The convergence of role-playing and dress-up games

The stars of Final Fantasy Type-0 are an army of teenagers. The most iconic image of them all, in red capes, is burned into the loading screen. They pose dynamically on a mound with their weapons. Flag at an angle. What they’re standing on isn’t quite a mound of bodies, but the designers know that that’s what you’re thinking. The group stares out through the chaos, unbowed. It’s the image of heroes from every war movie and propaganda photo you’ve ever seen, except their kit is neatly pressed school uniforms with those red capes over the top, and they’re just kids. Each has perfect emo hair and their own way of wearing the identical uniforms. The opening cutscene went out of its way to remind us that war is bloody and terrifyingly random, but these characters seem untouched by that.

With uniforms, the signalling of a hierarchy is entirely upfront

Fashion is in its own way role playing—clothes stand in as social armour, signal submission to norms, are a vessel for appearing ordinary or extraordinary. But mostly, in the clothing most of us wear every day, the details that speak about your place in the world are a covert language that takes knowledge to read. It’s in the precise shape of a collar, the prominence or absence of stitching on shoes. With uniforms, the signalling of a hierarchy is entirely upfront, and guides are published in case anyone is in any doubt about what those stripes, that braid actually mean.

Schools use uniforms for exactly the same reason as the army do—to make everyone look and feel like part of a cohort. This is a game full of uniforms, and these character designs work hard to both tell a story about a visually coherent world, but also give clarity to the game and help you parse the world. Final Fantasy’s costumes are a rich part of the world building, but also careful to signal the underlying systems. In Type-0, coloured capes denote different school classes. Each have a different magic speciality, so once you’ve learned to read the code you can tell at a glance who will have what properties on the battlefield. As videogames look increasingly detailed, more and more time and thought is put into these designs and how they mesh with your in-game actions.

That isn’t even the only cape-based system in the game. You can also acquire capes which improve your stats and protect from harmful effects. The White Cape protects from Silence—an effect that prevent a character from speaking or casting magic spells. It’s been an item in pretty much every Final Fantasy since the first one was made for the NES, when it was represented by a few blocky pixels, a name and a stat boost. Acquiring the cape can have a significant effect on the game—for some of the characters having your voice taken away in battle is a catastrophic moment of powerlessness. If the red cape is there to reveal systems, the white is part of the deep mechanical roots of the game, and its genesis can be traced back to the very start of role-playing games.

That history starts with Dungeons & Dragons. Game mechanics tend to develop quite slowly, but occasionally new ones seem to pop fully formed into being, and then it’s hard to imagine what it was like without them. The D&D designers made one of those leaps and created an entirely new category of games—almost by accident, you get the impression. It’s not an easy history for outsiders to parse—if you weren’t there, this isn’t something the British Library has a section on. I talked to James Wallis, who has been involved in the development of tabletop and roleplaying games as a player, game designer and publisher since the early ‘80s.

this isn’t something the British Library has a section on

It started in 1971 with a supplement in the back of a medieval wargaming book, which, along with mass combat rules for 20:1 scale miniatures and jousting variants, contained an optional fantasy setting heavily influenced by Tolkien. The game let players get into fights and win or lose, depending on their strength and a random chance element introduced by a dice roll. The opponent may drop some loot, and the stronger it is the better the loot will be. It’s a loop that continues to be a huge part of games to this day—it’s compelling, gives constant challenge and a feeling of progression. In the original tabletop iteration, it has the advantage that items only need be described in terms of the effect they have on the world. Sword +3. Vorpal Blade—instant beheading on critical hit.

The game’s development was shaped by the unique constraints of being played mostly in people’s heads. “One of the masterstrokes of the early design of Dungeons & Dragons was its simplicity—it’s there in the name,” Wallis told me. “Dungeon Mastering is not an easily learned thing. Later editions have done a good job with hand holding, but it was useful that for the early ones, if you put someone in a dungeon that’s a series of underground corridors, … the vocabulary of action is very reduced. So the Dungeon Master doesn’t have to think about too many possibilities.”

The world was built from the fantasy novels of the day—taking wholesale from Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance and Tolkien, always choosing ideas and items that players would already have a picture of in their head. When the tools of a game are talking and dice, sticking to things everyone will get is one of the key constraints of the medium. And, as Wallis says, “No book in history has ever given you a sword +1, but in game terms it works beautifully.” Games which tried to load up players with detail and complexity before they started playing were never as popular as those where you could find out everything you needed to know in a few lines.

There is no place for the kind of visual signalling that’s set up in Type-0—those early D&D books have art in them, but it’s window-dressing, has no functional value in understanding the world. You do that by learning the rules and looking up numbers. The systems are much closer to the surface here. D&D’s rules have to be explicit because it’s the players rather than a game engine that’s going to have to provide the feedback and keep the game moving forward.

D&D trained up a whole generation of players and game designers

People kept on dungeon crawling. RPGs have changed a lot since the 70s, but D&D trained up a whole generation of players and game designers with a common language and set of base expectations. Settings and experiments with different types of games proliferated, but they share the same basic understanding of what the game involves. The system of winning better and better cloaks and swords became ingrained, and when people started to use their game knowledge to do this on computers, the cloaks came too.

And so Type-0 has two capes, both of which work to support play. Twenty years into the series, there is so much more visual splendour to play with, but these are still interactive games, not movies. The two garments play entirely different roles, although they’ve ended up as similar forms. But now you can see and clothe your avatar, the density and variety of what we’re pulling from real life to reform to work inside a game has become extraordinary. And all RPGs are now a little bit dress up games as well as fighting simulators.