Style Savvy's Most Glaring Issue

I played and finished Style Savvy earlier this year, and I kind of loved it. If you’re unfamiliar, it is Nintendo’s aggressively-marketed fashion game for the DS where you play as a stylist and boutique manager. You buy clothes to stock your shop, and help customers find pieces that fit their style and preferences. For example, a customer will say something like, “I’m looking for a skirt that matches my quirky style!” Based on key words (like “quirky”), what the customer is wearing, and sometimes the person’s personality blurb, you can figure out what brand they like, and then it’s just a matter of picking the item they asked for from that brand. Although there are occasionally variations (for example, if a person is wearing all blue, they might buy something that isn’t their favorite brand, if it’s blue), that’s how it works.

Despite how the game (perhaps necessarily) simplifies fashion and style, I quite enjoyed it. There’s a focus on using clothes as a creative outlet and a mode of self-expression, an attitude similar to that of many folks in the style blogosphere. But the game has a glaring problem that cannot be overlooked: your character, and every single one of your customers, all look like this:

A screenshot from Style Savvy. On the right are five different necklaces to choose from, on the left is a female avatar shown from mid-thigh up. She has a tiny waist and narrow hips.

While there are a few NPCs that have unique character models (though they are all thin, also), every other character has the exact same size-zero body. Since this game is on the DS, it’s possible that there are technical reasons for this, but that’s not an excuse I accept. And it certainly explains why I don’t need to worry about buying clothes in different sizes. But thinking about it, it becomes kind of disturbing. It’s not just that everyone is thin, it’s that everyone is exactly the same.

But also, fashion is notoriously sizeist and fatphobic. It’s no coincidence that Pepsi’s “slim, attractive” new can debuted at Fashion Week. (Really, the entire “bodies” tag at SocImages is ample evidence.) And yet, while the target audience of the game may be fans and followers of high fashion, the game seems to evoke the sensibilities of the democratized online world of street-fashion blogging, with its emphasis on self-expression and experimentation. But the vast variety of bodies that make up this world are nowhere to be seen in Style Savvy. Where are the women like Stéphanie (whose blog subheading is “Style is not a size but an attitude”), or the Fa(t)shion February crew?

(This is not to say that the fashion blogosphere is a happy shiny fully-inclusive space–far from it. The young and thin bloggers are the most likely to get well-paying advertisers and free designer clothing. But due to the nature of the internet, it is still far less exclusionary than the fashion industry and traditional press. It’s possible to carve out fat-positive and inclusive spaces, like the Fa(t)shion February project.)

Sometimes games present worlds that conflict with our own experiences, breaking our suspension of disbelief, and in that conflict we can tell something about the biases and assumptions that went into creating that world. The world of fashion in Style Savvy is comprised entirely of very thin people, which is simultaneously a discouragingly accurate depiction of high fashion and a completely unrealistic depiction of the broader realm of street fashion. In Style Savvy, clothes and makeup and hairstyles are all that separates one person from another, but in the real world, a person’s body can be, and often is, an intrinsic part of their style. It’s certainly always a consideration–fashion is part sculpture, where different fabrics and cuts can change a person’s proportions: clothing and body work together to create art. The game mouths the ideals of fashion as self-expression, but it falls flat when the actual physical self is taken entirely out of the equation. People are different, and those differences should be celebrated, not erased.

What Makes a Game Epic?

Contains minor spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

A great many games, particularly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, seek to be epic in scope, or evoke a feeling of epicness. It’s an elusive quality because simply making a game very long or very large isn’t usually sufficient, and what makes a game epic may vary from person to person. One thing that I associate with epicness is not only the passage of time, but physical and emotional journeys, as well as change. Change is the key thing there: spending fifty hours in a static world doesn’t feel epic to me, which is why most of the Final Fantasy games that I’ve played don’t quite work for me on that level.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the first game I played that truly felt epic. And the epic moment wasn’t sealing away Ganondorf, or the heartwarming and fairly silly montage of happy Gorons and Kokiri at the end. That first real moment of awe came when I stuck the Master Sword back in its pedestal and left the Temple of Time as a ten-year-old child once more. What was so epic about that moment was the reminder of how much had changed over the course of the game. Ocarina of Time is one of very few games that has the guts to create a beautiful world, introduce the player to it, and then completely destroy it for the bulk of the game–and unlike Okami or Ocarina‘s successor, Twilight Princess, things don’t get magically all better once you finish a dungeon or defeat a monster. But going back in time in Ocarina is bittersweet: it’s wonderful to see Hyrule whole and happy once more, but upsetting to know what will become of the beautiful land and its people, with small hope of preventing it. Ocarina gracefully sets up the stakes of this epic quest, something few games accomplish.

But change doesn’t have to affect the entire world to be meaningful–it doesn’t even need to be physical. The change can also be mental or emotional, a sense that the character you inhabit has evolved or grown. No game I have played accomplishes that as well as Dragon Age: Origins. In the world of Dragon Age, Mages are dangerous and feared, and so have to go through rigorous training, which is capped off by a trial where the Mage has to prove she or he is able to resist the control of demons, or die. My first character was a Mage, and the beginning of the game involved overcoming her trial (called a Harrowing). At the time she was sheltered and naive, a wide-eyed idealist, talented but knew only a few spells. Over the course of fifty hours of play time, she changed, not only becoming more powerful as in most RPGs, but growing in character and personality: she made friends, broke a curse, slayed a dragon, fell in love, executed a war hero, been to hell and back. She saw the world in its beauty and brutality, grew up, became more cynical. So toward the end of the game, when someone mentioned her Harrowing, I had a real sense of scope for a moment, of how long ago and, more importantly, different things were at the beginning of the game. Everything had changed.

For me, in order to invoke that sought-after “epic” feeling, a game has to work to show me its scope; for me it is not so much badass moments of slow-motion Ogre slaying, but in quiet moments where the game shows me something or a character says something that makes me think, “Wow, that was so long ago and so far away, and so much has changed since then.” I think a game has to go beyond simply being long, and put players on a real journey. What about you? Do you enjoy “epic” games? What games live up to this label for you, and why?

Crossposted at The Border House.

Setting and the Physical Language of Puzzles

I’d like to clarify my use of the word “should” in the last post. Game areas should form a cohesive game world iff this is a goal of the game design. Functioning worlds (by which I mean worlds that appear to have feasible ecosystems, economies, etc. within the fiction) are not important or necessary for all games, certainly; it’s not a good idea to try to limit possibilities here. For a game that seeks to immerse the player in its world and/or story, which very many games try to do, the world should make some sense, or it will detract from the immersion.

To go back to my Metroid Prime 3 example: would MP3 be a better game if this imposed interface were more blended into the world, if it made more sense for those spherical crevices to be there in the first place?

I’m not convinced it’s even possible. One gameplay component of Metroid Prime is the puzzles, and to have a good puzzle, you need to set up the physical language that the player interacts with and can “read” to solve the puzzle. The different devices in Metroid Prime, for example: the player sees a small glowing circle and learns, from the tutorial and from doing it over and over, that when they see one of those circles, they’re supposed to turn into a ball and drop an explosive in the hole. In this sense, puzzles in Metroid Prime are simply a matter of reading the symbols.

(Similarly, The Legend of Zelda develops its own language with the player: the player learns that a certain target will stick to the hookshot; how far Link can jump or if he has to use the hover boots; what rocks can be blown up with bombs; and so on.)

The point is, if the various technologies on each planet were more unique and made more sense, it would obscure the puzzle language that is very clear the way it is now. If that were to change, at minimum it would be the same problem with a thin layer of paint over it, causing some frustration for the player while not enhancing immersion at all. At the extreme it would cause gameplay that requires the player to relearn the same simple activities at every planet, and not allow the player to reuse knowledge from the last world, limiting the player’s sense of advancement. So in this case, making a more “immersive” universe in this sense would be detrimental to Metroid Prime 3‘s gameplay.

I get the feeling the environments in Metroid Prime were designed more for cool factor than immersion, which is totally fine by me.

Settings in Games Overview

In online discussions I keep bringing up how I want to see more variety in game settings, and I will be going into the topic more in-depth in the future, but I wanted to talk about it a little because of this recent post at MTV Multiplayer: Game Diary — May 7, 2008 (a comparison of The World Ends With You and GTA IV and how they evoke a sense of place).

First off, I can’t wait to get my hands on The World Ends With You. Everything I’ve heard sounds fantastic.

But anyway, place. Too often, games reuse the same old–or at least very similar–settings over and over. They tend to fall into three categories:

1. The War-Torn Future. These games tell us that our descendants will have nothing to look forward to but martial law due to alien invasions and/or interstellar war. Think mostly-deserted planets with ruined buildings and/or military outposts. Recent games of this setting can be easily identified by the gray-brown pallette and “grit”. Setting of many a first-person shooter.
Examples: Halo, Resistance, Gears of War, Doom, Frontlines, Mass Effect.

2. The War-Torn Past. World War II, usually.
Examples: Call of Duty 3. Lots more.

3. Ye Olde Fantasyland*, or Fake Medieval England. Forests and quaint villages, along with castles and horses and knights and princesses.
Examples: Fable, Lord of the Rings, The Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy I.

Many major franchises fall into one of these three categories (funnily enough, games actually set in the present or near past are not that common). Some notable exceptions are the later games of the Final Fantasy series (I haven’t played the middle ones and the first one is definitely #3 above), X and XII in particular. Both had unique environments that were part of a cohesive world, which operated on its own as well as being essential to the plot. This brings me to my next point:

Unique visual environments are important, but game worlds shouldn’t be a patchwork of levels sewn together by necessity of gameplay. The areas should form an operating world, and moreover, this operation should have some bearing on not only the plot but the characters and the way they interact with and look at the world–their world. This is essential to create a game world that feels cohesive and immersive.

To give an example of an exception that falls just a bit short, the various worlds in the Metroid Prime games are beautiful and unique (especially in Corruption), but in every area it’s the same switches and round slots that Samus interacts with while exploring. Why should beings that look like insects have machinery operated by detonating a bomb in a spherical recess? And why should this same technology exist on all the planets? That just doesn’t make sense.

It’s not something that bothers me while I’m playing, but in the end it does undermine the worlds that have been created. The visual style, atmosphere, and architecture of the places all go a long way to telling something about the inhabitants of the planet, and yet it’s as if someone imposed an interface onto the entire universe so that Samus can interact with it. Which is exactly what really happened, because it’s a game. The immersion is wounded. (But would Corruption be a truly better game with better immersion? Hard to say; this is something I’ll address in the future.)

That’s all for now; I’ll be revisiting this topic several more times in the future.

*I know I’ve heard this phrase before in reference to fantasy novels, but upon googling it I must attribute it to Shawn Elliot at 1UP (fantastic article, by the way–read it!).