It’s the most wonderful time of the year, according to us. The leaves are falling (in the Northern Hemisphere), people are buying incredible amounts of candy, and we are all planning and/or meticulously creating our Halloween costumes.
Which brings us to one of the most important topics this group has ever discussed: in-game costumes!
First, and perhaps most important question: what is the single greatest costume in any game you’ve played, ever?
Nola Pfau: I want to start by specifying that I think there’s a difference between ‘greatest’ and ‘favorite’ but I think the actual greatest is the Soldier 76 Grillmaster costume, because that thing has no purpose in existing aside from sheer love of a ridiculous concept, and it’s perfect.
My favorite was back when Marvel Heroes was still online and I was maining Rogue. I had her Savage Land costume, but had her permanently absorbing Colossus’ powers so that she was all metal. Then I put a few size enhancers on her so she was a burly metal giant in shredded clothes. It was… *chef kiss*
Joesph Langdon: I have to be true to my 13-year-old self, whose tiny gay mind was blown the first time he saw Rikku’s Black Mage dressphere in Final Fantasy X-2. The skin-tight belt dress, the garish color scheme, the fireballs. Really, it’s everything I could have ever asked for. As I grew up and my tastes refined, I found myself gravitating towards Paine’s Lady Luck and Songstress spheres. The floating playing cards and butch Elvis aesthetic is 100 percent targeted at my (still) tiny gay mind.
Wendy Browne: The best costume I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing was an NPC costume in The Witcher 2. A quest giver asks you to retrieve harpy feathers. When you return, he tells you it’s not enough and sends you out again. He pays Geralt good money for them, so hey, why not. When you return a final time with the loot, you discover what he’s been collecting them for.
Melissa Brinks: Gunner Yuna in Final Fantasy X-2 is adorable and I WON’T apologize!!!
Elvie Mae Parian: I would like to mention just how killer Symmetra’s Legendary skins honestly are in Overwatch, especially the Dragon skin. (However, I do not actually have any of them, I just think they are really cool.)
Across a couple of the Project Diva games, Hatsune Miku can unlock an outfit that is a reference to Ulala’s signature outfit from Space Channel 5 and I personally think that’s just perfect. The Wiggler Head in Monster Hunter: World is also worthy of an honorable mention in my book, but it’s technically not a full costume. But please look at it.
Kate Lyons: Either Gerudo Vai Link living her true self or the absolute swagger of the Elite Teutonic Knight in Age of Empires 2. I would play Teutons as often as possible purely to have an army of these stylish mofos.
What value do costumes add to games? Are you a ‘collect ’em all’ type or more of the ‘collect just the ones I like’ type?
Nola: Look, part of really getting invested in a game for me is determining what my character looks like. When I can’t change costumes (or hair/features), I notice that, and it affects my enjoyment. I’m in the middle of Fire Emblem: Three Houses right now and while I’m enjoying the hell out of it and liked that you can choose between male or female protagonists, you can’t actually change either protagonist’s look or costume. It’s frustrating!
Zora: I typically don’t really care about customization, but I played a chunk of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter with my friend the other day and my enjoyment of the game practically skyrocketed when I realized I could take Holmes out of his grubby cocaine-smokin’ shirt with loose suspenders and put him in the Real Correct Sherlock Holmes Suit. Sherlock Holmes is a gross mess but part of his whole thing is knowing how to make his appearance work for him—costuming is essential. (Also do not get me started on the scarf he wears in the official art for that game. Guy Richie has harmed us all.)
Maddi: I love changing costumes because it makes me feel more connected to the characters, especially in games where you don’t have any say about what the main character looks like. Whether I’m a “collect ‘em all” type depends on the game, though. The Witcher 3 has some truly atrocious cuirasses that I refuse to wear regardless of the stat boosts, where in Bloodborne I wanted every set of armor because they are unbelievably cool.
Wendy: I put far more effort into making sure that my characters and companions look good than I do myself. Unstylish characters hurt my heart so I collect costumes I like and that go with the bio I have created for my characters, and will go to great lengths to ensure that they look fabulous at all times. I played Final Fantasy XI for almost a decade and had to endure hideous outfits, including a hat that looked like a penis. When they finally allowed us to choose our desired looks, I strongly considered bringing my Red Mage out of retirement. When Star Wars: The Old Republic introduced adaptive armour, I mastered the Cartel Market specifically so that I could purchase armour I wanted. SWTOR also includes dyes, as does Guild Wars 2, which adds a whole new level to the pursuit of PC haute couture.
I’ve started playing games specifically because of the style options, including Tera and a modded Skyrim. In fact, fashion is often the only reason I will mod a game. Usually, I mod within the game’s lore, but sometimes I’ll go off the rails in a crazy playthrough.
When I played Saints Row: The Third and IV, I never started a session without spending a minimum of 15 minutes determining my next outfit. I’ve created characters in DC Universe Online and City of Heroes specifically because I wanted a particular look. Character creation that includes costume design is my greatest weakness.
Melissa: I understand, logically, that it’s a lot of work to add character customization. But please also understand that I want to look cool, always, and I will go to great lengths to make that possible. I take function over form if clothes or armor have stat boosts—my need to be good at everything outweighs my desire to dress fancy. But if there are cool clothes in a game and I can wear those without sacrificing my stats, I will hunt them to the ends of the earth.
Kate: I’m a bit everything or nothing with my customization—if I can really remake how my character looks or dresses, I’m super into it, but I’m not here for a simple palette swap. Don’t give me a million options and make them all kind of ugly, though—looking at you, Dragon Age. Your helmets are ugly and you know it! On the other hand, my favorite way to handle companion looks has been Dragon Age 2. I love each character’s iconic look, and frankly, so many of DA2‘s armors are very generic. I was glad I could improve their stats without sacrificing their aesthetic. When it comes to collection, I can be lured into it but I’ve got to really be invested in the looks on offer.
Melissa: It was definitely Dragon Age: Origins I was thinking of when talking about function over form. I wore those ugly helmets. I wore those horrible mage hats. At least the game lets you turn off helmets in cutscenes?
What do you think of the now common practice of making costumes/skins the primary focus of loot boxes?
Nola: I would be for it IF the money component was entirely removed. Make loot boxes only a random prize in play, make the results of said boxes only cosmetic. Take the financial stakes out of it. Granted, you’d still have the issue of players selling entire accounts, but I don’t think that’s ever gonna go away anyway.
Zora: In the most selfish way, I love it because I do not care about costumes and thus do not spend any money. But that’s me—if aesthetics noticeably affect a person’s enjoyment of a game, tying them to randomized loot boxes purchased through microtransactions can feel like a taunt. It’s better than free-to-play microtransaction models where it’s either impossible or significantly harder to progress without kicking money in, but still manipulative in a way that makes me kind of want to shower.
Joesph: Ever since Fable 3 hid its black clothing dye in a DLC while leaving an empty spot on its shelf I’ve been on a crusade against microtransaction-fueled cosmetics. So much so I somehow made it six years without buying a single Overwatch loot box. Personally I also prefer to work for my cosmetic items. The all-too-human challenge of finding a good hat and all that.
Wendy: I prefer to work for my cosmetics, but confess to getting sucked into Overwatch’s loot box scam. I really needed Symmetra’s dragon costume, okay.
Melissa: I will hunt skins to the end of the earth, as I said. I will never pay for them. I’m reluctant to pay for digital games, let alone digital clothing. That said, as Zora mentioned, it’s still manipulative even if it’s not as bad as pay-to-win structures. Abolish in-game currency that can only be purchased with real dollars, and make it easier to earn in-game currency by completing specific challenges or whatever. Is that great for game companies? No, but I’d rather never hear about people spending over $100,000 on microtransactions ever again. It stresses me out.
Kate: My interest in collecting hats in Team Fortress 2 ended when it became about unlocking loot crates. A pox on microtransactions.
If you’re a tabletop player, does your character ever wear costumes? Please share your best “Disguise Self” story with us.
Nola: This isn’t really a disguise story but I’m in the middle of a Star Wars game right now where I’m playing a Duros Ship Captain who dresses exclusively in dramatic Amidala/Holdo style gowns. So far she has had to sacrifice one dress to an impromptu spelunking adventure and she was so distraught over the loss that she dressed in a baggy black jumpsuit for the next couple of sessions.
Kate: My partner and I are in a Pathfinder game together, and her PC has become known for her elaborate disguises and costumes—so far she’s been Captain Jane the Pirate, the Rear Admiral of Omesta (a landlocked citystate), a tour guide, a ghost, Cooby the vigilante, a dragon, random nobles, and more. She’s a sorcerer named Scooby who’s never even been on a boat. As for my PC, she’s heavily based on Kate Bishop (the better Hawkeye) so I am ravenous for any items that I can grab to make her a closer match. A major arc just wrapped up where our vigilante’s secret identity was finally revealed, as well. For nearly a year in-game our characters have been living and fighting closely together and nobody had the slightest clue that their fierce bugbear vigilante was actually an adorable halfling. Well, nobody except their half-orc rogue boyfriend.
Elvie: I have been both a DM and player for some time now and I just utterly love characters who take advantage of disguise mechanics in games. I wish I took that to the full potential with the last rogue-esque character I played in Dungeons & Dragons 5E.
However, with a campaign I am currently running now, one of my players is basically coming out of an espionage upbringing so, naturally, disguising and fabricating an identity is second-nature to him. He sticks to the act really well, to the point of being very descriptive when putting on cosmetics or fitting an outfit, as I do press time when it comes to the process of a good disguise. For a good while into the campaign, the rest of the party truly had no idea about his non-human nature. I also have a number of NPCs who similarly change their outfits and falsify their appearances a lot with their own criminal backgrounds. Since I try my best to reflect fashion in this world with historical reality, I also enjoy describing the constantly changing outfits of more bourgeois NPCs when they make recurring appearances to emphasis their excess and luxury of being able to have different clothes that are not even practical.
What are some stand-out ways a game has incorporated costumes into gameplay?
Joesph: Did I pose this question as an excuse to keep talking about FFX-2? Maybe so. Let’s start off with the dramatic flair of the long-form transformation sequences, which I can never bring myself to turn off no matter how many times I’ve seen them. I mean, who doesn’t want to feel like a magical girl with a big sword? Also, gameplay/story-wise, dresspheres are an ingenious way to provide a deep and varied class system without forcing me to care about 20-something characters, which is what kept me from getting into some later Final Fantasy games like Type-0.
Zora: Okay first: I love Kingdom Hearts’ world-locked design changes because they are cute and goofy and lend so much character to the worlds, even when there’s not a whole lot going on in the level design. I also love how Breath of the Wild did the armor system—I don’t engage with costumes very much in games like Star Wars: The Old Republic or The Witcher because it’s exhausting for me to balance aesthetic with 15 different stat benefits or disadvantages, but BotW is a very simple game stat-wise and there’s no cost to changing clothes. It’s much easier to decide to give up a big armor bonus to make Link look cute if I don’t also have to balance magic, attack power, charisma (for some reason), speed, etc.
And… I can’t believe I’m still talking about Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, but I very much love that you can just go into his closet and change clothes whenever you damn well please—no fees, no gates, just digging around in there. It’s not the most robust costuming tool by any means, but it feels extremely situationally appropriate.
Maddi: In Final Fantasy XV, you can wear a foot-and-a-half tall Cup Noodle hat, and I think that’s beautiful. Even better when you wear it through the serious cutscenes.
Wendy: Dragon Age II‘s Black Emporium DLC let me change my character’s look whenever I wanted to. Considering the game takes place over several specific time periods, I couldn’t possibly be expected to wear the same outfit, much less the same hairstyle the whole time.
Melissa: On the one hand, the tiered armor sets in World of Warcraft used to piss me off because every fully-geared player in their class looked the same. On the other hand, I really just adore the idea that armor gets more wild and big as you get more experience. You don’t look powerful in top-tier armor, you look fucking ridiculous, and I love that about it.
What is the wildest thing you’ve done in pursuit of The Aesthetic?
Joesph: Look, I’m not saying I’m a monster, but I have definitely committed morally reprehensible acts for the sake of fashion. In Dark Souls I killed Big Hat Logan early for his eponymous big hat. I learned later he just gives it to you if you wait, but I needed it. I colonized a whole country in Fable 3 to make my tattoos glow. I may have brought a few rare species to extinction in Dragon Age: Inquisition with my taste for luxury fabrics. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and I’m not proud of all of them, but at least I look great.
Maddi: I wouldn’t really call it wild, but just… so much grinding. My fiance and I spent an unconscionable amount of time doing the sled minigame in Arendelle and doing gummi missions in Kingdom Hearts 3 to get materials for the Ultima Weapon. But Sora’s Ultimate Form is very cool (Frozen joke), so it’s definitely worth it. My Witcher 3 save file is up to 135 hours now, and at least 10 of those hours were me getting all of the diagrams and parts necessary to craft two sets of Grandmaster armor. I think I spent around 40,000 crowns to do it, but Geralt is STYLIN’.
Wendy: In Guild Wars 2, after carefully reviewing all the costume options, I decided that my Norn Elementalist needed a very specific outfit. Unfortunately, the boots for said outfit were at the top end of a zone that was way too high for me. Fortunately, I have amazing friends. We all geared up and headed out to git me muh boots. There was a LOT of death along the way, but in the end, we were victorious. As it turns out, the boots didn’t look so great after all.
Melissa: I grinded for a year to get the violet proto-drake in World of Warcraft. To do that, you have to complete a bunch of holiday achievements, some of which have random elements. Once I unlocked that final achievement, I launched my violet proto-drake, flew to Dalaran, landed on top of the bank, and logged out forever.
Elvie: Online games are really mean about having some great looking outfits but at the cost of having such horrible stats. A big thing I dislike about Monster Hunter: World is that in spite of everything else good about it, there is this clear desperation in how hard it wants to try to be like an MMO with daily grind missions and very time-limited events. Although it is forgiving and repeats these events eventually, I have definitely forced myself to log in to the game every day for a time even as late as it can get just to get special items to build the stupidest looking set for clout.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.