So there's a post that I think we should talk about. This one right here. This is a post by an artist for League of Legends defending a female character's design in meta-terms such as "readability" and "engagement" and "silhouette" - the usual terminology, common in gamer knowledge basically since Valve explained their character designs for Team Fortress 2. In essence, his argument is that character design in a meta-sense (i.e. characters designed by artists for an audience, rather than characters made to look believable) explains why the character is the way it is despite the occasional protest from those who feel her design is somewhat unbalanced.
Here's the character he's talking about.
One of the recurring themes of his defense of this character is the need to identify the character's gender. Whether it's in terms of her equipment or her physique, there's this sort of overwhelming need for gender to be reinforced by her design. To cherry-pick some quotes:
"So, we do often I believe have to make sure we're making sure to make sure that the figure is readable as a guy or girl. How do we do this? Well, proportion, accentuation, exaggeration, etc."
"If we make her too broad, you might mistake Sejuani for a male, that'd be, ya know, not what we want."
"Thickening her up, while addressing how a chick could wield such a weapon comes at a risk of her looking like a male also."
Here's a question that I don't think is unfair to ask: why is that important? Because that's the #1 thing he focuses on, apart from the occasional mention of "working within pre-established motifs" (which has its own problems, but one step at a time). Shouldn't a character's status as a warrior or a mage or a thief or any other class/profession be more important than their gender? It's just generally established that you need to be able to tell what gender a character is, because if you couldn't then (???).
Additionally, a huge amount of his post is dedicated to the idea of a "silhouette", which I think you'll notice has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she's wearing a bikini top. He's doing a bit of a clever job with word usage, making it seem like he's actually justifying that design, and all he's really saying is "we wanted it to make it look like a hot chick and our target audience wants to see hot chicks, ergo she's a hot chick, deal with it".
His justification reminds me a lot of my complaint with Soul Calibur, which was that many of the characters were designed in that meta-sense of appealing to fans and not in the sense of actually connecting their design to their characters or using them to illustrate something about said characters. However, the contrast was that Soul Calibur also had a few more reasonable characters (including female characters) whereas League of Legends' lack of such characters is why there were complaints in the first place. To sort of "work our way up from the bottom", let's look at the basic things that should go into believable character design.
The purpose of utility in character design is to illustrate how the character is affected by the world and how the character intends to affect the world. The thing about "meta-designs" is that they sort of exist in a vacuum: the artist sat down and made something s/he thought looked good, and that's the end of that story. In contrast, a character's utility or justified lack thereof says a lot about how seriously they take their work. A character clad head to toe in armor reinforces the idea that armor helps avoid dying, which then reinforces the idea that dying is a bad thing, which - simple as it may sound - creates tension. A character who bundles up in an arctic environment is conveying the climate as something other than "the ground is white and there's flakes in the air". A character who is scarred is an obvious veteran; I mean, that's basically the simplest indicator of veterancy there is. If you took two characters and drew scars on one of them, bam, nothing else needed, the scarred one has seen some serious business. If there's a story behind each scar, even better. The elements of the design help tell a story with the character, and thus become relevant to the story.
It's also possible to have designs that have only partial utility - that recognize a concept like "armor is good", but don't exactly follow it through. This is also the field of the meta-design, where parts of a character's design are used as a sort of visual shorthand without actually understanding the basic principles they're meant to represent. Skyrim was guilty of this quite a bit, which honestly was worse because of the fact that the game was so good at representing weather effects. Both the "armor" and "clothing" aspects of steel plate are sort of not-quite right: there's a solid cuirass with a warm layer of fur underneath it, but then there's no arm coverage at all and the shape of the plate itself leaves some unnecessary openings. Essentially, they included two elements that were reasonable, theoretically, but then didn't actually think them out in terms of how the character wearing them would react.
The benefit of having utility be fully, rather than partially, represented is that it allows the audience to tap into a lot of the sensory information lacking in an audio/visual medium, whether it's something as intense as pain and impact or something as simple as warmth or chill. I singled out Skyrim in the last paragraph because, as I mentioned, they did very well with the weather effects, enough so that I was able to truly imagine the feel of the wind and the cold air. It was therefore reasonably unimmersive when I couldn't really get any clothing that seemed up to the task of keeping a character warm under such circumstances, which is strange when you include the fact that "it's cold here" was basically the entire theme of the game's setting. It represented a break in an otherwise well-rendered product, which made it more severe.
there's right ways and wrong ways to go about doing it. Clothing is pretty much similar; a parka's going to be a parka no matter who's under it. The problems with female designs almost always arise from it being designed "by artists, for audiences" rather than being examined from an in-universe perspective. Yet, strangely enough, this same phenomenon is one of the most persuasive in terms of actually conveying the benefits of believability. People who don't really care about armor design or reasonable clothing in fantasy are still often a bit "put off" by the depiction of female characters, which raises questions about utility, which then lead to questions of their own. Basically, I'm saying that people who don't really care about believability are confronted with female designs so ridiculous that their suspension of disbelief is shattered and they begin to say things like "wait a minute that doesn't make sense from multiple perspectives", which is a net gain for people like me.
Of course, people don't only choose to wear what makes sense in a utilitarian sense. People have their own sense of aesthetics and fashion that affects what they choose to wear and in which situations they choose to wear it. The problem with this in a lot of character design is that (a) "style" is treated as being totally the opposite of "utility", as opposed to something that can be blended with it, and/or (b) the "style" in question is usually the artist's, not something justified as being related to the character's mindset. A character's sense of style can say as much about that character as their choices with regard to utility, so conveying that aspect of a character is just as important in terms of character design as an aggregate of a character's choices.
Furthermore, it's utterly fallacious to say that "style" by necessity means sacrificing utility. In some cases, of course, it does, but there were many ways to combine a sense of style and utility in cultures all around the world. The thing is, armor was worn by people, and people generally have a sense of style even in serious situations; they just look for ways to include stylistic choices without compromising an outfit's utility (and they know that if they DO compromise utility, they're going to pay a price for it). Even looking exclusively at clothing worn with armor (not even the armor itself), there's surcoats, tabards, jackets, skirts, tunics, puffed shirts, capes, cloaks, robes, plumes, and flags worn on your back. Some of you might notice some less-than-utilitarian items in that list, at least for combat purposes, and my counter is that they were generally useful in another sense, whether it was warmth or recognition (by other people, not by the audience). If you said they'd generally take those items off to fight, because a hindrance is a hindrance no matter how you cut it, you'd be totally right. I'm giving you a lot of credit here, but I think you've earned it, hypothetical reader.
I'd like to link to a rather interesting thread that notes (based on translations of French texts) that the Knights Hospitallier, almost intrinsically linked with the monastic concept of wearing robes into battle, in fact objected to them on utilitarian grounds and were eventually permitted by the Pope to not have to wear them if necessary. When I was talking earlier about "a contrasted lack of utility", that's the kind of thing I'm talking about. That situation would never arise unless the effects of clothing on combat effectiveness was represented, because everyone would wear what they want. Hence the religious devotion of wearing robes on the battlefield was established by the fact that the robes got in the way, which may seem like a little thing, but it's more than "they wear robes because they're monks, the end".
dresses like a dominatrix, and Sophitia Alexandra, the pure religious devotee who by SC4 is wearing literally two thin strips of linen over her breasts. I also pointed out several characters who lived in climates that supported more skimpy clothing, or who had personalities/backgrounds that would justify them. The problem is not "girls dress skimpy" or "girls have big tits" by themselves, but rather the fact that these attributes almost always feel like "the artist needs to include some boobs so that 14-year-old boys will buy it". A character's style and sense of fashion are reflective of their characters and their cultures, so there are ways to basically justify any outfit you care to name - it's just something you have to actually do, rather than relying on the audience (including the ever-critical feminist audience) to be like "oh okay that makes sense you've objectified her, good enough for me".
I'd like to take some final time here to acknowledge medieval Japanese designs, which serve as a quite interesting examination of a sort of "tug of war" between style and utility. Basically, the samurai had a lot of little things that started as utility and turned into style, or started as style and turned into utility, or even just sort of moved between them. Some examples:
- The samurai haircut, or chonmage, started as a utilitarian concept: it was designed to hold one's helmet in place. However, the fact that it became so common among samurai for that utilitarian reason meant that it became a sort of cultural standard, associated with the samurai class and the tradition they entailed.
- Samurai armor was both useful for defensive purposes and highly stylized due to the nature of its construction. The combination of lacquered scales/lames, colored lace (used to hold the armor together), and the clothing worn underneath meant that samurai were highly colorful and noticeable without sacrificing much in terms of defense. Later, during the Sengoku period, mass-produced breastplates made of banded steel plates were actually designed to look like older, more fashionable lamellar. That's not to mention helmet crests, which got more ridiculous the further up the chain of command you got (essentially trading combat utility, which was less needed if you were a high-ranking officer, for recognizability).
- Ritualized combat between warriors during battles was an expected norm during feudal-era battles, and this was arguably due in large part to Japan's insular nature. Japan's early civil wars were as much a ritualized affair of honor and personal esteem as they were about actual conquest. As such, most "battles" in Japan consisted of individual Samurai challenging each other to duels - because "style" was more important than "utility". For much the same reason, the Japanese eschewed the use of shields despite the importance of the bow in their culture. While many tenets of Bushido were created long after the period was actually over, martial honor in Japanese society was still very influential with regards to how their tactics evolved.
The reason these examples interest me is because they're stories about changing environments. They're an evolution, and in some cases a tradeoff. The rules of reality still applied to the samurai, just like they did to everyone else. It's just that, in most cases, they didn't care because combat was about ritual, not results - and when they found reasons to take it seriously, they moved towards utility. I could easily cite dozens of other warrior cultures that had similar concepts, such as the gladiators (whose outfits were designed entirely to draw a crowd, and yet still always included a helmet), but the point is made, I think. It's entirely possible to make a character whose design is (a) distinctive, (b) stylish, (c) justifiable, and (d) relevant, all without having to resort to bikini tops on your winter-themed warrior characters in the name of "silhouettes".