Maddy Myers explains the allure of cosplay and its relationships to games.
“But what does Yuna’s voice sound like?” I asked a room full of experienced cosplayers. “I don’t know if I can imitate it.”
I had been hand-sewing a shoddy Songstress Yuna costume for weeks in preparation for my first-ever convention. It wasn’t my first time at “cosplay” (which is short for “costume play”), if you count the Jean Grey and Jill Valentine outfits I wore to Halloween parties in high school. And what about my elementary and middle school plays, dress-up with friends, and eventually designing our own LARPs?
I didn’t differentiate between the different forms of role-playing that I liked, but I could tell that the school play was more socially acceptable to talk about than the multiple warrior princess characters I’d invented and portrayed to great acclaim with a group of friends who enjoyed running around the woods as much as I did. Or the amateur fan film that my high school friends and I had made in honor of Final Fantasy X-2; in a pre-YouTube era (thank goodness), I had dressed as Songstress Yuna and lip-synched all of the game’s opening number while two friends pretended to play instruments in the background. I was also in a rock band in high school, but unlike Yuna, I never got to sing for thousands of screaming fans—I performed in community gyms or in tiny high school theaters for unenthusiastic teenagers. I never quite grew out of wanting to perform, and wanting to slip into another identity—preferably the identity of someone more confident and successful than I was.
A year later, I was in college, out of my parents’ house and thus able to spend as much time as I wanted remaking my old Yuna costume and disappearing for a whole weekend into a hotel room with nine well-versed cosplayers, most of whom I’d never met before. I was also about to compete and perform in my first-ever Masquerade event at a convention, having never before seen one. For that, I needed to learn how to speak in Yuna’s voice.
For some people, cosplay is just wearing a costume, but my friends emphasize the “play” part just as much, if not more, than the “costume” aspect. Winning an award at a Masquerade at a convention might entail winning a prize for costuming alone, but Masquerades also include a “performance” category that theatrically-inclined cosplayers may enter. Small groups or single performers prepare a skit for an audience of hundreds, sometimes thousands. A panel of judges—which will include former cosplayers “retired” from several wins at prior Masquerades and, at larger cons, professional voice actors from anime or videogames—will select the “best” skits based on acting performance, the script’s cleverness, and the costumes’ quality.
In other words, a cosplay Masquerade at a convention is about more than just making a costume and walking across a stage; some conventions still have Masquerades that follow this basic format, but many now lean heavily on performance skills as well. In order to win, one must not only be able to sew outfits, style wigs and paint foam, one must also hold their own in a talent show.
My first-ever Masquerade performance featured characters from two of Square Enix’s videogame franchises: Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts. Most Masquerade skits are essentially comedy fan-fiction, and ours was no different. (For example, since Yuna spends most of FFX-2 switching outfits, our skit featured me quick-changing into a Cat in the Hat outfit. I guess you had to be there?)
A few weeks before the con, the friend organizing the skit invited most of the participants to rehearse blocking, talk shop about costume progress and record our lines ahead of time. We planned to play our pre-recorded version and act along with it at the show so as to avoid passing a handheld microphone around the stage; many conventions now require that all skits pre-submit their audio.
Almost everyone else had done voice acting for a pre-recorded Masquerade skit before, or had at least seen a Masquerade. I had done theatre before, but this was new to me—a little like performing a celebrity impersonation, except the celebrity was a videogame character. I had already “played” Yuna before, of course; I have the opportunity to “be” her any time I play a game in which she is the protagonist. But now, I had to see how much further I could sink into her persona.
If I couldn’t do Yuna’s voice, someone else could record it for me, but I wanted to do it if I could. I had to master her mannerisms regardless, and I liked the extra challenge of perfecting her voice as well. We listened to Yuna’s voice in cut-scenes from YouTube and I pitched my voice up, attempting to imitate Yuna’s lilt; my friends critiqued me until I was ready to record. We did the same for each character in our skit, going around the room to see whose impersonation was the best and thus worthy for the recording. In the end, we had a product worthy of a real videogame audio track … well, if audio tracks were recorded with Rock Band microphones in suburban living rooms.
Somehow, our corny skit about Final Fantasy 7’s Kadaj mistaking Kingdom Hearts 2’s Axel for a similar-looking character from Final Fantasy 7 named Reno ended out winning Best in Show. But my performance responsibilities that weekend began much earlier. I learned immediately upon entering the con floor that I would be expected to behave like Yuna on cue for cameras—and that cameras were everywhere. People I had never met before called out “Yuna!” like they knew me. I felt like a Disney World princess who was on the clock, posing in-character for anyone who asked. It didn’t matter that I didn’t look very much like Yuna, that my costume was amateurish and unfinished, or that my cheap, toe-pinching boots made me wince with every step—deep down, I felt like Yuna. Everybody else had bought into the illusion, and by the end of the weekend, I could feel it too.
The pictures after the fact were a rude awakening, though. I cringed at every flaw of my novice costume work, at the differences between my body and Yuna’s, and at my faltering attempts at Yuna-like poses. I had been Yuna in the moment, but after the fact, I didn’t feel like a celebrity at all. I was just my boring self.
The high of getting to embody a character I had already pretended to be in virtual form (and longed to be in real life) felt addictive—as addictive as escaping into a videogame’s power fantasy. Everybody had recognized me, had known me, and had seen me as a hero, just as the world of Final Fantasy X-2 loves Yuna. I had performed for a crowd to applause, and I had walked around the hallways getting treated like a magical, world-saving pop star. It was easy to forget that the “me” everybody recognized and respected wasn’t me at all.
Certain sections of the cosplay community emphasize staying in-character as much as possible; that’s not necessarily how I operate, but if a stranger speaks to me as though I am my character, I respond in kind. If I’m cosplaying a villain and I run into my arch-nemesis—or, uh, someone cosplaying as them—I’ll try a bit of improvising and see if they play along. Sometimes, they’ll giggle and look embarrassed and I’ll be on my way. Other times, we’ll do an impromptu scene for passers-by and folks either laugh or think we’re bonkers or both.
It makes sense that there’s so much overlap between theatre kids, and LARPers, and D&D players, and Renaissance Faire folks, and cosplayers, and so forth … but not everyone realizes that “gamers” are yet another segment on the long, inter-locking chain of hobbies that revolve around pretending to be someone else. Of course, anyone can cosplay anything, from television shows to movies to books, but the relationship between videogames and cosplay feels like a shorter leap. Videogames often feel like theatrical performances: Each player inhabits the same role as many others before them, putting their own spin on the protagonist’s actions as they explore scenery and run through prepared narrative beats, set changes and lighting cues.
Sometimes, I crave a break from myself. Games occupy the same space in my head as theatre always did, and that space is right next to a convention weekend packed with cosplay. But the consequences of such entrenched forms of escapism can be dire. A weekend of immersion followed by a return to normal life will never not feel like a let-down. All that preparation, and for what—a depressing return to a normal life that will never measure up?
The cosplay scene is not really a paradise, of course; any community that can be described as a “scene” has problems with inclusivity. Many cosplayers have issues with body-shaming and casual racism, given the sheer volume of popular characters who are slim and pale; the problems from the rest of society leak into the cosplay scene just as one might expect they would. It is not a perfect space filled with love and acceptance, and if I wanted to, I could fill this column space with horror stories. Because of that, I don’t think the “scene” has made me a better person, per se, and after a particularly rough convention that involves more than a handful of rude inter-changes with strangers, I ask myself, “Why do I bother?”
The part of cosplay that non-cosplayers don’t understand is that the cosplayers aren’t doing it for you. They’re not actually hired Disney performers, and no one is paying them to resemble or pretend to be anyone. Some cosplayers might be in it for the attention of other people, which is fine, but in my experience, those are the folks who tend to burn out faster. Cosplayers who choose to “go pro” and do paid appearances at conventions have a much harder job than anyone gives them credit for, and it’s not one that I envy.
I cosplay for fun and for myself, which means that if I don’t get a good reaction or if no one recognizes me at a convention because I’ve chosen someone obscure, I’m not that disappointed. I pick my characters carefully—not based on my physical appearance, but on my feelings about the character in question. I’ve cosplayed Wonder Woman, Samus Aran and the Dark Phoenix multiple times each, in spite of having the “wrong body type” for them. I’ve had people make fun of me to my face for that, both friends and strangers. It’s not pleasant. But I’m not doing it for them.
It’s not about the pictures after the fact, either. I don’t ever feel the need to see other people’s comments on my appearance, nor do I need to invent my own insults in my head by over-analyzing a video or picture of a past performance or pose.
I want instead to capture my best self, composed of inspirations from all of my favorite heroes and the best bits and pieces of their personalities. I’ve pretended to be several other people over the years, but it was really me deep down, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If I can pretend at the confidence, capability and social graces of these fictional women often enough—all the while doing the work myself—then I must be picking up a little bit of it myself, the rest of the time, in my “normal” life. If I just keep practicing, I think I’ll get it.
Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.