Fashion doesn’t exist without acquisition, and acquisition means labor. In Love Nikki – Dress UP Queen, the player can get all the clothes they could want if they are willing to put in the labor. In many ways, the experience of playing Dress UP Queen emulates the processes, thoughtfulness, and labor of putting together an outfit, which is the true heart of fashion.
The truth is, we often discuss fashion only as a finished ensemble. My friends ask me how my outfit looks so stylish, perhaps ignoring that most of the process has already taken place hours ago. Not the fiction of me deftly grabbing clothes out of my expansive closet, but the embodied experience of me picking a long skirt and realizing I won’t have to tuck today. Me, running through the algorithms to decide if a certain pair of shorts is adding to the anime-punk aesthetic I’m shooting for, or shifting the outfit into more of an anime-infused hard-femme look. Getting frustrated when a top my younger sister got me for my birthday just doesn’t seem to go with anything I own and worrying about that aggravating my anxiety. This is fashion, and these actions repeat themselves in miniature throughout the time the outfit is worn.
The whole game world in Dress UP Queen seems to revolve around fashion, and all of its denizens seem to just be passing time with various distractions until they can get someone else to have a fashion contest with them. These contests play out through the two fashion-combatants getting doled out points from five different selected Styles. There are 10 total Styles (Gorgeous, Elegance, Mature, Simple, Lively, Cute, Sexy, Warm, Pure, and Cool) and the contest specifics tells you which Styles you’ll be graded on. Perhaps it is the toil of it all that make it feel closer to reality. The items you really want can prove quite the task to get.
However, Dress UP Queen cannot, in any meaningful way, simulate the act of wearing an outfit. In the game, an outfit is only ever worn for about 20 seconds at a time. Only in the abstract non-space where fashion contests take place are you actually wearing the outfit. The game seems to model the presumption we have about fashion, that an outfit is itself the work and not the conclusion of a more complicated process coming to a finish. However, 90 percent of the game happens before the contests: in the closet, putting together the outfit, or completely outside of the main quest line, in a series of menus, shops, and alternate modes, where one earns the various currencies of the game to purchase clothes. Despite typical game design enshrining moments of competition and point-awarding, one can easily see that Dress UP Queen ultimately doesn’t rely on these things to make the experience enthralling. Yes, you need to get a passing grade to advance to the next contest, but Dress UP Queen isn’t about advancing in the story, either. It’s about enjoying the clothing you acquire, and the contests exist so that you can “wear them out.” Paradoxically, this game understands that fashion is its own rewarding activity, even if its going to grade you on it later.
When a game like Dress UP Queen gives the player access to mix and match a huge amount of clothing, the player’s personality is going to shine through, especially given that you’re literally graded by how you look. I don’t know how to shoot a gun in Destiny or swing a sword in Dark Souls in a queer way. My interpretations of them can be queer, but the moment-to-moment gameplay doesn’t feel like an act of trans-lesbianism. But Dress UP Queen is about presentation, and so much of queerness is that as well. (I wouldn’t call Dress UP Queen a queer narrative by any stretch; its setting is about as safe and clinically cleaned-up as it gets.)
I think the practice of performing queerness in this sense has made me better at fashion overall, particularly fashion that is true to my own style. I suppose this shouldn’t be much of a surprise, as it is a game that consists of putting together better outfits than your opponent. However, I have also become more thoughtful in how I go about acquiring my own real life clothes. I pay more attention to buying items from marginalized and local artists. I just dyed and studded up a jacket, which is the first time I have ever altered a piece of clothing. I’m seriously considering buying a sewing machine and giving making my own clothes a try. This, too, becomes enriched when viewed through the lens of real embodied labor and physicality, as the back and forth dialogue between finding aesthetically pleasing material, time, costs, sewing machines, online stores, all coalesce around me, and I make the clothing into a process that will always be greater than the condensed act of wearing the article and certainly far broader in scope and modality than the article in and of itself.
Still, in the end, Dress UP Queen isn’t about wearing outfits; it’s about acquisition and process. By using the lens of embodied experience, we see how Dress UP Queen could make one better at fashion. By expounding upon the processes of fashion through labor, the brightly colored menus of Dress UP Queen can be viewed as abstractions for thrift store trips with tight budgets or questions about a new jacket fitting around the shoulders correctly. By going through the virtual motions of fashion in Dress UP Queen, I find myself more prepared to make those motions with my non-virtual clothes and fashion.