Among my online circle, Style Savvy: Fashion Forward's release date may as well have been a national holiday. Offering a welcome waypoint between No Man's Sky and the tantalizing promise of fall's packed release schedule, it had quite a few of us tweeting blurry pictures of our 3DS screens at one another, sharing tips, and subtweeting the hell out of our more troublesome fictional customers.
Yet based on some of its release coverage, it would be understandable if someone unfamiliar with Style Savvy got the impression the latest game in the series was socially regressive, if not outright sexist—a gum-popping mall princess sim spitting in the face of Lara Croft and Emily Kaldwin and Evie Frye and the all the badass lady characters we've been fighting tooth and nail to see more of in our games. It's just for little girls who don't know any better yet, the antithesis of everything that a modern, inclusive, enlightened gaming public ought to embrace.
And yet here we are doing just that, because Style Savvy: Fashion Forward is positive, affirming, and fun. It's a good game within a good series, and, just as importantly, it's not good "in spite" of being about fashion. Its subject and its quality are not water and oil.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, people love to look down on the femme. They embrace the notion that behaviors and interests often seen as femme (like fashion and shopping) are shallow and vapid. Even people who strive to be progressive and accepting can get caught up in this way of thinking—hell, I did through much of my childhood and adolescence.
It's the "she's not like the others" school of sexism; the one that says the little girl who chooses the superhero costume is making an objectively better choice than the little girl who chooses the princess costume, ignoring that choice is supposed to be the whole point. In a society where gender roles are constructed and enforced, many of us are pressured from an early age to make our choices based on how we want to be seen (or how others wants us to be seen) rather than on what we like. And we internalize that. Depending on the values of those around us, we learn to put the princess dress on even if we hate it, or refuse it even if we love it, because of what it represents. When considered more broadly across conventional gender lines, things only get more complicated.
You don't have to identify as femme to enjoy fashion, though, and ironically Style Savvy knows this. It makes as much room for tennis shoes as tulle and provides players with the tools to attract the style of clientele they identify with most. But that doesn't change the fact that interest in hair, clothing, and makeup is predominantly seen as a feminine pursuit.
It can be hard to extricate this knee-jerk dismissal of the overtly femme from the history of fashion games, because there've been some bad ones. But here's something I feel absolutely confident in saying: Not a single title in the history of gaming has been bad because it was about fashion. What has made many of these games bad is instead a lack of substance (and not because fashion is itself inherently insubstantial.)
Look at it this way: In a high-quality fantasy RPG, you do a lot more than walk up to a dragon and stab it a few times. Even at the most basic level there are other systems at play beyond this one repeatable interaction—equipment, experience points, skills, story, and so on. Whether we're talking about dragons or dresses, you still need systems, you still need scaffolding, you still need purpose. It's not enough to deliver content if there's nothing meaningful to do with it or to build toward. And just like any other kind of game, fashion games need to respect their audience enough to deliver those things, to provide a purpose, and that's where so many have fallen short.
If you want to see what it looks like when a game fails to respect its audience, then look no further than Barbie Dreamhouse Party, a collection of dry and repetitive mini-games and dress-up based on the "Life in the Dreamhouse Barbie" webseries. Few seemed surprised that the game was a letdown when it was released; after all, it was just another Barbie game.
Except it really shouldn't have been "just another Barbie game". Life in the Dreamhouse itself is the complete opposite of the game it spawned. It's lively and full of personality, deeply self-aware, and notably presents its characters as well-rounded individuals with diverse interests including fashion. They do more than skitter around collecting hidden shoes, changing their outfits, and stammering out jokes about non-fat yogurt as they did in the game. Life in the Dreamhouse is not without its problems, but the fact remains that Barbie Dreamhouse Party felt like a hot pink husk in comparison. It felt soulless, like a check being cashed.
This is certainly part of why Style Savvy has held my interest over the years. It doesn't feel like it sees its subject matter as shallow, so there's no excuse to make a shallow experience out of it. In fact, the series has historically been quite good at letting the player themselves decide just how deep they want to go, providing not just content (see Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer) but also risks, rewards, and just enough momentum in purpose to keep things interesting.
For example, here's how I personally play. Customers typically come to you with a budget, and if you exceed that budget by too much, they'll leave without buying anything—which is bad, because I'm not running some kind of fashion charity over here. I don't look at a budget as a limit so much as a starting point—it's key to remember that budgets are a soft cap. You can safely go a few dollars over just about every time without any risk. So when someone comes in (especially with a big budget), I will always filter my stock by price and pick a few of the more expensive pieces to build their outfit around. I always add a bag. I always add jewelry. I always layer (even if I don't really need to.) If I'm not exactly nine dollars over their budget, I didn't try hard enough.
The mannequin in your shop window, meanwhile, is an excellent place to display your most expensive outfit, because so long as it's well coordinated someone will inevitably pounce on it with no budget massaging required.
Yes, Style Savvy has given me a world in which I am a well-dressed muse to the masses, and I used that position to become a hyper-profitable capitalist monster. Because I could. Because Style Savvy gave me those tools and proper motivation to use them.
Beyond your business strategy, Style Savvy lays out its own complications as well. One of the better additions in Fashion Forward is just how effectively it mimics the pitfalls of customer service. In the hairstyling portion of the game, customers come in to request cuts and colors, usually with something in mind; except they don't always know how to express that—just ask the woman who told me she wanted her hairdo to make her "look just like toothpaste." Some will respond well to direct questions about what they want, while others are indecisive until you instead ask them something a little less pointed, for instance if they have any events coming up or if they're getting into any new hobbies. Just like a new runner may come to you for practical shoes, they may also come to you for practical hair. Through these questions, you can eventually wheedle out what style will make them happiest and (just as importantly) suit their needs. Sometimes they'll still struggle to find the language they want, or just outright forget to tell you something until you're finished, making you redo part of your work to get it right.
I might hate this system if it wasn't so true to life.
It bears mentioning that Fashion Forward has its flaws, many of them are the same flaws the series has always had. But it also encourages a very healthy way of thinking about personal style and accomplishes that in such a blessedly non judgmental way. You want to wear frilly clothes and spikey two-toned hair? Go for it. Blue blush and yellow lips? You do you.
There's a point early on in the game that encapsulates its philosophy rather well, when makeup artist Arabella tries to foist her taste on another character who's come to her for a new look. Arabella tells her client that she would look prettier if she did her makeup a certain way, and after you show her the error of her ways, she tells you, "Everyone should be able to choose how they want to look without being pressured by anyone else." That's the heart of Style Savvy. The point of respecting someone's choice is to respect them regardless of whether or not you personally connect with their choice.
The role of fashion and makeup in our lives is undeniably complicated, and no one should ever feel obliged to conform to something that they don't enjoy or aren't sincerely interested in.
And that goes both ways. Picking up Tomb Raider instead of Style Savvy shouldn't grant me bonus points on some kind of Cool Lady Gamer tally sheet . I'm in this hobby just as much for the rough-and-tumble ass-kickers as I am for the immaculately groomed boutique owners, and I will praise Style Savvy for years to come for giving me games that at least take that inclination seriously.
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