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Opinion – The Importance Of Playing Dress Up

by Joseph Knoop on Nov 30, 2015 at 12:45 PM

In just a few days on my journey throughout Fallout 4’s Bostonian wasteland, I befriended an adorable pooch, saved countless common citizens from the whims of violent raiders, and began the restoration of a single fertile corner of the world in hopes it serves as a shining example of humanity’s strength. Unfortunately, I achieved most of these benevolent goals while looking like Lord Humungus, my shoulders decked in bloodied spikes, severed fingers draped from my sheet metal chestpiece. Who could blame the wastelanders for being defensive as I came to their rescue?

Fallout 4 is far from the only game to create a disconnect between appearance, actions, and customizability. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt allows players to embark on lengthy quests in pursuit of armor from their school of choice, but even after fully upgrading them, they can still be made obsolete by arbitrarily higher level enemies. After all that work collecting increasingly rare materials, leveling up to acquire the right to wear it, finding a master armorer, and growing attached to its various permutations, seeing it rendered useless can be utterly heartbreaking. It’s the world’s quickest bout of buyer’s remorse – if the feeling also came with knowing the vendor you bought from just got a better shipment in five seconds after you left.

One of the most important lessons a storyteller learns early on is to keep their world consistent. Character mannerisms don’t drastically change unless they’re given proper time and reasoning to develop, or serve as some sort of mystery element. Even major changes in a character’s surroundings deserve some level of natural transition, not just a wave of the hand. Games seem to have trouble internalizing this lesson when it comes to clothing and armor, however, failing to allow players to maintain a visual look consistent with their internal fiction.

These massively popular franchises can learn from their competition if they wish to achieve the ideal of player input, and developers don’t even have to sacrifice balance to do it. Destiny: The Taken King introduced its infusion system for legendary armor, weaponry, and items, allowing players to dismantle an arbitrarily higher level piece of loot and imbue a vast majority of its power into their preferred legendary weapon. Diablo III and World of Warcraft before it introduced transmogrification, which allows players to assign an item to a cosmetic slot in their inventory, thus making each subsequent piece of armor appear as the designated piece. Each system adheres to a strict set of rules on what items qualify, as well as additional sacrifices like currency, illustrating that these systems can work without giving up the pursuit of rare loot that’s come to define so many games.

To be fair, many games do attempt to implement similar systems, ones that likely made sense in early design drafts. However, a clear distinction needs to be made between systems that embrace true choice and those that attempt to make up for a lack of it. It’s not fair to players when certain segments of in-game clothing can be modified, but prepared outfits can’t. It furthers an unnecessarily large gap between player commitment and appropriate reward to say that four limbs worth of armor can be upgraded, needlessly extending play time, but a more cohesive, singular design is a one-time fling.

A developer’s decision to tell a more directed story – rather than toss a nameless cipher into a conflict between multiple factions – can also be hurt if this problem isn’t given attention. Telling a more structured tale isn’t overtly wrong, but some developers have clearly failed to structure customization to fit within their universe, one that allows for nearly infinite levels of individuality in all other sectors. Weapons can be modified, hair color is as limitless as a rainbow, and some games even allow players to totally remake their character’s physical appearance at a whim.

When clothing or armor options fail to allow for complete immersion in my character, it becomes difficult to even partially engage in his or her personal journey. Too many games direct players to adorn arbitrarily higher level armor (or weaponry) in order to advance, regardless of whether or not it fits with a player’s choices or play style. If game developers want to be serious about creating worlds where any style is possible, they need to recognize and rectify the jarring breaks these common mechanics create.

Adopting a new role you’ve never experienced before can be one of a game’s greatest strengths. It’s why I play as a female hunter in Destiny, it’s why I took on the role of caring mother figure in Fallout 4, and it’s why narrative-driven games like the Witcher 3 feel so righteous in their assessment of our difficult, morally gray decisions. If games want to be serious about opening the door to new worlds and new roles for players to experience, they need to move themselves beyond these arbitrary systems and embrace what it means to be a wholly realized adventurer in a wholly realized world.

Nick Valentine, Fallout 4’s robotic synth detective, is perhaps the best contemporary example of what it means to feel “right” within a new world, and how appearances can impact that. Thrown through time much like the player character, Valentine’s unfortunate tale is one of slowly coming to terms with who he really is. While his plot in life initially seemed to be the same menial survival necessary of so many others, Valentine soon found out that helping others was his true calling, to the point it took him months to actually charge anyone for it. After assisting in enough of these benevolent deeds, he opens up to the player character about the origins of his classically noir detective’s outfit.

“Putting on the hat and trenchcoat, I figured it let folks know I was serious about the whole thing. ‘Clothes make the man,’ and all that. Guess I felt they made me the man I wanted to be."