Saturday, 17 January 2015

Costume Design: Visual Metaphors In Video Games

Another Forces Of Geek post, originally uploaded some time last month. I won't be uploading my Christmas posts because it's no longer particularly festive and it doesn't feel right, if you're interested in those or my 'Best Of 2014' list, check them out on Forces Of Geek.

I have written about costume design in games before but of late, I have been increasingly aware that it's not just about how aesthetically pleasing a costume looks, how Link wears tights so well or how fitting Ezio's clothing is to the time, place and setting of Assassin's Creed 2. Within the virtual threads, buttons and embellishments of their clothing lie subtle hints and clues about their personalities and these levels of complexity can go further by explaining the characters who wear them in surprising detail.

Take the BioShock games for example, the Little Sisters and later, Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite are represented as vulnerable characters who have been used as a means to an end. That's if you look at the story alone. Look closer and you can see that what they wear is a visual metaphor of this; the Little Sisters clothing says to me "innocence defiled"and Elizabeth's costume highlights her naivety and innocence of the world.

Elizabeth's costumes begin quite childlike and conservative, no skin is bare and she gives off an air of naivety and innocence, as the game progresses her clothing adapts, the shapes formed by them are more womanly. This is not unintentional, the games designers wanted to express the notion of a caged bird (Elizabeth) who has been kept safe away from danger is suddenly let loose into a harsh, unforgiving world.

Discovering that world, Elizabeth's illusions are shattered and she discovers she was not being kept safe and that she has been wronged. This new outside world has also let her down as it is unlike her perspective of it from inside her cage. All this is conveyed in the brooch she wears on her choker (the player decides whether she wears a bird cage or a bird). The caged bird metaphor is a common one and so we notice this and take from it the meaning bestowed within it and translate it into our experience of the game.

One example of an ultimate visual metaphor!
The costume design in the Mass Effect games is an amalgam of military uniforms translated into a sci-fi setting because that's what is required of the genre. However, the options available offer us a visual representation of the character that wears it. Some of the costumes, like the apparently dress FemShep can wear in Mass Effect 2 conveys a sense of femininity in a normally masculine environment, in a testosterone-filled world of war, dresses are not usually seen or worn by female soldiers because they are impractical in a war scenario.

FemShep is a strong character, she is a leader and is as the game has us believe, one of the best military minds of her kind who is relied upon and revered by many. Put her in a dress during her downtime and it conveys to the player an additional layer - it gives the player a chance to remember that the character is not just a military tactician or soldier, she also is a human being who needs to relax and do normal things like socialise with her friends and maybe go drinking. There's a lot of controversy surrounding the type of dress FemShep wears in the games but that's a whole other debate for another time!

Oh, I get it.
Controversy aside, the point I'd like to draw on is that we see her as a strong woman already but in a dress she becomes a strong feminine woman, something we rarely see in the sci-fi genre at all. Perhaps it's only me that reads into her appearance this much? Maybe I'm shallow and judgemental, or I project into her what I see?

Regardless of this, the visual appearance of a character is an important factor in telling a story and in giving a character a sense of realism or authenticity. If there was a game, say, where scantily clad women fought one another with all the dexterity of a gymnast while wielding heavy weapons and defying the laws of physics then at some point we might think to ourselves "No way would that cloth give her enough support" or "where does she keep her weapons?!" but of course, the Soul Calibur games aren't concerned with their story or making their characters believable - they are about flashy moves, quippy one liners and fighting.

I have no words...impractical doesn't cover it
What the clothing or lack thereof in the game does say however, is that the game isn't a serious, gritty title with a gruff anti-hero at it's helm. It's fun, button mashing escapism and is in no way based in reality.

Gritty characters such as Max Payne with his token bad ties and Hawaiian shirts can also tell you something about themselves simply by clothing alone. In fact, his character traits are now so synonymous with his look that in Grand Theft Auto V, the character Michael has clothing options available to him that directly mimic Max's because let's face it, they are the same character and Rockstar know this. They included this Easter Egg because they enjoy directly homaging their games, especially in the GTA franchise which is rife with popular culture references and contemporary satire.

Source: The Relentless God
Sure, Max is a depressed, alcoholic ex-cop who lost his wife and kid and Michael, despite having his big house, his trophy wife and two kids, is a depressed, ex-criminal who misses the lifestyle and as such requires a shrink.

Both characters exhibit depression and an item of clothing that symbolises this is a garishly bright, Hawaiian shirt because for most people, unless you're on holiday, this is not something you wear unless you really couldn't care less about life. It's holiday attire and as such it represents a relaxed attitude towards life, as if by wearing it a person has given up or longs for the times when life was easy and like being on a holiday.

This is certainly the case for Max, his life is dark and his situation hopeless so his choice of gaudy attire is perhaps a way of clinging to his past, full of colour and life and *cough, cough* his wife and daughter *cough, is it obvious yet? cough*. By choosing to put a character who lost their sense of identity and direction in a Hawaiian shirt or in a bad suit with a tacky tie, the games designers are creating a visual metaphor, one which highlights a deep depression.

This is depressing but his clothing sure doesn't help....
This can really deepen our understanding with a character to whom so few can identify with, of course the endless, self-pitying monologues also aid the player in understanding Max Payne but if those were absent and he was a silent protagonist, I think based on his look, most if us would see that he is a psychologically troubled man and that's an impressive thing to be able to convey through visuals alone.

Even the most basic costume design can convey more than any description or story can. Let's take Sonic the Hedgehog for example. Yep...a naked, blue hedgehog who has a costume constituting of a single pair of trainers (or sneakers). Forget his name, forget any of the comics you read as a child or the plot of the games...I know, I know, it's hard right? But stick with me. Now just look at an image of him, what does his costume actually tell you?

For a start, he (or I guess she?) is a hedgehog - or at least a particular artists interpretation of one, which explains why he is naked, he looks like a cartoon and so isn't bound by the constrictions of society and therefore isn't bound by social convention like clothing. He wears running shoes. Hedgehogs aren't particularly fast animals, they often get squashed by cars here in the UK so maybe that's why he has shoes? Shoes will undoubtedly help him move faster. Often running shoes are worn by athletes so he might be good at running? He's also blue so he's not a hugely realistic hedgehog and he is definitely anthropomorphic. I could continue...but I won't for fear of writing another 1000 words on his blueness alone.

It's important to realise that all of these things are explored through the discussion of one item of clothing (or footwear if we're being pedantic) or costume. All of this, conveyed with a costume design made up of a single item.

In any form of art or design, everything means something or it was designed a particular way for a reason. These could be for purely aesthetic reasons or simply to fit with an existing style. Gaming, through virtue of being a visual medium means these reasons and metaphors are a part of a universal and in some cases, unspoken gaming language and without them our favourite or most memorable characters wouldn't exist and I for one don't think we're willing to live in a world without Link wearing tights, right? ...RIGHT?!

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