As someone who sells artwork at anime conventions, one of the things I look forward to most is seeing everyone’s cosplay. Being able to dress up and put time and effort into bringing a beloved character to life can be a magical experience in the real world. What’s especially great is seeing people in the different costumes that a single character may wear over the course of a story.
Clothing can be a powerful narrative tool—sometimes certain clothes can give some character new and special abilities. Other times, the clothing can be a symbol of internal change, growth, and a renewed sense of confidence. This can be an especially important mechanic for video games, and my best experience with this was in Final Fantasy X-2.
Plenty of games allow users to equip their characters with new armor, weapons, and sometimes accessories. Being able to accessorize a character’s outfit is oftentimes a necessary part of the gameplay. Certain bangles or earrings can make someone immune from negative status effects or even provide other benefits, such as increased strength or health. The wrong accessory at the wrong time can be the difference between beating a boss or getting a quick Game Over. Other video games take it a step further—instead of just using accessories, you can buy your characters new outfits to increase their strength and defense in order to deal with stronger enemies. Some games, such as many Final Fantasy stories, also utilize a class system. Both Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy Tactics do this. Depending on what class you make the characters, not only does their outfit physically change, but they get a new set of abilities.
White mages have healing powers, while black mages get offensive magic. Samurai have a strong offense and fight with a katana, and thieves have a weaker offense but can focus on stealing much needed items. The clothing change by itself isn’t necessarily as essential as the abilities the different classes give the characters—the Final Fantasy XII remastered edition has a class system with no overt outward outfit designs to go along with it. Tactics and X-2 are rare in that they take the time to animate the different outfits, and while this is not always necessary to the narrative, it can add to visual and thematic cues. White mages, for instance, often wear white robes, and their magic tends to be lighter in color. Black mages, however, usually have pointy hats and dark cloaks. Unfortunately, in this particular instance, Final Fantasy can easily fall into the “white is good and black is bad” stereotype. It offsets this by having both white and black magic be presented as useful and equally important, but as white magic only ever has one offensive spell called “holy”, it still accidentally plays into the stereotype.
When I first played FFX-2, I found myself put off by the mechanics. Yes, they are fun for the gameplay, but the way the story went about it infuriated me. I certainly don’t view the game as harshly now as I did before, but the fact of the matter is that the first Final Fantasy game with all-female party members decided to feature those characters undressing and posing sexily for the audience, and sometimes even asking if you’re turned on. At least one of the girls, Rikku, is underage.
To Final Fantasy X-2’s credit, though, being able to change clothes is integrated into the story fairly well. Our main characters are Sphere Hunters—spheres are crystal-like orbs with memories of the past stored inside them. Some of them are simply recordings of things that happened, others can be imbued with someone’s thoughts and feelings. One type of sphere is called a dressphere. Like other spheres, a dressphere is an orb with memories storied inside, only instead of a recording, a dressphere summons forth outfits that are imbued with the abilities of their original wearers.
Early on in the game, our main character Yuna uses a Songtress dress sphere. While wearing the outfit, Yuna feels the need to dance and sing, and FFX-2 ends up featuring two musical numbers. Unbeknownst to Yuna, however, the outfit she’s wearing belonged to a woman named Lenne who was murdered over a thousand years ago. One night, while Yuna falls asleep in Lenne’s outfit, she has an awful and out-of-place nightmare of being killed by a firing squad. This is naturally upsetting to Yuna, but she more or less writes it off as a dream. Later on, however, while performing the game’s second musical number, Lenne’s outfit and the memories stored within interact with another sphere, and it ends up broadcasting Lenne’s murder in vivid detail to Yuna’s audience. At the end of the performance, Yuna breaks down crying, because the dress also lets her feel Lenne’s emotions. It’s through these emotions that Lenne’s dressphere ends up helping set Yuna and her companions on a quest to save the world.
Despite all my grievances with FFX-2, of which there are many, this game has always stuck with me. Every time I play it, I can easily spend 50+ hours on a playthrough and still feel as if I want to continue. Not only does it give us a magical experience, but Lenne’s dressphere also coincides with Yuna’s internal conflict. Yuna feels out of place in the world. She’s a Sphere Hunter because that job is fun, but she’s also someone who constantly feels the need to help other people. She starts the game off by trying to be selfish and doing things for herself for once, but that isn’t fulfilling. Part of the reason why Lenne’s emotions confuse Yuna is because Yuna is unsure of herself and who she wants to be. On top of that, both Yuna and Lenne are pining after people they lost—this further conflicts with Yuna’s internal struggles and makes her question herself, because she cannot always tell the difference between Lenne’s emotions and her own.
I find Final Fantasy X-2’s use of clothing and visual designs much more compelling than the other Final Fantasy games. While in most class systems, the outfit is symbolic of a character’s abilities, in X-2 it is instead the cause of those abilities. On top of that, the ability to change one’s outfit is also plot related and ties in with Yuna’s internal conflict. I wholehearted still hardcore judge X-2 for all its gender stereotyping and male-gaziness, but I’ll give it credit where credit is due. The story could have easily made changing the characters’ outfits frivolous and unnecessary. Instead, it allows the characters to enjoy dressing up while the act of dressing up is still something that’s necessary to the gameplay and plot. This is actually why I prefer the class system in Final Fantasy X-2 more than I do for some of the other games in the series.
Often times, clothing choices are symbolic. They can tell us what kind of person a character is, whether they’re professional or disorganized, or outgoing or shy. Sometimes they just tell us what a character is capable of doing and are used to show an emotional change and growth. Final Fantasy X-2 builds on all of this by using outfits to coincide with Yuna’s internal struggle and confusion. No, it’s not perfect, and the game certainly has its share of sexist faults, but the plot itself is pretty creative, and that only adds to some great gameplay.