This week I want to discuss something a bit more specific and mechanical: the clothing in Pokémon X/Y, and how it ultimately relates to engaging the player. Picking out a character’s clothing is the kind of thing which shows up in various games, but it’s not as simple as putting in extra art assets and telling the player to have at it. Here’s why clothes don’t just make the (wo)man, they can make the game too.
In Pokémon X/Y there are multiple clothes retailers spread around Kalos (the region in which the game takes place). While you start the game with a standard set of clothes, you can spend some of your money on a number of articles of clothing, such as shoes, hat, trousers and top, which you can then swap between whenever you’re in town.
To give you an idea of the scope of clothing choices, there are multiple styles and colours for each type of clothing (jackets or shirts for the male tops, each in several different colours, for example). For those of you out there who like numbers, I’d estimate something like a million unique combinations of clothing sets. Add on top of that the ability to change a few other details about your appearance, such as your hairstyle and hair colour, and you have a reasonable amount of control over your appearance, especially considering the series only just moved to cartoonish 3D models with this iteration.
The character’s attire and looks have no mechanical function (no stat boosts, no gateways which require the player to change clothing), but they can make all the difference to the player nonetheless.
One clear method of enjoyment in games is self-expression. Just think about the popularity of a game like Animal Crossing, the slew of collectible card games where the player builds his or her own deck, or even the crazily creative things that get constructed and shown off in Minecraft. Whether or not you think that your clothing in real life says much about you, showing off aesthetics through a combination of choices and effort in games compels a lot of people. In short, it’s engaging.
Moreover, if you have ever wondered why a game character only has one outfit (or why it has to be that outfit), then you know clothing can break the fantasy of the game while choices can reinforce it. Picking which outfit to buy (or choose not to buy) can make it feel more like your game avatar is an individual (and might even be you).
However, these forms of engagement are not for every game. While it might seem like a cute idea, tacking on clothing choices to an otherwise straight-forward puzzle game could easily be a waste of effort (and in the worst case actively distract from the experience the player is looking for). This is not the case in Pokémon X/Y though.
As a series, Pokémon already invites self-expression in the player’s choice of pokémon and strategies, so adding additional avenues of expression is not at odds with the game. I also discussed a few weeks ago how the Pokémon series aims to build up the fantasy of its world, so reinforcing it with a main character that can actually change clothes from time to time is an equally resonant decision on this front.
So we’ve established that clothing options fit Pokémon as a game (and in fact they fit the overarching theme of ‘style’ in Pokémon X/Y), but three additional decisions about how these options were implemented stand out to me and deserve highlighting.
First, the clothing is completely non-functional. This means it is purely an avenue of self-expression or fantasy-building. If you don’t care about how you look, you can ignore the clothing shops and stick with the standard attire. No time or resources are wasted, and perhaps you even feel good for the time and money you’ve saved (this is beginning to sound like my decision-making process when not going clothes shopping in real life).
If you do care, however, you have no pressure to balance functional value with aesthetic choice (there’s still plenty of that to do with the team of pokémon themselves, if that’s your cup of tea). There are even avenues to show off these choices, like automatic portraits shared between players who are connected locally or through the internet, or even player-made videos of your avatar!
Second, the options are not all available immediately. There are numerous clothing stores spread throughout the game, each of which stocks a small portion of styles and only a couple different colours at a time. The styles available in each shop stay the same, but the colours may change when you revisit the stores after some time has passed. This means that just as you can progress in your quest to be the pokémon champion or fill the pokédex, you can likewise quest for just the right outfit, uncovering new styles or returning to familiar shops to hunt for the right colour.
In addition, spreading the options across shops dotted about the region means the choice of clothing is not all front-loaded in a single sit-down session. The player doesn’t need to choose exactly how his or her character looks at the beginning of the game, or spend an hour or two (or more) rifling through hundreds of choices at a single point in the game. The action of the game doesn’t get broken up, and the choices are spaced out so as not to overwhelm the player (just as a designer would not normally front-load all the mechanical choices of a game).
Finally, the clothing costs in-game currency – and by the time you get to the most expensive clothing stores, it is no small amount of money. This might initially seem at odds with the clothing being non-functional, but in my mind it fixes what is normally a ‘broken’ money system. While individual experiences will certainly vary, I’ve found that, like many JRPG-style games, money in Pokémon is balanced for the beginning of the game (a few potions here, a few poke balls there), and plentiful to the point of being meaningless by the end.
While the designers could balance the game differently, requiring tighter spending decisions by the player in order to succeed, this could easily narrow the field of player choices and change the focus of the game. However, with clothing, there’s no concern that the game will become unbalanced through this new avenue of spending.
Players who find themselves with an excess of money easily have places to spend it if they wish, but nobody is functionally punished for not doing so. Anybody who wishes to unlock all the options but has not stumbled upon a small fortune has a few strategies or activities available to improve their overall income (and honestly I think it’s pretty cool that I can keep up a minute-long daily part-time job in a game so that I can save up for that stylish shirt I really want). Everybody wins.
Purely aesthetic clothing choices in a game that encourages expression and reinforces a fantasy role make a good fit. While the design choices made around clothing in Pokémon X/Y might not be right for all games, I think they are a really good place to start in general.
Separating these choices from any functional value, especially amidst other systems which combine aesthetic and functional choice, allows the players who care to go wild without frustration, and allows the players who don’t to simply ignore it. I have had many back-and-forth discussions with friends who agree or disagree about aesthetic choices being linked or unlinked to functional value, so it’s clearly a touchy subject, and one to be considered on a case-by-case basis as a designer. I think in Pokémon, you get the best of both worlds (and perhaps we should see more of that in other games).
Spreading the options across the game prevents choice overload and makes it more likely the player will pick up on the aesthetic choices and pursue them like any other goal or skill to be mastered. The designer doesn’t want a player to skip over a system they would otherwise enjoy just because of a ‘tl;dr’ feeling. Taking it a step further, just because it’s not ‘functional’ in a traditional sense doesn’t mean aesthetic choices can’t follow a kind of progression, unlocking as the player makes progress, and driving overall engagement just as much as mastery of a system.
Finally, allowing the player to buy into these options as an alternative to buying functionality or simply amassing meaningless wealth can be a really useful balancing agent for otherwise difficult to balance money systems. It occurs to me while writing this that plenty of games use this appeal to get players to pay real money for aesthetic options, but I’d rather not weigh in on that too much, as arguing the pros and cons of such a system gets messy fast, and that’s not really my point here.
What are your thoughts? If you played Pokémon X/Y, what did you like about it? Did you enjoy the choices of clothing, or did you ignore them? How do other games handle aesthetic choices, and what are some of the nuances that you enjoy? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading.