Since its release in 2013, I’ve sunk more hours into Tomodachi Life than I have any other game. Perhaps this doesn’t communicate to you the scope of my commitment: I’ve played Skyrim for over a hundred hours, Animal Crossing for double that, and I regularly sink at least fifty hours into other titles I’m interested in. Few, if any, have ever held me as long as Tomodachi Life. I’m still playing this game because I feel like the more I play it, the less I can let go of it, and for one very simple reason: my Tomodachi Life is full of ghosts.
To those who play games for the sake of beating as many as possible, achievement hunting, proving their skill levels, or experiencing something new, this might seem ridiculous. But I’d like to ask—yes, the age old question—what is the point of a video game?
For life simulators like this one, like The Sims, Animal Crossing, and Stardew Valley, games can function as a sort of living memory. Not just a record of the game played, but reflective of the life led while playing. Photographs, journaling, even videos—these are archival mediums. They preserve memories just as they appeared. But what Tomodachi Life provides me is something that feels more immersive than that. An opportunity, however shallow, however separate from reality, to interact with these fragments of memory.
From the old friends I no longer talk to that still inhabit the game, to the characters from shows that have now passed me by, to the children that roam the game from couples that are no longer together, my copy of Tomodachi Life has evolved past simple fantasy into a way to re-evaluate reality. Of course, the idea of visiting the past, granting yourself a window into who you used to be, sounds like fantasy, too—like time travel. So maybe what I mean to say is less that Tomodachi Life doesn’t present a fantasy at all, but that it’s not entirely the same escape as so many other games are to me. Instead, it’s a reminder of what I collected in my life that made it worth staying in. With all of the memories that these Miis represent, the time capsules of the designs and the arrangements of rooms and clothes, the game has become a real-life catalog of my life through playing. It is, in a weird way, the longest journal I’ve ever kept up with.
Games can function as a sort of living memory. Not just a record of the game played but reflective of the life led while playing.
Over time, I’ve started the game anew. Three times, to be exact. In high school, I curated a specific list of Miis: my family, my friends, random characters from various pieces of media I was obsessed with. In college, I updated my friends and interests. Then, this last update, in 2022, I had to again realign my entire world. Each time, I sorted through a large catalog of Miis: trading the entire cast of Twilight and Supernatural in high school for the cast of Death Note and Durarara in college before shifting to an entirely new set of Miis representing people like Owen Wilson and Dracula. (I’ve abstracted as I’ve gotten older, I think.)
For each Mii, I remembered not only the process of creating them, but all of the love and care that I had once dedicated to things I no longer feel quite as much passion for. This was a representation of a person, of myself, that had shaped the person I am now; I’ve felt a little guilty that I am no longer her, but more than that, I felt grateful to her for giving me the chance to evolve.
It’s always nice, knowing that you can evolve.
Along with making new Miis, I made minor updates to the ones I’ve always had. My best friend, now my partner, had a new favorite color. My other closest friends needed their hairstyles and features updated for the adults they’ve become in the time I’ve spent playing. I added new Miis for the new people who have slowly trickled into my life: roommates, schoolmates, co-workers. Then came the more difficult part. The game feels like a living memory, in the way that photographs and journals can’t quite capture. These characters ask for things, and, even if they don’t match up to their real life counterparts, they still feel like they hold a piece of the people I know and knew.
I hesitated on the Mii of a person I no longer speak to. I could delete her, of course. I could remove her from my game, from the space she’d taken up not only there but in my memories as well. Her apartment would be filled by someone else: her entire existence would fade into the background noise of everyone else I’ve created, that I’d meet, and she wouldn’t haunt my game any longer as a digital ghost.
In the end, I did delete her Mii, the same way that I allowed myself to start over with my interests. Her child, given a random name but still recognizable, still carrying her mother’s facial features, remained behind. A fragment of that version of my game. Even now, she comes to my island, pitches a tent, and asks me to play a game with her. I do. It feels fair: starting over can only change so much, after all.
That memory is bittersweet, the ghost serving to remind me not only of what I’ve had but what I’ve lost. Like the ghosts in horror movies, which often represent grief and unfinished business, this can be painful at times. Mostly, though, I’m grateful to have representations of people who are now, as we grow and change, further from me physically than they’ve ever been. I log in, and I can see them digitally, even if I can only do so in person once or twice a year. When I think of them this way, I feel like I’m keeping up with a piece of them, renewing the importance of our friendship in my mind.
There’s another story I’m reminded of when I log into my game and start interacting with my Miis. And that’s the story of a woman who used to play Animal Crossing with her mother. After the death of her mother, over a year later, the letters from the in-game Mom character brought back those memories. Her game is haunted. How could she bear, then, to stop playing?
As a medium, video games have a lot of potential to remind us of people we love, and people we’ve lost. In the form of abandoned save files, old Minecraft worlds, and plain nostalgia, any game can bring up strong feelings. It’s in life simulators, however, that the personal connection is built into the gameplay itself. These games encourage us to catalog, to build our reality into our fantasy, to fill up our games with ghosts.
So, after the next decade of gaming, you can come back and ask me again which game I’ve sunk the most time into. It might very well still be Tomodachi Life.
Rae Maybee is a freelancer writer with an eclectic profile of publications ranging from comedy to horror. She has written for Into The Spine, Psychopomp, and The Offing. If you like the way she thinks, you can find her at https://rcwhitehill.wixsite.com/maybee.