Identifying games when you can’t remember the name

2012-08-04 by . 2 comments

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Once upon a time, we allowed questions where the asker would describe a game they’d played, and the community would attempt to help them remember the name so they could play it again. A number of events transpired, and we no longer allow such questions on the site.

Still, occasionally someone comes along and seeks this type of information. During the time these questions were allowed, I found it fun to answer them. I thought in the spirit of helping the internet at large, I’d share my techniques and tricks. The hope is that if you find yourself looking for an old game you can’t remember the name of, perhaps this will be of use.

Start with all the info you can

When we were discussing the future of this type of question, we came up with some criteria to judge “vague” requests from “clear” requests. Although the criteria proposal eventually failed, it still may be of use to game seekers. I found that many people knew some elements from this list, and just didn’t realize it or didn’t think it was useful information. Looking at a list of questions tended to help them remember details they might not otherwise have thought of.

Here’s the criteria list, organized by how generally useful the information is:

Most useful information:

  • Platform: What device did you use? For PC games, the specific OS and the distribution method helps. For instance, “Windows 98 CDROM” or “Super Nintendo”
  • Genre: What kind of game was it? For example “platformer” or “first person shooter”
  • Year: What year was the game released, or failing that, what year did you first play it?
  • Perspective: How did you view the action? Was it top-down, side-view, first person, third person, 2D, 3D, etc?
  • Memorable Moments: Why does this game stick with you? What do you specifically remember about it?

Somewhat useful information:

  • Protagonist: What did your characters/avatars look like and/or sound like? How did they move and interact with the environment?
  • Weapons/Equipment: What kind of gear/weapons/powerups did the protagonist use?
  • Goal: What was the goal of the game? What were some of the objectives you had to achieve to get to the end?
  • Plot: What was the plot? How was the story told?
  • Enemies: What did the enemies look like? How did you defeat them?
  • Puzzles: What kind of puzzles or challenges were there? Can you remember any specific puzzles that stick to mind?

Kind of useful information:

  • Art: What was the art in the game like? Cartoony, realistic, pixelated, etc
  • Setting: Where did the game take place? Was it the future? The old west? The dark ages? A fantasy realm?
  • Environment: What types of environments did the game take place in?
  • Tone/Mood: Was it serious, lighthearted, dystopian?
  • Multiplayer: Were there multiplayer elements? Were they cooperative or competitive? Did multiple people play simultaneously, or did you take turns?

Do your research

Once you’ve gotten a bunch of this info together, the next thing to do is some research. The first thing I tended to do was to look at all the assembled info, and find the elements that were unique or different from other games. This tends to vary depending on the situation. Look over your information and try to figure out maybe 3-4 elements that make the game unique or rare. Combine this info with a few general parameters that eliminate as many possible games as you can. Usually the platform is a good way to do this, but not always.

Once you have your terms, go search Google. Tips for the best way to search Google and the advanced options it supports are outside the scope here, but you can consult Google’s Advanced Search page for help here.

For instance, if you’re trying to find the name of a NES RPG where you formed a party of four characters (with fighters and mages) to try and save the world from crystals that were being destroyed, you might search for:

> nes rpg “white mage” crystal

The terms “white mage” and crystal are both things that are unique about the game, while “nes” and “rpg” scope the query to only the games you’re likely to care about.

Beyond Google, there are a few other sites that can be of use:

  • MobyGames has an extensive selection of various categories you can browse, which might help if you have an idea about what genre or a specific mechanic you’re looking for in the game. They’ve also frequently got screenshots, which can help confirm your guess.
  • Wikipedia has several category pages for video game genres and so on, and often browsing the list of game names can help jog your memory.
  • Home of the Underdogs caters to abandonware (the legality of which I don’t want to touch), but there are a ton of “underrated” or lost PC games here that you can browse through – more than a few times I’ve found a game I was looking for here.
  • Giant Bomb also tries to group games by mechanics they feature, and sometimes it’s helpful, although the pages should be considered more of a cross section of selected titles rather than anything comprehensive.

Ask for help

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can’t find the game you’re looking for alone. One of the things that I think helped my ability to identify games was that I’d played so many of them. Frequently an element of the person’s description got me thinking of the game they were describing, or something very similar that helped narrow the search.

Finding the right people to ask is important, and giving them the appropriate information doubly so. You should have already compiled all the info you can remember in the first step of this process, so at least that work will carry over. Finding the correct audience can be somewhat tricky. Ideally, you want to find someone who has played this game you’re trying to remember, so finding a forum where fans of the (sub-)genre hang out can be useful.

For instance, if you’re trying to remember the name of a space strategy game, finding a forum for a similar, currently popular game might be a good idea. It’s likely that if they’re excited enough to participate in a community about a similar game, they’ve played the one you’re thinking of. Just make sure you’re abiding by their community guidelines – no sense in posting something if you’re going to get shot down by the community moderators wherever you’re going!

There are also forums on the internet dedicated to this sort of identification question. For instance, this topic on the xkcd forums, which inspired many of the criteria at the top of this blog post. There’s also similar threads on The Escapist and GiantBomb, for example. A simple Google search for “I can’t remember the name of this game” will likely turn up more.

Find the successor/sequel/remake!

Sometimes you just strike out. The bits you remember are too generic, or the game’s just too obscure. While I’d love to say that you should never give up the fight and lose hope, I’ve seen a fair number of these type of requests go unanswered. In this case, my suggestion is to do the next best thing – find a good, easy to find game that scratches that same itch. Sometimes elements of a good, but forgotten game end up rolled into other games in the same genre. Other games popular or simple enough that they are cloned regularly, so chances are there’s a bunch of games with really similar mechanics around.

Good ideas tend to proliferate in the games industry, so don’t lose hope if you can’t find the specific game you’re looking for – chances are that if the game was fun, there’s a good game just around the corner that’s appropriated those good ideas and is worth giving a shot.

Filed under Gaming 101 Old Games


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  • Jakub Narebski says:

    There is also Arqade (Gaming SE) Chat room…

    • agent86 says:

      Yeah, I’ve seen people try this and not really get far with it. It’s certainly an option, but I can’t wholeheartedly suggest it. Stuff moves off and gets lost too quickly for enough people to see it, IMHO.