And Now For Something Completely Different (Video Game Characters and the Importance of Doing Research)
Hello one and all! Once again I must apologize for how oddly sporadic updates have been on this blog (and on my patreon for those that support me there), and I don’t think I can make a promise of weekly updates returning yet, but I shall endeavour to get new posts out as often as I can. I hope you have all had a nice few weeks, and not had to manically run around trying to get the first issue of a magazine finished and suddenly see all the things you have somehow forgotten about, but it’s all learning, isn’t it.
I’ve recently had a moment to play some video games for the first time in months. It’s been nice to escape into fantasy and adventure for a bit after months of working hard on The Cosplay Journal – which, incidentally, is very nearly ready – but it turns out I really can’t turn my brain off from thinking about fashion and costume, even when I’m trying to relax. A lot the games I play have historical elements to them, even if they’re strictly accurate or factual, often including real historical personages and places. For me this is great, my inner historian jumps at the chance to see how people have used the past to create new stories or retell old ones, but unfortunately said historian does get a little frustrated when something in all of that ruins the illusion, and more often than not this is the costume and character design. It’s very jarring to be walking around through a beautiful realised version of 18th Europe and then be faced with outfits that wouldn’t even been seen at Carnevale di Venezia let alone anywhere else.
My current gaming obsession The Council developed by Big Bad Wolf, succeeds in so many ways (it is an excellently made mystery/crime solving game, with an intriguing story and brilliantly realised mechanics) but failed so badly on the character design front. Ok, that’s not strictly true, it failed utterly on the design on the female characters and completely broke me out of the feel of the game when I was introduced to each of them.
I want to say from the get go that this game is very good, it is so close to being flawless for me, that I have to be critical of this one thing so that hopefully in the future the studio take this on board and will make a beautiful storm of perfection in the form of a video game.
Set in 1793, the game takes place predominantly on an island, seemingly somewhere in Europe with guests from all over the world attending, including real people such as Napoleon and George Washington. Now, I’m not going to talk too much about the game, and it’s story as that isn’t what this is about, but I will say that if you are interested in playing it, then there may be spoilers from this point onwards so beware.
(If you aren’t interested in the game and just want to talk about pretty period costume skip down to the bullet points to get your teeth.)
Playing as Louis De Richett, a Parisian aristocrat, you are invited to a mysterious island, by an even more mysterious host, one Lord Mortimer, after your mother disappears while she is staying with him. Knowing that his mother is capable woman and it would take a lot to make her disappear, Louis goes to the island in the company of Mortimer’s other illustrious guests, but soon finds nothing is what it seems, having to use all his wit and know how to solve a case that confounds at every turn.
The episodical game plays as a choose your own adventure, much like games like Until Dawn you have to make choices, moral or otherwise, but there is also a large RPG element to the game, giving you choices of class (diplomat, detective or occultist) and skills within those classes to help you manipulate, convince and steal your way through the game.
For me it was the perfect mix of intriguing story (which now has me on tenterhooks for the next part to be released later this month), and clever game play, keeping you guessing about the best actions to use and forcing the player to second guess themselves about what options to take. I’m already thinking about playing through again to take a different path and to see what happens, there is literally so much to see and discover. The writing is top notch, though the dialogue is possibly a little to modern in its parlance for me, but I can let that slide when the narrative and characters are this well developed. Each person you encounter gives the impression of being a fully fleshed out human being, there are no cardboard cut out stereotypes, and this is most notable in the female characters, something that is unfortunately still not all that common in the video game medium.
I love the slight overtones of Lovecraftian occult as well. It’s subtly slotted into the story and yet to be explained in the available game play though the hints are enough to keep you wanting more. It is for this reason that I am writing this piece. As I said before, this game really is wonderful and so by being critical and offering a constructive article on historical costuming, I hope, in some small way, to help them on improving on character designs in the future.
So, I suggest we dive on in.
In the first episode of the game, all that is currently available, there are three main female characters:
- Sarah, Louis’ mother; an stern but strong woman and a leading figure in crime and the occult, seemingly respected by all.
- Lady Emily Hillsborrow; a spy, working with Sarah, witty, clever and wise beyond her years.
- And Elizabeth Adams; the supposed dead daughter of John Adams, who has been brutally tortured and hidden away due what is called “the evil inside of her”.
I am going to focus predominantly on Emily as she feels very much like the secondary lead in the story, becoming as entangled with the riddles as Louis does, and there is plenty of what is illustrated with her can be used to great effect with the designs of Sarah and Elizabeth, but I will touch on Elizabeth as well as she has some interesting aspects to her design that I feel need mentioning. Each of these women is unique, well written, believable people, but there seems to have been no effort made to design them in anyway beyond “that looks kind of period-y” and that is a huge shame. Especially when placed alongside the designs for the male characters which appear to have been much better researched.
I feel like I can’t illustrate this, without well illustrations so I’m going break this down, using images of accurate clothes from the late 18th century and early 19th. So putting our best foot forward, let’s start with some ideas of what women were wearing so we know what we are aiming for.
We’re in the reign of George III in England, just before the Regency; so we’re just about starting to see the classic Jane Austen looks appear , in France Marie Antoinette has been setting all of the fashion trends with daring and dazzling new looks and is about to lose her head for it, so what I would be expecting to see is either the pompadour style dresses, though these are starting to be considered somewhat old fashioned by this time, or the chemise.
I want to start with Emily as she stood out to me as a character. Emily is an English Duchess, a I would say falls somewhat into the “femme fatale” genre of characters, but that is mostly because of her design rather than the way she is written or perceived by the other characters in the game. I really enjoyed her personality, her cutting remarks and witty banter with Louis that was both flirtatious and clever so she never felt like she was merely there to be his love interest or a pawn in the game. As a character she felt very real and very easy to relate to, which makes her design even more infuriating as Emily is in every other way the perfect female lead. In many ways she reminds of Milady DeWinter from The Three Musketeers or Evie Frye from Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and, for me, that shows some idea of how she could have been designed.
As much as both of these characters are dressed in a completely inaccurate ways, they do both take cues from a some more historical pieces from the periods that they set in, while using modern ideas to twist into clothing that is not only interesting but suits the personality of the character, and portrays their role with the overall story.
They also both fit into the rest of the design around them. This is one of the things that really jerks you out of the game setting with all of the female characters in The Council, that they don’t seem to fit in with the design of the game or the male characters, whereas Evie matches up with Jacob and the two of them fit in the world of Assassin’s Creed and, well, The Musketeers is just an exciting journey of ridiculous design, but at least it’s all anachronistic.
Evie, I will admit, takes a of liberties, using more references to men’s dress in Victorian England for practicalities sake, but nevertheless, she does not strike you as completely out of place, and most definitely fits into the world that has been created for Assassin’s Creed. The clothing is still of its period in many respects even if it would, most likely, not have been worn by a woman, while still relating back to other assassins in the francise.
Milady on the other hand, is created to stand somewhat apart from the other characters around her, being that she is the classic femme fatale and spy. She is very much like Emily as a character but the modern twists on her costumes are worked to build her into the place in the Musketeers story effortlessly. They use the cut of the neckline, or the removal of sleeves to add danger and temptation to her character without losing the original intention of the garment. Again, the dresses are entirely unrealistic but they have enough there to maintain an illusion of what dresses of the time would have looked like.
Looking back at The Council, when you take the period that the game is set in, and Emily’s position in society, it’s most likely that she would have been following the fashions of the French court, with a focus on “the pastoral”, basically pretending to be farm girls or diary maids, but it lead to a less restrictive way of dressing (as seen by the left hand painting of Marie Antoinette above) than the older school of pompadour dresses (on Marie Antoinette on the right – isn’t she useful?).
The image below shows the English take on this style, with the high waistlines, light weight, white fabrics making up the majority of the piece with colour added with decorative accessories. Wealth would be shown in the quality of the fabrics, the trim and the feathers and furs used in the decoration.
Instead of this we get an outfit that would be more likely to be seen at a modern day gothic prom; a black backless corset (Backless?! Really?!) with a sweetheart neckline – something that isn’t seen in fashion until at less the Victorian either – with a large crinoline style skirt. It comes off looking more like a 21st century dress up piece with nothing vaguely period going on at all. And don’t get me started on the the “underwear” – come on, Georgians would have thick stockings held up with garters at the knee with a shift and petticoat, no knickers, suspenders or thigh highs!
All of this is jarring and overly modern, throwing the immersive experience of the game out of the window within the first 5 minutes. I feel that the “occult” feel of the game was trying to be shown through the costumes, but unless they went for a fully realised image of that world where everything was completely anachronistic, going completely wild – maybe put George Washington in a zoot suit! – it doesn’t work. It’s faux period, almost like they were giving them a steampunk element, but without the thought through elements of steampunk – and, you know, steam power is a still a way off, after all in 1793, we haven’t even had the Battle of Waterloo yet!
I honestly think the design that could have been brought from this style of dress would fascinating and innovative, something that we really haven’t seen before in video games, or in fact in media at large. The only examples I can think of is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, managing to use historical costuming, and trying to keep it period while creating something dynamic for on screen. Pirates by the way is set just before the period of The Council and Pride and Predjudice is obviously just a little after in the Regency.
Ok, let’s leave Emily alone, and move onto Elizabeth Adams, the supposed dead daughter of John Adams. A horribly brutalised character, driven mad by her torture and the occult forces worked on and around her.
One of my favourite things about the game is that is doesn’t take any prisoners when it comes to the storyline and this is excellently reflected in Elizabeth, she is a deranged and tragic figure who makes up a large part of the mystery surrounding Louis.
Her appearance is clearly something they went to town on, covering her in scars and mystical tattoos. Oddly, I really have no issue with this as a premise. It’s interesting, it adds to her personality, giving the player insight into the cruelty that has been visited upon her. She’s erratic and wild, swinging through moods and one can never quite get a hold on who exactly she is within herself or what her end game is. I like that it’s so viscerally shown, permanently marking her as an outsider. However, her odd appearance is never really questioned by the other characters, which is a tad strange but I assume will be touched on in later episode but I do think she would stand out as even more of an unusual guest, if she were dressed more in the clothing of the time. Like Emily it rather uncuts her seriousness as a character, and leaves her lacking in someway. Plus the fact that all of the tattoos seem hyper modern, now this may just be my eye that they seem to detailed for the time, and some of the designs are more modern concepts but there appears to be no rhyme or reason to them or their placement, other than “that looks magical” – if you look closely at her right arm she has the Deathly Hallows symbol from Harry Potter – and that seems to be the problem throughout, this vague oh that looks good attitude rather than even just a few hours research. It’s shame that such a good game let’s itself down here.
There is one scene in particular where this stands out more an any, where she appears in, wild eyed, in what one can only assume is meant to be an under gown or nightdress, a small, strappy number, cut much to short that again reeks of modern ideas of period clothing. I understand that it was used to show that her body is covered in the tattoos but considering that the scene meant to dark and moody, I couldn’t take it seriously. I suddenly felt like I’d fallen through a crack in time and was hanging out with a punk.
If I take us back to the Pirates of the Caribbean reference I made earlier there is a perfect example of what could have been achieved with this character with the linen under gown worn by Elizabeth Swann.
With the longer length of this style of dress, with front lacing, you could still get away with having the shorter sleeves/straps but without making it seem modern and out of place, you could even have her still wearing her stays (which practically all women at the time would have worn) over the top to give the look even more of a historical footing. Plus I always find stays always have the added benefit of looking a bit exciting, thought that may just be me, but they definitely would have added something to that scene and for her character in general.
Now I’m aware that of course designers want to add some interest and flare to their designs and I more than think they should, but often those likely touches of realism and obvious research go a long way to embedding the player better into the game, no matter their level of knowledge about these things. I would also say that considering the nature of the game, and the obvious work that went into other areas of research, they are clearly aiming this at an audience that will be more clued up about these things, at least to some degree.
The thing is, that so many games use historical period to set the scene but refuse to give the player any depth, often have research as shallow as a puddle while using the stories of the past to add to their own. It feels cheap and as if the player is being underestimated, that they won’t care or notice if there are massive mistakes because it’s game, so it doesn’t matter. But it does. Games are a modern storytelling medium, which The Council recognises in its writing and game play, so why do so many games drop the ball when it comes to researching their setting? Adding those little touches make all the difference to the game, it makes it more immersive, more real, heck more interesting because it will look different from any other fantasy or steampunk game (Bioshock is a great example of this, hmmm, that deco is so good, gosh they really set the bar high).
I guess this is my plea to designers to start looking into historical costuming, to reach out to those who work in period fashion and costume for advice and guidance so that we can see the truly beautiful fashion of the past brought to life again in a whole new way.
Massive thank you to Velveteena Leigh, Tilda Lewis and Alyson Leeds for your wonderful advice and knowledge (sorry if I mucked it up a bit). If you want to look more into historical costume I suggest you check out the V&A Website Archives, American Duchess, History.Org, Georgian Era, and for more on Regency clothing Jane Austen’s World
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If you want more please check out my last articles:
- Strange the Way Things Turn Out (Ten Years Since Straight Out Of Surrey)
- Cute and Casual (Don’t Judge a Nonbinary Person by Their Cover)
- Bags of Personality
- Let’s Talk about Gender Presentation and be Empowered
- The Doctor’s New Clothes
Written by Holly Rose Swinyard