Friday, May 8, 2009

Names as Identities

A few months back, a friend pointed out to me that in every Bioware game he'd played, there was a common element: the main character had a past to be discovered. He speculated that this was used as a way of simultaneously giving the player freedom in creating their character (that is, their character in the present), while holding onto the sense the character being played is more than just an avatar for the player. This is likely true, but I think it's also an indication of just how powerful the theme of uncovering an identity is.

Now let us consider Chrono Trigger, and the realization that led to this blog post (warning: minor spoilers ahead). Chrono Trigger has 7 playable characters, and while you can choose to name them whatever you want, they each have a default name. Here's the interesting part - only 3 of those characters use their "real" name as their default character names: Crono, Lucca, and Ayla. The other 4 characters are all using aliases. What's more, they're using aliases that obscure their identity. In fact, 3 of those names aren't really names at all - they're descriptions.

Frog is called so because he's a frog, Robo is a robot, and Magus just refers to the fact that he's a wizard (and yes, the fact that Magus joins your party is spoiler I warned of). In each case, the process of learning their true name is inextricable from the process of learning the character's true identity. At the same time, each character has undergone a change, such that their new name is a new identity.

The fact that the uncoverable past is used so many times in Chrono Trigger shows how ubiquitous the idea is in the minds of the creators (in addition to playable characters, you uncover the identities of the 3 gurus, Yakra, the ghost of Cyrus, and even Lavos). The fact that each character with a hidden past also has two names is perhaps more interesting. I know I for one felt that the "true names", once revealed, had some kind of inherent power to them; the mere fact of knowing a character's true name made me at once feel like I had some new level of control over them and made me empathize with them. The fact that it's a secret makes it a personal feature, and any entity with a personal feature feels richer for it (end of spoilers).

Ursula K. LeGuin, of course, takes the power of names a step further by literally giving not just every person, but every single object in the world of Earthsea a true name. Merely speaking the true name of creature of Earthsea gives you power over it. This seems to me a manifestation of something we feel the force of every day - that names carry identity, and that knowing the identity of another grants you power over them (hence, it would be completely inappropriate for me to address the president as "Barack" to his face).

That's as far as this will go for now. It was simply on my mind. As to why Chrono Trigger is on my mind, it's probably because I've been working on a fan project. It's what I was referring to in my last blog post, and it's an original platformer game about Magus, made using Game Maker 7. I'm hoping to have the first finished draft of it ready this weekend, so stay tuned, I will most certainly post about it if I do.

-Silent Ellipsis


a robot said...

Whoo, new post! Fun stuff. Actually, "uncovering an identity" might well be synonymous with characterization; other than dumping the character's entire history on you at the beginning of the story (I can think of examples of this, and they're *not* good games), the only way to reveal backstory to the player is to reveal it to one or more of the characters as well. That comment about names is really interesting, though; I wonder to what extent the designers chose to do that *because* players could rename their characters? It's an interesting way to make sure your story isn't messed up by player renaming (as, for instance, FF7 was when my brother named Tifa "Cloud").

Ellipsis said...

Sounds like your brother just invented a new paradigm for slash fic.

And there is some difference, I think, between simply revealing a character's backstory and "uncovering their identity" here, and it is partially tied to the names.

*spoilers ahead*

That is, if you uncover that a character did X in the past, that's a detail added about that character. On the other hand, if you find out that the character has another name, and thus, a whole second identity, that seems to be more of a revelation in most cases.

When you learn about Magus' past, it isn't presented as an addition to his character - it completely redefines his character (who you had previously believed to just be an evil wizard). When you find out that the Old Man at the end of time is Jasper, you don't learn about the Old Man - you recognize that he is someone else.

*end of spoilers*

That's the idea, anyway.