I’ve always been a fan of outfits, and was a fan of the Final Fantasy series, so when I first played Final Fantasy X-2 with a battle system centered around changing outfits, I knew I would like future games a lot less without similar flourishes. It was one of the few games that began to throw into relief the difference between instrumental play, or playing a game strictly hewed to efficient goal accomplishment, and some other more personal play, where preference and the way I related to what was going on took over my actions. It’s common for games to make clothing and appearance mechanical, needing some sort of hard-etched material rule attached to it. This changes the nature of how clothes function, or at least, harshly normalizes it. Think about how clothing exists in reality: many items of clothing have no direct practical use or even are known to cause discomfort while wearing them, but we still keep these around for varying methods of expression. So I’ve been curious about how fashion is starting to push through the conventions of game design, enjoying the experiments of works like The World Ends With You and Style Savvy. And maybe it was the reintroduction of multiple numbering systems that let the Final Fantasy series play with clothes again in XIII-3, Lightning Returns.
Outfit-based combat takes a more loose interpretation in Lightning Returns, paring down on X-2’s job system associations and making the abilities more customizable, as well as the colors of many parts of the outfits. There is still some mechanical leftovers from the past two games, making some outfits better for certain roles previously called Paradigms, but because there’s such a wide range of these and on easy mode (with exceptions) the mechanical differences submit to aesthetic preferences more often than not. This is bolstered by the barks of townspeople in the game, which differ depending on what kind of outfit Lightning is wearing, essentially letting the player craft their identity and presence in the world of the game, much like how fashion works in our world. For instance, I came to enjoy putting Lightning in men’s lounge suits, which had the people of Nova Chrysalia treating her as an arguably queer character, often revealing queer impulses of their own in a way you wouldn’t necessarily see as often in reality, or in other games for that matter.
But what makes a fashion analysis more pertinent for Lightning Returns is how Square-Enix has lent her to highly prestigious fashion houses as a model multiple times, first for Prada and most recently for Louis Vuitton. Another article will need to be devoted to how the fashion industry portrays her versus how people who’ve played her games view her (hint: one of the few times gamers are in the right), but this reveals some undercurrent forces at work with the Final Fantasy series. Out of video games in general, Final Fantasy is known for its distinctive and typically maximalist outfits, ranging from androgynous men to relatively modest (for games) and highly decorated women to characters with indiscernible genders, typically because of their clothing. The styles of Final Fantasy games have influenced the JRPG genre as a whole, and given how similar their theatricality is to some runway shows, feasibly the top digital couture house in video games. If so, maybe Final Fantasy series were never really video games, but interactive fashion lines with Tetsuya Nomura as the main visionary behind the experience. Maybe wearing the costumes from the series isn’t in fact cosplay, but the haute couture of nerd culture.
Nothing makes this reading stronger than Lightning Returns. There are different discernible lines in the games, from elegant latex vampire goth to tailored menswear to detailed theatrical gowns to kitschy interpretations of standby Final Fantasy job roles like the Black Mage. How they are organized and worn follow how fashion designers have loose inspirational concepts behind how they display their lines, for instance the elements or themes on the flowing fabric of her original outfit. Most importantly is how the game incorporates the street style photography now central to being seen in fashion circles through the final poses Lightning strikes at the end of battle, absolutely begging the player to screenshot her extravagant, faithfully JRPG movements that vary depending on the outfit. Battles felt more like a system to get Lightning moving in dramatic ways in her clothes more than feeling satisfied with defeating monsters, with the flourishes that come with changing outfits mid-battle, the different types of abilities, and the finishing move in her combos resulting in an extra sweeping gestures.
Strictly in JRPG game convention, Lightning Returns is boring and derivative in a way that is to be expected for the second offshoot of a game that is part of an interactively homogenous series. That it is a game is the least interesting part about it, save that it is a mostly unexplored method of experiencing fashion. Interpreting Lightning Returns as a fashion line raises a lot of questions, like the relationship between people who follow runway shows but rarely, if ever, wear the clothes featured in them and ideas about spectacle surrounding that. That people have an involvement with fashion that is purely conceptual or imaginative isn’t so much of a stretch if we see fashion being in the business of desire like how many see video games as the business of escapism. Fashion photography and advertising has always accepted surrealist notions of art to display clothing, and incorporating digital bodies might be the next step of having people connect their desires to a new imagining of the self.
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