What’s in a name?
You’ve saved up enough credits to take a shuttle to another station. You walk through Tau Station’s port which overflows with ships, cargo, and people. The departures board lists your available destinations: Sol Jump Gate, Taungoo Station, København, Nouveau Limoges, and Poul Anderson’s Legacy. What hints about where you’re going do you get from the name of each station? This is something the creative team thinks about each time we write a pitch for a new station in the universe.
A space station by any other name would still smell of regocrete streets and recycled air, but we have hundreds of space stations and we want each to be unique. Words form the world for the reader so they must be chosen carefully. Names are even more important; they convey a sense of character and location, they conjure up images of climate, terrain, and culture. That’s a lot to pack in, so how do we choose?
When Curtis, Tau Station’s creator, first started building the universe he realized that he needed names for all the space stations. With hundreds of stations in the game it seemed like an overwhelming task, especially as he had no team yet to help him. But he’s a Perl developer. So what did he do? He wrote code to randomly generate the names for him, using a mix of place names, authors, and scientists. “[It] forced me to look at stations differently, wondering how their names could have originated,” he says. It also helped him to inject cultures, countries, and ideas into Tau Station that he might never have thought of on his own. Of course, the flaw with randomly creating names is, well, they’re random. From all the assorted combinations possible for the game’s starting station, the program originally named it “The Death of Baghdad.” Keep in mind this was in 2010 and the Iraq War was still going on. As Curtis puts it, “It was a spectacularly bad name.”
What came from this accident was a focus on the names and their implications. Six years later that holds true for our creative team. We look at the program-generated name for a station and sometimes we use it, sometimes we change it a bit, and sometimes we scrap it entirely. Some names give us narrative inspiration, as was the case with Paris Spatiale. The generated name led us to the idea of a station once filled with art, culture, and light now turned dark, with bands of illiterate nomads wandering the dim ruins of museums and libraries.
A name can spin off from the original as the history of a station is developed, as happened with Taungoo Station, originally “House of Burma.” The name prompted the creative team to consider Burmese history and dig around for interesting tidbits to flesh out the station’s concept. We became interested in the second Taungoo dynasty and its role in unifying the country after it fell into civil war. Drawing bits and pieces from that, we came up with a backstory for the station involving rival post-Catastrophe factions battling for power until, finally, they were forced to consolidate by the Taungoo faction.
Other times, we come up with an idea for a station that we think is so cool we just need to put it in the game and choose a name based on its concept. Moissan Stronghold was conceived after one of our narrative designers came up with an interesting, grim way that a station might recover from a massive die off. With millions slain during the Catastrophe, the station’s survivors used its tremendous cache of dead bodies to create a “corpse recycling” industry that processes those bodies into carbon and industrial diamonds. We named it Moissan Station in honor of the French chemist Henri Moissan who spent years trying to develop a furnace that could transform crude carbon into diamonds.
We’ve traveled through these stations so often during their creation that they seem like home. When we see the name of a station we think of its setting, such as Taungoo with its gritty mining community. We think of a location on the station that caught our attention, like the security office surrounded by protesters on Nouveau Limoges. We think of the dim fusion tube of Paris Spatiale, the ongoing repairs in the shipyards of København, and the sound of hundreds of people haggling in the market in Poul Anderson’s Legacy. We hope our players will find their favorites as well, somewhere they’ll want to reclaim a building in the ruins and create a home. We know wherever you settle down you’ll make your own mark and add to the character of the station. Maybe one day when we hear the name of a station, we’ll think of your character’s influence there.