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Style Savvy’s Fashion Limitations

A screenshot from Style Savvy Trendsetters. It shows a woman with long black hair and a thoughtful expression in a shop. The text box reads, Maybe what I need is... something... with an edgy kind of feel to it.

I’ve borrowed a 3DS and have been playing Style Savvy: Trendsetters, the sequel to the 2009 DS game Style Savvy. They are both fashion games that are part business sim: players take on the role of a manager of a fashion boutique and are tasked with picking out items for customers according to their taste and keeping the store stocked. With these two elements, the game combines strategy with creativity in a fresh way. A customer will come in and ask for, say, a bold shirt, and if the player picks a shirt of that taste, the customer will buy it, adding funds to the shop, which the player then use to buy more stock. Customers will often ask for entire outfits in a certain style, or if the player puts together a good outfit on her window mannequin, someone will buy the entire thing. That’s the creative part. The strategy part comes in when the player heads to the buyer’s center to stock up on items. There are a number of brands in different styles, and the player needs to decide which items will best meet her customers’ needs. Trendsetters is different from the original in that it adds men’s fashion, a slightly creepier art style as far as faces are concerned, and 3D.

I enjoy both games a lot, and yet there’s also something deeply limiting about them. Items in the game have a number of different attributes, but the most important are brand and taste, which are related. There’s an edgy brand, a gothic lolita brand, a pop brand, a preppy brand, an athletic brand. So when someone comes in asking for a pop t-shirt, the player just looks for the Mint Sprinkles brand and the customer will be all over it. In the original game, the player had to memorize which brand was which (most were obvious, but some were less so), but Trendsetters adds the ability to search the shop inventory based on any number of factors, including brand and taste, which are separate. In the sequel, if someone asks for bold pants, but the shop doesn’t have anything from the bold brand, AZ USA, something from the edgy brand Stage Dive may do.

So there’s a little more freedom this time around, but it still doesn’t quite capture what’s fun about fashion, which is putting together an outfit with unexpected combinations that somehow totally work, or combining styles that balance each other out. In the world of Style Savvy, only the expected is allowed. Successful outfits generally mean dressing head-to-toe in a specific brand. My favorite kind of outfit is to mix girly dresses with tough boots, jackets, and accessories, but in the game, that would be fashion blasphemy. You can’t mix Stage Dive and Cantata Modo! That’s just ridiculous!

But in the real world of fashion, rules are made to be broken. Traditional rules like “don’t pair brown and black” just don’t hold any more. But I’m a programmer, I know how computers work, and computers need hard and fast rules. A computer can’t judge something as subjective as style (not yet, anyway). So unless a game is purely creative, there are going to be these limitations. I don’t fault Style Savvy for having those limitations; after all, it does quite a good job of making the player feel like a boutique manager within them. But I can’t help wishing that the game gave the player a bit more freedom to mix things up, to create something unexpected.

Style Savvy’s Most Glaring Issue

I played and finished Style Savvy earlier this year, and I kind of loved it. If you’re unfamiliar, it is Nintendo’s aggressively-marketed fashion game for the DS where you play as a stylist and boutique manager. You buy clothes to stock your shop, and help customers find pieces that fit their style and preferences. For example, a customer will say something like, “I’m looking for a skirt that matches my quirky style!” Based on key words (like “quirky”), what the customer is wearing, and sometimes the person’s personality blurb, you can figure out what brand they like, and then it’s just a matter of picking the item they asked for from that brand. Although there are occasionally variations (for example, if a person is wearing all blue, they might buy something that isn’t their favorite brand, if it’s blue), that’s how it works.

Despite how the game (perhaps necessarily) simplifies fashion and style, I quite enjoyed it. There’s a focus on using clothes as a creative outlet and a mode of self-expression, an attitude similar to that of many folks in the style blogosphere. But the game has a glaring problem that cannot be overlooked: your character, and every single one of your customers, all look like this:

A screenshot from Style Savvy. On the right are five different necklaces to choose from, on the left is a female avatar shown from mid-thigh up. She has a tiny waist and narrow hips.

While there are a few NPCs that have unique character models (though they are all thin, also), every other character has the exact same size-zero body. Since this game is on the DS, it’s possible that there are technical reasons for this, but that’s not an excuse I accept. And it certainly explains why I don’t need to worry about buying clothes in different sizes. But thinking about it, it becomes kind of disturbing. It’s not just that everyone is thin, it’s that everyone is exactly the same.

But also, fashion is notoriously sizeist and fatphobic. It’s no coincidence that Pepsi’s “slim, attractive” new can debuted at Fashion Week. (Really, the entire “bodies” tag at SocImages is ample evidence.) And yet, while the target audience of the game may be fans and followers of high fashion, the game seems to evoke the sensibilities of the democratized online world of street-fashion blogging, with its emphasis on self-expression and experimentation. But the vast variety of bodies that make up this world are nowhere to be seen in Style Savvy. Where are the women like St├ęphanie (whose blog subheading is “Style is not a size but an attitude”), or the Fa(t)shion February crew?

(This is not to say that the fashion blogosphere is a happy shiny fully-inclusive space–far from it. The young and thin bloggers are the most likely to get well-paying advertisers and free designer clothing. But due to the nature of the internet, it is still far less exclusionary than the fashion industry and traditional press. It’s possible to carve out fat-positive and inclusive spaces, like the Fa(t)shion February project.)

Sometimes games present worlds that conflict with our own experiences, breaking our suspension of disbelief, and in that conflict we can tell something about the biases and assumptions that went into creating that world. The world of fashion in Style Savvy is comprised entirely of very thin people, which is simultaneously a discouragingly accurate depiction of high fashion and a completely unrealistic depiction of the broader realm of street fashion. In Style Savvy, clothes and makeup and hairstyles are all that separates one person from another, but in the real world, a person’s body can be, and often is, an intrinsic part of their style. It’s certainly always a consideration–fashion is part sculpture, where different fabrics and cuts can change a person’s proportions: clothing and body work together to create art. The game mouths the ideals of fashion as self-expression, but it falls flat when the actual physical self is taken entirely out of the equation. People are different, and those differences should be celebrated, not erased.