This is part three of four to my analysis of Bungie’s Destiny.
Check out Part 1, where I look at visuals, level design, enemy design, etc.; Part 2: where I look at things like story, weapons, and whether it’s worth buying; and Part 4: where I predict the future of Destiny’s story based on evidence that Destiny is a symbolic retelling of the story from Bungie’s Pathways into Darkness, but from the point of view of the monsters.
So, the way in which things are named is rarely critiqued in video games. Yet I think it’s an aspect that is important.
In Destiny, Bungie drops the ball on how it names… everything. What it amounts to is that the poorly thought out way things are named in Destiny is a microcosm for all the other ways that Bungie dropped the ball with this game.
The way some things are named in Destiny is so bad, I’d expect it from a ten year old, but not from an adult professional, working a nine to five job as a writer for a multi-million dollar video game developer.
Just read on to see what I mean.
[Side Note: An example of a fantasy/sci-fi setting that makes excellent use of strange, but understandable names would be the INCREDIBLE Book of the New Sun Tetralogy by Gene Wolfe (starting with “Shadow of the Torturer”). You really should read it, it’s great. If Bungie’s writers had read it before making Destiny then they would be better at their jobs.]
The names of enemies, characters, or weapons can act as vignettes; they can be short stories in and of themselves.
The thing is, despite my criticism in this article, Bungie clearly CAN create cool names for things. Not just in past games, but in Destiny. Take a look at the grimoire card for the gun Hard Light. Here’s an excerpt:
“…The design team included several specialist Exos and at least one Warlock thanatonaut.”
What the devil is a thanatonaut?!? It sounds cool and auspicious. Turns out that it basically means “sailor of death” or “someone who navigates death”. It’s the same Latin naming convention where an “astronaut” is someone who navigates the stars, or where “chrononaut” means someone who travels through time. So, apparently, Warlocks can become so powerful that they can travel through death itself, and enough of them have done this that there’s a special name for that type of Warlock: a Thanatonaut.
See what I mean when I say that a simple name can be a short story all by itself.
Point is, this one name, “Thanatonaut”, immediately captured my imagination, gave me a visceral sense of the type of universe I’m playing in, gave me an idea of the power that Warlocks can wield, AND it made me do research outside the context of the game to find out what the name meant. One single word did all that. All of Destiny’s cinematics put together didn’t manage to do that. That’s how powerful a single name can be.
And yet, Bungie missed so many opportunities to enrich their world and electrify their story by naming things effectively.
“Hunter” is a pretty generic title. It’s so generic, in fact, that it’s relevant in any culture during any time period. If the other two classes were the named in the same generic way I wouldn’t think anything of it.
But, the other classes are given more distinct names. “Warlock” is a specifc term for a magic user with sinister connotations; it calls to mind a specific image, kind the way “Druid” would, which a more generic “mage” or “sorcerer” would not.
And then “Titan” is a super specific name referencing the giants from Greek mythology who once ruled the world before the Olympian Gods overthrew them.
So what does this imply? That the Titan character class once ruled the world? Probably not. Then why did Bungie give a name to their Fighter class that was already so packed with meaning? It’s a bad choice because it makes the name seem more significant than it actually is.
Not to mention that the names of the Vex units (which I’ll talk about in bit) are also references to monsters from Greek mythology. Which would imply there’s some positive connection between the Titans and the Vex. There probably isn’t which makes it a bad choice.
Of course this wouldn’t be the case if everything else was a reference to Greek mythology, or at least if the other two classes referenced Greek myth.
There should be a coherent pattern to the naming of things, otherwise you’re just picking names at random.
Your names could give the player more of a “sense” of the world of Destiny and of the Traveller, but only if you put some effort into it.
What you’ll see, over and over, with the naming of enemies is that there is a pattern until the pattern is broken, apparently for no reason. So, again, rather than using the names to create a narrative (the way “thanatonaut” did), the names seem like they were picked at random. Or maybe the names were picked “by committee” and some people just didn’t feel like naming things the way everyone else was, I don’t know, it ends up being pretty stupid anyway.
THE NAMING OF INDIVIDUAL ENEMY UNITS
Let me point something out, real quick.
If the names of your characters or enemies can be shuffled around, more or less willy nilly, and they make about as much sense as the original names, then you have made some bad names for your characters.
In Destiny, when you shuffle around some of the names of the enemies, the new names work just as well or even BETTER.
When that’s the case then you know you’ve failed.
You can do the same thing for character classes and enemy names. If you give the Guardians some of the names of the enemy units then it works just as well and makes about as much sense.
Try the same thing with, let’s say, the names of enemies in the Halo series. You’ll find it’s a lot harder to shuffle the names around and have them still fit with what they’re referencing.
Anyway, I’m going to go ahead now, and do some deeper analysis of the unit names of these factions.
As with the visual design and AI of the enemies, you’ll notice that the Fallen seem most developed and most polished.
Here’s a list of their units:
Dreg (the lowest scum of a society)
Shank (a makeshift knife)
Vandal (synonym for raider/destroyer of property)
Captain (commander of a ship)
Servitor (a Latin word for “servant”)
Pike (a fast fish with sharp teeth; or, a spear)
Ketch (a type of boat with two masts)
Skiff (a smaller type of boat with no masts)
You can clearly see a pattern which generates a certain atmosphere for the Fallen. The naming of their units gives you an idea of what they’re all about. The Fallen are cast as violent, destructive, fast, adaptable, barbaric, yet impoverished pirates.
Every name adds to this theme, except for “servitor”. This Latin name stands out like a sore thumb, and considering that the Servitors’ visual appearance also stands out like a sore thumb compared to the Fallen units, I can only assume that this is very deliberate and that there is some backstory where the Servitors do not originally come from the Fallen civilization (they were not created by the Fallen).
The problem however, is that another faction also uses Latin/Roman naming conventions and that’s the Cabal. Which would imply that there is some connection between Servitors and the Cabal, but there’s nothing else drawing this connection so it’s probably not true, which makes this name a bad choice.
Overall, though, the Fallen names are well chosen.
However the Cabal’s names are not so well chosen. Bungie sets up a pattern in the names, but then doesn’t follow the pattern they set up.
Legionnaire (a soldier in Roman legions)
Centurion (an officer in Roman legions)
Phalanxe (a formation used by Roman legions)
Colossus (a giant statue in ancient Rhodes)
Psions (a made up word derived from the concept of psionics, aka mind powers)
Interceptor (a thing that intercepts)
Goliath (a giant soldier in Biblical mythology; slain by David)
Harvester (a thing that harvests)
So, you can easily see a pattern of names derived from the Legions of ancient Rome, which emphasizes the disciplined, imperial, military nature of the Cabal. And it works, until Bungie’s writers just give up and throw in “Colossus” which isn’t from Rome and isn’t even from the same time period.
It doesn’t make any sense. The Cabal Colossus isn’t that different in appearance or function than the Legionnaire or the Centurion.
Again, it’s like some names were picked at random, or like some of Bungie’s writers just refused to play ball did their own thing with some of the names.
Then there’s the Psions. I understand that maybe they were given a non-Roman name to emphasize that they aren’t the same species as the Cabal, but while that works for the Fallen Servitors, here it is just jarring in a bad way.
Couldn’t Bungie have come up with Roman names for all of the Cabal? Maybe for the Psions they could have used some ancient Roman name for a foreign conscript or special unit, such as Auxilia (Auxiliary), Sagittarii, Salararius, Socii?
And again, if the Cabal have set up a pattern of being give Latin-Roman names, then that implies some connection between them and the Fallen Servitors. Of which there probably is none.
Sticking to the ancient world, let’s look at the Vex, who are mostly named after monsters from Greek mythology.
Goblins (a monster from medieval European folklore)
Hobgoblins (a monster from medieval European folklore)
Minotaurs (a monster from ancient Greek mythology)
Harpy/Gorgon (a monster from ancient Greek mythology)
Hydra (a monster from ancient Greek mythology)
Oracles (a soothsayer from ancient Greece)
Cyclops (a monster from ancient Greek mythology)
Nearly every single Vex unit is named after a monster from Greek mythology, EXCEPT the Goblins and Hobgoblins, which despite being given drastically different names, look pretty much the same as the Minotaurs. Why? What’s the meaning behind breaking the pattern? If you create a pattern this strong and then break it, then that has to mean SOMETHING. In this case, it probably just means that Bungie’s writers were lazy and didn’t feel like doing a good job.
I mean, it’s not like Bungie’s writers had to delve into European folklore because they ran out of Greek monsters. Instead of goblins and hobgoblins, the writer’s could have named them satyrs, chimeras, manticores, sirens, or sphinxes. Or here’s an idea. What if you named them cylcopses, you know, the race of giants who, just like the Vex, have only one eye? I mean why waste that name on the Vex’s stationary turret?
But, instead they went with “goblin” and “hobgoblin” for no reason.
Anyway, let’s just move onto the Hive.
Thrall (old Norse word for “slave”)
Acolyte (an assistant in a religious order)
Knight (medieval mounted soldier that served a lord)
Wizard (a fantasy term for magic user)
Ogre (a giant monster that eats people)
Shrieker (a thing that shrieks)
The Hive have the worst collection of names. I mean, you can kind of see a medieval/fantasy theme going on, but it’s all over the place. A Norse word “thrall” is thrown in there for some reason. “Thrall”, “acolyte”, and “knight” are all actual types of people that existed in the past, while “wizard” most definitely was not. And then while all those names reference people, there’s “ogre” which references an inhuman monster that eats people.
It’s just all over the place, and again, the names feel almost like they were picked at random.
Let’s move away from the names of individual units, to the actual names of the alien civilizations.
THE NAMES OF ENEMY FACTIONS
Just read this list out loud:
You should immediately notice that they’re all basically named the same way. It’s all “The [noun/verb]”. Also, none of the words exceed two syllables. The names are absurdly simple, to the point you can call them boring.
This shouldn’t be the case. These are all different aliens, presumably from different parts of the universe, who are supposed to have a vastly different style or “feel”. Using different naming conventions for them would have been an amazing opportunity to distinguish the different “feels” of the different enemies, or to add atmosphere to the narrative.
Like, for example, the Hive. Are you kidding me?!? That’s the most boring name ever. What was the conversation like when they came up with that name?
“Uh, hey, we’ve got these insect-like aliens. What should we call them?”
“That’s too obvious, something else.”
“What about the Hive?”
“Sure! Even though 99% of all insect species on Earth don’t actually live in hives! And it’s still really obvious! But let’s go with it!”
Again, I’d expect something like that from a ten year old, but not from an adult professional, working a nine to five job as a writer for a multi-million dollar video game developer.
Bungie’s writers didn’t even jazz it up with adjectives or anything. Like, what about the Hive of Iniquity? The Rivenous Hive (rivenous being a portmanteau of riven and ravenous, implying that they’re both hungry and have been torn apart by a tragedy in their past)?
But, no. Instead, we get “the Hive”, which doesn’t paint a picture, doesn’t spark the imagination, and doesn’t tell us much about the actual enemies. It honestly sounds like a placeholder name, but no one ever got around to changing it to something better. It’s like if Destiny got released as “Project Tiger” (the projects original code name).
Same thing with the Vex. By “vex”, I’m assuming Bungie means, “to cause frustration”, as in, “By Jove! I heard news about that Napolean Bonaparte which has caused me great vexation, wot wot!”
Again, this sounds like a placeholder name that doesn’t actually add anything to the atmosphere or the narrative of the race in question. It just states that they’re frustrating.
I don’t want to talk about too much about alternate names for the Vex, but here’s one idea that popped into my head (which I stole from Ian M. Banks’ Culture series which has sentient spaceships with very unique names). What if the Vex had a name that was the chemical notation for some sort of metal, such as, CuSi3Mn, which is a silicon bronze alloy used in engineering due to its high strength and resistance to corrosives. It could be pronounced “the Koo-Sye Men” so it wouldn’t be hard to read or say out loud. Although, maybe we’d have to pick something different since the SiMn could be pronounced as “semen” and that would be awkward. But, you see what I’m saying? It does a better job of conveying the notion of a robotic race than any actual words ever could. I mean, robots WOULD name themselves after a molecule rather than an emotion.
The Cabal, also, have a somewhat generic name that seems more placeholder than anything else. A “cabal” is basically just a group of like-minded individuals, although usually it’s used to refer to things like secret societies and shadow governments so it has some negative connotations. But the cabal aren’t a secret society, nor a shadow government. We already know that they have an Emperor, so presumably they’re an Empire, and it’s not like they’re being secretive about anything they’re doing. Also, all of the Cabal soldier ranks have more in common with the ancient Roman military than with secret societies or shadow governments. So, not only does the name “cabal” not add anything to this faction’s narrative, it also CONTRADICTS everything else we know about the faction.
Since the Cabal use some Roman ranks or Latin words in their unit names, why not tap into that for their faction name.
How about, “Furor Irae”, which according to google translate is Latin for “wrathful wrath”. Or Pugnis Irae, “fists of wrath”.
Or how about if the Cabal were called, “Nobis Post Vesitigia Mortua”, which according to google is the Latin version of, “Behind Us Lies The Trail of Dead”, which is just a badass name for an alien empire. It’s a bit of a mouthful, so it could be shortened to “the Nobis Imperium” if we want to refer to them quickly.
And if all the other races have unique names then a name like “the Fallen” actually works pretty well. It implies a fall from grace, falling on hard times, a major defeat in the past, and the general haphazard nature of an alliance of raiders and pirates.
Now, I’m not saying my example names are amazing or anything. I’m just showing how easy it could have been for Bungie to have some fun and come up with some unique names that actually reflected some narrative atmosphere regarding the races. It could have done great things for the story of Destiny.
BUT WAIT! There’s more!
Actually, no there isn’t more.
I was going to talk more about how things are named, such as guns, individual characters, locations, and subclasses, but I’m getting a little tired of this topic.
Quick examples: The gun named Monte Carlo is named after either a card game or the city in our modern times, i.e. Destiny’s past, and in Destiny they’ve lost most of the knowledge of the past; so are people still playing Monte Carlo solitaire in the universe of Destiny, are they traveling to Monte Carlo, Monaco for their vacation? It’s a name that doesn’t fit in the world we’ve seen in Destiny, because it references concrete things in our 21st century world. The gun named Fate of All Fools (a reference to a phrase appearing in Bungie’s Marathon 2: Durandal) is incorrectly named because the presence of “all” ruins the natural rhythm of this poetic name; it should be Fate of Fools; try saying the name out loud, putting a stress on “fate”, and see how it sounds each way.
If anyone out there is interested in hearing more of my thoughts on how things are named in Destiny let me know in the comments or whatever.
But, ultimately the point is this:
The haphazard and seemingly random way things are named in Destiny is kind of a microcosm for the iffy and sometimes slipshod way the rest of Destiny was designed and released.