Dressing for Success
We don't get to pick our own bodies, though some of us struggle mightily to customize the model we end up with. One of the most interesting parts about fictional works, however, is that the creators of fiction — whatever medium they work in — get to build a world. They get to create whole entire races of people. They choose names, loaded with meaning and cultural allusion. They get to decide how characters act and speak. And they get to choose what characters look like. It's an amazing opportunity. I cannot understand why so many game developers squander it by making the same dubious choices over and over.
When gaming started out, it was aimed at a very specific subset of the population, and technological limitations kept the graphics vague and the stories on a very elemental level. Now, just about everyone is pushing pixels in every direction, but games themselves don't reflect that. Out of the wide panoply of the human experience, you get one type of girl, dressed for one aim. And that aim is often not the task at hand.
The issue is three-fold: The clothes don't fit the job, the character's body type doesn't fit the job, and the way the work or the training would change her physique aren't reflected in her design.
Let me be more specific about defining those three points.
My problem with the chainmail bikini or its futuristic ilk is not coverage. I like skin as much as the next person. I have a fine sense for what I euphemistically call "landscape appreciation." But when the character's clothing is useless or dangerously mismatched to the tasks the characters have to accomplish, it's a problem. If she's in a ballroom, it's okay to be dressed to the nines, maybe even with "tracts of land" hanging out. If you're in a foxhole, that just doesn't work.
My problem isn't with women who are proportioned like supermodels, per se. There is a lot of societal baggage and storytelling shorthand that cause a selection pressure towards that type of eye candy in media. I'm not keen on it — that is a different argument — but it would be great if female bodies in games made any sense at all in their story contexts. There are female body types that, when compared against other body types, could put a woman at a comparative disadvantage for the tasks at hand, and that seems not to be taken into consideration in designing some character models. We match the body type of the guys up with the job, at least somewhat. Why not the girls?
In order to do the tasks in action games, most characters would need years of hard work and training. Your sword fighter/ninja/soldier/burglar/mage spent years working to get to where they could go off and save the world from the evil powers of King Jerk-boy of Wherever. The problem comes in when the training it would have taken to do that job (or even live through the events of the story) isn't evidenced in the character's physique. In many cases, if she did what it took to be able to do that job, her body simply wouldn't look like that.
Proper Clothes for the Job
I have never been able to figure this out at all. Females are not aliens. They have heads and legs and arms and torsos, just like the guys. And if you're going to be tromping around those same miles in the desert/dungeon/alien forest, the functional needs of those limbs are remarkably the same, regardless of sex or gender.
Here is a picture of some real female soldiers.
Look at those clothes. This is an outfit that is designed for the places and ways it'll be used. The fabric has to be very tough to take stones and sand and bush and Lord-knows-what, and that toughness will make the fabric it stiff. Regardless of sex or gender, you don't want tight. You want some room to move in there. It shouldn't be some lurid color that doesn't exist in the environment, unless you want to look like a target. You'll need solid boots that can tromp over whatever the terrain can dish out while protecting your feet. You need armor to protect your body and a harness to carry the gear you need to complete your mission.
Now look back up at the hair. These women are not visiting salons regularly; they're making functional choices. Hairdos are limited to what can be done with a comb and some elastic bands. They tie their hair out of their faces or cut it short so they can see what they're doing, so it isn't getting caught in their helmet or anywhere else. They're not wearing fingernail polish, and their nails are kept short. You're going to be in places way off the map, with limits on what you can get a hold of. You don't wear mascara or eyeliner in a place where even water is a rationed commodity and you don't know if you will be able to get remover. You don't even bother to bring it along. Not to mention the dirt it will catch as you're belly-crawling up to that emplacement. I doubt any of them is wearing a lick of makeup except lip balm and sunscreen/moisturizer. And, believe it or not, any male soldiers out there with them are wearing the same stuff. You can ask my son who did a full hitch in the US Army how much ChapStick you go through on the line out in the desert.
Those girls are emphatically girls, they just have clothes to protect them from the weather and they have the gear to help them to do their jobs properly. In a not incidental note, the clothing and gear look remarkably like what the men wear.
If you want to see what that could look like in a game, load up XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The soldiers are randomly assigned on both sex and country of origin. Those girls are still shaped like girls, but they keep their hair handled and they all have the tac. gear to hold their own in the field. The game is not harmed because the girls are properly equipped. It's a blessed relief to me.
It's not just the military. I have a friend who is an engineer in the Merchant Marine. She's beautiful and sweet-looking — sort of like a blonde Kayleigh from Firefly — but since she doesn't have to also be an actress while she's working on the engines, the grease-smudges aren't artistically applied. She just did a summer working on a cargo ship back and forth across the Pacific, from Anchorage to several ports in Asia. Get her in uniform and down in the engine room, she wears the gear and does the work. She's not going to try turning wrenches with things hanging out of her neckline. For one thing, it's cold down there.
One of the arguments we usually hear on this one is "It doesn't have to be realistic. This is a fantasy, and that's the way that world works," or "It's part of the story." I don't buy it, because it's not consistent.
If the male armor in that world left the men's privates open to damage and jiggling as they move, and if the designers made sure to display everyone's manly treasure trail they way they show the female's cleavage, then I could maybe see it. Because somehow they've done some sort of complex mental maneuvering to set it up so that in that world, a design that hangs everyone's soft bits out there flapping makes sense for that job. It sounds stupid, but if that's what you set up for everyone, I can work to suspend my disbelief. But in practice, all I see are paladins wearing the full tin-can next to a gal who looks like an extra from Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy, even when she's a votary of the same god and swinging her own sword. She's expected to do the same job, and face the same blades, bullets, elements and plasma beams, but with her tracts of land unprotected.
Let's use an example from another genre. Anyone here ever played Firefall?
Chest development aside (if you can push past those), can you tell me why the females have a bare leg up to their waist on one side? Her trousers are hiked on one side to the point you can tell from behind if she'd had a Brazilian, but she's got pants on the other leg? Are her left thigh and bosom made of something other than flesh, so she doesn't have to worry about it getting shot off? Judging by the bulk of her boots, her feet are obviously in great peril. Maybe that's where she's moved several fragile internal organs that would otherwise be left exposed by her outfit. At least she's not struggling along in the usual ridiculous stiletto heels a lot of female characters have to try to run in.
The guys don't have a bare leg hanging out there. If there is some magical force field or whatever to protect her exposed bits, why wouldn't they save weight on the male outfits by hanging their manly thews out there the same way? Do they have some way to clone only female left thighs, so they just don't worry about those, but wrap everything else up tight because they can't replace it when it gets shot off? I can't see how it would be some sort of body-type problem like you'd have with a COG or a Firebat, where you have to be able to fit girls and guys into the same range of gear. We have a weedy guy in that same type of getup as the beefy guy, but tailored to his physique.
While you're at it, if someone could explain why everyone's shoulders/upper arms are bare, that would also be good. At least some sort of support for the huge forearm piece/weapon they're hauling. Especially since they're high enough up that I doubt they could pick it back up if they dropped it. That one doesn't seem smart across the board.
Let's just bold my next point and then we'll expand on it.
I DON'T WANT TO TAKE AWAY ALL SKIMPY CLOTHES!
When you get into these discussions, someone usually brings up some sort of accusation that you're a prude/stick-in-the-mud/Luddite or something. I'll grant you that I'm probably more sedate than you about stuff like this. I'm older, not much in the looks department, I work from home, and I'm not dating. I prefer darker colors and simple designs. My daughters' corrective shopping excursions are all that keep me from dressing like the world's geekiest Amish person. That's neither here nor there; my fashion sense or some sort of prudery is not the reason for my comments. I'm strictly talking about the utility of the clothes.
Skimpy clothes have their place, because there are jobs in this world where dressing like that is fitting. A sorceress would use whatever tools at her command, and I can conceive of situations where, for certain disciplines, that may include her tracts of land. For example, if she was an illusionist or a mesmer-type and used it as a focus. A princess should look regal or cute or hot as the times may try. A tavern wench would pretty much need to work whatever her mama gave her as much as a waitress at Hooters does. A scientist or a librarian may not have that professional incentive, but if she's got it, she may want to flaunt it.
And that librarian, like anyone else, doesn't have to stick to one thing. A female thief should wear whatever it takes to blend in while she's casing the place, but then wear dark, tight-fitting clothing on the heist, and then something nondescript when she's in the getaway car. Off the clock, her outfit's entirely up to the girl's specific personality and where she is in her life.
Just don't show me a soldier dressed like a showgirl on the battlefield and expect me to believe it — for either gender. Designers do better with the guys. You have big guys in armor, and Cassanova-types in silk doublets. That works.
Girls come in different sizes and shapes. There are short girls and tall girls and fat girls and skinny girls and girls who have fat parts and skinny parts in just about any combination. I know. It's weird. Women don't all roll off the assembly line at a uniform 5'10" with 36-24-36 measurements. Who knew? The male bodies we see are limited and skewed, too, but not nearly to the same degree. You still have big guys and little guys, some are more or less muscled, depending on what they do.
And just as we're not going to shove a weedy little git like Cole from Infamous into COG armor and we're not going to hand Kratos a rapier, some female body types are better than others for specific jobs. That never seems to come into play in their character design.
Let's take Rachel from Ninja Gaiden. She's supposed to be a ninja-type on a par with the legendary Ryu Hyabasa. This is her character description from the wiki: "Rachel is a statuesquely tall woman with pale skin, platinum-blonde hair, and a curvaceous figure. She is usually seen wearing a skin-tight black leather combat suit cut in ways that reveal her large breasts." They don't describe the acres of thigh and backside also revealed by said outfit.
Just for a counterpoint, let's read part of Ryu's description from his wiki page: "Ryu is the epitome of a present day ninja, his Legendary Black Falcon outfit's sleek design is similar to that of the modern special ops agent, while the tabi boots, ninja head piece, mask, scarf and shin/forearm guards are reminiscent of the ancient ninja warrior."
Skipping past the paragraph of paeans to his eyes, we read: "Underneath the ninja mask and hood reveals a youthful face, and brown hair held in a ponytail, a completely opposite appearance to what many would expect, given his deadly skills and calculative, savage brutality in battle."
So, in other words, he wears something that looks like an outfit a soldier would wear, including armor, but her "combat suit" is anything but. Even though they're both flitting across the same roofs under the same moon, chasing the same super-villainess. Nice.
The uniform is only the start. She would practically glow in the dark with all that pale skin hanging out and those bright red accents on her outfit. He gets to keep his hair out of his eyes and cover it, while those ridiculous mall-bangs of hers get to wave all over, and her hair's color gets to give her away even more, shining out like a good deed in a naughty world. Someone page Ms. Clairol, and tell her to bring some scrunchies.
Character artists sometimes do try to give a nod to this in games where you can choose the character's age or pick something from a different species/race that offers a different body type. Most of their choices would also be described as "statuesque" and are not particularly matched to their tasks either. And they all seem to be allergic to pants. And, for the record, I really don't like it when they have them look like little girls. Turning the game into Creepy Alien Jailbait Children's Crusade (I'm looking at you, Tera) is not an improvement in my book.
Let's Get Physical
Let's consider the work and training it takes to learn to do the job, and what effect it would have on someone's physique. In jobs that would have big armor, it's not so bad. Heavy equipment can mask or compensate for some of a mismatch. Expertise built into her back-story can help, too. But in the jobs with less kit, it's harder. In something like a ninja or a sneak-thief or any other role with a lot of physicality, this can be a deal-breaker. Let's stick with poor, pale Rachel as our example.
What does it take to train to be a ninja in the world of the Ninja Gaiden games? According to the story, they are raised from childhood, doing ridiculously hard, physical training every single day. They're not just training for strength, but superhuman speed, flexibility, and reflexes. We have women who train like that in real life, and you don't get a buxom supermodel out of it. You get a ballerina, or an Olympic gymnast.
(Warning: This section contains some blunt (but not crude) discussions of breasts and other female body parts. Skip down to the next italics if you need to.)
One thing you'll notice right off the bat if you start looking at women in that kind of fighting trim: They don't have huge breasts. In fact, most of them don't have much of anything in that area to speak of. Every girl is different, and it matters whether or not she's had a child and actually used them for their intended purpose, but a very high percentage of breasts' structure is body fat. If you are honed down to a BMI of 10, you do not have DD breasts. You get A and B cups, with very rare C-cups. Same goes for that JLo-style, callipygian backside.
If they are one of the so-called lucky few who do have enough actual mammary gland in there to be left with a workable bosom, it's a liability. Try squeezing through a tight HVAC-duct with those. You can't fit in there, and even if you do, you're working around them to even crawl, much less fight. Even if you're standing, they're in the way as you try to throw a shuriken or stab with a tanto. For an idea of what I'm talking about, shove a couch pillow up under your t-shirt, and try to serpentine under your coffee table without moving the table or mashing, pinching, or losing the pillow.
And they definitely need to have some cover. Imagine doing the same exercise above with the pillow tied on with sewing thread. Imagine your thinly-clad nipples dragging across the ground and rocks and Lord-knows-what working into your cleavage from a neckline that's so low it would be more accurately described as a waistline. Imagine the aerodynamics of the wind getting caught under that neckline and in between them as you fly through the air.
Support is a necessity. Do you have any idea what the force on them would feel like if you, say, jump down from a roof and land in some awesome-looking pose? Especially in that outfit, with so little control that they are visibly jiggling when you're standing still? There is not enough personal adhesive in the world to keep them inside that scanty top. Breasts are supported inside by the Cooper's ligaments, and those can be strained and torn just like the ones in your joints when there is too much jerking around. It has happened to me, and it hurts like all get out.
And now that we've dropped down to the actual fight, that outfit rides up and pinches sensitive things in a lot more ways. On top of the jerking from the fighting moves, we add the specter of them getting hit in a fight. This is a whole new world of hurt. For those who have an easier time imagining the pain of ruptured testes, try to imagine what happens when you rupture breast tissue by mashing it into a girl's ribs. I used to play hockey. I can tell you from personal experience how much fun it is. For that matter, a girl getting kicked in the crotch isn't having any more fun than the guys are. Did you think the clitoris and all its sensitive nerves somehow vanish in combat? And as for the other oft-exposed areas in fictional fighting females, a kidney or liver punch will have real girls puking in the dust, same as the guys.
Not to mention how awful it would feel to wear those outfits without any undergarments. Leather and Spandex don't breathe or wick well. Polished leather and vinyl don't breathe at all. Ever sat on leather upholstery while wearing shorts? Imagine that all over, all day. Ryu could wear something to keep his armor from sticking to his skin under his clothes, but Rachel doesn't stand a chance. Or, to use an example of a woman who at least gets to cover her skin, take Catwoman and that patent-leather catsuit. We know what little she wears under it, thanks to the first nine pages of her recent reboot. There is not enough baby-powder in the world to deal with that. The sweat of exertion sloshing around in there would be just gross, and I don't even want to think about what it would take to peel it off her after a night of chasing Batman across the rooftops.
(/end awkward bit)
A few levels of any of the standard action activities, and any girl who has enough brains to see lighting and hear thunder in those lines of work would have discovered the fine art of binding her breasts and wearing the female version of a cup (euphemistically called a "jane"). She would be shopping for new work clothes, too.
Height is something else to think about. Most of the real-life girls we're talking about here are short. The best ones are very short. Not because girls who train to be ballerinas and gymnasts don't grow, but because they don't get the job if they're too tall, no matter how they train. Why?
Outside of societal horse-hockey, there's a lot of complicated physics and anatomy behind it. Short women have a huge advantage in acrobatic maneuvers involving angular momentum and leverage. While they may not be going for a perfect score of 10, if you're hiring a ninja to sneak in and steal the Scroll of Smiting, you would want someone small to do the whole small-spaces/HVAC thing. Anyone who can be described as "statuesque" is fighting an uphill battle in that business.
Lets invest a moment in a red herring that often shows up in this argument. Yes, many male game characters are depicted as Chesty McPecterson, and real male ballerinas and gymnasts have to run a gauntlet, too. But the range of allowed body types is much larger, and much more in tune with what a mature man can manage with physical training to either bulk or minimize his muscles as he needs both in game and in the real world.
Real-world girls don't get to choose their chests or hips or height. This is one place Rachel gets a better deal than our real-life highly trained examples. She can at least count on the fact that her skills and drive may be allowed by the writer to counteract some of the problems her physique brings into the choice of her profession, instead of being at the mercy of her genetics like our real gymnasts and ballerinas are.
The Tale of the Tape
Please remember it's not that I want all skimpy clothes to go away. Not all female characters have to look and dress like Velma from Scooby Doo. I want more choices, not fewer.
Dressing for attention is a part of the female experience, and that's something some real women want out of their characters. But making attention-grabbing aesthetics the primary focus is not always the right approach, and even if it is sensible for that character, it can be done better. There are ways to depict a girl who likes to show off that she's a girl (and, to her opponents' dismay, happens to be out of bubblegum) that don't involve art direction by Ron Jeremy and costumes from Fredrick's of Hollywood.
There are plenty of other girls who aren't there to powder their noses and want to get the work done. Give those ladies some options, too. Right now, they're is not a lot out there. Some games have tried, but there's room for more improvement. For example, Guild Wars 2 has some high-level light armors that don't hang everything out there. But to get them, you've got to put up with grinding through the navel-baring lower-level outfits. Some thought to how that works in play would help.
I want games to allow all characters — those who want to flaunt it, and those who just want to get the job done — to have some ways of expressing themselves that make sense for their character and the tasks they need to perform in the context of the story.
Writers and designers, you are in charge of your world. So pick a girl that makes sense, and give them the clothes and gear they need to do the job they're hired for.