Art Theory: The Rift Between Fashion and Character Design

What’s the difference between cosplay and fashion?

Why is there a rift between fashion and character design? Why do fictional characters dress differently from people in real life? Why is “cosplay” called “cosplay” rather than “fashion”? It’s not as simple a question as it may seem. The way I see it, there are four different types of answers.

1. The obvious answers. These answers are obvious, but they’re also true. Example: Character design has a different setting from modern-day life. Link lives in the fantasy world of Hyrule, Kratos lives in ancient mythology, and Master Chief lives among aliens in starships. That’s obviously not applicable to urban lifestyle, so they’re not going to dress the same way. So let’s narrow our scope down to games with a relatively modern setting.

2. Game-specific reasons. Sometimes, character design is used for some kind of purpose in the game rather than purely for visual aesthetics. These answers are also fair. Example: In FFVII, overalls are the standard SOLDIER uniform. Zach wears one, Sephiroth wears one, and Cloud wears one. Overalls aren’t a part of modern-day fashion, but overalls aren’t the standard SOLDIER uniform in our modern-day world (and obviously, SOLDIER doesn’t exist for us either). They also play a symbolic role in showing each character’s relationship to the others through SOLDIER.

3. Limitations. Making things in our modern world is a different process from making things digitally. However, I don’t believe these are valid arguments because there’s a reason why we don’t put more effort into overcoming these limitations, which is tied into the next and last type of answer. Example: Yuna’s elaborate dress from Final Fantasy X would cost too much to make, with how much emphasis it puts on the quality of its cloth texture.

4. Branding. Fashion in reality follows certain branding rules, and character design doesn’t need to. It’s a concept called fashion branding, and it’s probably an unfamiliar one so I’ll be explaining it slightly. I studied fashion branding under Joseph Hancock, who wrote the book Brand/Story. It’s a much more in-depth analysis of what fashion branding is (obviously, since it’s a whole book). But I’ll try to summarize it.

Introduction To Fashion Branding

Brand/Story… examines how a retailer, manufacturer, or designer label grabs an individual’s interest. Fashion branding is not just about specific products. For consumers, branding tells the story and creates the identity for a product, a person, and a company. Brand/Story looks at what a fashion brand is about and why companies advertise the way they do. It enables the reader to think critically about branding – both the medium and the message – and not simply take advertisements and brands at face value.”

Take the fashion company “Vans.” What’s Vans’s target audience? Skater boys (1). How does Vans appeal to skater boys? Through advertising. But what’s the best kind of advertising? People. Billboards and TV commercials are all fine and good, but if you’re walking down a street wearing a shirt with a big “Vans” logo on it, you’re advertising for Vans. Strangers will look at you, look at your shirt, and make the connection. “Vans is associated with this kind of person.”

That’s how Vans got its reputation as a company for skater boys: skater boys wear Vans. In order to maintain that reputation, Vans needs to make sure that skater boys keep wearing their products. The flip side to that is, if you’re not a skater boy then Vans isn’t interested in selling products to you because you would ruin their image. Walk into a Vans store looking like a skater boy, and the employees will act friendly and helpful so you’ll buy something and advertise it whenever you wear it. Walk into a Vans store looking like a preppy nerd, and the employees will stare at you until you leave. At least, that’s what they do to me (2).

Brand/Story analyzes how companies establish their target audience and appeal to them using advertisements like billboards and TV commercials. Victoria’s Secret is associated with lascivious sexiness, whereas Anthropologie is more subdued and serene. Macs are advertised as being artistic and hip whereas Windows computers are more formal and business-like. Drexel University is urban and down-to-earth, whereas U. Penn appears lofty and filled with ancient wisdom. All of these images are created through brand stories.

But I think there’s more to it than advertisements. Brand stories are also defined by the actual products a company creates. Vans will never make business suits because they don’t fit into the skater boy image. Likewise, Ralph Lauren will never make skater sneakers because their target audience is formal classy people who probably don’t ride skateboards. Clothes still carry an image even if they don’t have a logo plastered on them. For some people (I would personally argue “all people”), personality is defined through the clothes they wear.

All of this leads to a big important question. If each company designs clothes that suit their target audience, then what about the people who no company ever wants to be associated with? People like geeks or loners or misanthropes or old cronies, the parts of society that no one likes. What company can they go to to buy clothes that express themselves? Who would market towards those types of people, and risk tarnishing their brand image? Who designs clothes that represent the personalities we don’t like?

The answer: character designers.

Brand stories and advertisement schemes and monetary profits all fall under real-world business. When you’re not dealing with the real world, none of that has to apply. Characters can wear whatever they want – or more importantly, characters can wear whatever matches their personalities best. Geek, loner, misanthrope, or old cronie? No problem: there’s nothing to be lost designing clothes for fictional characters in a fictional world. Rather, the more accurately a designer can show a character’s personality visually the better, regardless of how dislikeable that personality is.

That’s the difference between fashion and character design. Fashion follows branding trends, and character design doesn’t need to. But that was pretty theoretical, so let’s move on to my favorite part: examples.

Neku Sakuraba (The World Ends With You)

Character overview: “At fifteen, Neku is an ardent fan of graffiti, but far less enthusiastic about forging relationships with other people. When the Reapers’ Game throws him into contact with other Players, he has two choices: open up… or get picked off.”

In TWEWY, Neku wakes up in downtown Shibuya as a participant of a mysterious Game in which losing means death. The Game absolutely must be played in pairs, a requirement difficult enough for someone like Neku to overcome. But that doesn’t mean grouping up leads to instant victory: the pair will still lose if they have weak bonds  and cannot trust each other. This is practically the worst case scenario for Neku, who feels that other people do nothing but drag him down.

Design analysis: A lot of Neku’s clothing gives him places for him to curl inside and turtle up in. The pockets on his shorts pop out rather than just being sewn on, so he can hide his hands inside: rather, his hands naturally rest inside his pockets when standing casually. His collar has the same theme, extending from his tank top almost like a scarf. All Neku has to do is duck his head slightly and the collar covers his face.

Usually, all of that hiding would imply something like shyness or nervousness. But notice that Neku’s wearing shorts and a tank top: exposed skin emphasizes confidence and strength. Aren’t confidence and shyness opposites? That’s because Neku’s little hiding places aren’t actually meant to imply shyness: they’re meant to imply his preference to keep to himself and block others out. Using that interpretation, Neku’s confidence is meant to make his misanthropic mentality obvious: it’s a loud and clear message that he does not want to be bothered.

The epitome of Neku’s personality is his headphones. In the opening cutscene, he’s shown putting on his headphones to block out the annoying noises around him, and he keeps them on for the rest of the game. It’s not as though he’s a hardcore audiophile: it’s obvious that he likes music, but the headphones are primarily meant to reinforce his “don’t bother me” message. This message is so deeply built into his personality that his hair is practically formed around his headphones.

Real world relevance: The “don’t bother me” attitude is antisocial, and antisocial behaviors don’t exactly mesh with a social world. Modern society thrives on connections and friendships: the more of them you have, the better. Trying to block out other people and keep to yourself goes against everything society is about.

Headphones do exist in our world, but not as a fashion statement (3). Casual music listeners still default to earphones. Look at the iPod advertisements of cool hip people dancing around while listening to their music: they’re all wearing earphones. Earphones are smaller and less noticeable than headphones, so they make a wearer appear more open and approachable. Over-ear headphones like Neku’s imply blocking out all outside noise, while earphones don’t carry that same image (judging by appearances alone rather than actual noise cancellation).

Even so, it’s not just headphones: music itself isn’t all that common. Walk along a street and pay attention to how many other people are listening to music, headphones or earphones. Sound is a vital part of human society: language and speech are pretty much the foundation of any kind of interaction between people (4). The act of listening to music blocks out that sound aspect, regardless of the device. But headphones just imply it more strongly than earphones do. That’s why Neku wears headphones and not earphones, and that’s why headphones aren’t a part of modern fashion.

But when we look at Neku, we have to address the elephant in the room: he’s a Japanese character, designed by Japanese character designers, and Japanese character design is pretty weird. It’s tempting to just write off Neku’s eccentric appearance as a side effect of his cultural origin. That’s a good point, and I will counter it with this next character.

Faith Connors (Mirror’s Edge)

Character overview: Mirror’s Edge is set in a dystopian city where all communications are carefully monitored and manipulated to prevent civilian uprisings (or rather, any kind of free thought at all). Faith lives in this city as one of its Runners, an illegal messenger who carries and delivers information by hand rather than electronically. Runners can bypass the city’s restrictions on electronic communications because they’re not communicating electronically, but at the same time the city’s still trying to crack down on them. To combat that, the Runners developed an advanced mastery of parkour so they could travel through the city quickly and efficiently enough to not only deliver their messages, but also to avoid cops.

Faith and her sister Kate lost their parents in a protest march when the city police responded with live fire. Now, they both carry their parent’s dreams to improve the city, with Kate working from the inside as a police officer and Faith becoming a criminal Runner.

Design analysis: Most of Faith’s visual design revolves around practicality rather than aesthetics, and for good reason. Dressing up all nice and pretty just isn’t an option in the Runner culture.  Her hair’s cropped short, her tank top and pants are boyish, and her shoes have those weird separated toes. Faith was never meant to be a dainty pretty girl, and it reads loud and clear. Isn’t it fascinating how fashion can be used to show how little a character cares about fashion?

But Faith still does have an aspect which is purely aesthetic rather than practical: her tattoos. She has one around her right eye and one on the outside of her right forearm. While her arm tattoo doesn’t carry much significance, her eye tattoo is practically the game’s logo image. Its distinctive shape gives Faith an aura of sharp intensity, complementing her personality and goal.

The depth of her commitment alienates Faith from other Runners who are simply doing their job to survive. A major theme of Mirror’s Edge is the question of survival versus living: do the bare minimum necessary to survive, or struggle against your limits and truly live? Faith notes that the city degenerated into its dystopian state because most people chose an easy life and just accepted the government’s invasive changes.

Real world relevance: Tattoos have been associated with rebellion for a long, long time. A full report dedicated to analyzing that association would be hundreds of pages long, and I’m not qualified enough to try making one. The action of taking a step that can never be reversed is dramatic, impactful, and usually not done unless for the sake of some deep-seated cause. Often, that cause is some form of rebellion.

The concept of rebellion is seen as cool rather than fearsome. But how often do you see a facial tattoo like Faith’s? Facial tattoos toe the line between “cool” and “fearsome,” and Faith’s tattoo leans towards the latter. It broadcasts the fact that Faith will not rest until she has accomplished her goal. However, that kind of drive in the real world would be seen as antisocial and snobbish. Some words to describe Faith would be “intense, serious, unrelenting,” whereas some antonyms would be “easygoing, relaxed, friendly.” Which set sounds more like it would describe a popular person? I’d say the second.

The theme of survival versus living is a very relevant one for modern society. Take the easy road and live a comfortable life, or take the hard road and challenge yourself? Become a drug dealer and rake in tons of cash, or go to college and try to learn enough to make a difference in other people’s lives (4)? This is completely my own subjective uneducated opinion, but I believe people as a general whole are too unmotivated and lazy: survival over living. A person as driven as Faith doesn’t exactly mesh with the flow of society (5). Consequentially, a face tattoo representing a drive as deep as Faith’s doesn’t exactly mesh with the flow of society either.

Both Neku and Faith were jerks. Does this mean that characters designed this way are just total jerks who we would never want to associate with? On one hand, that was one of the main points. But on the other hand, likeability isn’t just a binary scale. A likeable person can have little snippets of personality that are off-putting and frightening, and that can be represented through character design as well. With that, I bring in my third example.

Raz (Psychonauts)

Character overview: Raz was a performer at his family circus production, but underneath that had psychic powers and a desire to train them. However, his father bore a heavy hatred of psychics, and prevented Raz from ever associating with them. After he tears up a brochure for a psychic training camp that Raz was reading, the young psychic decided to run away from home and join the camp, planning on honing his psychic skills to the point of becoming a Psychonaut.

As a person, Raz makes an effort to be friendly to the other cadets of the training camp. In fact, this theme goes even deeper: Raz spends a lot of the game exploring other people’s minds and understanding the way they think. Later, he acts like a Freudian psychologist, untangling people’s problems and helping them understand themselves better. But in the end, no matter how far away he runs from home, he still has to face his personal family problems.

Design analysis: It’s interesting how heavily clothed Raz is. Compared to Faith and Neku, Raz isn’t really showing a whole lot of skin. Even his hair, which is usually a key visual indicator, is covered by a large cap. The previous characters wore tank tops and bared skin to exude a sense of confidence. Why is Raz, the most outgoing and likeable character of the three, so bundled up? You can’t help but feel that he has something to hide.

The focal point of Raz’s design is his goggles. They’re big, imposing, and shiny. Interestingly enough, the goggles aren’t just a visual: Raz puts on the goggles every time he jumps into someone’s brain. People’s brains are strange, twisted worlds of insanity, and that’s how Raz’s goggles are associated: they represent insanity and unrelatability. When he’s done sorting through a person’s mental mess and getting to understand them the way they understand themselves, he takes off the goggles and looks them in the eye.

Real world relevance: Masks and other accessories covering the face are rare because of the fact that they hide the face. Humans express themselves through facial expressions, regardless of culture or gender or age or anything. It’s something that’s been studied in psychology and catalogued in the Facial Action Coding System by Paul Ekman. Putting on a mask hides those facial expressions, creating a sense of mystery and with it, fear. When we can’t understand each other’s expressions, we can’t help but be a bit unnerved.

How often are ski masks sported in modern fashion? Rather, how often are ski masks sported at all? We usually associate them with bank robbers or other criminals who try to hide their faces to avoid arrest. Ski masks are almost more closely related to criminals than to actual skiiers. They’re functional and warm, but I’ve never actually seen someone wearing one on the slopes, and I’ve been skiing/snowboarding for a long time. They’re scary because they cover over the face.

That is what Raz’s goggles do. When he’s wearing the goggles, we can’t see his eyes. We can’t see his eyebrows, or the bridge of his nose, or the way his cheeks interact with the bottoms of his eyelids. All of that is essential information for us humans to connect with each other. It’s cheesy to say that the eyes are the window into the soul, but considering the Facial Action Coding System, a lot of human emotion is told through the eyes. Covering any part of the face is intimidating enough: remember Neku’s turtleneck popping over his mouth and chin, or Faith’s eye tattoo. But with Raz, his goggles obscure the most important part of the face, and that is off-putting.

What Have We Learned From All This?

Well, we’ve learned that I am a raving lunatic. How can all of this be true when there are characters like Madison Page (Heavy Rain), Duck (The Walking Dead), and Alan Wake (Alan Wake) who all look very much like normal people?

But let’s break each character down. Madison Page is a normal lady who suddenly gets swept up in a murder case. Duck is a normal kid who has to live through a zombie outbreak. Alan Wake is a normal writer who has to deal with shadowy, dangerous creatures called Taken. If we look at them, all of these characters are actually normal people.

Neku, Faith, and Raz? They’re not normal people. Neku is a complete misanthrope, Faith is a big-time criminal, and Raz is a psychic. All of these six people are successful character designs. A core tenent of narrative design is “show, don’t tell,” and character design is certainly the former. These designs all visualize the character’s personality. It’s just that in some cases, that personality is normal, so the visualization is also normal. When the personality is abnormal, the visualization should match.

The real core of the issue is the personality of the characters we design. We as character designers have the ability to bring life to people who can’t easily exist in modern society due to their personalities. Consequentially, our players can experience the unique perspective of such an impossible person. And in my opinion, that is the true power of narrative: the ability to bring one person into the mind of another.

Therefore, that’s what we should be doing: bringing life to those kinds of people. When we explore a wider range of characters than the standard fantasy cookie-cutter, we enrich our players that much further. No other medium has as much potential to allow players/viewers/readers to connect with their characters as deeply as video games can, because video games are the only medium in which one can actually control their character. And through that control, players can gain understanding.


(1) This is a pretty big generalization about Vans’s target audience and it’s probably untrue, but just bear with me here for the sake of example.

(2) I don’t mean to diss Vans employees, it’s just an example. They probably do that because of the headphones I wear, which I discuss in the bit about Neku Sakuraba’s design.

(3) Skullcandy’s making a decent effort to bring headphones and music into mainstream fashion. Their practices (sticking their skull logo wherever possible, giving up sound quality for aesthetics, etc) aren’t exactly admirable, but I like the idea. Big problems need small steps, so go Skullcandy! Even if your headphones kind of suck.

(4) Relevant song: “River Runs Deep” by KnowMads:

(5) I could probably write a whole essay about modern society’s collective lack of motivation. But I’m not a philosopher: I’m a game designer. Instead, I’ll leave this line, from Yeat’s poem The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Seriously, why is it such a bad thing to be motivated?

3 responses to “Art Theory: The Rift Between Fashion and Character Design

  1. Skating destroys your shoes and Vans were originally very cheap

    So that’s why Vans and skaters even though now they aren’t cheap lol

    Vans realized that a lot of their repeat business was coming from skaters so they started showing up to events and purposefully creating that image when the truth is that if you spend a few hours a day doing tricks you need new shoes once a month

    So pretty smart move for them

  2. I realize this is an old post, but I ran across it and thought it was a very interesting read. I’m wondering, though, if here isn’t a fifth motivation for crazy character design in video games that doesn’t have anything to do with the characters at all, and everything to do with cosplayers themselves.

    Cosplay has become such as huge past time now, with everything from beginning to professional levels. It’s also becoming a significant marketing tool for the video game developers who both contract cosplayers to rally live events and announcements, and for the hobbyists who love to dress as their favorite characters. Perhaps developers feel the need to go psycho on wardrobe designs (I’m looking at you Square-Enix) simply because people will want to *be* those characters, and the crazier the design, the more recognizable the character is. It doesn’t matter how ridiculously complex it is: someone somewhere will rise to the challenge.

    A successfully recognizable character wardrobe doesn’t even need to be an exact carbon copy to know immediately who it is based on just a few elements. Beaked hood? Assassin’s Creed. Orange jumpsuit? Portal. Gravity-defying hair? Probably some Final Fantasy thing. But even with Alan Wake up there and his half-dozen jacket layers and toting a simple flashlight, it’s not hard to tell who he is. The nice thing is that those relatively simpler designs make it easier for folks who aren’t great with a needle and thread to still participate.

    It’s reached a point where video game character designers and the people who like to dress as those characters keep challenging each other, and the result is crazier and crazier costumes. And the developers that don’t get it get left behind. 2015’s Witcher III, for example, is a gorgeous video game. But the characters’ costumes might as well be from Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings, or some other Generic Medieval Fantasy Themed Thing.

    If I were the one doing the designing, I’d definitely want to be in the camp where when you go to a convention like Nan Desu Kan in Denver, or Anime Expo in California, you walk through the crowd and can definitely say, “How’s it going, Ezio? Nice to see (almost all of) you, Tifa. Could you watch your damn sword, Pyramid Head?” Video games are supposed to put you in the driver’s seat to become those characters. This just takes it to the next level. :)

    • Interesting point, and I feel kind of weird about it. My gut instinct is that designing for cosplay will sometimes be at odds with designing for character: what if a character ends up looking so flashy and eye-catching that their outfit doesn’t represent their personality anymore? Cosplay is external, and designing characters for external reasons (marketing, attractiveness, sexualization) conflicts with designing characters for internal reasons (history, personality, beliefs). Even today, we see a huge backlash of female characters being designed solely so they can participate in Gamergate wars, which means that they end up being cheap and shallow. I mean, look at Quiet from MGSV. Definitely great cosplay material, that’s for sure.

      But on the other hand, personalities can be made to be crazy and flamboyant through their designs. Maybe Ciri could have been cooler if she had tattoos of glowing blue Elder Blood energy along her arms, or Geralt could a streak of off-color hair to represent a failed mutation he once went through. Things that could make people look more interesting by exposing more of their internal characteristics rather than just tacking on cool clothes.

      In general, I would think that rather than saying “I want to design a character who looks good as a cosplay,” it would be better to say “I want to design a character whose personal nuances can come through in a cosplay.” For me, internal reasons should still come before external ones.

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