Tomodachi Life and Emergent Heartbreak

Tomodachi Life and Emergent Heartbreak

The danger in using life sims as a funhouse mirror to reality is that you may not like the twisted reflection you see there.

"No. No, no, no."

I could hear the disappointment and horror in my wife's voice even though her words came through a text message. I understood perfectly: I felt the same horrified sensation myself. Our hearts had been unexpectedly broken... and by a video game of all things. How could something as frivolous as Tomodachi Life do that to us?

Tomodachi Life is a strange creature. I've found it interesting to watch reactions to the game on social media and popular forums over the past few weeks. Some people love it, while others find it unforgivably slight or — worse — unconscionably creepy. My former 1UP.com colleague Jenn Frank compared it to the game "fuck, marry, kill" [link obviously not work safe] gone horribly wrong. In a real game of FMK, she observed, you fixate on celebrities and other out-of-reach personalities; Tomodachi Life, however, actively encourages you to create effigies of your friends, whom you can then pair up as life partners. Eventually, they may even have kids together. Some find this amusing, others ghoulish.

My former colleague, IGN editor Jose Otero, found the key to healing a shattered heart was to visit China and mug with the pandas. This is probably accurate.

My gay friends and colleagues have expressed a different sort of frustration over the game, as it literally treats marriage as the critical path to the end game — but only of the heterosexual variety. It's strange for them to see themselves, their partners, and their friends pairing with people they'd never consider dating in real life. I understand, to a degree; my wife and I created a convincing Mii rendition of a good friend of ours who happens to be gay. Ever since then, I've been derailing any and all attempts the game makes to pair him with the various ladies of the town. It just feels like it would be inappropriate otherwise.

Of course, the unpredictability of your Miis' relationships is a part of Tomodachi Life's intended appeal, but its effectiveness depends to a certain degree on how you approach the game. Some people have crammed their town with Mii effigies of celebrities and fictional characters, in which case all bets are off. Others actually delight in seeing what weird, even impossible scenarios, arise for their Miis. However, I suspect a lot of people approach Tomodachi Life the same way I do: Curious to see just how accurately its chatty little simulation can mirror reality.

I continue to be impressed by how well Tomodachi Life's set of attribute sliders manage to translate seemingly oblique characteristics (quirkiness, speed, expressiveness) into fairly spot-on personalities. Combined with the voice editing options, it really does allow you to create remarkably convincing versions of people you know, in miniature. And that's been the pleasure of the game for me: Tweaking my townsfolk to imitate reality, then watching how events unfold for them. Having recently moved to the East Coast after a decade in the thick of San Francisco's gaming press, away from almost everyone I know, I suppose there's a small comfort in carrying tiny versions of my best friends around with me.

Not an entirely realistic sim; I was totally stoked to get a Virtual Boy in Tomodachi Life.

The danger of that approach to the game, of course, is that it's too easy to become overly invested in what amounts to nothing more than a talking, more personalized take on The Sims. Possibly without even realizing it.

My wife Cat has tracked the progress of "people" she knows on my virtual island over the past month. She hasn't played Tomodachi Life herself, but any time she hears those odd little robot voices coming out of my 3DS, she quickly peers over my shoulder and asks for an update. Occasionally, she'll even snatch the system from my hands to make fashion or food choices, after being deeply offended the time I gave her father a serving of candy corn ("What? He would never," she frowned).

Most of all, though, she's been interested in us. Our avatars were the first to populate the island, and — presumably since I defined her Mii's relationship to myself as spouse — the first to get married. Since she hasn't been following the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the game, her glimpses into its outer workings always manage to surprise her with the game's accuracy. Because she never looks behind the curtain, it's always "real" to her; when our Miis make an appropriate remark or do something uncannily true to life, she marvels at scenes like our Miis sitting together in their living room while a tiny version of me pecks away at a laptop keyboard. Not having seen all the careful effort that's gone into manipulating the game toward that outcome, she can enjoy Tomodachi Life for what it appears to be rather than what it is.

Tomodachi Life discoveries: It appears my villagers prefer Green Day to Super Mario Bros.

When our Miis announced they'd had a baby, a few days before I left to cover this year's E3, she took particular interest. See, we've been contemplating that particular life change ourselves, though there hasn't been much progress yet. The idea of a family remains strictly aspirational at the moment. Our work schedules, the fact that I travel every few weeks, various health issues, and the fact that we're both pushing 40 (at which point it starts to get a lot trickier)....

Truth be told, I never saw myself as a potential father until fairly recently. Children were just those small, incomplete humans who didn't know how to use a toilet. But then I held my cousin-in-law's baby when he was a few hours old, and something changed in my brain. It's the damnedest thing — it was like a flip switching. Kids are pretty OK, it turns out... and for some reason they tend to like me, too. Probably because they recognize a fellow child when they see one, regardless of his size.

When our Miis had a baby that doesn't exist (yet) in reality, Cat immediately became a much more active, invested participant in my game of Tomodachi Life. I think she was a little offended that the kid demonstrated more of my features than hers, but that's how random number generators work in real life, too. We gave our virtual daughter the name we've agreed to give our actual daughter, should we ever have one. At that point, Tomodachi Life took on a new purpose for us: A chance take a voyeuristic peek into our theoretical future.

Tomodachi Life discoveries: My sister-in-law really likes coleslaw, as it turns out.

For the next few days, Cat and I would randomly pop open my 3DS just to check out our imaginary baby's exploits. Initially, those exploits consisted entirely of the kid crying while our respective Miis panicked and got very little sleep. You can tell Tomodachi Life is the work of people with children based simply on the way the addition of a baby to a family completely changes its dynamic; married Miis usually stay in together at their house and go to bed early while their single friends living at the big apartment building stay out all hours of the night. Add in a child and suddenly the parents become night owls, frazzled by their lack of rest. It's a simple little detail, but it's spot-on, and it really added to the overall impact of the whole thing; we've had more than a few lengthy, serious discussions weighing the benefits of having a baby versus the prospect of going entirely without sleep for nine or 10 months.

My player interactions with our Miis changed considerably once they had a kid, too. Instead of attending to our on-screen counterparts' quirky needs, suddenly our sessions amounted to babysitting a screaming infant to give our exhausted avatars some much-needed rest. "Rocking" the baby (a bizarrely clever application of the 3DS gyro sensor), tickling and patting to calm her down... well, in theory, anyway. In practice, very little would placate the kid, and soothing her ultimately amounted to a few minutes of listening to her wail as I floundered about in helpless frustration until my Mii intervened and offered her a bottle. Again: Clearly a game made by experienced parents.

Cat would cringe at the sound of those tearful screams every time I babysat — not in irritation, like when Mario gets bumped off his ride in Yoshi's Island, but with something akin to a maternal instinct. "Why is she crying?" she'd ask. "Is she OK?" I could do nothing but shrug apologetically.

Poor thing, she got my... well, everything, it looks like.

After a couple of days, the kid started to grow up a bit, going from infant to proto-toddler. She became more interactive, sitting up and playing, and eventually even standing. She was still crying nearly every time I checked in on my Mii, but now she was no longer so implacable. I could play peek-a-boo with her, which — as with a real baby — caused her no end of delight. And while she was moody and a little unpredictable, her disposition went from "colicky" to "occasionally sunny."

And then, the next day, I left for E3. Knowing how busy I'd be for the following week, I saved my Tomodachi Life progress and closed down the game.

"Take care of the baby," Cat admonished me. I laughed.

"I can't," I said. "I won't have any free time. She'll be fine until I get back."

Is this the little girl I carried?

True to my word, E3 kept me busy for five days solid; the few times I had a chance to crack open my 3DS was strictly to push through some Street Passes and see which Nintendo personnel I'd managed to pick up this year. (Katsuya Eguchi and Reggie Fils-Aime, for the record.) It wasn't until the show was over and I collapsed in exhaustion the following day that I had a chance to revisit Spiteland Island and check in on our fake baby's progress.

It didn't take long to find out; in fact, the game let me know proactively. As soon as I started up the game, I received a little pop-up alert from my Mii informing me that our baby had grown up and was ready to move out.

In my exhaustion, it took my brain a minute to register the news, but once it did my heart sank. I watched in mute horror as Tomodachi Life showed me my Mii's child, all grown up into a too-spitting image of myself, ready to begin a life of her own. Half-asleep, I made a few final adjustments and watched as the child I never really knew said farewell and headed off to parts unknown.

And when the game's credits rolled — a slideshow of moments from an imaginary baby's life that had apparently transpired while I was busy at E3 — I found myself inexplicably devastated.

I don't remember growing older. When did they?

"The baby grew up and moved out," I texted to Cat.

"No. No, no, no," she replied. And as soon I landed back home the following evening, I let her watch the slideshow. She didn't say anything as the pretend milestones of our pretend family's pretend baby's pretend life flickered past; we simply sat in mute disappointment.

I found myself surprised by the visceral reaction we both had to the game rushing our Mii's baby through to maturity. It's not like we really thought the caterwauling digital child was real. Maybe it was a mistake to give her such a meaningful name, but even so we're clear on the lines between fiction and reality. We didn't even see it as some kind of omen.

I think, in part, the letdown came from the game simply hitting too close to home. We'd like a real family, but we're not getting any younger, and it gets difficult once you reach our age. Having this little digital infant arrive only to take off mere days later hit a little close to home, too reminiscent of the times we've thought, "Maybe this time," only to be let down.

It doesn't help that the game can be so chillingly accurate at times.

And for me, personally, the fact that this happened around E3 hit hard, too. E3 is the busiest week of the year for the gaming press, and the (totally coincidental) fact that Tomodachi Life's credit sequence showed off moments from the baby's life that I "missed" because I was traveling for work hit me like a punch to the gut.

It's not like I actually care about some imaginary procedurally generated video game child... but I do worry that I've just seen an entirely too apt metaphor for my life pass before my eyes. I don't know how many times I've had to pass on birthday parties or simply spending time with my nephews and nieces — or the rest of my family, for that matter — because I was so busy working, or traveling. It's something I worry about from time to time, but having it spelled out in such plain (not to mention cheerful) terms really threw me for a loop.

I doubt Tomodachi Life's developers intended their creation to hit players this way; it's much too light-hearted a game to feel like some sort of attempt at heavy moralizing. Some games offer emergent gameplay; Tomodachi Life offers emergent existentialism. Every time I have to choose between work and life, it'll be hard not to think of the sickening knot in my stomach that I experienced as I watched this frivolous little sim game's credits roll. I don't know if this will make me a better person, but certainly it'll make me a more guilt-ridden one. And here I thought games were supposed to be about escapism.

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