Ah, sex appeal and costume design. It’s a sprawling, multifaceted topic that requires that you be versed in many OTHER sprawling, multifaceted topics if you want to understand it from every possible angle. Like designing with anything else in mind, you (hopefully, most likely, please) want to do it intelligently and respectfully. I am not a teacher; I am merely a foulmouthed artist on the internet, but maybe putting my rant and inevitable tangents in paragraph form will convey something useful on the subject.
The thing I always keep in mind when designing a titillating character is that no matter what anyone designs, no matter how much or how little the character wears, someone will find it sexually appealing. Look up any [AAA-game] character. There is porn of them. Seriously. For that reason, in my opinion, it’s not even that necessary to TRY and make a costume “sexy.”
First of all, making a costume sexy in the conventional way (less clothing = more sexy) (hereafter shortened to “sexy”) can reach a point of diminishing return. The less coverage there is on a combatant character, the more it stretches the suspension of disbelief for the part of your audience that cares about that sort of thing. Trading believability for “sexiness” is basically guaranteed to alienate some viewers. There will also ALWAYS be a small contingent clamoring for MORE TITTIES but those people really, really don’t need any more pandering to. Ignore them.
(There will also be a group of people clamoring for ALL ARMOR ALL THE TIME, which… well, if the character fights, I won’t say these people don’t have a point. On the other hand, sometimes you want to take the opportunity to show something about a character beyond “they fight.”)
So it comes down to this: “sexy” costumes are more likely to only be subjectively appealing. Flattering (meaning: well designed, fits correctly, highlights attractive parts of the character) costumes that make contextual sense are more likely to be universally appealing, or at the very least, not be offensive or confusing.
Never forget: People will or will not find characters sexually appealing regardless of your intention.
So back to the clothed=neutral/nude=sexy
fallacy spectrum, here’s something most of tumblr will agree with: skimpiness disparity in the same outfit on different sexes is not cool. The only reason to dress female characters in less clothing than the male equivalent is that somebody on the food chain of game development wants to see sexy ladies in skimpy outfits and hasn’t given any critical thought to the matter. It stems from a big societal clusterfuck with contributing factors from many sources that the rest of tumblr can elaborate on at length if my dear reader is not up to date on their feminism.
The TL;DR version: if your male version is in full plate armor, the female version better be as well. If the female version is wearing a bikini, the male version better be wearing a speedo. Any inconsistency on this front and it’s just perpetuating a disparity that is exhausting, trite, childish, pandering, transparent, shallow, and other synonyms thereof.
From what I have seen, Guild Wars 2 has some interesting wins and fails on this front. This departs from this post’s theme of ‘sexiness’ a bit, but given my perspective that anything can be sexy to anyone, it doesn’t really matter.
I would declare [THIS] a win. I like how the bare areas on both costumes show off areas of physical strength: her well defined abdomen and his muscular chest. She has adequate support up top. Details are appropriately scaled to fit the proportions of each character. Overall Guild Wars likes to make female outfits more feminine and male outfits more masculine, and this is no exception, but mobility and comfort are not really sacrificed for the sake of girl-ifying the outfit. In fact, the only thing that makes me go “huh” are the straps on his chest — are they taped there? I feel like it’s missing an extra strap across the chest. Anyway, I’d say these characters are sexy for the same reasons. They’re both strong and rugged-looking… for fashion models. They look like they wear less because they’re so boss that the cold is no obstacle.
[THIS] bothers me a lot more. The male version is fucking badass. It feels like its from a unique fantasy culture with a rich history, and you can infer a little bit about his job from his accessories. (Colorful bottles imply magic or alchemy, the skull and the claw details on the hood and boots give it a darker vibe. Necromancer, poison expert, something like that. I haven’t played GW2.) The female version is like, they took some aspects of the male design and projected it onto a Lolita outfit. It’s like the Halloween costume version of the male design. There are no teeth/skull details, no feathers, no utility belt, no fur lining, nothing that informs what her job might be. There’s a weirdly inconsistent level of tailoring and structure between the versions. She has a rigid corset, he has a soft fur-lined jacket. I wouldn’t think a society with the level of technology to make the costume on the right would have the means to make sheer stockings and elastic. I would argue that based on the male version, the appeal of this costume might come from the aspect of mystery and danger. The mystery and danger of the female version is somewhat hampered by the pom-pom boots and frilly skirt and it just becomes something we’re supposed to find attractive because stockings and corsets are visual shorthand for “sexy.”
Anyway, none of this is taking into account the specific character you are designing for. So far I have looked at this question from the angle of, say, designing for an MMO, where the only objective (apart from fitting in the art direction) is to show what class the character is.
In the case of story-driven games, there are always exceptions to this idea of sexy vs. logical & flattering. In an existing IP, for example a direct sequel, if your art direction has established it and your audience is accustomed to and expects a certain level of costume-logic-bending, then it’s generally acceptable… until it reaches the point of Unwearable By Humans. It’s also fine to tell practicality to fuck off when the entire IP is consistently over-the-top deliberately tacky oversexed insanity, as in the case of Bayonetta.
Sexiness, when it comes to characters defined by narrative designers/a plot, is pretty simple.
1) Considering all factors (role in the story, personal priorities, cultural background, values, etc), would the character wear this?
2) If not, it’s probably pandering.
In characters with personalities, you have many ways to reinforce the idea of sexiness, namely animation and dialogue. If a character wants to have lots of sex, says s/he wants to have lots of sex, and actually does have lots of sex, it’s probably appropriate for him/her look like she is DTF. The quintessential example:
You see cleavage because SHE wants you to see cleavage. She wears no pants because ISABELA NEEDS NO PANTS, and also because “how quickly can I take these clothes off again” is something
I guarantee she thinks about when getting dressed in the morning (verified by Sheryl Chee, sort of, I quote: “if she has a problem she will probably just knife the clothes off”). She’s also a pretty damn good duelist, and awfully confident, and maybe for that reason she thinks avoiding damage is a non-issue. If you consider the entire spectrum of video game ladies, though, she’s fairly modestly dressed.
If a character’s sexuality isn’t even brought to the table, or the character has a million things above “sex” on his/her to-do list, or sex is a private matter for them, then appearing Sexy In The Less Clothing Kind Of Way is not appropriate. Someone out there will want to rub one out to that character regardless of what the costume is, and that person doesn’t need the help of cleavage-window armor. You need to design for the character, not necessarily for the audience; otherwise it’s basically just porn.
There’s nothing wrong with porn, of course, but I do have a problem with trading an opportunity to show something about a character for something that is purely for the shallow gratification of some of the audience.
We can’t, however, forget that it’s possible for a character to be from a culture where wearing less clothes is not synonymous with sex appeal, body shyness might be an alien concept, modesty might not have anything to do with being covered up, and so on. So go ahead, design that topless lady character. HOWEVER:
If the only women in that culture with bare breasts are young and conventionally attractive, you are being dishonest. If you are an animator and use posing to emphasize those bare breasts, you are being dishonest.If you are a cinematographer and use camera angles and lingering shots to showcase those bare breasts, you are being dishonest. When it stops being about the character and starts being about you, there is a problem.
This kind of grossness only ever happens with female characters, for more reasons that tumblr can explain if you’re not caught up on your feminism. For the record, it also applies to characters with COVERED breasts. Anyway, I doubt we’ll see a bare-chested non-prop female character anytime soon for ratings and general immaturity reasons, but, y’know. I’m ranting. I DO WHAT I WANT.
Soapbox time: I think sex appeal in characters is mostly about respecting your audience. This is especially true in the case of story driven game where you’re trying to develop a fictional person for whom fans will hopefully have feelings about and become invested in. If you want your audience to love a character like a person, treat the character like it IS person. Hopefully that’s easy to get, because it’s hard to explain. This is a burden shared with narrative design, but, yeah.
Are there really people not capable of liking a character unless there is a cleavage and thigh accompaniment? If there are, don’t do anything for them. Ever.
I’m running out of steam on this topic and I’m on page 3 of a Word document. I will post a TL;DR version eventually, and then get back to the original question of sexiness in relation to armor.