Opinion: Choice, sexuality, and responsibility. Why Tomodachi Life poses hard questions

On life, love, and lazy design decisions

Opinion: Choice, sexuality, and responsibility. Why Tomodachi Life poses hard questions
| Tomodachi Life

I'm a person who believes in balance, freedom, and above all else, choice. I am also the person tasked with writing an opinion piece about a very sensitive topic: Nintendo not allowing non-straight romantic relationships in Tomodachi Life.

But before we start talking about sexuality, let's talk about choice, and what choice brings to video games.

Choice is fantastic. It's one of the things that distinguishes interactive entertainment - such as video games - from other mediums such as books, fine art, music, and so on.

At the beginning of the form, we chose the angle at which we wanted to return the ball in Pong, and in this era of high technology we can do much smarter things, like choose how to converse with different characters in The Walking Dead, which in turn determines the fate of the main character.

Through choice we can also customise our game experience so that it fits more with how we want to play and how we define ourselves in virtual spaces.

Do we choose to purchase that new troop upgrade in Boom Beach because our own tactical ability is lacking? Do we pick to play as a warrior in Baldur's Gate because we prefer melee combat in RPGs? Do we define ourselves as male or female, black or white, good or bad, in Order & Chaos Online?

In video games that offer it in spades, choice allows us to define ourselves.

Some games actually demand that we use this choice that we're given to represent ourselves (and our loved ones) within them.

Such is the case with Tomodachi Life, a people simulator from Nintendo. It states very clearly at the beginning of the game that it wants you to create Mii representations of you, your friends, and your family, so that you can play with them in this fantastical virtual reality.

Choice then: it's a good thing.

Plumber dude who wants to chase the ladies around? That's cool! But other chaps? Not so much

Now let's talk about sexuality, how it defines a significant part of who we are, and how it's handled quite thoughtlessly in this soon-to-be-released life sim from Nintendo.

In reality, so much of how we think of ourselves, and how we are in turn perceived by others, is guided by sexuality. Certainly every romantic relationship that we enter into is affected by it: whether we're gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual.

So then, if sexuality is so important to romantic relationships, and you then base part of a game upon romantic relationships, you would hope that a large spectrum of sexuality would be represented. It would, after all, be shallow game design if it only included a tiny sliver of that spectrum.

And thus we come to Tomodachi Life, a game in which romance and relationships are made into game mechanics. However, it's not possible for a character of your making - who, remember, may be based on you or those around you - to have a romantic relationship that is not heterosexual.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Nintendo of America asserted that it "never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life".

Making games is not a process with much room for accidents: there are planning meetings, and schedules, and production discussions constantly, and there will have been a moment where the development team at Nintendo SPD 1 talked about how romantic relationships will work mechanically within Tomodachi Life's greater framework.

Therefore, at some point, the decision will actively have been made to not include relationships that are anything other than heterosexual.

That, I would argue, is a very strong form of "social commentary".

It says that the development team assumed its players wouldn't want to choose to define themselves or their loved ones as gay, or it says that the team defines straight relationships as outside of "the norm" and therefore not worth representing, or that it believes people won't want to buy a game in which you could define yourself as - for example - pansexual, or it says something even more sinister that I wouldn't want to believe the house of Mario is capable of saying.

But it definitely says something.

There will be arguments to the contrary of course, and in some ways I can see where the defenders of this choice of Nintendo's are coming from.

Ultimately, it's a video game that kids can play, and the concept of sexual relationships isn't exactly something we teach a lot of in schools. We want to "protect" our younger players from the filthy subject of woo hoo because it's perhaps not appropriate for that audience. Understood.

But the concept of sex isn't really a part of Tomodachi Life, and certainly the celebration of the sexual act isn't expressly shown. We're not talking about two guys doing it in a public toilet, we're talking about two men simply loving one another, just like the heterosexual couples do in the game.

Since the developer feels that straight relationships are fine to portray to kids in this manner, if homosexual relationships aren't possible, then Nintendo is inadvertently telling children that it's not normal to be in love with someone of their own gender, simply by ignoring that these types of relationships exist.

You can get up to amazing things in Tomodachi Life, but not the regular, boring act of loving someone of your gender

Another argument would be that "not every" game has to be inclusionary. These people would argue that if we're going to demand that Tomodachi Life include representations of every sexuality, then every other game by Nintendo should too, and that that would somehow ruin the "innocence" of the types of games that this company tends to make.

While I personally don't see the intrinsic downside of wanting to be inclusionary, I do understand that a gay Link might feel forced, and perhaps the inclusion of which would be little more than pandering to the politically correct. Indeed, I'm not suggesting that Nintendo should actively try to make equal representations of sexuality a part of every game franchise they have.

It would be preposterous to jam it into a Kirby title, for example, because none of the characters in it have their sexualities explored in any capacity whatsoever. On top of this, if a creator wants to tell a very specific narrative, then they shouldn't be forced to include any aspect of society they don't want to, because the creators are the ones that are defining the plot, and they may have a very specific story they went to tell.

But in a game like Tomodachi Life, where sexuality is a fundamental part of each character, and the title is all about making choices and defining yourself and others within it, not including other representations of relationships makes that aspect feel hollow, and incomplete, and frankly a bit insulting to my intelligence.

These days, in games where you can choose what kind of human character you want to create, it would be unthinkable to not include men and women, black skin tones and white skin tones. It begs the question then: if romantic relationships form a part of your game, then surely a part of the creative process is deciding what kind of relationships you want to represent, and allowing your players to define themselves satisfactorily.

Playing games is about choice, and making games is about choice. But in the end the most important choice is the one you make when you buy games and support their continued production.

Do you ignore that the developer has made a game that will possibly make some of your friends and family feel ostracised and uncomfortable, in the hope that it's fun for you to play, or do you let this release pass you by, in the hope that the next Tomodachi Life title changes its ways?

By limiting the player's ability to choose and experience non-heterosexual relationships, in a simulation that attempts to portray romance, Nintendo is forcing you to make this choice. Choose wisely.