Supporting the World in Video Game Costume Design

When you’re playing a game with a consistent and tight world design, you don’t even notice it – unless, of course, you’re a designer, in which case, you notice the shit out of it for all the right reasons. Everything from the scenery to the costumes to the music to the sound design should all be unified, equally contributing to a single concept that ultimately fades to the background because it’s just so damn natural. (“Elder Scrolls” games tend to do this well.)

Achieving this consistency requires a lot of thought, communication and good design, so it’s understandable that some perfectly enjoyable games don’t always get it right. And if you throw genre tropes into a world, things can get even more convoluted.

That’s what I think happened in “Tales of Zestiria.” I recently subbed into an episode of “Game Devs Play Games” in which we analyzed the game while playing through it. And, being me, I steered the conversation in the direction of costume design. During the episode, we discussed costume design and how it can support the world of the game, but the conversation was the abridged version of my thoughts on the matter. Here’s my view, expanded:

Defining the world

Before designing a world, whether it’s for games, film or books, you need a clear definition of what you’re trying to achieve. Of course, your original vision may not hold through to the final version, but having a specific place to start can help you stay on target. After that, you’ll collaborate, revise and polish until it’s just right.

If I had to guess what base period “Tales” was using, I’d say European medieval. Its modifier, however, is fantasy JRPG, and that’s where things derail.

From all over

Why do I think “Tales” was trying to be medieval? The technology is the No. 1 indicator. Most characters use weapons typical of that period. Horse-drawn carriages, plate armor, etc., all indicate late middle ages. Plus, with Malevolence covering the world, the game created its own version of the bubonic plague.

Of course, some of the costumes also have a medieval-inspired look. Most NPCs wear loose-fitted trousers and chemises. Women have bodices and skirts. While all in one drab, perfect-for-the-background color palette, the NPCs are basically wearing medieval garb.

tales, of, zestiria, npc, costume, design

Even Alisha is donned in plate armor, coats of arms and a little party coloring (in her shirt) that’s indicative of late medieval and renaissance construction techniques.

A brief interlude: Over time, people figured out how to cut fabric and add seams to help it fit the human form better. Generally speaking (but not always the case), the more seams a piece of clothing has, the newer it is. In the late middle ages, we started adding more seams to pants and tunics. To show off the vogue technique, seamstresses and tailors used several fabrics in one garment. This created what became known as party coloring.

party, coloring, middle, ages, costume, design, history, hosen

(This example of party coloring comes from “Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style” – it’s a great resource for costumers!)

Most of the time, they’d create a checkered pattern using their client’s family (or party) colors. So if your family sigil featured red and black, your hosen or trousers would have black and red checks.

alisha, tales, of, zestiria, costume, design, party, coloring

(Note: The wings and sunglasses are optional add-on pieces.)

Back to “Tales:” Alisha’s outfit fits in the world. The designers used medieval garments as inspiration, then took some clear fantasy and JRPG license to make it unique. Even Sorey isn’t that off base. However, many of the seraphim seem dramatically out of place.

Take Mikleo, for instance: His pants are decidedly modern. Trousers or slacks like those didn’t appear until the Victorian era.

Tales, of, zestiria, mikleo, costume, design, seraphim

The out-of-period costume elements stem from an understandable place: genre tropes. JRPGs tend to have wild, anime-like costumes, and the “Tales” series is no exception. However, a game’s costume design can be both world-appropriate and trope-sensitive.

How to fix it

In the video, we discuss the possibility that the seraphim aren’t wearing medieval outfits because they’re a totally different race of beings. And while that’s a valid argument, I still think it’s not strong enough.

Each important seraphim seems to be wearing an outfit from another time period. Edna, for instance, is modern day while Dezel is more steampunk. To help them stand out from the humans, but still fit, I would have picked a different region of the world in the same time period. If the humans in “Tales” are medieval Europe, then the seraphim could be medieval Japan or the Middle East. That way, the world would have consistent technology in terms of weapons and garment construction.

I would change the time period the seraphim’s design draw inspiration from, otherwise the technology would not be consistent with the rest of the world.

Why it matters

Despite my arguments, I can construe a scenario in which the game’s character or costume design doesn’t pull me out of the world: The seraphim are meant to be tied to the modern world in some way. I haven’t beaten the game yet, so I’m not sure what the big “Tales” twist is. If the costumes are to make any sense, period would have to play into it.

And that hints at why I care so much about the costumes in this game. When the design feels inconsistent with the world, I’m distracted. Fiction bears the burden of being hyper real. To make a story we know isn’t true convincing, it has to avoid plot holes and take place in a consistent world. The moment that façade is shattered, players may have a harder time staying engrossed in the game. At least, that’s my experience as a nit-picky, detail-oriented player.

Design outside of games

This design conversation can be applied to theater, film and books as well. All are fictitious worlds that have to be convincing, and consistent design is part of that portrayal.


One thought on “Supporting the World in Video Game Costume Design

  1. It’s probably important to note that the sunglasses and wings on the characters are costume props that are an optional feature of the game. One of those, collectible silly things the game designers used to reward players.

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