There's a scene early on in the first episode of Netflix's new animated series Aggretsuko where an anthropomorphic fennec fox makes fun of a colleague's Instagram. "I hate that girl," she tells the show's heroine Aggretsuko, a red panda who takes out the stress of her dayjob with death metal karaoke. The fox, named Fenneko, calculatedly scrolls through their doe-eyed deer colleague's social media. "She uploads photos as if she's an idol. Selfie, dessert, latte art." She scrolls through forever, and the trend appears—selfie, dessert, latte art, and the occasional leg photo every 13 days.
It's not just a Japanese idol trend, it's a global lifestyle Instagram trend. If you follow people, whether they're friends, forgotten acquaintances you met at a party once, or even complete strangers with massive followings, their trends emerge. Hell, on your own social media, your trends emerge. Maybe yours and others' vices are mostly food pictures. Or selfies showing off impeccable make-up, or full-body #OutfitOfTheDay shots taken by some mysterious, unseen third party. Without fail, people's Instagrams and general social media presences only show the glitz and glamour of their lifestyles; an unhealthy fantasy. They want to appear happier and better off than they usually actually are.
It's normal to desire these glimpses into elitist lifestyles—fancy meals, fancy lattes, fancy outfits—and Instagram over the last few years has maintained itself as a successful platform for gazing at budding lifestyle bloggers. Elsewhere video games have followed suit in a similar fashion, whether it's within expensive Fortnite skins or dress-up games. In them, we either thirst after the luxury of other players, or in most cases get a taste for the semi-lavish lives we so desperately wish we led.
One dress-up game in particular has dominated my life the past year. Every morning when I wake up, I pop it open and conjure some outfits. On my lunch break, I dabble in it a little more, dueling out my style choices against NPCs. At night, just before I shut my eyes for six-or-so hours, I find the game stealing time away from my day for about an hour longer. It's my escape from the sweatpants-adorned reality of working from home. It's my escape from scrolling through static Instagram posts and scoffing at overpriced meals as I munch on Flamin' Hot Cheetos. This game is Love Nikki Dress Up Queen.
If the name sounds familiar, it might be because it's become a cult-ish hit in the mobile space. I've talked about it a lot this past year due to playing it nearly every day since before I first wrote about it in June 2017. The mobile game officially launched on May 3, 2017, according to its version history, but I didn't discover it until about a month or so later. About a month ago, the game already celebrated its anniversary with in-game events. As a long-time fan of the Style Savvy series, a free-to-play, constantly updated dress-up game on my phone to fill that void seemed too good to be true. It wasn't too good to be true. It was almost perfect. (I just had to stomach and side-eye a couple culturally appropriative events—like a "hip-hop" one to introduce a new skin tone—in the process.)
Love Nikki Dress Up Queen is not like most dress-up games. If anything, I've found it to remind me more of life simulators like the Princess Maker series. Only instead of raising a young girl, you're collecting plentiful articles of clothing for your forever-expanding closet. You're raising yourself in turn, and becoming the most stylish gal this side of Pigeon Kingdom. (Don't ask—Love Nikki has its own lore for reasons that I still don't quite comprehend.)
As I've played it and grown my fashion collection to a staggering 30 percent (a relatively high number considering the scope of the game with its ongoing story campaign, various shops, and limited time events where new clothes are introduced), I've been wondering what particularly about it has kept me playing for so long as other mobile games have passed me by. I played Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp ravenously for about a month; I dabbled in Fire Emblem Heroes, Love Live!, and other miscellaneous gacha-oriented mobile games. Without fail, mobile games with microtransactions tend to lose me somewhere along the way. But not Love Nikki Dress Up Queen, and I suspect it's because it's one of the best dress-'em-ups of all time, because it's unafraid to be complex and approachable.
Love Nikki Dress Up Queen's primary goal is simple: get clothes (from story quests, events, crafting, shops, etcetera) and style slick outfits. You can do this freely, you can do this in quests or even duels against other players. Like a lifestyle blogger on Instagram, Love Nikki Dress Up Queen is a game about putting your best self forward—as nothing else will be tolerated. If your score falls below a S ranking on a quest, you might as well restart it from scratch again; although, failure is never too punishing. Love Nikki Dress Up Queen is a game built for screenshotting and humble bragging, whether it's for an impeccably styled outfit or for a quest where your score inched ahead of a friend's. It's the sort of activity we love to tease—like the deceptively adorable fox does on Aggretsuko—and yet, we still relish and even take part in it. Fenneko loathes the textbook social media use of her colleague, and yet, she follows and comments on her on social media regardless.
"Influencer accounts may seem as though they are nearly interchangeable, but that uniform ubiquity is what makes them effective as a whole," writes Isabel Munson in the Real Life magazine essay "The Genre of You." "Their overall presence conveys a willingness to sell themselves constantly as a beacon of complete consumption and beauty. This is why even people with few followers may nonetheless mimic this influencer style standard: It demonstrates their own aspiration to attention and its economic workings."
Love Nikki Dress Up Queen fulfills a similar fantasy. If you don't mind spending money on microtransactions, you'll be rewarded with exclusive outfits and be blessed with Diamonds, the rarer currency in the game. However, microtransactions never feel like a pay-to-win option. The players that spend no money on Love Nikki Dress Up Queen are bound to have just as good of a time with it as the players who spend money on in it on a weekly basis. (Hell, I didn't spend money on it until late last year, after playing it for nearly six months—and I've spent $6 total in the year I've played it.) On Instagram, no matter what the income or fame level, users can cultivate their own impressive appearance; their own faux-lifestyle in any way they choose. They have the freedom to follow in the shoes of the lifestyle bloggers they envy.
Last year's film Ingrid Goes West followed a woman taking her social media facade to another level. The film's star Ingrid is a troubled woman who moves to California on a whim, longing to befriend an Instagram-famous influencer-type. Through unfortunate circumstances, they befriend one another, but she learns that it's not only her appearance that's deceptive, but the Instagram-famous one's too. The film goes in some questionable directions, but the core message still stands: that rosy appearance on Instagram isn't everything, and no one is as happy or well-off as they may present themselves to be online.
The great thing about Love Nikki Dress Up Queen is that I can fantasize about that unrealistic lifestyle, but keep it at an arms length. Since it's virtual and a video game, it doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things. For the better, it's actually influenced me in the real world to take more consideration in the outfits I wear on the weekends when I slip out of those 9-to-5 sweatpants. I don't quite have an impossibly large closet, but in Love Nikki Dress Up Queen, it's almost like I do. I can own hundreds of shoes, dresses, and coats, and have something for literally any occasion that pops up. Going to the gym? I have an outfit for that. A masquerade ball? Check. In the end, it's just like Instagram; except instead of constructing a facade for playing the game of life, I'm just playing a video game.