RPGs and the emotional power of names

ftl-header

After dozens of wrecked ships, and countless fallen crew, I am still playing FTL. But why does my heart continue to break after each failed voyage?

Is it the haunting thump of lasers hitting my soon-to-explode stealth cruiser? Perhaps it’s the sizzling, crunching fires of death plaguing my oxygen chamber? Or maybe it’s  the imagined whispers of my Rockman crew-member, named Kevin Fish, floating lifelessly through cold and unloving space? 

FTL belongs to a sub-genre of RPGs referred to as a roguelike. In these types of games, the player is usually faced with trudging through a dungeon full of randomly generated content. In addition to this chance-based gameplay, death is made permanent. Fatal Labyrinth for the Sega Genesis comes to mind.

In Fatal Labyrinth, the player is an unnamed villager who fights his way up a tower to defeat an evil dragon. It’s pretty basic stuff, but what keeps the game fresh today is its infinite amount of possibilities. Like FTL it’s also a game that expects you to try and fail quite a bit. Collecting gold, rather than being spent on equipment, will increase the quality of your funeral at the game over screen. How depressing. Fatal Labryinth also gets a tip of my hat for being the only game where the player character can die from overeating. Nevertheless, despite fancy funerals and pork-related fatalities, the villager’s death in Fatal Labyrinth never affected me in the same way as a fallen ship in FTL.

That’s not to say that I’m that invested in the FTL crew, but it’s always sad to see them go. The player builds an organic relationship with them. Despite their simple, SNES sprite-like appearance, one grows to rely on specific shipmates to accomplish certain tasks. Not to mention you can also rename them, along with your ship. You may recruit hundreds of identical Slug engineers, but none will be as special to you as Rebekah.

The option for a player to rename a character is small but potentially powerful. Whether you choose to name a character after yourself or your favorite bodily excrescence, the option allows your gaming experience to feel unique. In RPGs, having an experience that’s unique to every player is about as good as it gets.

I think back to Pokémon Red/Blue where I named my beloved Weezing “Junior Prom,” and to Mass Effect 2, feeling proud as Dingle Shepard became a true paragon. Ultimately, I look back to FTL. The crew of “STEVEY’s SHIP” will never be forgotten.

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Author: Stephen Hilger View all posts by
Stephen Hilger is a recent graduate of Rutgers University. He has a BA in English and his favorite word is "tepid." His involvement with video games most heavily began with ""Duck Hunt" and it has been a blossoming relationship ever since. In addition to writing for Pixelitis, Stephen is also a stand-up comedian and involved in the performing arts both as an actor and writer.

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