Clothing puts flesh on the avatar.
I’m with Tim Gunn on this one (and really in a sense anthropologists and sociologists before him, like Erving Goffman), fashion is a form of rhetoric. What you put on tends to communicate, be your desire to align yourself with your favorite sports team or with a musical subculture, advertise your competence for a job or political office, or make clear that you are available to the opposite sex (or maybe just for sex). What we put on is emblematic. Even the slob who just throws on whatever is in his closet this morning is inadvertently telling us something.
Thus, as games have grown more mature and more interested in communicating messages, stories, and ideas in a more complex way, it seems to me inevitable that the virtual closets of our avatars have expanded. In a medium where the visual plays a big role in speaking to its audience, understanding characters through their physical appearance is important. Character customization additionally plays to the medium’s strengths as it allows the player the opportunity to participate in how a story is told and how their virtual self is supposed to be understood in the context of the virtual performance that they are taking part in.
Just to illustrate what I am after in a relatively minimal way and to demonstrate how a single shift in appearance can make a difference in how we understand virtual drama, I would draw your attention to Dogtek’s simple Flash game, Hippolyta. In Hippolyta, the player is asked to take on the role of a captive amazon who is attempting to escape captivity by a Grecian army on the back of her horse. Hippolyta is dressed and armed minimally, wearing only a loin cloth and possessing only a spear for defense.
Now while reviewers of the game have made a great deal of noise over the fact that Hippolyta appears topless in the game (you know, the excitement of “boobies!”), few mention the effect that this choice of apparel has on understanding the character and her predicament. Indeed, the choice on Dogtek’s part to feature a near nude protagonist may be entirely salacious. However, the choice still has symbolic consequence. Like the infamous shower scene from Psycho, tension ramps up around a character that is in peril particularly when that character is represented at their most vulnerable. Part of the reason that Marion Crane’s murder is so powerful and memorable is the defenselessness that nudity implies. Clothing protects on a whole host of levels, and when you only have your bare hands to prevent being stabbed, the terror of vulnerability is heightened. Hippolyta’s situation, as a single individual trying to escape an entire army with the rules of the game also heightening her vulnerability (Hippolyta has no life bar, a single hit will kill her) , becomes more dramatic due to her vulnerability and reminds the player of his or her own vulnerability (again, the threat of the one shot kill).
The few character customization options that exist in the game make this tendency for the image of vulnerability to affect our understanding of Hippolyta’s predicament more clear. A full suit of armor is unlockable in the game. Thus, with more time spent playing the game and as the player’s competence at doing so grows, Hippolyta can be clothed. A fully armored Hippolyta astride her horse has the appearance of a far less vulnerable figure. Ironically, this armor does not actually effect the actual gameplay in Hippolyta (the armor literally provides no additional benefit for defense or add to vitality in the game), however, it does create the illusion of a less vulnerable protagonist. Additionally, there is some truth to this representation as well. As noted, the armor is only unlockable based on performance in the game. It is a safe bet that the armored Hippolyta is being guided by a player who will likely (due to practice and experience with the game) be less vulnerable. They are likely more competent at survival then when they first took on the role of Hippolyta, and the armor reflects that degree of competence.
Along somewhat similar lines, the transformation that occurs in the physical appearance of the Batman in Arkham Asylum speaks some clear messages about the protagonist's (and player's) experience in the game's world. As the game progresses, Batman's costume begins to show signs of wear. Tears across his chest appear after a few hours of gameplay. Soon enough his cape is torn, then becomes slightly shredded. The careful observer will note that Batman is sporting a five o'clock shadow in the closing encounters in the game.
Batman's slowly unraveling threads serve one obvious symbolic function and that is merely to represent the passage of time in the game. While time is sometimes marked in game worlds, often enough (except in games like the Fable franchise or the Sims series, which actually concern themselves with the aging of characters) it rarely can be seen on characters themselves, especially in the short term. Clothing remains cleanly pressed and unsoiled, despite characters that are often bathing in the blood of their enemies. Even games, like Dragon Age, that allow for blood to stain characters only make such effects temporary. Eventually your characters magically emerge clean and fresh for no apparent reason. In Arkham Asylum, Batman's unshaven jaw and steadily more disheveled duds clearly illustrate that encounters here have temporal and, thus, actual effects.
They are also emblematic of what is going on in the narrative itself. Batman begins his descent into Arkham seemingly rested and ready for battle. The state of his costume seems to speak to his state of preparedness. However, the eventual wear in his clothing and the more “uncivilized” state of his hygiene speak to the deterioration of his own body and mind as the regularity of battle and the psychically challenging encounters with characters like the Scarecrow also wear him down. If Bats is feeling a little nuts, he is beginning to look a little crazy. His body speaks his state of mind.
A similar sense of how the deterioration of clothing and hygiene effect our sense of an individual is built very directly into the gameplay itself of Deadly Premonition. Besides making sure that he has enough ammo to battle supernatural hordes, assuming the role of Agent Francis York Morgan of the FBI also requires the player to concern themselves with maintaining York's appearance. It might seem strange that a survival horror game is interested in what are more or less the mechanics of a life sim, interestingly though, this need speaks very directly to the fact that the main character of the game is a professional.
At the beginning of the game, York has three suits that he can swap among to change up his look. However, the choice of suits is not merely arbitrary or based on the players desired look for the character. When York visits his suitcase, the various suits' statuses are given, a suit might “look like new” or be “starting to look dirty” or be “very dirty.” York can send suits out for cleaning to improve that status, though that takes time in the game. Changing out of a dirty suit into a fresh one results in a monetary bonus for the player. Additionally, York can shave when he stops by a bathroom mirror and doing so also results in a cash reward. These rewards might seem strange to players who are more accustomed to games in which they are financially rewarded only for doing things like looting bodies and treasure chests, but again, this really speaks to the nature of York as a professional.
York is given a cash bonus at the end of missions in Deadly Premonition seemingly in response to him “doing his job” for the Bureau. Such rationale also explains why cash bonuses are received for dressing appropriately. It is a requirement of his job, dressing well in an occupation that requires one to lean heavily on his credibility when interacting with the public is going to make for a successful agent. Intriguingly, Deadly Premonition allows the maintenance of clothing to speak to job performance and success in ways more subtle than most games have considered. Additionally, it is entirely possible for the player to ignore the reward system built into dressing respectably. Monetary rewards do not follow such decisions, and ultimately, the folks that York encounters during his investigation will begin to treat him differently, less respectfully, as York's soiled clothing begins drawing flies.
It may seem counterintuitive that placing a layer of what is already an artificial representation (clothing) over an artificial representation of a human makes that representation seem more real, more “natural,” but clothing puts flesh on the avatar.