Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Tomodachi Life

You know what really peels my turnips?  The dismissive "not really a game" complaint.  I've seen it put on all sorts of things in the past.  The Sims, Nintendogs, Animal Crossing... hell, even Wii Sports.  Wii Sports!  You know, SPORTS.  Which are GAMES.  It's even worse when their reasoning basically boils down to, "Well, you don't get to shoot anyone."

That said, Tomodachi Life is not really a game.

But!  I think I have a really good reason to say that.  And that reason is Player Agency.

Player Agency

Tomodachi Life doesn't really give the player a lot of opportunity to have an impact on the game world.  There are extensive options for character creation -- custom voices, personality sliders, even the complete Mii Maker functionality so that you don't have to drop back to the home screen to make a new character.  But then you just let them loose.  And watch them.

The meat of the game is in solving your Miis' "problems".  These are brief little interactions where you... I dunno.  In most of them, they want you to buy something.  Sometimes they just want to tell you something?  Or you have to look in their stomach?  So you give them whatever they ask for, and their happiness meter goes up.  When they get enough happiness, they level up, and you can choose a bonus item to give them.

The thing is, these problems aren't really needs.  Unlike in, say, The Sims, these characters don't actually need your care.  There's no failure state that arises from neglect.  You don't even need to feed them, although you can.  If you leave a problem sit long enough, your Mii eventually just forgets about it.  So these aren't really challenges for the player to resolve so much as a limited opportunity for the player to make a number go up.

In fact, the whole experience reminds me a bit of a virtual pet.  The characters on the screen just sort of wander around and do their own thing and occasionally ask you for things.  But unlike in, say, Nintendogs, the player doesn't have the power to instigate any actions.  You can't tell your Miis to go to the park or to play with the Wii U you gave them; you just have to wait around and see if you can catch them doing it on their own.

My sessions with Tomodachi Life tend to be short because it feels like I've exhausted everything that I can accomplish about a minute or so in.  There are cosmetic additions that you can buy with in-game money -- clothes and apartment themes for your virtual dolls -- but there's only a couple new ones every day; you flip through them, and you either like what you see or you don't.  Unlike in, say, Animal Crossing, there's really nothing you can do to grind for game currency once you've picked up the daily donation from your islanders.  Yeah, you get a little money for solving problems, but considering how many of them expect you to buy something, I don't really look at it as a reliable source of income.

So what's the point of all of this?  Is it just a $40 tap-and-wait game?  Is there anything that I'm supposed to be trying to achieve?  Anything that can give me a sense of narrative, a goal to achieve, anything at all that I'm trying to build towards?  Well, yes.


Now, I'm not going to beat that dead horse.  Maybe I'd find it more fulfilling if I could see my in-game avatar moving in with the hunk of my dreams, but somehow I doubt it.  Relationships in the game -- romantic and otherwise -- are, once again, beyond the player's control.  Sure, your Miis will ask for your approval -- no doubt to prevent the stupid computer from shipping you with your cousin -- but for the most part, you're just sitting back and watching.  Sometimes you have to resolve fights and breakups.  Sometimes a couple will have a baby, and a few days later it's an adult.

Building relationships -- especially romantic ones -- is sort of positioned as the objective of the game.  When you start a new island, you're given a teaser to make you contemplate what sort of child your Mii might have, and when a child grows up (any child, yours or someone else's), you get the end credits.  The hell of it is, it still doesn't feel all that important.  There's nothing you can do to nurture or end a relationship beyond your initial decision of approval or refusal.  I don't basically feel anything about the decisions these characters make because I don't really have any sense of context.  Why do they like each other?  Why do they hate each other?  The only thing I think about a breakup is, well, now I have to buy them a plane ticket to make them feel better.

I think the basic issue -- and it's an unavoidable one -- is that these characters aren't really the people you know, even if you designed them to be like your friends and family.  Nintendo wrote the script, and since they don't know the people involved, they had to write that script to be broad enough to handle all kinds of random circumstances.  So even if you're invested in a game relationship because it's two of your friends and it's cute to see them together, there's an inevitable disconnect because they aren't saying and doing the things that you know your friends would say and do.

A Box of People

So is Tomodachi Life entirely without merit?

Well no.

Thing is, way back when I first got my Wii, it amused me to make just dozens of cartoon Miis.  And when the Check Mii Out channel debuted, I downloaded all sorts of characters to populate Wuhu Island and accompany me on my daily Wii Fit jogs.  But when I saw them all mingling around in my Mii Channel, it made me feel like something was missing.  Here were all of these creatures walking around on my screen, almost alive.  Wouldn't it be cool if they had their own little world?  What if you could just open up your Mii plaza and take a peek in on their lives?  Wouldn't that be cute?

And that's basically Tomodachi Life.

Just because this isn't really a "game" doesn't mean it's unenjoyable.  Nintendo's scripted some pretty funny conversations and events, and they're worth watching, especially when they suddenly involve some celebrity in an unexpected situation.  Even moreso than Animal Crossing, this is a game where a lot of the fun seems to be in sharing your screengrabs on Miiverse.  If nothing else, it's a simple and effective way to showcase and share your Miis online.

And there's at least one really cool toy in this box: the Music Hall.

One of the bonus items you can give a Mii for leveling up is a song.  You can either have a Mii sing a song solo (with or without backup dancers) or put several Miis who know the same song together into a band.  You write your own custom lyrics, and bam, instant music video.  There's really no gamey "point" to it, you don't "get" anything for it, but it's really cute.

I've described this game to people as "a box of people that do things".  And that's all it is.  You just download this software (I can't imagine anyone wanting to commit to filling the card slot with this game), turn it on, and it shows you what your Miis do when they think you're not watching.

In the end, I would rather this game exist than not exist.  I spent a lot of time in the 90s feeling rather bitter about all of the cool experimental games that were never released outside of Japan, and I would rather encourage companies to keep trying out new stuff like this.  It's not something I can wholeheartedly recommend -- it's pretty expensive for a screensaver -- but I'm okay with it.


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