People have called Tomodachi Life a cross between The Sims and Animal Crossing, but there’s a third strong influence in there that determines the tone of the whole experience: Wario Ware.
It’s made by the same team that produced those fizzlingly creative, rapid-fire deconstructions of video games, and Wario Ware and Tomodachi Life also share both a total irreverence for what games are supposed to be and a sweet sense of surrealism. I’ve spent a couple of weeks with it now and even though it’s very slight, without the variety of things to actually do that Animal Crossing has, I still don’t know what to expect every day. The game’s systems and the little Miis’ personalities come together to produce new, random situational comedy pretty much every day.
There are two ways to play Tomodachi Life, the same two ways that most people play The Sims. You can create yourself and all your friends and play god with their lives, or create random strangers and celebrities and mess with them instead. I’ve gone with a mix of both.
My island, Kezataku Island, is half-full of friends and family, and half-full of RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, musicians and Game of Thrones characters, whose personalities I’ve tried to approximate within the confines of the character creator (are they unique or normal? Fast-moving or slow moving? Expressive or staid?). The hat shop is sometimes manned by Sharon Needles, whilst the lead singer of Little Barrie digs continuously on the beach for no discernible reason. My own Mii spends most of her time playing the 3DS I gave her, possibly starting an endless recursive loop of tiny islands and tiny virtual people. Sometimes I drop in to visit my partner’s Mii in his apartment, and he’s just rolling aimlessly around on the floor.
You can dress them up and give them silly hats, but they’re already little perpetual comedy engines without any embellishment. They say strange things in their weird, customisable little Siri-voices. You can give them sentences to say in certain situations (whenever my friend Cara’s Mii is upset she yells CURSED PATRIARCHY, which is… rarely appropriate), but most of the time they’re just picking phrases out of their tiny little virtual minds. “I’d like to be surrounded by cut-glass ornaments.” “What is happiness, anyway?” Technically it won’t let you type in swears, but because the speech works phonetically, it’s not hard to cheat the game into saying naughty words.
As the island grows more populous, different attractions spring up out of nowhere, each with a calendar of daily events you can only see if you drop in at the right time. There’s an amusement park where you can play an 8-bit RPG where four of your islanders inexplicably face off against inanimate objects, like a plate of spaghetti, a bottle of perfume and a sock. Nobody ever seems to actually go into my cafe, but Shigeru Miyamoto is always just peering in, his face pressed up against the glass.
Tomodachi Life has the same hard, capitalist core as Animal Crossing: spend and earn, spend and earn, acquiring an ever-expanding selection of pointless yet still unfathomably desirable items. Making your Miis happy earns you money - their smiles are, cumulatively, worth a thousand pounds. But also like Animal Crossing, the ruthless and endless acquisitiveness at its core is offset by a gentle, surreal sense of humour. People don’t often think of Nintendo games as funny, but they really are, when they want to be.
Its humour is sometimes surreal, sometimes situational; an unskippable cutscene in which you must watch Tyrion Lannister have a bath is a strange and discomfiting experience, a mini-game where you must swipe an errant crab from a Mii’s sleeve is just bizarre, a scene where your best friend is desperately trying to sell custard cakes to Shigeru Miyamoto or your Mii falls in love with Slenderman makes you laugh because it’s ridiculous. The question is, how long can Tomodachi Life keep throwing up new things? Will it be like Animal Crossing, where the daily routine is consistently peppered with novelty, and the animals’ conversation is varied enough not to repeat? Or will things get tedious after I’ve watched my 15th weird bathing scene?
One thing I still know nothing about is how babies work. In the game. (I’m pretty sure I know where they come from in real life). Miis can evidently have kids together, who then grow up and leave the island, popping up on others’ islands via Streetpass. This apparently involves moving out of the big communal apartment block on the island and into the suburbs. It’s a feature that I suspect will only come to life after the game’s released and everybody else is also carrying an island around in their pocket.
Tomodachi Life has the same sense of humour as the squillions of endearingly bizarre PS1/PS2-era Japanese games I grew up playing, the games that mostly don’t exist any more now. There’s not enough of it around now. Nintendo’s localisers have clearly gone to extreme effort with Tomodachi Life, replacing onigiri and bento in the local supermarket with fish and chips and sandwiches, but that essential strangeness is still very much intact.
Keza MacDonald is Kotaku UK’s Editor, and is a sucker for this nonsense. Follow her on Twitter, if you’re into that.