Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Knife Edge

"Can you still keep your balance?," Greg Lake demands to know in a track from the first album by progressive rock supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer. "Can you live on a knife edge?" Nintendo seems entirely too eager to prove that it can in response to the growing controversy surrounding its upcoming 3DS release Tomodachi Life.

In case you missed it, Tomodachi Life is a life simulation, not far removed from Nintendo's long-running Animal Crossing series. When it was first released in Japan, gamers discovered that it was possible to not only marry partners of the opposite sex, but ones of the same sex as well. This turned out to be a programming error which turned the game code inside out and prevented players from saving their progress, but it also seemed to open the door to the possibility of gay relationships when the game was released in the United States, a country which has seen a shift in its view of homosexuality over the last twenty years.

They make a nice couple. Or would, anyway.
(Image courtesy of Cinema Blend)
Nintendo faces a difficult decision in its localization of Tomodachi Life. Either it can include gay relationships in the game and be celebrated by the LGBT community as progressive and inclusive, or settle for the more rigid religious definition of marriage and escape backlash from Fox News and AM talk show blowhards like Rush Limbaugh. Rather than making that tough call and offering a public statement about its decision, Nintendo hopes that it can escape controversy entirely by quietly releasing the game without a word to either side in the debate.

Weak move, Nintendo.

Personally, I'm with the gay community on this issue, although perhaps not as strongly as they would like. I've seen footage of Tomodachi Life, and the game is wacky by design. Compared to some of the outrageous antics that happen (like giant versions of your friends looming in the ocean, and cameo appearances by Christina Aguilera), two men living together is positively mundane. At the same time, I understand the difficult position Nintendo has been put in over this game. I find myself in the same position when I tell my gay friends that I won't boycott the company for its decision... or its apparent lack of one.

Whatever Nintendo decides, it owes its customers an explanation, rather than sticking its head in the sand and hoping nobody notices. They've noticed. You can't ignore this, because nobody else will. If you support what gay rights advocates are calling Miiquality, you'll give your customers a more inclusive and full-featured game in the process. If you don't, you'll briefly avoid the righteous indignation of right-wing loudmouths (until they find another scapegoat in your library), but it won't reflect positively on you in another twenty years, when gay marriage goes national and is embraced by a majority of Americans.

You don't get a third option, Nintendo. You can only ride the razor's edge for so long before you fall off and make a mess of yourself.

EDIT: Okay, okay, I dropped the second prog rock reference. It was a little too self-indulgent, even for a personal journal. That tip of the hat to ELP stays, though!

Also, I was made aware that Nintendo did offer a public statement earlier today about Miiquality, a mealy-mouthed excuse that satisfied absolutely nobody and even angered a few. They claimed their game was too silly and escapist for "social commentary," which holds almost as much water as a bucket made of doilies. Fable II had same-sex relationships, and that was a game where you wooed potential partners with farting and handstands!

(This marks one of those all-too rare occasions where Pete gets to feel smug about a promise he actually kept. But I digress!)

Tye Marini, the man who started the push for same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life, stopped short of boycotting the game. It seems that The Gay Gamer's Bryan Ochalla will also be picking up a copy, in spite of Nintendo's decision to forsake Miiquality. I don't blame anyone for buying the game if it interests them... personally, I'm not gay, and don't really have a stake in this debate. Nevertheless, the heteros-only gameplay of Tomodachi Life reminds me of how stubbornly unwilling Nintendo has been to listen to fan input. 

It's not just about civil rights issues, either... it was like pulling teeth to get Nintendo to embrace online functionality, and we had to suffer through two years of an unlit Game Boy Advance screen before the company relented and gave us a system we could play without standing on the surface of the sun. With Nintendo suffering financially in this console cycle, maybe it's time for them to take the concerns of their user base seriously? I really don't think their current plans to segue into the health care industry is going to work out for them...


  1. Great post, Jess. I'm with you all the way on this one, although obviously (going by the tweets I sent out yesterday) I'm a smidge angrier than you are about Nintendo's ham-fisted response to this controversy this far.

    BTW, I'm also not boycotting this game, nor am I boycotting Nintendo in general over this. In a way, I can even understand where they're coming from in this situation. After all, the game was made in Japan, where "gay rights" and the LGBT community are far less visible and are far less a part of the cultural conversation, if you will, than they are in, say, North America at the moment. And then there are Nintendo's American and European arms, who likely were stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to localizing this game. Specifically, I have a feeling NOA may have actually pressed NOJ to add this "option" to the game, or at least asked about it -- after which they likely were rebuffed. That's just my guess and opinion, of course, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were true given NOJ's rather odd handling of so-called gay content in past games.

    Anyway, I'm still buying the game -- although I will say that if the supposed "workaround" (make a female Mii that looks like a guy Mii and give it a guy's name and, bam, you have a gay guy) doesn't actually work or if the game's insistence on hooking my male Mii up with random female Miis pisses me off or depresses me or anything of the sort, I'll be selling the game faster than you can say "Tomodachi!"

    Also, even in the event that I thoroughly -- or at least mostly, or somewhat -- enjoy Tomodachi Life, I won't be picking up any future sequels if they don't include this content or these options. No question.

    1. I've read a little about how gays are treated in Japan. While acts of violence are rare, it sounds like homosexuality is played up for humor, with gay characters being little more than wacky stereotypes. Japan's gay citizens don't even bother to fight those portrayals anymore; they just seem to bitterly accept it. If you'll pardon the generalization, I believe this has a lot to do with Japanese society's fondness for conformity. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down and all that.

      I think Nintendo of America will do right by its customers and offer more relationship options in the future. Hell, those options have been in Fable since the very beginning of the series. I remember getting married to a female character in Fable 2, who promptly left me because I spent too much time adventuring and not enough with her. So I decided to play for the other team and looked for a male partner; someone who wouldn't demand a long-term commitment. To my consternation, none of the characters I talked to would give me the time of day until I put a ring on their fingers. Guess I'll just have to settle for being married to my work!

  2. "...but it also opened the door to the possibility of gay relationships when the game was released in the United States." No it didn't.