I imagine that parents get struck with a revelation in the process of rearing a child that helps them appreciate the enormity of the task before them. I say "imagine" because I've never had a child. At least, a real one. But I was struck by that revelation recently thanks to a small, weird Nintendo game of all things.
It was shortly after E3 had ended last summer. I had gone up to my weed dealer's apartment — call him Larry — and was hanging out with him and his friend Nathan. The two of them are serious gamers, so we were talking about all the big gaming news that had unfolded a few weeks back. There was a lot of weed involved. We passed around a joint or two, coughing and squinting our eyes as we wondered if something like The Division would be any good. Eventually, the conversation shifted over to the new Legend of Zelda game, and I pulled out my 3DS to show them something from Link to the Past for some context.
When I opened the 3DS, Nintendo's quirky "life simulator" Tomodachi Life was still open on the screen as it often was for me last year. I tried to exit out of the game, but before I could something peculiar happened. The console made a tiny ringing sound, and a baby alarm popped up on-screen.
"Oh my god," I said. The two of them asked me what was going on. We were all very stoned at that point, so I probably sounded more aghast than I normally would have.
"My Mii is having a baby!" I shouted. "I'm having a baby! This is actually happening!"
Similar to The Sims, the American-born sim game that inspired Tomodachi Life, the characters you create and manage in the game's virtual village can couple up and eventually have children. The first Mii I had created — the one in my own likeness — was married to a Mii named Anya. They'd recently informed me of their plans to have a child, asking if I thought it was a good idea. I told them sure by selecting the de facto "go forth and multiply" dialogue option.
Tomodachi Life doesn't tell you when, exactly, the baby will show up, though, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Or when to expect it. The baby alarm was the first I'd heard from Mii Yannick and Anya about their family planning since I told them to feel free to have a child. I was taken by surprise, then.
It was a good kind of surprised feeling, though. This is a sim game. The core gameplay is about rearing individual virtual critters and ultimately fostering a tiny little home-grown community you can peek into from the screens of your 3DS. I'd gotten pretty attached to these little guys over the course of playing Tomodachi Life. So when two of my favourite Miis presented me with their little bundle of joy, I was brimming with pride.
It was a boy. They suggested the name Cooper. I took a picture of Cooper on my phone and posted it to Facebook, adding a brief caption: "Everyone, say hello to my son."
After all the fanfare of Cooper's birth had calmed down, I once again tried to exit out of Tomodachi Life and open up Zelda instead. Before I could, another alarm went off.
Uh oh. Cooper was crying. Sobbing, really. Shrieking in that disarmingly high-pitched way toddlers do in the real world. Can you help us calm him down? My Miis implored.
I forgot to capture a screenshot of my own, but when this happens in Tomodachi Lifeit looks something like this:
Most of Tomodachi Life's gameplay is so slow-paced and mildly interactive that it's hard to even call it a proper "video game." The majority of my time playing it has been spent tabbing between different screens on my 3DS with the console's stylus, selecting almost superficial aesthetic enhancements for the Miis I created: picking out their clothes, buying them food and then dropping it into their apartments so they can gobble it up happily, selecting gifts like a kite or guitar to give them whenever they level up. (They can experience whenever you make them happy, which is very easy to do by simply feeding and clothing them. Yes, it's really that simple.)
The game has some bizarre mini-games in addition to its core gameplay loops, though. You can rub the stylus up and down incessantly, for instance, to help a Mii sneeze when they confess the need to. And when a new baby starts crying, you have to delicately rock the 3DS back and forth to try and calm it down.
Rocking a 3DS back and forth with short, repetitive motions probably doesn't sound like a difficult task. Certainly not a feat on par with playing ranked League of Legends games or making it through any part of Bloodborne without dying several dozen times. But Cooper's tantrum started right after I'd smoked with Larry and Nathan. Larry is a drug dealer. Like most (if not all) drug dealers, he obviously knows his way around the drugs he sells. The weed he smokes is really, really strong.
I was pretty much incapacitated by the time Cooper started crying. I tried rocking the 3DS, first softly, then more and more aggressively. I tried flipping it over completely, rotating it in circles, moving it up and down in a straight, vertical line. He kept wailing, and wailing. Nothing seemed to work. I laughed harder and harder as this clumsy process went on. It simply did not compute. Normally, whenever I've combined weed with video games, the drug enhances my overall experience. It certainly makes it a lot easier to become singularly focused on the dazzling graphics on the screen in front of you while shooting at bad guys or driving a car around some racetrack really fast. Why was I having such a hard time putting a friggin' baby to sleep in some wacky 3DS game, when I never had any problems killing hordes of demons in, say, Diablo III while inebriated?
"Guys," I said, starting to feel desperate while still cracking up at the situation. "He won't stop crying."
Nathan and Larry weren't accustomed to sim games, and found the entire prospect of having a virtual toddler buried inside a mobile device pretty hilarious. Still, they tried to help. We kept passing it around (the 3DS, that is). The Miis started offering to take Cooper back.
Either in frustration or amusement, Larry finally yanked the 3DS up and over with enough force that it would have broken a real toddler's neck.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY SON?" I shouted. I'd been laughing in that heavy, gasping way you do when high for so long that it was starting to make me feel sore. Cooper still couldn't stop crying. After a few minutes of this, Larry's girlfriend got home.
"You've got to help us!" we all shouted. "The baby won't stop crying!" She was pretty confused, which makes sense, seeing as she walked in on three grown men shouting, giggling, and sighing frantically as each of them flailed helplessly in turn, trying to wave a mobile gaming console through the air in the right motion.
The Mii parents' requests became more forceful. "Please stop," they started to say. They didn't add anything like you're hurting him. But I'm pretty sure that was implied. I was failing my first task as a video game parent. We all were. Eventually, we gave up. I snapped the 3DS closed in defeat.
A few days later I was idling around in my Tomodachi Life village again, and stopped by Mii Yannick and Anya's house to check in on them. The same crying alert came up again. I still felt shaky and unsure of myself when I began to see-saw the 3DS back and forth. But this time, it didn't take very long to calm Cooper down.
I like to think that I helped redeem myself in my Miis' eyes after handing the toddler back to them, soundly asleep as he was.
Tomodachi Life was popular when it was first released in Japan in 2013. It didn't transition to America all that successfully, though. Many fans of Nintendo here reacted angrily when the company said shortly before Tomodachi Life's localised release that they wouldn't allow Miis to form same-sex relationships in the game. When it actually came out in the states, it was met with muted fanfare at best. The game meant to be Nintendo's wonky spin on Sims-style gameplay didn't offer up nearly as many opportunities for substantive, life simulation-type activities or the same wealth of customisation options as its PC and Mac-based predecessor. You couldn't build houses for your Miis or decorate them with anywhere near the same degree of precision, you couldn't establish careers for them, you could barely even control and micro-manage their personal relationships. All you can really do in the game is do stuff like feed and clothe them. And help them sneeze, I guess.
The 3DS game's hilarious, idiosyncratic "stop the baby from crying" mini-game showed me one key aspect of life simulation that it nails in a way The Sims can't, though. Childhood and child-rearing has always been one of the hardest things for family and life simulation games to represent in a way that even hopes to approximate the intimacy and emotional urgency of its real-world counterpart. Creating proper toddlers is such a herculean task that The Sims 4 developers left them out of the game entirely — a decision that upset many longtime fans of the series. Failing so spectacularly at one of Nintendo's characteristically bizarre motion-control challenges because me and my friends were all high out of our minds was a silly experience, sure, but also an oddly, surprisingly realistic one. Passing the 3DS back and forth in our confused, inebriated state and continuing to struggle with a seemingly mundane task in the most mellow, low-pressure game imaginable, I realised that Nintendo's eccentric motion-controls helped transform an inert piece of hardware into something living, breathing, and — yes — crying. The 3DS really felt like a squealing baby, much more so than a lifeless gadget.
I mean, think about it: what would have happened if I'd shown up at a drug dealer's apartment and smoked weed right before getting a call in the real world telling me that some major life event like a child being born was about to happen. Hopefully I would have planned much better for such an event — i.e. not found myself in such a situation where I'm hopelessly stoned in the first place. But still: parenting isn't something you can just opt out of. Babies don't wait for a time that's convenient for you to appear. They just show up, writhing and screaming, and the parents have to do their best to make them stop.