Video game fashion goes through trends just like fashion in the real world. In 2017, games let us pretend we were at a fashion week, express our true selves, and do somersaults in six inch heels and a miniskirt.
Of all the games of 2017, Splatoon 2 might be the best demonstration of how good it feels to like how you look. The clothing you can buy all comes with special perks—some will make it easier to walk through enemy ink, others give you a boost to your special, and so on. Despite the tangible gameplay differences, I almost always make outfits based around what looks good. Sure, I try to put on an article of clothing with Ninja Squid, which allows me to swim in ink invisibly, but I won’t force it if it messes up my look. You hear that? I’m never going to wear that bike helmet.
In Splatoon 2's main lobby, Inkopolis Square, you’ll see your fellow Inklings all decked out in their most recent outfits, and I just cringe at the thought of being seen in someone else’s game looking anything less than on point. When I see a particularly well-dressed squid I usually take a snap of them to remember later, and I suspect other people do so as well. At the very least, Splatoon 2 gives you a mechanic to order clothing directly from the Inklings in the square, which I almost only use when someone is wearing something cool that I really want. In this game, literally every single week is Fashion Week, and everyone is an impossibly cool, fashionable kid standing around to get their picture taken. Even if you don’t dress up often in real life, it still feels good to know your fancy little Inkling is in someone else’s game, strutting their stuff.
Maybe I was always looking in the wrong places, but menswear in games this year felt not just exciting, but like men were afforded the same opportunity to express themselves through fashion as women in games are. Too often men fall into a kind of scruffy uniform in games, one of a long coat or leather jacket—or sometimes no shirt at all to show of their pecs—and brown workmanlike pants. This year there was not just more color, but many more ways of being a man expressed through fashion.
Take Link in The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. While, like Splatoon 2, his clothing choices have in-game benefits, they are also outfits that define Link’s character as you play him. Link in his rock climbing outfits is sporty and tough; in his ninja outfit he is lithe and sneaky; and in his Gerudo outfit he is fey and delicate. Because these outfits are so specific, Link himself seems to change shape as he changes outfits. What’s remarkable to me about this is how well-curated these looks are. Even the climbing outfit, where Link is decked out in shorts with a bandana and a carabiner, he fits into the world of the game seamlessly. While the outfits feel situationally specific, they don’t ever feel out of place or joke-y. It might be a little funny to see Link with his hair held back in a bandana, but you recognize the patterns on it, his shirt and his shorts as coming from places in the game, and the color scheme is the same earthy browns and sky blues as his surroundings.
The only thing that really defines Link as a character in the Zelda series is his mutability. He’s a representation of the link between the player and the game, designed to be projected upon. Giving him new clothes only enhances that connection. Breath of the Wild has a bare bones plot, but really it’s an invitation to players to get lost in its massive world and find their own adventures. In each game you are creating a new version of Link, who each has their own story of fighting bokoblins and solving shrines. While the clothing doesn’t stray too far from the folksy, arts and crafts look of the game, it also presents distinct personalities for Link to inhabit per the situation. Players can even dye this clothing, bringing it even closer to their ideal version of Link. He’ll never look out of place in the world, as these costumes are all drawn from in-game locations and cultures. But as you make the world of Breath of the Wild your own, his look will hew more closely to how you play the game.
Persona 5 also has characters change outfits, but not by player choice. Each character has a different outfit corresponding to the situation they’re in. They have school uniforms for summer and winter, casual clothes, and the clothing they change into when they become the Phantom Thieves of Heart, a group of daring supernatural thieves. The Persona series is particularly occupied with the idea of the true self, a version of oneself that holds their unspoken desires and resentments that one must confront in order to grow stronger. In this fifth game, the characters change into these costumes immediately after unmasking that true self. This is literal—they tear a mask from their face and become a different version of themselves. In the other games, characters would stay in their school uniforms to do their adventuring, but here they get an additional visual marker that they’ve grown as people via their clothes.
These outfits are all incredibly fun, but I especially love the protagonist’s Phantom Thief costume. In the real world, he looks a bit meek. He wears large glasses and has scruffy hair, and while he’s put together he doesn’t really stand out. As a Phantom Thief, he’s dressed to the nines. He wears a long black coat with the collar up, a black vest decorated with gold chains, black slacks, black winklepicker shoes with an exaggerated pointed toe, and red gloves. In the real world he’d be a terrible thief. How would you not recognize that on sight? But as a thief of the subconscious he’s expressing himself truly for what’s implied to be the first time in his adolescent life. He’s not meek—he’s dangerous and flashy and a little bit playful. With those red gloves, it feels like he’s almost daring you to catch him as he sneaks around. Clothes in this game represent not only growth, but the ultimate and most essential expression of self.
Women’s clothing in games is usually a bit all over the place. At a time when people are thinking more critically about female characters in games and their motivations, what they wear and how they wear it matters. It’s a conversation about practicality versus fun. Obviously in games like Uncharted: Lost Legacy, it doesn’t really make sense for characters to show up in ballgowns and glitter. But I don’t want to see every character dressed like Chloe and Nadine in sweat soaked t-shirts with their hair tied back in ponytails. The outfits I liked most for women this year were in their own ways of splitting the difference between what is most expressive for the story and character, as well as what makes sense for their game worlds. They were outfits that felt real but didn’t lose what makes women’s clothing so fun.
Womenswear in games has always had a touch of fantasy, but in 2017 the best of these were detailed and thoughtful. Nier: Automata’s 2B isn’t just a sexy android, she’s a confident, mature, TLC-in-silk-pajamas kind of sexy android. Her outfit is covered in small, specific details that make it feel luxurious and touchable, as well as intimidating. There’s a long slit up her thigh, but her legs are covered in thigh-high boots that wouldn’t look out of place on Rihanna. There’s a cutout on her chest, but it’s overlaid with delicate lace and mesh. Sometimes it looks like her dress is made out of a soft, touchable velvet, but underneath is a harsh, dominatrix-esque latex leotard. The push and pull of accessibility and impenetrability is what makes this outfit intriguing, and its also at the core of 2B’s character. Being sexy can feel good or powerful, but it can also make you vulnerable. What’s nice is that despite being a sexy video game outfit, what 2B wears isn’t the kind of thing that would only work on a video game body. She might be dressed like a pop star, but this is still an outfit made of real world pieces that make sense with each other.
Watching 2B somersault in a miniskirt can sometimes feel ridiculous, but the world of Nier: Automata is just as over the top as her outfit. As she and 9S traverse the wasteland of former human cities, talking philosophy with robots and fighting boss battles modeled after Simone de Beauvoir, their all-black outfits sometimes seem like the least wacky thing on screen. These uniforms represent a stability in the chaotic world they traverse. YOrHA, the android military outfit 2B and 9S are agents of, are meant to be a force for order in an uncertain world. Still, they’re also wearing black formal wear, outfits of mourning for something they don’t yet know they’ve lost.
A more chaste example of this adultness is Pauline from Super Mario Odyssey in her red pantsuit. It’s a great, no-nonsense look that gives off a serious Diane Von Furstenberg vibe. That said, all I really want to talk about is Pauline’s big hat. What a great hat! Even though Pauline really looks like she’s here to do business, she’s not going to sacrifice her big frilly sunhat. Her pantsuit is full of small feminine touches. She has a bright red lip, very cute block heels and a big gold broach. These are cute and definitely feminine, but they’re also markers of adulthood. It’s a small touch, but red lipstick has become a symbol of an adult kind of femininity, the kind that comes with responsibilities beyond things like “not getting kidnapped by a giant ape.” These are the markers of a woman who no longer needs to be rescued and instead wants to get on with being Mayor of New Donk City. Although it’s cartoony, it is a reflection of practicality just as much as wearing your hair in a ponytail.