Yup, I’m going to tackle the controversy of the lack of same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. This is going to be a long one.
You probably noticed this week that Nintendo got into a whole heap of trouble for not including same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Nintendo said the reason for this feature not being in the game was that Tomodachi Life, and I quote, was “never intended to make any form of social commentary”.
That’s an understandable stance to take, actually. Stop and think about this for a moment. I did.
“Never intended to make any form of social commentary”. That seems a shallow reason but let’s not forget the current political climate for sexual equality; we’ve had that problem with Russia, and of course the one most people glossed over – Brunai making it illegal under Sharia Law. That’s before you even get to deal with the political hot potato that is the United States; where this issue is a complex and very difficult discussion that keeps going back and forth, from courtroom to constitution. It’s a volatile and complex thing to deal with because, invariably, there are two sides to this discussion. Some people believe same-sex relationships are normal, natural and it’s no more weird than wanting to be with anyone else. I do sit in that camp, by the way, because I came to terms with the idea long ago – that sex is often a tool, and can be employed in many different ways. There are many species of animal in the world who have been found to enjoy having a little sexual fun with the same sex, and not all of them are endangered. The other camp – usually religious but not always the case – believe that homosexuality is an affront to the natural way of things, that we’re here to procreate and that by definition requires a male and a female (that said, we’ve largely negated the need for women to require a male with sperm banks, and we’ve done a bang-up job over the years in procreating in spite of homosexuality…).
Neither side is going to budge, not in my lifetime and I doubt it’ll be sorted in yours. Eventually, I believe most of the naysayers will die out as people become more and more apathetic about it – key word, because “tolerance” denotes that people don’t agree with it. I don’t care if you “tolerate” my existence or my views. I want you to simply NOT CARE. The ideal situation is someone says they are gay and no-one reacts at all. No cheering. No derogatory remarks. Nothing happens. That’s the level we SHOULD be aiming for. That being gay, or bisexual, or transgendered isn’t wrong or special. It’s who you are. Congratulations. Welcome to the wonderful, messy, emotionally-complicated world of sex.
Of course, Nintendo – by not including the option for a same-sex relationship – landed itself right in the political mess anyway. It doesn’t matter that Nintendo didn’t want to do it because it was hoping to avoid these discussions, because hell, we’re going to use it anyway. And then we’re going to bring up some brave and bold examples of it in gaming. Examples which, by the way, are TERRIBLE.
Mass Effect is not a good measure for video game relationships – Commander Shepard effectively does what people want and they drop their pants. That’s not a relationship, that’s just sexual manipulation. And you fall for it to see… actually, not that much because they’re still worried about doing sexy stuff properly in video games, but the point is Mass Effect is great for many reasons. The relationships aspect? Not so much. And let’s bring this up, what happens when the entire crew realises you’ve wooed them all, had sexy talks with them and done their stuff only to find you’ve done the same to everyone else? You’re a skanky ho, and the long trip back from the Reapers is going to be one long, awkward situation. Congratulations, BioWare. Really comforting ideology there.
The same is true of Dragon Age; or rather, Dragon Age 2. Yep, we’re going to talk about Anders briefly because, as much as I know some of you hold him up as the shining light of gay men in video games, Anders is actually a pretty horrible individual. He’s manipulative and generally just an unpleasant individual. Give him the slightest hint and he runs a mile with it. That’s what BioWare was saying about gay people, brothers and sisters. They don’t know where the line is and will chase anyone. Fantastic message to send out. Utterly brilliant. And you fell for it because “Oh, he’s gay, I can SO relate to that!”. I’d applaud but we all know it’d be a sarcastic applause, so I won’t patronise you. Fortunately, I’m guessing most of you wouldn’t reach for Anders to prop up your argument. Oh wait, some of you did. Erm…
The point is; video games are actually pretty terrible at the whole relationships angle and actually at times even worse when it adds in the addition of same-sex relationships. Relationships are complex things, which require trust and mutual respect as well as emotion and physical contact. What you do in a video game is not a relationship; it’s a quest, a task, and at the end you get a not-very-awesome scene where something MIGHT be happening, but often it tends to skip the meat and two veg, if you catch my drift. And I’ll mention the horrendous (not gay) sex scenes in Ride to Hell: Retribution in passing, because that was the least horrible part of the game! Video games as a medium can’t do this right at the moment, so expecting Nintendo to somehow make something better of it in Tomodachi Life – a game aimed at a more general audience – is and was perhaps a long shot in its own right.
Similarly, Nintendo might have wanted to miss out on the issue we had last year with The Last of Us.
Now, this might horrify some of you who missed out the criticisms but let’s replay the situation. The Last of Us was a survival horror game starring two characters called Joel, who was a grizzled survivor of an apocalypse-type event who watched his daughter die in his arms (not a spoiler, it happens in the first five minutes!), and Ellie – a precocious young girl who seems immune to the fungal plague that decimated civilisation as we know it. She’s curious of the outside world, of Joel and why he seems to be so annoyed at her at times quite carefree spirit. At no stage does sex even come into the discussion; this is a man who, having lost his daughter, regains some compassion and paternal instinct and eventually adopts Ellie, presumably because he can’t bear to lose anyone again and because he’s emotionally invested in her development and upbringing after a year on the road with her. And Ellie is a curious, interesting figure and being a young teenager, we don’t really discuss her sexuality because, well, paedophilia stuff. We’ve had a bit of an issue with that in the UK in recent years, what with the whole Operation Yewtree thing, and we’re socially less likely to look at Ellie as an object of sexual desire.
That said, the publicity for the prequel-style DLC offering, where we saw Ellie alongside the friend we came to understand she lost (whilst getting infected) focused a little intently on the fact the two young girls had a tender kiss. That’s right, Naughty Dog actually went there. And in the most obvious and hilarious inevitability ever, the gaming press went crazy over it whilst others got very angry at it over both the fact it’s “gayness in games” and “it’s two children kissing, oh god Helen Lovejoy won’t someone PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!” (actually, I’d much rather they didn’t in that situation… eww, I need a wash now…)
The end result was that it netted the DLC massive publicity, at a time when the game needed a second wind in the market, in the run up to the Christmas/Thanksgiving period. Now, I’m not saying that the over sexing-up of a character that had no sexual leanings in the original game content was a cold, cynical and deceptive ploy to get cheap marketing at a time when Sony, as a company, are scratching a little for cash – but I’m certainly going to allude to it. Whatever you may think of it, Ellie’s sexuality was used as a marketing ploy. Had it been kept under wraps, maybe a hidden gem which got coverage as the press and players uncovered it in the normal course of playing the DLC, I’d certainly be a lot more appreciative of it – it’d still be weird to me but what they heck, it’s another issue to tackle in the same vein as other issues – like size-zero celebrities and social inequality, both covered in the original content in a wry and clever way. But it wasn’t done that way; we knew about it well before the DLC launched. And no surprise, it sold a lot of copies.
But to some of us, it left a distinctly nasty aftertaste. Nintendo changing Tomodachi Life to allow same-sex relationships would no doubt right now be seen as cynical pandering, and it’d be just as criticised for that as not having them at all. Catch 22. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
However, the real issue is why people want this to be an issue at all?
Yes, same-sex relationships ARE a political hot potato right now. However, this is supposed to be entertainment; something you play for fun. I said a while back that we’ve become cripplingly snobby about video games to the point of often spoiling them for ourselves; guess what? The same logic applies here. There’s probably no doubt Tomodachi Life is a lot of fun – it’s already a considerably successful series in Japan, after all, so it’s obviously doing something right. I understand the want for Nintendo to join in and help normalise the issue but, as I’ve said, the ready examples we often have to hand in video games rarely serve as a solid basis for our cause. Nintendo didn’t say it didn’t believe in gay relationships – just that, as it’s such a political issue, it’d have much rathered to have avoided it altogether. This was clearly a situation Nintendo was never actually going to win at because had it allowed them, we’d have the flipside of the argument that Nintendo was “promoting gay relationships”. Nintendo would much rather hunker down and try not to get involved, even when everyone else wants to use it as a weapon.
It’s not like Nintendo has never tackled the issue – remember Birdo? The pink egg-spewing dinosaur who wears a bow? That was a boy who considered herself a girl. Wowzers. I know, actually, let’s go even more crazy and use the description of Birdo in the North American manual for Super Mario Bros. 2, shall we?
“Birdo thinks he is a girl and likes to be called Birdetta. He likes to wear a bow on his head and shoot eggs from his mouth.”
That’s right, ladies and gents of all persuasions. Nintendo had a transgendered character in the second mainstream Mario game in the West. In 1988. Long before the current issues were even a thought in most of your minds. And oh yes, Bayonetta 2. Enough said, right? Nintendo doesn’t have a problem with the idea of transgender, and clearly in the same token doesn’t have an issue with homosexuality either. So why did Nintendo want to avoid a situation with Tomodachi Life, when we have evidence that even a quarter of a century ago, it was quite happy to take on the topic?
Well, take a look at the other Nintendo news this week. The Wii U made a loss. Sales are down. Nintendo has spent a lot of money restructuring. It’s spent a lot of money full stop, and made a second annual loss (many report it as the third year, except last year Nintendo made an OVERALL profit thanks to good investments and currency conversion rates. Facts are FUN!). In a week when it was obviously going to get a brutal hammering by the worlds media and the Internet in general, this was a fight it simply didn’t want to take on. Why would you want to have more bad press to go on top of your already quite mountainous avalanche of bad press? Of course, like an avalanche, it was silly of Nintendo to think it could simply outrun it or, in this case, desperately dig a hole and hope it could scramble out when the snow had stopped moving – forgetting that there’s now probably tons of it on top of them, they have no oxygen and the odds of survival are quite likely minimal. But not every company is good at working out the best way to deal with things in the heat of blind panic. What seemed like a good idea at the time can often prove to be a disastrous decision later on down the road. Insert the war of your choice here. Any one of them. It’s all relative.
If anything, what this could end up doing is shooting down any notion of getting a more progressive Nintendo; they’re taking a huge risk releasing Tomodachi Life in the West anyway. We keep saying we want more of those quirky, interesting games to be released over here but if the response is that we over-react to every single one of them, the odds of Nintendo repeating the same mistake are going to shrink, until we get only “Western-approved” titles, which is already one of its biggest issues – that we’re not getting enough of THOSE.
But again, it’s a strongly politicised issue right now. Nintendo sailed a little too close and shots were fired. Was the intention to insult us? I doubt it. Sometimes an issue really is as simple as the company is making it out to be – it simply didn’t want to get bogged down in this discussion. Which it now has. And now Nintendo has to either stick to that ideal, knowing that it’ll make a lot of people angry, or change it – making a lot of other people angry. Politics is fun, isn’t it? With us or against us. There can be no in-between, eh?
None of this actually does anything, though. The end result isn’t that we instigate change, it’s that we expect it. And we’ll raze anything that isn’t change to the ground. It doesn’t matter if the change is a deep, thought-provoking and profound insight into the nature of relationships, or a cynical marketing ploy to get a bunch of people interested in a game. It’s all too often the latter though, and we as consumers lap it up, not realising how shallow and insubstantial it actually is. We’re easily duped, and it’s sad, but that’s the reality.
And you don’t need a video game to validate your sexual orientation, by the way. Your choice of sexual partner affects me the same way my choice of sexual partner affects you. It doesn’t. If you are comfortable with your sexuality, comfortable with who you are and happy with what you do, then you have won. You have. You have achieved the Triforce of Real Life. Strength, Wisdom and Courage. All key aspects to live by, wouldn’t you say?
The final point to make will be much easier to detail though; when even the BBC is doing a serious piece on this, one can very correctly argue that money cannot buy this amount of exposure. Is it all positive? The way the media presents it – in a stereotypically negative manner – probably not. But a little thought, a little reading and a little research will tell you that this is perhaps a non-issue being made more by virtue of the current state of the world. It’s sad Nintendo didn’t do it – and sadder still we may see fewer ports if this is how we react to it. But still. I’ll have written over three thousand words by the time I finish this. You can’t deny we’re talking about it – rather than, you know, their financial losses this year. Talk about smoke and mirrors.
But for all the strange stuff to come from that little island, what surprised me most about this is how traditionalist Japan is. Considering what passes for entertainment in that kooky little place, you’d think they were a heck of a lot more progressive than we were. Heck, this is a country where Yaoi – or Boy Love erotic manga – is popular. They even had “Rape Games” up until 2009 – yes, that’s every bit as disturbing and distasteful as it sounds. The notion that Japan is actually way more conservative about sex than I thought puzzles me. Just when you think you have a culture all figured out, stuff like this makes you stop and think. Or maybe it’s all part and parcel of the same issue. I don’t know. I don’t spend every hour of my life pondering the sexual desires of another country.
Either way, it’s unlikely Nintendo – weeks before a games launch – will change it now. Rather than condemn it, perhaps we should seek more meaningful change further down the road. Change isn’t easy. Change isn’t always pretty. But there are far better ways of discussing the issue than calling for a boycott, or trying to politicise or condemn a video game which ultimately, at its most core level, is supposed to be about having fun. I mean…
Sometimes I worry we’re so eager to discuss an issue that we completely miss the underlying point of the medium – to entertain us. If Tomodachi Life is a success, then Nintendo will seriously have to consider what a sequel brings to the table, of course. But that’s an argument for another day, and I’ve probably bored you enough as it is. Nintendo has far more serious issues to address as a company before we get around to the notion of same-sex relationships. Like working on third-party relationships. And content. And advertising. And content. Maybe reviving titles and intellectual property that it has spent far too long squatting on, unable to allow it room to evolve. And let’s not forget content.
Nintendo didn’t say it didn’t believe in the legal rights of the gay and transgendered communities. If anything, it’s got a good history in that regard. And it certainly didn’t discount the possibility of it in the future; the official statement on this from Nintendo was, and again I quote; “We will continue to listen and think about the feedback. We’re using this as an opportunity to better understand our consumers and their expectations of us.”
On that note, let’s at least hope Nintendo is taking note of the far more pertinent issue that the company is facing with the Wii U; consumers want games to play on their console. The issue of Tomodachi Life will, eventually, go away. We’ll move onto the next ‘major’ controversy in the world, or the next crummy video game that deserves our ire. Nintendo’s current lack of decent support for the Wii U, from both itself and third parties? That’s an issue that isn’t so easily going to be forgiven or forgotten. I know which one I’d rather Nintendo dealt with as a company first. It can very easily patch in something for Tomodachi Life at a later date, or have it as a feature in another potential future Tomodachi title. The point has been made. We got the message across. Let’s see what happens.
The state of game releases on the Wii U? Nintendo can’t really patch that in at a later date. It’s going to have to deal with that now, or suffer the consequences later. Whatever your views on Tomodachi Life and same-sex relationships, I think we can all agree that Nintendo needs to tackle the thorny Wii U issue head on first.
That’s a far more damaging problem than anything else, and hopefully Nintendo know it…
Edit; Nintendo last night released a further statement, which read;
“We apologize for disappointing many people by failing to include same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game’s design, and such a significant development change can’t be accomplished with a post-ship patch. At Nintendo, dedication has always meant going beyond the games to promote a sense of community, and to share a spirit of fun and joy. We are committed to advancing our longtime company values of fun and entertainment for everyone. We pledge that if we create a next instalment in the Tomodachi series, we will strive to design a game-play experience from the ground up that is more inclusive, and better represents all players.”