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An original illustration shows stylish black and white clothing over an orange background Illustration: Christine Lee for Polygon

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Goth Ninja RPG wasn’t a game, but I loved playing it

A roundabout form of fashion advice can sometimes work out surprisingly well

During a bout of pandemic-induced nostalgia, I reexamined my old fighter build for Goth Ninja, a late-2000s-to-early-2010s MMO, and wondered how it played. I had sold off most of the key items: my DRKSHDW denim jacket, my double-layer T-shirt, my side-zip boots. My sorcerer build didn’t work either; I didn’t have the high-neck blazer or any of the distressed tanks. So I decided to reference a guide.

The Goth Ninja RPG fashion guide has a few flaws. It’s sparse in specific advice for character builds, instead outlining the classes. It doesn’t explain how to transition your low-level character into a fighter, rogue, or warlock. That leads to wasted spending on low-level gear, and as the guide mentions, the RPG can be wildly expensive, rivaling any gacha game. There’s no method to deal with the vicious mockery from NPCs. The advice is clearly dated to the 2012 patch, before the meta shifted from leather jackets and skinny blazers.

And it’s a guide to a game that doesn’t exist.

The 2012 guide was a tongue-in-cheek post by user GarleyCavidson in the subreddit r/malefashionadvice, also known as MFA. It captured an Internet fashion niche, consisting of high-end designers like Rick Owens and Boris Bidjan Saberi. While the Goth Ninja guide wasn’t completely serious, it sincerely tried to introduce an aesthetic, albeit an inaccessible one for many.

At the tail end of forum culture, past the golden age of GameFAQs, people still wrote detailed hobby guides for free. These days, game guides have moved off of community forums and onto websites like Polygon or independent YouTube channels. For fashion, TikToks of the same outfit at different budgets or YouTube videos of Shein hauls exist alongside GQ’s standard wardrobe essentials articles. Advice is monetizable; advice builds a brand.

I was a moderator for MFA for several years. When I started out, I wanted to contribute as much “helpful” content as possible. What I found was a disconnect in what the community found helpful and what I was interested in.

“I think the most useful guides, fortunately or unfortunately, were the ones that gave more prescriptive advice than ones that were more casual suggestions and inspiration,” said Derek, a former moderator, in an interview with Polygon. Other moderators interviewed cited guides like “Shujin’s Comprehensive Fit Guide,” “How To Proxy From Japan,” or the “Basic Bastard” guides as examples. But when asked what guides they enjoyed writing or reading, they named guides with themes rather than instructions. PC builder-like guides tended to do better in the community, but they were rarely fun. What people wanted to write were guides on “how to breathe” (an exploration of movement and silhouette) or gorpcore (hiking-inspired fashion). What people wanted to read was another “how should a suit fit” for prom.

The utility of either might seem to have a limited lifetime. Former moderator Walker mentioned that he tried to use “copious” amounts of links in guides, but “due to link rot a lot of them will eventually die and not be useful anymore.” That’s not taking into account how fast fashion trends move; the “goth ninja” aesthetic in the guide really is 10 years outdated.

These guides can have another use beyond inspiration or instruction, though: as record. They can show what and how aesthetics were being discussed at the time. Similarly, if you look up farming guides for Elden Ring, you can trace a timeline of how the community found more efficient strategies, iterating on discoveries. These snapshots can be valuable in understanding how ideas evolved, in fashion and in gaming, even if the advice becomes outdated.

Were these guides useful advice, though? “I’ve used guides for gaming now that I have a PC, like best practices for certain builds and such,” said Ethan Wong, writer of the vintage menswear blog a little bit of rest, in an interview. “It works better there since there is a ‘means to an end’ whereas fashion for me is almost purely self-expression. A guide takes the creativity out of it.”

Nay, a current moderator, was more generous: “Everyone is different and has their own lived context… I see guides ultimately as a way to both educate and offer recommendations. Then it’s up to people to use their own common sense.”

What does that mean for progressing beyond guides? Brandon Chan, a self-described “corporate goth,” said that if you were interested in avant-garde fashion, “having friends or acquaintances who you can talk to matters a lot. […] Ultimately, my advice to anyone who’s looking to go into the goth ninja/avant-garde/weirdo fashion scene is just have fun. [...] A hobby you don’t enjoy isn’t worth the effort.”

For the menswear world, Wong agreed. “I don’t see many guides [anymore]. I think this has to do with a big emphasis on community,” he said. “It’s better just to talk and ask questions!”

The first month after Elden Ring launched, I would spend hours talking to friends about what I had just found, what they had found. “How did you beat that boss?” “There was a quest there?” “Here’s a powerful early-game staff.” While you could have that sense of discovery now, it was that shared discovery that crystallized the game from memorable into transcendental. The guides helped me overcome that Souls difficulty, but the community convinced me it was worth it to keep trying again and again. I never played co-op with friends, but I never truly played alone.

I don’t plan on playing Goth Ninja again, but I don’t regret it, apart from the hole in my wallet. The guide introduced me to a new world of fashion. The guide got me over that initial hump in trying a new style, which in turn made it easier to keep trying new styles. But the community I found asking for advice turned into real-life friends, and it’s that I want to preserve.