I’m trying not to make this another ‘female fantasy armour is ridiculous’ rant, because that’s a trope that’s been done to death. This collegehumour video fell flat for me because everything it says is too self-evident to be funny. Anyone who genuinely believes that ‘freedom of movement’ or ‘distraction’ outweigh the problem of armour that leaves large areas of skin uncovered is an idiot and I’m not going to attempt to reason with them. Instead I want to acknowledge why the problem exists and look into a possible solution where videogames are concerned.
I don’t think anyone really does believe in the ‘distraction’ or ‘freedom of movement’ arguments, certainly not the artists that create these images. They create costumes that they know are unrealistic, because they want the characters to be sexy. Also (and I think this is the main reason) they do it because of convention. No one else’s heroines wear sensible clothes, so why should ours?
And, you know what? I think it’s OK to make characters sexy. There’s plenty of room in fantasy for scantily-clad harem dancers or half-naked priestesses of the Snake God. There’s room for fantasy settings (ones with hot climates!) where men and women both walk around dressed in not much more than loincloths and oil. Especially if we avoid the double-standard and extend it to men’s costumes as well, skimpy outfits are fine.
What bothers me is specifically when the skimpy clothing is meant to be armour, and the male equivalent is full plate. It’s not just that it offends my sensibilities: it also breaks immersion for me. I can’t believe in a warrior who would choose to wear a chainmail bikini into battle. If I’m going to believe in the character as heroic then I have to have basic respect for her intelligence, and if she doesn’t see the problem with armour that leaves areas of flesh uncovered, I’m not going to have that respect.
Basically, I’m OK with my character looking like a slut, but I’m not OK with her looking like an idiot.
What could be done about this, though? I’m not sure that it’s true that a game’s characters have to be sexy in order for the game to sell, but let’s suppose for the sake of argument that it is. How can we make our characters sexy while still making their clothing choices believable? I can think of two ways to approach this.
Sexy isn’t the same as scantily-clad
Firstly, it’s too often forgotten that showing more skin isn’t the only way to make someone look good. A pretty face can easily be visible in a helmet with the visor up. Some designs of flexible armour could even show off a figure without sacrificing protection by displaying skin. (Rigid armour with breast-bulges aren’t realistic, though.)
Covering up more might make the characters more attractive, depending on the game’s graphics engine. Morrigan’s costume from Dragon Age: Origins might be quite sexy if worn by a real woman, but I found the characters’ skin in that game to be so creepily unrealistic that I would have preferred it if she had been covered neck-to-toe. Having someone wear a rigid or bulky costume would also disguise the game engine’s inability to animate soft fleshy bits. There’s a general principle at work: remember the game engine’s limitations at the concept art stage.
Finally, don’t forget that there’s more to sex-appeal than looks. A nice voice, a nice walk, and an appealing personality are going to count for something; and, like I said, the personality will be more appealing if she doesn’t appear to be suicidally stupid.
Give characters alternative outfits
I think the main problem in games specifically is that characters tend to wear the same outfit all the time. Player characters wear their armour not only in battle but also in camp and in court. NPCs are similar: if a character is meant to be a warrior, he or she will be fully armoured at all times. This means that if a character is meant to be a warrior and also sexy, their costume has to pull double duty.
There are reasons for this convention (besides saving on graphics time, it makes NPCs identifiable by their costumes), but it’s also unrealistic and therefore immersion-breaking. The heaviness of plate armour is sometimes exaggerated, but it’s still something you put on before going into battle and take off afterwards. Mediaeval knights owned sets of clothes other than armour.
It would be nice to see a game where characters wore different types of outfit for different situations. The player character could have several outfit sets: armour, travelling clothes, and courtly clothes, perhaps. The game could encourage players to dress appropriately using bonuses and penalties, or it could automatically dress the character appropriately for the type of gameplay. The non-combat outfits could be as revealing as you like, if that’s appropriate for the climate and the fashions of the setting, and that wouldn’t have to affect the armour. (The multiple outfit types could also introduce gameplay possibilities, with different courtly costumes providing modifiers to diplomatic gameplay in the same way that armour provides defensive bonuses.)
There are probably other solutions, and I’d like to know if anyone has any ideas.
Postscript: for examples of ladies’ armour done right, take a look at this Women Fighters in Reasonable Armour tumblr.