Wardrobe theory: Designers & writers deconstruct fashion in games

A panel at IndieCade explores how fashion in games can be a meaningful expression of a character's personality, how it can help create a unique aesthetic, and engage with broader cultural trends.

At IndieCade 2015 in Culver City this weekend, designers Tim Rogers, Mattie Brice and Christine Love were joined by writers Gita Jackson and Cara Ellison for a wide-ranging discussion of a topic that's been largely overlooked: how fashion relates to character design.

Ellison and company explored the reasons to think carefully about how to use fashion in games, presented good examples of it from different hemispheres, and discussed how the relationship between technology and aesthetics can create powerful looks in games of all types.

Fashion Design, not Character Design

Fashion is integral to many of the works of Christine Love, whose interactive fiction games includes Ladykiller in a Bind. She opened the session by stressing that game artists should not dress a character in what is essentially a uniform, but to think of fashion as one of the tools that the characters themselves use to express their identity: “Character design is a person who has one striking look, while fashion is ‘oh, I know what this person’s entire wardrobe looks like.”’

For quick comparison, the panel looks at Chrono Trigger’s Luca (left) and Blue Dragon’s Kluke (below). The former was a character many people sent to Rogers when he asked for inputs on “well dressed characters.” He felt that the latter offered a telling contrast to Luca’s design. Rogers says that Luca “Looks cool, but this isn’t functional fashion. Kluke, on the other hand, looks like a character who wears these clothes out in the world, and represents a fashion style well.”

For an example from men’s fashion, Rogers pulls up a screenshot of a recent Pokémon trainer design, and Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Jackson points out that the trainer’s outfit looks cobbled from different wardrobe pieces inspired by hip hop and Japanese street culture, while Jensen’s could be the only outfit he owns. 

“It’s such a weird choice,” Jackson observes, “because the designers said they actually extrapolated fashion trends to see what they’d look like in a future Detroit. You have elegant, decadent costumes all throughout the game---yet Jensen, the player, is the most boring character.”

Drawing Inspiration from Japanese Fashion

A lot of the games discussed during the panel originate from Japan---Shin Megami Tensei, King of Fighters, and Jet Set Radio are cited as games that are conscious of the fashion trends during their development period. 

Rogers brings up The Bouncer from 2000, and points to one of the game’s main characters who has excessively high cuffs on his jeans. “People buy jeans and then roll them up, and get them hemmed higher up the ankle,” says Rogers. “This is an extreme case of that of course.”

Jackson laughs, while saying it’s something her brother did here in the United States when he was younger. She takes time to praise the King of Fighters characters like Rock Howard.“The short jacket that lets something tight fit underneath, it builds this athletic look that expresses character while not just being character design.”

King of Fighters, it’s pointed out, used to be a yearly franchise, so one of its highlights was that the characters’ looks frequently were updated to match Japanese fashion trends.

Talk turns to Jet Set Radio, whose unique look is often characterized as being ‘really fashionable’ when talking about game character design. Rogers, Brice, and Jackson have some back and forth comparing Jet Set Radio to Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, often held up as a pinnacle of “cool” design in western games. 

Rogers sums up Jet Set Radio’s ability to be naturally cool over Uncharted’s somewhat forced, cocky coolness as being a game that “is sincerely interested in all of the ideas it’s displaying---clothes, music, and dance” versus Uncharted’s reliance on brusque one-liners, cocksure smiles and half-tucked shirts to convey similar emotion. 

Splatoon, Hair, and Technology

But character and fashion design isn’t just an art question, it’s a technology and design question. The discussion turns to Splatoon, a game that deeply incorporates player costume selection, and how hair fits into the equation.

“Very often, hair and makeup are believed to be afterthoughts when doing game fashion,” Brice says. "For me in particular, my hair rules my outfit. So it's interesting that characters frequently get worked in such a way that spiky hair gets slapped on at the end.”

Rogers segues this into an point about Solid Snake of Metal Gear fame’s mullet--how his character designer wanted the flowing hair in the back to show off the game’s 3D technology, and the front to look sleek in dialogue-driven cutscenes.

Brice builds on that point by saying games need to adopt curly hair to help define black and African-American characters. 

(Right: Spy Partywhich is mentioned in context of properly animating curly hair for in-game character models.)

What’s the next game fashion trend?

Ellison brings the talk to a close, asking her fellow panelists to suggest some places they’d like to see game fashion go in the future. 

For Jackson, it’s about looking for games that appeal to broader fashion horizons then what drives wardrobes in current AAA titles. “I’d like to see games that reach less to what people in games culture currently feel is cool, and tap into aesthetics outside of games.” 

And for Love, she points out that when games bring those fashions in, they could begin to incorporate multiple palettes at once. “I’d love a game with at least two different styles at the same time. I’d want one person to have one style, another person another, and not one single aesthetic.”

“Show me your character’s fashion, and give me the context of the world it comes from.”

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