Notes on Fashion in Character Design for the ABC
So the ABC here in Australia have a show called Good Game, and they asked me a couple of days ago for any ideas I might have on fashion in game character design. I just wrote a massive email to them explaining some of my ideas, and I thought it might be of interest to you. Here it is.
Fashion in games has a functional aspect. It helps the player to differentiate between different player and non-player characters. One of the key concepts that character designers have borrowed from fashion design is silhouette — the outline shape of the body. Our eye comprehends silhouettes much faster than the fine detail that goes into a particular look. By having strong silhouettes the player can efficiently digest the placement of lots of different characters within a single screen. If we think about something like a raid situation in World of Warcraft, where dozens of characters are collected together in the same screen space, the striking armour styles in combination with the different body types create highly identifiable silhouettes.
In fashion design the use of silhouettes differentiates different customer/demographics. A silhouette is understood as young, old, masculine, feminine. There’s a lot of cultural shorthand going on in the creation of silhouettes, and the same is true of game character creation.
Silhouette lends itself to the promotion and marketing of videogames. Players who are accustomed to looking at the silhouette of a given character in a franchise can identity at a glance the character in a promotion or advert. The look of the assassin protagonists in Assassin’s Creed — the distinctive hawkshead hood design — are immediately clear. Even more subtle silhouettes, like the bulky, rounded shoulders and armours of the Gears of War characters work in the same way, subtly different from similar soldier figures in Halo, Killzone etc.
When games made the transition to 3D, a whole new set of problems to do with legibility at a distance were introduced. Enemies and NPCs that would appear small on the horizon had to be designed in such a way that players could register them — silhouette and colour became a crucial design consideration.
Tetsuya Nomura’s character designs from Final Fantasy 8 onward took this basic functional need for interesting costume to the next step and created an explicit connection with fashion. Character clothing has a plausible, if somewhat outlandish, construction that worked in the context of the fashions that appeared in the world. Whereas many popular franchises involved soldiers of one sort or another wearing armours and fatigues, Nomura’s vision for Final Fantasy presented a group who seemed to be adventuring in something resembling personal fashion. These fashions were of course interacting with the real world fashions of Tokyo’s fashionable districts — and in the process speaking to the mixed gender teen audience of the games. This FF/Fashion connection became explicit recently in the Prada campaign that used the heroes from FF13 to showcase various looks: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/116637-Final-Fantasy-Teams-Up-With-Fashion-Line
Clothes have, of course, become a key part of the DLC marketplace, with customisable looks becoming standard fare in the action adventure and RPG genres.
The key thing to keep in mind is that fashion presents a fantasy identity, and helps us to interpret the body and identity of the hero. Fashions anchor the ideas a developer has about a character. Let’s talk about some particular characters.
Take for instance Link from the Zelda franchise. His hat and tunic are now iconic, which means that they are inseparable from the Zelda universe. Their softness evokes the idea of pyjamas, dreaming and fairy tale worlds. Even at its most lucid and gritty, Zelda is always a fairytale first and foremost, where bad guys are fantastical creatures or phantoms, hidden in deep dungeons and caves.
Lara Croft’s image is contradictory. On the one hand it is strongly bound to the idea of feminine individualism and self reliance, showing Lara wearing pragmatic and functional accoutrements like the gun holsters and the rucksacks and the climbing boots. On the other hand, her costume is figure hugging, heavily emphasising her breasts and bottom — in other worlds, she is sexualised for male consumption. She is both a vision of no nonsense female athleticism and a male fantasy of an modern Amazonian.
Some characters, particularly non-player characters, work in a different way. They’re more like metonyms, individually symbolic of a larger idea of style. Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite works in this way. Because the point of view deprives the player of a perspective on their own appearance, this supporting character takes on the aesthetic responsibilities of the lead. Her look strongly conveys the period motifs that underpin the steam punk fantasy of the world. Steam punk is a combination of old and new — possible and impossible. Her floor length dress, petticoats and shoes convey her modesty and innocence. In contrast, her bolero jacket, similar to that worn by a Spanish matador, brings a contemporary edge that suggests a more contemporary look echoed by her smoky eye make-up and pageboy hair. The neck halter and corset add a third element to the look that reflect her narrative. These constraining, tight items reflect her role as a “trapped bird”, with the enclosing corset inherited from her domineering mother. The shift from her early carefree look to the more structured later look reflect the twists and turns of the story, and our developing understanding of Elizabeth as a character. Taken together, her fashion echoes contemporary interests in burlesque, vintage and retro that resonate with the steam punk setting.
Solid Snake’s appearance reflects his origins as a kind of action hero inspired by movies like Escape from New York. His military gear, which remains essentially the same from game to game, renders him as a sort of action figure — timeless and toy like, to be played with by the powers that be. Like a piece played by the gods in a endlessly repeating tragedy, the figure of Snake is resurrected, similar yet different, over and over in various guises. The doll like Raiden of MGS2 and more recently Revengeance similarly points to this existential attitude to the protagonists of the Metal Gear games. I think that it is very important to the narratives Kojima conceives. The key concept in fashion of the Metal Gear games is Serialisation — the idea of something being created numerous times, perhaps with subtle differences in each version. Like the sequence of looks that make up a fashion show, the evolving image of a similar but different Snake attunes the audience to appreciate the subtle differences that become so crucial to Kojima’s universe. If he radically changed the look of Snake from game to game, he would lose the visual anchor and serialised aesthetic and the games would feel very different.
Ezio from AC2 works slightly differently. He wears the period fashions of renaissance Italy, and at the same time wears the trappings of the brotherhood — the cloak and hood. We can think of these as traits that are either permanent or impermanent. The clothing of the brotherhood is an essential permanent trait of the Assassin’s Creed series — they have to be present from game to game to give it that essential serialised aesthetic. On the other hand, the game jumps across various periods of history, and period fashions are crucial to the setting of the games. As such, the design and silhouette of the lead characters in the series has to reconcile these two different aspects, bringing together the permanent and impermanent. The hood and cloak “permanent trait” become increasingly tenuously placed in the world, and sit somewhat uncomfortably alongside the period fashions. This incongruity leads us to think of the protagonists as increasingly separate from the societies they occupy — time travellers, or perhaps spacemen in the alien worlds of ancient history. I think AC is an example of where fashion elements in a character design are pushed to perform a function that doesn’t necessarily work with the narrative ambitions of the game.
Bayonetta is an incredibly interesting character design. On the surface, the titular Witch is presented as a hyper-exaggerated male fantasy. In a skin tight catsuit, with high heels and a forthright bosom. Her glasses embellish this fantasy with the trope of the sexy secretary or schoolteacher, ready to follow orders or administer discipline. If we examine these tropes more closely we can see that this fantasy is pushed to breaking point and beyond into ironic representation. Her dialogue is hyperconscious of her own image, anticipating and second guessing the framing of her actions with increasingly absurd sexuality reminiscent of Barbarella. Her hair, which transforms into monstrous forms to defeat enemies, recalls two different mythic concepts. First, the Yūrei — the female ghost of Japanese folklore whose long black hair becomes the instrument of revenge and terror. Second the concept of the monstrous feminine, a nightmarish concept of womanhood epitomised by the concept of the vagina dentata — the toothed vagina which castrates and destroys men. Bayonetta’s design evokes these two images in a deliberate projection of a vengeful anti-heroine. Much like the Bride of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (and the films its references starring Meiko Kaji — Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion.)
Kamiya’s Bayonetta is a woman whose fashion is a lethal extension of her agency. Like the Bride, who seemingly knows she is located in a film and a genre and performs according to its conventions, Bayonetta knowingly acknowledges both her image and her function within the game, complicating any notion of sexualisation with a deliberate irony that comments on the absurdity of male desire. Her humiliation of her enemies and knowing acknowledgement of the realm of the player build on the work of Kojima in the Metal Gear series; her fashion is like that of the image of Snake — asking, what are we really looking at, and what are we looking for?
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