As I’ve been playing quite a lot of The Elder Scrolls Online of late, I recently realized that I’ve become enamored with the strangest distraction: player’s character names. Yes, yes, ESO has brilliant scenery, interesting NPCs, plenty of things to see, loot, and conquer, and yet…more often than not, I’ve found myself at one of the game’s wayshrines (save points) in a major city just glancing around at all the characters in the vicinity and their names. In ESO, while both character names and player IDs show up, you can set whether you want to see one or the other first. I have things set so that I see character names first, followed by, in parentheses, user’s IDs. And every day I log on, I’m constantly astounded and/or amused by the sheer variety of names I see, from folks using the same character names and user IDs, to those that are wildly different. From people who appear to have chosen carefully crafted character names, to those who look like they just mashed their hands on a keyboard and went with whatever letters appears. From players who opted from cheeky or obnoxiously descriptive monikers (you know the ones I mean), to those who prefer the simple titles in life like “Joe” or “Jane.”
Since I still think of myself as new to MMOs, naming conventions in such games is overtly fascinating, and sometimes, plain ol’ odd. Like, in Fallout 76, I can put all the time and effort into naming my vault dweller, but out in the wilds, the game only uses player IDs as identification. Even knowing this, I still put all the time and effort into naming my characters because…there’s just something important in a name.
The notion of inputting a name, your own or otherwise, into a game is hardly new news. Why, back in ye olden times, remember when gathering high scores at the arcade meant entering one’s initials? Games have long been about giving players some sense of personal ownership (this is MY high score, not yours!), from naming one’s save files to naming your twelfth Commander Shepard, it’s a thing we do, and it’s a thing that I probably think about the most whenever I create someone new.
How do you create a character name? Do you just use your user ID and prefer not to think about it? Do you have a name or portion of a name, yours or other, that you apply to all your characters across the board? Do you pull naming inspiration from mythology or literature or history? Do you use the first funny phrase that comes to mind? Do you pour over name generators hoping to land on something that sounds good? Over time, I feel like I’ve use every single one of these notions in some form.
In my younger years, I remember using certain names frequently for save files and in games, like Final Fantasy VII, that allowed you to input your own character names. Jareth (thanks Labyrinth) and Tristan (it was the 90s?) were favorites for a long time. Somewhere along the way, I picked up Ulric and Ursula, and started using those frequently, as well. There was a time when I relied on different mythologies – Greek and Norse were favorites – for the names I’d create. And I still often turn to Shakespeare for the fantasy games I play today.
And then, along came Mass Effect.
For as normally human as Commander Shepard was, that game forever changed the way I thought about character names. Granted, being able to customize mt Shepard(s) went along with that, too, but as I discovered, I simply couldn’t create a face without giving it the perfect name. And so, excepting my first playthrough in which I tried to come up with a unique and unusual name for Shepard, only to settle on the less-than-great “Tatrianne” (I feel like I had Star Wars on the mind, or something), I would create a face, and then proceed to sit and stare at it for what felt like an eternity thinking “who are YOU?”
You, you’re Benjamin D. Shepard, a paragon soldier who’ll take a bullet for anyone!
You there…you’re a kind-hearted soul with a tough-as-nail exterior named Alexandra.
As for you, you’re Valeri, a smart, witty, PhD-toting engineer who won’t go down without a fight.
And so it still goes today, with each new Shepard, and there have been plenty of them, comes a new name, a new identity, and new person who will save the galaxy. No matter that the game never states my individual names out loud, I know each and every one of them, still.
Playing Dragon Age for the first time marked both a return to the old, which in turn, started up a search for something new. My first-ever character was a Dalish elf that I named Ursula, one of my old stand-byes. In the moment, I don’t know why that name popped back into my head, ut Ursula and I had a good enough time fighting off Darkspawn and such. But she made me realize, as did the outcropping of new RPGs of the time, that I didn’t want to name all my fantasy character “Ursula,” or “Ulric,” just because. And so, I turned to the Internet and discovered the wonderful world of name generators.
To this day, online name generators have been my primary go-to for naming inspiration, especially in high fantasy games like ESO. And I have to admit that I’d poured over them far longer, in some cases, than it’s taken me to create the characters to name! To some degree, I can’t help but be drawn into the lore of games like ESO and Neverwinter, some of which has very deep roots that lie in realms well outside video games. Because of that, if I’m creating a character of a particular race, I want to to choose a name befitting of that race’s naming conventions. In a way, naming generators are actually proved educational, as they often provide reasoning as to why certain names are preferred over others. I get that some folks are fine running around as NiGhTwOlF1217 or Sir-Pick-Your-Nose, but if I’m going to invest many hours in a character that I want to readily inhabit its surroundings, I would rather he or she be someone who feels more real than less. And real names, or “real” names, go a long way in facilitating immersion and engagement in the games I enjoy.
Lede image taken by author during PS4 gameplay of The Elder Scrolls Online (© Bethesda Softworks LLC).