Nintendo Needs More Diversity

Over the last few days I watched three quite interesting lectures given by Nintendo staff on game design, related to their smash hits Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, and Super Mario Brow. Wonder. I only played a few hours of Breath of the Wild. Nonetheless, if you have an interest in how the sausage is made, I strongly recommend watching these videos. The most impressive one was on Tears of the Kingdom (TotK) as it showcases some pretty revolutionary technology and illustrates the physics and mathematics behind it.

TotK uses an advanced physics model that makes it possible to simplify programming. To put it succinctly, by defining properties of objects, the game turns into a sandbox that enables player actions not even the developers could foresee. This was also possible in Breath of the Wild, albeit to a much lesser extent. In TotK, sounds are also defined as properties, and the consequence is that sound effects do not have to be explicitly programmed. Instead, they result from materials interacting with each other and the world. This is a genuinely creative approach towards solving the problem, and getting such a complicated system to work probably explains why it took Nintendo six years to develop this game, despite reusing a lot of the assets of the predecessor. Of course, now that they have such impressive technology, they can easily reuse it in other games. On a side note, one benefit of ray tracing is that you get realistic lighting, simply by defining light sources and simulating rays of light. In the abstract, the approach Nintendo used for physics and sound is somewhat similar, i.e. define properties not end results.

The Super Mario Bros. Wonder video also had some interesting insights. One was a description of the open-ended nature of exploring ideas. They asked their colleagues, even those not involved in developing this game, for contributions and were very open-minded about it. Thus, the game ended up being chock-full of zany elements. This game was very well received and has been selling very well. In fact, it is the fastest-selling game in this 40-year old franchise.

As I was watching these videos, consisting of producers or tech leads talking about their various approaches, however, I could not help but wonder if these games could have turned out even better if there had been more diversity behind the scenes. Sure, complex mathematical formulae that describe sound propagation may be intimidating to underrepresented minorities, but why not start with the assumption that highly specialized software engineers with decades of experience could learn something new if they spent weeks explaining high-school physics concepts to people who have struggled tremendously to get to where they are? In turn, these people can surely also contribute something to these games. Yes, yes, they are selling phenomenally, but it is certainly highly suspicious that there is little to no influence of Western culture to be seen. I am not talking about the medieval European fantasy world in the two recent Zelda games. Instead, I am wondering why there are no black inhabitants in this game world. I mean, it is 2024, for crying out loud! Even the New York Times, the newspaper of record, thinks this is a serious problem. I thought we had moved beyond such kind of low-key racism. Why not have a main character live in fancy house, blasting rap music? Perhaps add more gameplay systems. Link, the protagonist of the game, could simply get a variety of wholesome herbs that temporarily boost the stats of the player character. Or think of a basketball court? Really, why not show some appreciation for foreign cultures? You may think I am joking but I am not. The widely acclaimed Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds had a baseball mini game:

Come on, Nintendo, put some Air Jordans on Link and let him shoot hoops! This surely would help increase the percentage of black players of this franchise and address the long-standing issue of racism in this franchise.

I also find it most remarkable that Nintendo games appeal to everyone, including the alphabet-soup group. Yet, these people seem to only ever ask for more diversity in their games. This seems a bit short-sighted. Instead, they should also focus in diversity behind the scenes, just like they have in the West. It has worked wonderfully for Microsoft, for instance. Nintendo could probably learn a lot from them. It would also help if these people did not scream quite as loudly. When Nintendo put a black gym Master, Nessa, into Pokemon Sword/Shield, people were also pretty upset. Unsurprisingly, some people even made a mod that turned her into a white character. Some did not like that black Nessa was too good-looking and others did not like that she seemed to look better after changing some colors, but because I am color-blind, I cannot even have an opinion on this issue. Anyway, I guess you just cannot win with this crowd. Still, Nintendo could at least try a little bit harder.

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