What is going on with Nintendo? A year on from our last look at the Japanese console and video game manufacturer, things are no different. Sales of their latest machine, the ridiculously-named Wii U are down on 2013's lacklustre performance, and have already been surpassed by the more expensive PlayStation 4 after less than six months on the market. Microsoft's Xbox One is only a million sales behind too. Clearly, something needs to be done and today, company president Satoru Iwata outlined five short-term moves. Interestingly, one of its core strands is public health ...
Okay, so they have a plan. And what better way to say to shareholders "everything is cool, folks" by embroiling themselves in a homophobic shit storm? It centres around Tomodachi Life, a life sim that has done the business for Nintendo's 3DS in Japan. You create an avatar and basically potter around a virtual universe making friendships, striking up relationships and marrying. As the graphics are far beyond the machines of my day, I doubt I'll be buying a copy. But here's the rub. You have complete control over your player character. They are exactly the sort of person you want to create. There is no plot beyond what you and your virtual friends make up. And yet, Nintendo will not let your character have a same sex marriage. You can do it for real in several European countries and US states, but not in a video game the company wants to market in these places.
This isn't the first time a LGBT controversy in video gaming has ignited. It might be better remembered these days for its "controversial" ending, but Bioware's Mass Effect 3 was embroiled in a huge internet conflagration rivalling the in-game war over same-sex relationships. As a roleplaying game you can completely customise your player character, Commander Shepard. If you so wish, as you play out the story over the games you can have relationships with non-player characters. Man/woman, woman/man, (man/woman)/alien - anything goes! Except, in the first two game, gay relationships were out. Oh, if your character was a woman you could have encounters with the mono-sexed Asari - who just so happened to present as blue-skinned space babes. But that wasn't really a lesbian thing, maintained Bioware in their best serious face. Hence the fan community campaigned hard for same sex options to be included in the final instalment of the trilogy. The company dug their heels in - Shepard, whether a woman or a man, was absolutely 100% hetero, they maintained. Same sex relationships weren't appropriate for a action-heavy military sci-fi video game, either. Unfortunately for them, the Dragon Age franchise, another of Bioware's big guns, was a action-heavy fantasy video game. Yet that from the beginning allowed for in-game relationships across the genders. If there were unresolved homophobic issues out there in hardcore gamerland, it didn't effect those all-important sales. The company eventually saw sense and relented.
Nintendo tend to operate in their own bubble and relate to the world as if it's still 1988, the last time they had the Japanese and North American video game markets all sewn up. Clearly the controversy and bad press Bioware got at the time passed the company by, because Nintendo don't appear to have learned from that episode. In their mitigation, Nintendo argue that Tomodachi Life did not have same-sex functionality when it launched in Japan and were just expecting to give it a straight port, if you'd pardon the pun, to other territories. The question then was why a life sim in which every aspect of your character's personality can be chosen wasn't given the option to have relationships with/marry same-sex others? Is Japan overly uptight and Nintendo thought it wouldn't fly with its home video game market? The amount of hentai and "imaginative" anime out there suggests they might have underestimated how open-minded the Japanese consumer is. Was it the case the suits and the developers find homosexuality a bit icky, and so the thought of two superdeformed gaggles of male polygons holding hands was a step too far? Were Nintendo afraid it might tarnish their kid-friendly Disney-of-gaming image? Or did it simply not occur, which, in the early 21st century, is very hard to believe.
None of these are good enough excuses. If you make a life sim without the option for same sex relationships your product, your company is saying you don't find them acceptable. Ironic, considering Nintendo said their game "never intended to make any form of social commentary".