I will admit to one and all an inordinate fondness for Project Runway. Along with Top Chef, it’s one of the few reality shows I watch. What I love about both shows is that they focus the spotlight on skilled and talented individuals who are actually making things with both their hands and their imaginations. I can’t sew a button, and while I can cook along with a recipe well enough, I’m not inventive or inspired in the kitchen. I appreciate the contestants on these shows because they’ve got demonstrable, difficult to acquire talents.
Any developer setting out to simulate a creative endeavor through an accessible-to-all video game faces a steep challenge. Certainly you can’t expect players of Project Runway on the Wii to create patterns and sew them together from scratch; there needs be some measure of metaphor involved, and I’m fine with that. Even so, I decided that maybe I wasn’t the perfect judge for such a product. After all, while I watch the show, I prefer my games to involve guns or magic spells. I decided to call upon the expertise of a friend of mine, a real world fashion designer who even studied design at Parsons, the school where the show’s contestants do their work. She wishes to remain a little anonymous (you never know when the vengeance of Heidi Klum et al might strike down upon you), so we’ll call her Ms. C.
Ms. C had seen Project Runway many times, although she finds watching it to be stressful since she can so easily empathize with the participants. As we fired up the game there was an eager enthusiasm in the air. The badly compressed opening credits from last season’s L.A.-based contest played across the screen and we were ready to go. The tutorial started the soul-crushing. Instead of designing clothes, you’re given a set combination of clothing types, lengths, colors, and patterns. You have to assemble the EXACT outfit you’re told to within a limited amount of time. You can customize it with buttons and flair and accessories, but the thing that makes up the core of the show, designing an actual piece of clothing, is pre-determined. As Liz Lemon might say, that’s a deal breaker.
Ms. C archly noted that this tremendous design flaw is also the thing that most realistically simulates actually working in the fashion world where, for the most part, you cannot do your own thing at all. “It’s like the real world. You’re a facilitator, bitch. Just do it.” Needless to say, this is not a point in favor of the game, which should be taking its cues from the show’s creative aspects rather than the drudge work.
We held out some vain hope that maybe, just maybe you’d have more choice in the real game. Yes and no. Each level has you teamed with one of the show’s contestants, accompanied by a seconds-long video clip and alarming looking cutouts of Timm Gunn and Heidi Klum during loading screens. They each have a handful of lines, with audio clearly taken straight from the show rather than recorded for the game. It’s more made to the computer’s order at each turn, fighting the clock to assemble the right length, sleeveless dress or whatever. The game does reward you for adding as much flare and nonsense as possible. It’s only metric is quantity, so the more buttons and prints you slap on, the better. Same for doing hair and makeup and accessories for your model.
“I would just play the Sims. There I can actually design things,” Ms C said with a sigh of bored resignation. “The life has been sucked out of me. I came in with all this energy and now I’m just sad.”
She didn’t even want to try the game’s only dim bright spot. There’s a rhythm game for doing your model’s strut down the catwalk and it even has balance board support. It’s kind of fun, although desperately easy, and at least you feel like you’re doing something active and interesting. But it’s a shallow pleasure, as fading as a model’s career, and we were left shaking our heads in sadness and disappointment.
We’d sat down to play Project Runway with hopes of having some simple, creative fun. I was excited to see a real fashion designer play with patterns and ideas for dresses and then watch them parade down the catwalk. Did I mention you don’t even get to choose the COLOR? With all the important decisions taken away from the player, this game was a terrible disappointment. I know, I know, I shouldn’t have been expecting much better from a budget, licensed Wii game. But a boy can dream can’t he?
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.