What do you look for in a great video game?
Fast-paced action? A strong storyline? Perhaps even an atmospheric soundtrack?
It’s probably safe to say that decent fashion sense is unlikely to be top of your list. But when developers get it wrong players notice.
“It kind of creates a really jarring experience,” said Victoria Tran, a community developer at Kitfox games, the Canadian indie studio behind titles including Boyfriend Dungeon and Lucifer Within Us.
“It’s a piece of world building that’s really overlooked,” she told the BBC
Earlier this year, Ms Tran gave a talk called, Why Fashion in (Most) Games Sucks, at San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference. She acknowledged that, at first glance, it might seem like a superficial concern. But she argued that getting it wrong could undermine a game’s mood and feed into sexist stereotypes.
Getting it right, she said, could make a story feel richer and become a form of self-expression, especially when there are options to customise a protagonist’s outfits. And for studio chiefs weighing up the costs involved, just consider how much titles like Overwatch and Fortnite have made from selling the “skins” that change their characters’ looks.
In Ms Tran’s opinion, one of the worst offenders is Resident Evil 3.
Jill Valentine is a cop in the 1999 survival-horror game. She wears a blue tube top, black skirt, white jacket tied around her waist and a pair of brown boots. Ms Tran let out a sigh when she looked at a picture – as zombie-killing outfits go it seems more than a bit impractical, and is a far cry from some of the combat-ready suits the character wears in the title’s sequels.
“One of the things outfits can really do is create an interesting silhouette so that you know they’re a main character. There’s nothing exciting about [Jill’s] outfit other than…” she paused briefly.
“Actually, there’s nothing exciting about it at all.”
Complaints aren’t restricted to the clothing given to female virtual cast members. At the recent E3 games expo, one of the big “unveils” was a first look at the video game Marvel’s Avengers.
But when the trailer debuted, many fans were critical about how the superheroes looked. It wasn’t just that their faces barely resembled the actors in the movie-based adaptations. There was also something off about their iconic clothing.
Captain America’s costume looked “overly bulky”, wrote news site IGN’s Joshua Yehl, and Thor appeared to have a “sound system mounted on his chest”. In response to the criticism, the game’s developer Crystal Dynamics said: “We are always listening to, and welcome feedback from our community [but] there are currently no plans to change our character designs.”
No nail polish
Of course, fashion goes beyond the clothes a character wears.
“I just want a ponytail with a fringe so that I can create a character that kind of looks like me,” Ellen Rose from YouTube’s OutsideXtra told the BBC. “It’s often so difficult, like you have five pre-set hairstyles for women and it’s usually so vast in real life. And it’s the same with guys’ hair as well.”
It’s not the first time such an observation has been made. In 2016, user Quinn_flower posted on a Grand Theft Auto (GTA) forum asking: “Why can’t I wear boots with jeans? Why no long hair or nail polish?”
“Seriously the female clothing need to be overhauled ASAP,” it concluded.
Even though the comment was posted more than three years ago, the comment thread is still very active.
Last month, another player – nicknamed Coleco – added: “Limiting player options for colour choices and styles is just boring and means I’m not spending my in-game cash on accessories. I’ve been sitting on millions of unused GTA money I can’t do anything with for actual years because I want to look like something other than GI Jane.”
More options mean more investment, and developers might not always believe the extra effort is worth it. There is a bit of development time required to make those changes,” noted Matt Diener, an analyst at NPD Games.
“Things like GTA Online are perhaps the most difficult – you’re dealing with a large range of equipment and outfits, and additions need to be applied to different character models.”
But the benefits of adding cocktail dresses or platform sandals can pay off.
“We want to feel we are like these characters,” claims Ms Tran. “You want to feel like you’re at your most powerful.”
Rockstar Games – the maker of the GTA series – declined to comment.
Some gamers believe part of the problem is a lack of diversity within the games studios themselves.
“It’s not because they don’t want to [provide options] – it’s just because they might not think of that,” Ms Rose suggested. “[But] as the games industry gets more diverse, you do see way more options opening up.”
The 2019 State of the Gaming Industry survey indicated women now make up 19% of the field – an increase of 2% on the previous year.
The studios that are really innovating and creating the most progressive, accurate depictions of female characters, or really any any group of characters based on cultures, genders, sexual representation, sexual orientations etc are really starting to recognise the value of authenticity,” Mr Diener said.
“They’re getting members of those groups involved in the creative process and they’re able to strive for and achieve authenticity by this.”
Dressed to kill: Video games’ tricky relationship with fashion