Part soap opera, part sitcom, Tomodachi Life is an ostensibly odd and subversive life sim underneath which beats a quietly conformist heart. It asks you to cater to the whims and needs of the Mii characters inhabiting a steadily growing island community; you’ll earn money by making them happy, which is invested in new items in order to continue satisfying them. Given the company’s oft-stated desire to put smiles on faces, it could be seen as a satire of Nintendo’s own corporate policy: keep everyone happy and business will be good.
It begins with you creating a Mii doppelgänger, your lookalike’s traits determined by a series of sliders. Do they speak caringly or directly? Are they energetic or lethargic? You can adjust the pitch and tone of their synthesised speech, too, but as a general rule, the more deadpan the voice, the funnier the interactions are. We never tired of our Mii expressing shock with a sotto voce “gosh”. That ‘Tomodachi’ sounds like ‘Tamagotchi’ may be coincidental, but at times your involvement feels a lot like caring for a digital pet, even if managing your community is less demanding than looking after a single Nintendog. While there are timed events, many are available during multiple time slots, and you won’t be punished for ignoring your islanders for a few days.
As with Animal Crossing, beneath the welcoming exterior lies an indictment of humanity’s rampant consumerism. You feed and clothe your Miis, buy new interior designs for their apartments and give them gifts, with each problem solved topping up your cash, which you’ll spend on amassing a faintly meaningless haul of items. Some are purely decorative, while others prompt new interactions, and it’s the latter that keep you coming back. Context is crucial, and mundane exchanges are made amusing by the participants – we won’t forget Satoru Iwata beating C-3PO in a rap battle any time soon. Often it’s your own personal touches that provide the comedy, with the ability to select phrases for characters to say in certain situations. Elsewhere, the juxtaposition of cartoon characters and realistically rendered objects, including giant digitised hands with which you can applaud at weddings or pick fluff out of hair, injects a Gilliam-esque surrealism.
Given Nintendo is considerate enough to publish an annual report discussing how its practices could effect positive societal change, it’s doubly disappointing that Tomodachi Life promotes a lifestyle that will exclude many, with some features gated off until two characters get married and have a child. Otherwise, this is a delightfully strange and often surprising piece of work; it’s more plaything than game, perhaps, but the smiles it generates will be broad and frequent.