How much thought have you put into the fashion options in your next game?
Today at GDC Victoria Tran of Kitfox Games (Boyfriend Dungeon) gave a great talk about why fashion in games often sucks, and why devs should put more time and effort into making it not suck.
Up front, she points out fashion isn’t just clothes, and it’s not just high-concept runway shows, either; it’s the art and science of communicating information through what we wear and how we carry ourselves.
“I’m not here to talk about what good fashion is,” said Tran. “I want to talk more about how we’ve ignored it as a serious mechanic and an information-rich piece of storytelling” in game development.
“The first reason we should care about fashion is that fashion really increases our understanding,” she continued. “It can put you in a certain time or era...it can convey a certain mood without walls and walls of text, and it can say where your character came from.”
Fashion is weakest when it's meaningless, so Tran encourages game makers to look at what characters are wearing as a vital communication channel. Players will instantly make a judgment about your characters based on their outfits, so make sure they mean something.
As an example of an outfit that’s “information poor”, Tran pulled up a shot of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 protagonist Rex, noting that his flashy “Diver” armor is striking but conveys almost nothing about what a Diver is or does.
Some players may feel strongly about Rex's outfit because they have deep ties to the series, for example, or the game's artist, but if they're just seeing him for the first time, it's hard to read him as a character.
Fashion is a useful tool for evoking strong emotions in general, said Tran, pointing out that many people pick outfits for their in-game characters (when they have the option) for the same reasons they pick their own outfits: to feel strong, or attractive, or powerful, or just comfy.
“For me, when I was too afraid to wear sexy outfits, I would wear them in games to explore how they made me feel," said Tran. "Did I actually like this? Did I want to dress more cute? Did i want to dress more masculine, to feel more comfortable? Fashion can give you powerful feelings.”
Games have been using fashion to elicit powerful feelings in customers for a long time, of course, but its almost always by putting women characters in ridiculously skimpy outfits. Tran says it can be powerful to give players room to express their characters' sexuality, but that power is quashed when devs don't give players room to chose their own outfits.
“Of course I have to talk about sexualized fashion. I’ve come to have very complicated feelings about it right now,” Tran said, recommending everyone read Maddy Myers’ Kotaku article on the fashion of Soul Calibur’s Ivy Valentine. “She does champion reclaiming sexiness for ourselves, though I find it hard to feel empowered when [women characters don’t have non-sexy clothing options].”
She also cautions game makers about putting fashion and iconography from other countries and cultures in your game without doing serious research first. Putting every American video game character into an outfit sporting an American flag gets old fast, she argues; the same goes for characters from other parts of the world.
“Get sensitivity readers, hire diverse people to work on your project,” she suggested calling out The Geeky Baju Project as a great example of how game artists can work a variety of "information-rich" fashion into their game's assets.
The Geeky Baju Project is an effort by artist Charis Loke to explore the intersection of popular culture with traditional garments and fan art, but what's so special about it is the way Loke weaves real history in with creative designs that convey a game's essence through fashion.
“These designs are not only fun, they’re a way of learning about the history of traditional outfits,” said Tran. “Especially from somewhere like Southeast Asia, which isn’t well-represented in games.”
Good fashion isn't just a useful, vibrant medium for communicating information about your game's design and narrative; it's also just cool, and in a modern game market where it seems like every dev is fighting to get their game noticed, having a cool-looking game is a big plus.
“As a community manager, I’m always looking for things to hook in players,” Tran explained. “Players want to embody their ideal selves, online and offline, and fashion is a great way to help them do that.”
So where are all the fashion games these days? Mostly in the indie and mobile spaces, says Tran, which is an opportunity for canny devs who are interested in making more fashion-centric games to carve out space for themselves on PC and console storefronts.
“This is a whole market out there that someone can get in on,” Tran said, pointing to a fruitless search she did recently for a "fashion game" genre on Steam.
Bottom line? "Fashion is fun,” concluded Tran. “And games are fun, so it’s an ideal marriage.”