One of the first things that you're told in Tomodachi Life, Nintendo's newest life-sim for the 3DS, is that characters in the game can have babies. Specifically, it'll take your first imported Mii, and it'll show them holding a baby with a faceless person of the opposite gender.
That was one of the first things I saw in the game: me, holding a baby, next to a faceless dude. It was...uncomfortable. It felt forced. It's also a perfect introduction to the game, in a way.
I've spent the last week playing Tomodachi Life, putting in around seven hours so far. Most of the game focuses on people. In my case, it's friends that I know in real life, as I've only imported folks that I've actually met. (With the exception of Miyamoto. It's kind of hard to pass up the opportunity to play a game where you can be neighbors with a legendary game designer).
The bulk of the game involves you managing people living in an apartment complex. Everyone has their own personality, their own dreams and desires. This is the bulk of what you'll be looking at while playing:
Those little angry scribbles in thought bubbles? Those are all problems. Maybe someone is hungry. Maybe they want new furniture. Maybe they want to change clothes. You have to make sure everyone is taken care of, and usually this means listening to a quip, giving them items that you buy on the island the game takes place in, or playing a WarioWare-like minigame.
On occasion, the Miis will be lonely. The Miis in Tomodachi Life are all starved for attention; they want friends, they want romance. The entire thing kind of feels like playing house with little dolls. You can even pick the Miis up and move them around like little marionettes, in addition to taking care of nearly everything else in their life. But these dolls will only kiss dolls of the opposite gender. The game made headlines earlier this year when news broke that it wouldn't include gay marriage, and sure enough, in Tomodachi Life, there is only heterosexuality.
Maybe that doesn't seem like a big deal, especially in a game that's as silly as Tomodachi Life. I mean, the game lets you watch your Miis fart for crying out loud. It's not exactly the most serious game out there. And most games already cater primarily to heterosexual folks. But while I feel like I can ignore that focus in most games, in Tomodachi, heterosexuality and gender norms constantly seem pushed down your throat. It's regressive in the sort of way you might expect a bad flash game aimed at preteen girls to be.
There's a section of the island where you can check compatibility ratings...
Locations like cafes will have special hangouts...
The game will quiz you on stuff like who is paired up with who...
There is an entire option dedicated to babies—which, again, only pairs of men and women can have....
The Spotpass feature, which lets me export an item to other towns, is gendered...
It gets worse, but we'll get to that in a second.
Here's the thing: many of my friends are gay or queer, or they reject gender norms in some ways. Having them in a game that won't acknowledge that type of sexuality or personality is odd, makes the game feel like a farce on a deeply fundamental level—even if, yes, it's not supposed to be an exact recreation of real life. At the start of the game, Tomodachi asks you to set the personalities of your Miis. I tried my best to make Miis match their owners—and sure, no Mii was going to be an exact clone of its owner, but the general spirit of the person can be captured and put into amusing situations. Well, except in one major way: their sexuality.
But just because Nintendo didn't code it in doesn't mean players don't find ways to subvert stuff in whatever ways they can. My friends had heard about the things Japanese players—who got the game before North America—did to get around lack of gay marriage in Tomodachi Life. You can make a Mii look like anything, right? Why not make characters who looked like the opposite gender if you wanted them to pair up with the same gender?
That's exactly what I tried, anyway. I booted up the 3DS' Mii Creator, and I recreated my girlfriend. While the Mii looked like the person she was based on, as far as the game was concerned, that character was a boy. Truthfully, this is also an awkward situation to have—but what other choice did Nintendo leave me? It was the only way my character could shack up with their preferred gender. Still, I made sure to ask my girlfriend for permission before I actually did it.
Coping with this wrinkle in the game was curious. Tomodachi will let you dress characters up with clothes that "belong" to the opposite gender, but the Miis won't like it. They'll seem disappointed with your selection and they'll make a face when you dress them up. Womp, womp, the game goes. So while my girlfriend in the game might've looked like and acted like my girlfriend in real life, she really wasn't happy with the situation. It was the same sort of deal when I tried dressing up Miis based on queer friends: I distinctly remember the time a Mii shaked his head at me when I put on a frilly girl's t-shirt that the person the Mii was based on would have loved.
Right now, my girlfriend's Mii isn't paired up with anyone despite my best efforts. Funnily enough, nearly everyone else except our characters want to get it on with one another. So after initially resisting my characters from falling in love with each other out of rebellion, I kind of went 'fuck it' and let it happen, just to see what it was like.
At one point, my character decided that it was imperative that two other Miis hook up. I told her I'd help, and what happened next was probably one of the weirdest things I've witnessed in a game in recent memory: my character started stalking the two lovebirds while they were out on their date:
That's me in the bear suit, by the way. Yeaaaaah.
That date didn't go so well. It probably didn't help that some rando was constantly watching them from the distance while they were out on their date. Still, right after showing me this screen:
One of the Miis asked me if I thought she should pursue the initially failed romance further anyway. I said yes—again, just to see what would happen. The game seemed to constantly tell me that I should let folks fall in love with each other, so why not?
The Mii asked me how they should approach their confession of love...
Then she asked me what she should wear, and where the declaration of love should take place. After hearing my advice, she actually went through with it—and the other Mii said yes. The next time the lovesick Mii saw me, she gave me some money for helping her out. In 2014, cupid is a capitalist.
Interestingly, it was only after I let these character romance each other that a huge chunk of the island opened up. This is to say: entire sections of the game are gated until you let characters romance each other. And since only folks of the opposite gender can romance each other, I think it's fair to say that Tomodachi Life is really invested in heterosexual relationships. When Nintendo is probably the first company that comes to mind when someone says "family friendly" in the gaming industry, that's a problem. It sends a message: this is what normal is; this is what a romance should look like; this is what a family should look like. Everything else is invisible and ignored.
Nintendo has already apologized for it all, of course. They've said the next Tomodachi Life will be more inclusive. Lots of people were skeptical about how difficult it would be to change the current Tomodachi and make it inclusive, but after playing it, there's just so much in the game that would need to be reworked that I'd rather just have a new game altogether that is built from the ground-up with inclusiveness in mind. In its current state, as much as Tomodachi can make me laugh with its weird quirkiness sometimes, it's a game with uncomfortable values.
You know what makes this situation particularly unfortunate? It seems to me that some Nintendo games are simply dying to be queer or to subvert gender norms. Maybe that sounds funny, but the entire time I played, I couldn't help but think about other Nintendo games that seemed to flirt with the idea. Animal Crossing—which Tomodachi Life shares a lot of DNA with, given that they're both quirky life sims that revolve around managing citizens—lets you dress your characters with whatever clothes you want. Some characters in the game are even surprisingly progressive about the whole thing:
More agonizingly, Fire Emblem: Awakening constantly seems to have characters of the same gender flirt with one another:
Even if the game toys with the idea, these characters can't marry each other and have babies, of course. That's only for heterosexual couples. One of the key mechanics in the game is exclusive to one type of relationship.
It's excruciating. It's excruciating because Nintendo games don't just make me feel excluded—I'm going to be real here, at this point, I'm used to it from gaming companies—but because some Nintendo games can sometimes come this close to letting it all happen. Instead, homosexual relationships or queer characters are the way Nintendo games seem constantly elbow me in the ribs while winking and going eh? Eh? You see what we did there?
With know-how, players often take things into their own hands and make anything possible, regardless of what a game developer puts in their game. My friends write fanfiction and draw fanart of characters that could never be together in Fire Emblem. A dad can turn Link into a girl, just so his daughter can play her dream game. Some folks will grit their teeth while a game misgenders them, like Tomodachi might, just so that they can romance the folks they're interested in.
People shouldn't have to do any of this, but they will. That's how much they love Nintendo games. I wish Nintendo showed them some love, too.
We'll make sure to update you with more impressions of Tomodachi Life next week, when we run a full review.