maker, now turned feral ghoul. We can encounter him in the root cellar underneath his cabin.

Seeing a ghoul with a unique name gives the player an instant motivation to look around for more information. The player will quickly find documents written by Wayne himself in a terminal nearby, before the war, telling us of his belief that the government was trying to mind-control him using an electrical pylon tower installed near his house, and his plan to create a nuclear bomb to get rid of the aforementioned tower.

The plan apparently never came to fruition since we can see the un-assemble mini-nuke parts on a table in that same room.

Is amazing to appreciate the little amount of production value necessary to create this story, just a few items on a table, a text entry on a terminal, and a name on a NPC to trigger players' curiosity.

But is it possible to create a narrative just with names alone and a little bit of clever NPC placing?

While wandering the Wasteland the Player can find a group of named ghouls roaming around. No terminal with backstory (at least not mentioning the ghouls themselves), or environmental narrative, just named NPCs.

Mr. Donoghue, Mrs. Donoghue, Mr. Sumner, Mrs. Sumner, Mr. Parker, Mrs. Parker and Ms. Rosa. These are all the names of the ghouls. If you pay attention during the opening sequence of the game you can find all of the ghouls in their original human form, before the bombs fall. They were the Sole Survivor's neighbors in pre-War Sanctuary Hills.

Not only that, you can further differentiate these neighbors from other less important human characters, because the others are simply labeled as “neighbor”. Once again, names are used to give or take identity from NPCs. 

Players intuitively understand that if something has a name that being has an implicit identity, a special place in the world. On launch there were countless threads discussing the identity of these ghouls so it´s not only a clever narrative technique but a marketing tool as well, incentivising discussion between players. 

With the little production cost necessary for this kind of narrative technique it is amazing that so few developers use it in their games.

Need more examples!

Now, I'm asking you, dear reader.

  1. Any other examples of narrative naming you can think of in games?

  2. Any examples you can think from other media?

Please let me know in the comments below.

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