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The weirdest design trick I know

(This is an archived old post from the previous version of the page.)

It’s just a couple of days till E3 2013, and there’s no oxygen left for anything else but next-gen consoles and games. And The Last of Us. So let’s make this blog post a bit lighter and shorter.

I want to dedicate one of my future design blog posts to the dirty tricks that game designers use and abuse, but let me share the weirdest and the most WTF one today. It’s not about game design as such – it’s about a game title design – and that’s why I think it makes sense to put it in a separate post.

Take a look at these words and try to figure out what they have in common:


Okay, yeah, the “scary” angle is obvious, but it’s not about that.

If you’re still not seeing it, here’s another hint. I wrote about HOPA (Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure) games once, but I did not mention that most of their titles follow a certain formula. Take a look at a few examples, just a couple of the latest releases:

Dark Parables: The Final Cinderella
Rite of Passage: Child of the Forest
Reveries: Sisterly Love
Dark Tales: The Masque of Red Death
Portal of Evil: Stolen Runes
European Mystery: Scent of Desire

Design Trick - HOPA

The part one of the formula is, of course, the “Series Title: Episode Title” template, but what’s part two, and what does it have to do with the words I have listed earlier?

Still puzzled?

Here’s the final hint: if you were pretending to be an aggressive animal or a monster, what sound would you go for? And if you had to use just one letter to write it down, what letter would that be?

Yes, it’s all about the letter “R”.

Just take a look at these lists of words and HOPA titles again. Really hard not to notice the overload of Rs once you know what to look for. A gamedev friend from Artifex Mundi (one of the top HOPA creators in the world) who told me about the trick, believes that “Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart” is the silliest example of the “R” abuse…

Design Trick - HOPA

…but personally, I like “Dark Parables: Curse of Briar Rose” just as much.

Okay, so we know that a lot of “scary” words feature letter “R”, and that some people use this letter to make their titles more powerful. But …why? Why does it work?

I could not find anything that could be considered science, so all I had was my gut. And my gut told me to go to Google. And Google brought me to Wikipedia. Some serious detective work there, Adrian! But take a look at this:

The letter R is sometimes referred to as the littera canina (canine letter). This phrase has Latin origins: the Latin R was trilled to sound like a growling dog. A good example of a trilling R is the Spanish word for dog, perro.

That kind of explains it a bit, doesn’t it? We fear growling animals, and we can safely assume that cavemen expressed aggression with growls. Ergo, a lot of scary words use “R”, and even the most innocent “R” words can evoke a certain reaction if we put them in the right context. And that’s how all these “Redemption Cemetery: Grave Testimony” titles are born.

Design Trick - Dog

Of course, not all “scary” words use letter “R” (death, hell, blood, etc.), and for every “Resident Evil” there’s one “Silent Hill”, but the power of “R” is undeniable. Just as is the power of “sex”, and that’s why you have tons of hardware and software that are “EX”, “X”, “SE” or “S” to make them appear, well, sexy. My favorite offender is Sony Ericsson Xperia.

The Power of Words

‘Tis a strange mystery, the power of words!
Life is in them, and death. A word can send
The crimson colour hurrying to the cheek.
Hurrying with many meanings; or can turn
The current cold and deadly to the heart.
Anger and fear are in them; grief and joy
Are on their sound; yet slight, impalpable:–
A word is but a breath of passing air.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon, 1837

Knowing what I just talked about, do you see the title of our game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, in a different light now? Is it an accident that the title starts with a soft, onomatopoeic “Vanishing”, only to end on a harsh, scary note of “Carter”?

The power of words, indeed.

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