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I was in Kyoto when I saw my first Japanese gay pride parade -- a disheveled collection of a little more than a dozen activists toting signs and carrying a rainbow banner. Their procession was roundly ignored as they made their way down the street, as invisible there on the walkway as they were in daily life.
That moment was on my mind when the controversy surrounding Tomodachi Life broke earlier this week. Having spent three years living in Tokyo, I remember well the wall of silence surrounding LGBT issues. It's that ignorance of the debate surrounding same-sex marriage and other issues that seems to have informed Nintendo's bewildered response to the controversy.
"Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life. The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation," a representative recently protested to the AP. "We hope that all of our fans will see that 'Tomodachi Life' was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game, and that we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary."
But of course, as Giant Bomb's Patrick Klepek and others have rightly pointed out, it's social commentary in of itself to pretend that same-sex relationships don't exist. And having now stirred the proverbial hornet's nest, they are now officially part of a debate that has been going on for some time now in the game industry. If it's any comfort, they should know that they aren't alone in dealing with the issue of LGBT relationships in games. More than a few western games have weathered similar controversies over the past few years. But change is coming; and whether they want to be or not, Nintendo -- and other developers around the world -- will be a part of it.
What makes this whole controversy strange is that this is not new territory for gaming. Tomodachi Life would not really be breaking barriers by allowing for same-sex marriage. The Sims permitted same-sex relationships when it came out fifteen years ago -- a move far more controversial then than it is now -- and it was every bit as "whimsical" as Tomodachi Life.
And Tomodachi Life isn't the only game that's retrograde on this subject either. Where the likes of The Sims and Dragon Age have confidently forged ahead with LGBT relationships, other games have been much more reluctant to engage with such issues. Though things have gotten markedly better over the years, World of WarCraft fans may recall that the first LGBT friendly guild was asked to stop promoting its message because it was "against the terms and conditions." The Korean-made Maple Story has marriage; but same-sex marriage is an apparent no-no, even with numerous requests by the fans to add it in. The recently-relaunched Final Fantasy XIV likewise lacks same-sex marriage, though director Naoki Yoshida has said that he would like to "keep dialog open with our players as we deliberate the matter."
Then there's Star Wars: The Old Republic. Developed by the famously progressive BioWare, it seemed like LGBT-friendly mechanics were a given. And indeed, a "Love" feature was introduced, but only for heterosexual relationships. Eventually, BioWare released the planet Makeb through the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion, which was immediately criticized by fans and critics alike for ghettoizing LGBT relationships. The Guardian called it "pay-to-gay."
"I want to apologize that this is taking so long to get in the game. I realize that we promised SGR to you guys and that many of you believed that this would be with a companion character," producer Jeff Hickman wrote at the time. "Unfortunately, this will take a lot more work than we realized at the time and it (like some other pieces of content we talked about earlier in the year) has been delayed as we focused on the changes required to take the game Free-to-Play. As we have said in the past, allowing same gender romance is something we are very supportive of."
It was an odd episode for BioWare, which had no problem making same-sex relationships available in Knights of the Old Republic (and a lesbian-only relationship at that -- a rarity).
In the end, Makeb seems to be the result of BioWare neglecting to include any gay companions in the initial lineup -- an oversight on their part. But the impression it leaves is that same-sex marriage is something of a hot potato in social games and MMOS -- something developers (or more likely, publishers) don't want to have to deal with unless they want to.
Could Nintendo of America have taken the reins?
Tomodachi Collection obviously isn't an MMO. However, it does feature Miis -- player-created avatars that represent something more than pre-baked characters. With that in mind, it's not surprising that Nintendo has opted to shy away from such issues.
Nintendo, lest we all forget, is still a deeply conservative company. From the beginning, they tried to promote "moral values" in their games by censoring content that they consider objectionable. As recently as 2012, they reportedly killed a 3DS port of Binding of Isaac due to what they considered controversial religious content.
There's one thing that's been bugging me though: How much freedom does NoA have in this matter? If Nintendo of America had decided to add in same-sex marriage, would the home office have acquiesced to it?
"On the one hand, it's tempting to say 'yes,' because Nintendo of America enjoys one of the healthiest relationships in the business with its parent company when it comes to localization. No one else has the leeway to make sweeping changes like this one," one high-level localization specialist told me on the condition of anonymity. "The US version of Animal Crossing has added Western holidays, events, and items; the main character of Rusty's Big Deal Baseball got a complete makeover for the US version; and even Tomodachi Life already has a number of non-trivial changes to the US release, which Nintendo has boasted about elsewhere. In an industry where it can be almost impossible just to get the original developers to add proper support for plural cases, NOA was in a better position than anyone to push for same-sex relationships in the game."
However, it may not be that simple. Likening Tomodachi Life to a house, he feels that adding same-sex relationships would be more than a matter of repainting the walls or changing the furniture. It would be more like installing new plumbing, or even adding a new foundation.
"It has potential knock-on effects for every other aspect of the game, all of which would be have to be tested to make sure it's still compatible with the new system. That's especially hard for a game where so little is under the tester's direct control," he says. " My gut read is that for same-sex relationships to work in a game like this, they have to be included during the initial planning and design stages. I suspect there's not a way to include them late in the project's life, without essentially redoing the game over again."
The Long View
It's tempting to say that Nintendo didn't have a lot of choice in the matter. Tomodachi Life was originally developed for a domestic audience; and after having polled a number of acquaintances from Japan, it seems like not much has changed since I last lived there. That wall of silence around LGBT issues still exists.
It remains especially apparent in the Japanese game industry. Over in Japan, one of the largest gaming blogs -- Hachima Kikou -- recently responded to the controversy with the headline, "Foreigners want Homodachi Collection!" And speaking with my contact in localization, LGBT issues are still frequently reduced to exaggerated gay men (no lesbians), who mainly serve as punchlines.
"I can say that I've seen some tone-deafness on the subject in games I've worked on," he says, which seems like an understatement.
Had Nintendo been more forward-thinking though, they might have seen that Tomodachi Life has the potential to attract a more global audience, and that a cultural disconnect was inevitable. It often takes courage to look past short-term goals and take a longer view. Even if it was only meant to be a "whimsical" take on life, Tomodachi Life had a real opportunity to say something about one of the issues of our time. As Christian Nutt eloquently explained over at Gamasutra, it the chance to say that gay and lesbian relationships aren't just some abstract concept or a joke. They are real.
But as I said, Nintendo can at least take some comfort in knowing that they aren't alone. This is an industry-wide issue -- especially in the social gaming space -- and it's certainly not limited to just Japan. We've moved ahead in fits and starts over the years; but for every Sims or Skyrim, we have a Lord of the Rings Online that retreats behind canon to avoid touching what remains a hot-button subject.
For now, I suppose I'm just sad to say that I don't really have any interest in playing Tomodachi Life. It's tough for me to personally connect with a game that not only limits itself to heterosexual marriage, but makes it a requirement to unlock certain content. I suppose I don't really see the whimsy in all that, at least not for myself. I can take solace, at least, in the fact that there now seems to be a dialog around the issue, and that this may serve as a wake-up call for both Nintendo and the industry at large.
Indeed, Nintendo seems to have posted a mea culpa and an apology: "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 installment 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."
Even in Japan, where the wall of silence persists, things have gotten better. As my contact in localization rightly points out, Japanese media has given rise to stories like Thomas no Shinzo (Heart of Thomas) -- a soulful story of unrequited love between men.
"They're still flawed, in part I think because the developers making those attempts don't have any real-life experience or LGBT friends to draw on, but I suppose it's good that they're trying," he says. "Still waiting for the day when they really get it right, though."