Today marks the one-year anniversary of amiibo–a technology that I only just realized was born very shortly after With a Terrible Fate was born. Since their inception, amiibo have become a foundational part of Nintendo’s marketing platform and game design. Personally, I have always been skeptical of amiibo: it’s obvious that Nintendo is turning a vast profit on them, and I have never been able to see what particular value they have to the players of video games.
But, then again, I never looked very closely at amiibo to determine whether or not they in fact have value for the art form of video games. So, I want to use the occasion of amiibos’ birthday to take that closer look. In particular, I am going to answer the question: Is the existence of amiibo philosophically justifiable? In other words, I am going to examine whether there is any aesthetic value that amiibo are uniquely able to contribute to the medium of video games.
I begin by examining the most obvious candidates for reasons why amiibo ought to exist: the transfer of data in between discrete video games; the capacity to add new content to video games; and the provision of a physical representation of video game characters that is linked to the characters within the video games. I argue that, although these reasons are initially appealing, they all ultimately fail as justificatory grounds for the existence of amiibo. With the obvious candidates out of the way, I argue that there is only one apparent reason that uniquely grounds the existence of amiibo: namely, they represent the journey of a player through one or several video games.
Candidate #1: Amiibo can transfer data in between discrete video games
In their most recent Direct, Nintendo announced an HD remake of Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. They also announced that the game would be released with a new amiibo of Midna riding Link’s wolf form, an iconic image from Twilight Princess.
In the Direct, Reggie Fils-Aime, President and COO of Nintendo America, cryptically suggested that this amiibo will have some sort of functionality in the upcoming flagship Zelda title for the Wii U: “Some data saved to the Wolf Link amiibo in Twilight Princess HD,” he said, “will be carried over to the new Zelda game on Wii U.”
We have our first possible reason for the existence of amiibo: maybe they are special because they allow the progress of a player in one game to influence her experience in another game (e.g., Twilight Princess and the upcoming Zelda title for Wii U).
Yet this should immediately strike anyone with experience playing modern video games as patently false. It is perfectly possible for a player’s journey through one game to influence their trajectory in another game without the mediator of amiibo. Here are two examples.
In terms of small-scale influence of one game on another, take Bandai Namco’s Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World. Dawn of the New World has the following feature: if the player inserts a memory card with saved data of a completed game of Tales of Symphonia, then she starts Dawn of the New World with a set of special items. In essence, this allows the sequel game to acknowledge that the player has already completed the original game–and all of this is done without amiibo.
If the reader objects that this is a fairly superficial example of progress in one game influencing the trajectory of another game, then she can instead consider the case of Mass Effect. This heavily choice-based trilogy keeps track of the choices and outcomes of a player’s journey through the first game, and carries the effects of those choices over to the second game–and just so for the third game. This is an incredibly large-scale influence of one game on another, and, once again, no amiibo is required. So, it is not the case that transfer of data in between discrete video games justifies the existence of amiibo. In such cases, the amiibo essentially is acting as a glorified memory card.
Candidate #2: Amiibo can add new content to video games
Amiibo often add to video games new content that is not otherwise accessible in the game. For example, using the Link or Toon Link amiibo in Hyrule Warriors unlocks the spinner–a piece of equipment from Twilight Princess–for use as a weapon by Link. Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival (slated for release next month) allows you to play as whichever characters you “scan in” with the corresponding amiibo. I could list many more cases making the same point.
So, maybe this grounds the existence of amiibo: they are special because they allow a player access to features of a game that are otherwise unaccessible.
There are two problems with this line of reasoning: first, this is in no way a unique feature of amiibo, and second, this is a terrible reason to justify the existence of something in the aesthetics of video games.
That this is not unique to amiibo should, again, be obvious: “allowing a player access to features of a game that are otherwise unaccessible” is exactly what DLC (“downloadable content”) does. People pay above-and-beyond the price of the video game itself in order to access such extras as: new areas and bosses (e.g., the new DLC arriving next week for Bloodborne); new outfits for characters in the game (e.g., the shameless callbacks to Final Fantasy VII in DLC outfits for Lightning Returns); and for virtually any other kind of game content developers can imagine. None of this requires an amiibo, and it is therefore not the case that the capacity to add new content to video games justifies the existence of amiibo.
But suppose, per impossibile, that the capacity to add new content to video games was a unique reason grounding the existence of amiibo. This, I contend, would be a terrible reason for anything to exist, as it actually cuts against the grain of the aesthetics of video games. Consider: one of the strongest cases for DLC (though none of the cases, by my estimation, is particularly strong) is that it allows developers to effectively “expand” games by writing in new storylines and expanding the world after the game’s original release. In the best-case scenario, a game was complete and told a meaningful, worthwhile story in its original release, and the DLC merely expands upon that story and world in exciting, worthwhile ways. But amiibo are not like this: they are often released alongside the games with which they after compatible (Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival, for example, comes bundled with several exclusive amiibo compatible with the game). And this invites the question: if amiibo’s point is to add to a game content that cannot otherwise be accessed, and the amiibo is released at the same time that the game is, then why was that additional content not simply included in the game itself? If amiibo are designed in tandem with games such that amiibo add content to games, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that games are being designed as intrinsically incomplete: it is built into the game that they have content that can never be accessed without an amiibo. And I cannot see any grounds justifying the development of pieces of art (i.e. video games) that are intrinsically incomplete with respect to their content.
Candidate #3: amiibo provide a physical representation of video game characters that is linked to the characters within the video games
We have done away with two of the most intuitive reasons why the existence of amiibo might be justified. However, thus far we have completely ignored the literal amiibo itself–we have only discussed its potential to impact video games. Can we justify the existence of amiibo in their physical properties? What would such a justification even look like?
To case a case for this justification, we will have to be somewhat more abstract than we were in the first two cases, but not to a great extent. First, consider this possible problem: video game characters, in which players invest a tremendous amount of time and energy (particularly in the case of avatars), are only represented as entities when their respective video games are turned on and they are displayed on the screen. When the game is off, the player lacks a concrete representation of that entity outside of her mind–and this can be frustrating, given the amount of meaning she has attached to this character via the investment of her time and energy.
You don’t have to see this as a problem for you–and, frankly, I don’t see it as a problem for me–but you can hopefully understand why it would be a problem for people with particular aesthetic proclivities. How might such people go about solving this problem? One obvious answer is to simply acquire a physical representation that is independent of the video game– for example, a statue of the character. (Note: I am using “physical representation” as a shorthand for “three-dimensional representation,” where “three dimensional” refers to the literal dimensionality of the representation.) I actually think that this is one of the primary reasons why companies are able to sell highly detailed statues of video game character to collectors so effectively.
But this may be dissatisfying on account of the statue not being in some way directly connected to the corresponding character within the video game. A Ganondorf statue and the Ganondorf in Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker may refer to the same character in some abstract way, but nothing that you do with the Ganondorf statue can influence the Ganondorf within The Winder Waker.
So, maybe we could say that amiibo are uniquely able to solve this issue: they are physical manifestations of video game characters that are linked to those characters in the video games–that is, your interactions with those characters in the game are stored as data in the amiibo, and the amiibo in some way alters the character in the game. A classic example of this is is Super Smash Brothers 4, in which you can scan amiibos, “train” the corresponding character, and store their progress on that same amiibo.
The problem here, again, is twofold: first, this is not unique to amiibo, and second, there are better ways to physically represent video game characters than the way in which amiibo physically represent them.
Skylanders and Disney Infinity are the two best-known cases of games physically representing their characters in a way that links the physical representation to the in-game character: in both cases, the player can essentially “scan” the physical representation into the game, and then play as the corresponding character. Through this scanning process, the physical representation and the video game character are linked, and so amiibo is not unique in this regard.
But beyond the amiibo’s lack of uniqueness here, we must note that amiibo, Skylanders, and Disney Infinity all fall short in a certain way: namely, although the player can typically control the video game characters that correspond to the physical representations, they cannot exert much control over the physical representations. The physical representations are all stand-alone statues with virtually no articulation, which leaves little room for manipulating them in the ways that you can manipulate an in-game character. This is a problem because, insofar as we want the physical representation to really represent the character in the game, we also want, ideally, to be able to perform some of the same operations on it that we can on the in-game character.
And we know that physical representations of video game characters can do better in this regard: Lego Dimensions is a prime example. The formula of the game is much akin to Skylanders or Disney Infinity, in which physical representations of characters are “scanned in” to the world of the game, after which the player can play with and as the corresponding video game characters. The difference is that the physical representations, by virtue of being Legos, are articulated and can be integrated in the real world into worlds constructed of other Legos. Thus, the player has the opportunity to control and manipulate the physical manifestations of these characters in a way that is similar to the control and manipulation she exerts over their video game counterparts. Amiibo fall short of this degree of likeness between themselves and their corresponding video game characters.
A proposed alternative: An amiibo can represent a player’s journey through one or several games
The reader may object that I have been building up straw men just to knock them down, and that no one can really think that any of the above candidates are really thought to justify the existence of amiibo. I disagree: that Nintendo advertises the above features of amiibo as their very selling points suggests to me that these really are what people see as the reasons in virtue of which amiibo have value. At any rate, I have done my best to offer what I see as the most appealing cases for justifying the existence of amiibo, and they have all fallen flat. Does this mean that I am going to call amiibo pointless, or perhaps call for their outright abolition?
Actually, no: I do think there is one way in which amiibo can be uniquely valuable. It is less intuitive and broadly applicable than our first three candidates, but I think that it is much more tractable and that some amiibo proponents might find it appealing. My proposal is that amiibo can be uniquely valuable in virtue of representing a player’s journey through one of several games.
Return to the case of the Wolf Link amiibo, which in some way catalogues your data as you journey through the saga of Twilight Princess. When you first unwrap this amiibo from the box, it is generic: it is a mere statue with a little hardware and software for the purposes of interacting with the Wii U and New 3DS. However, once you scan it on your game of Twilight Princess, it becomes yours: it chronicles your particular journey, and the data that you imprint on it becomes a part of it. Essentially, in virtue of containing the data from your playthrough of the game, it becomes a representation of your particular journey through the game.
One aesthetic shortcoming of video games is that there is no readily available evidence of a player’s journey through games. To see how far one is in a game, one has to turn the game on, load the relevant data, and consult the state of the game’s narrative. Proof of the journey may be contained on memory cards (for those of us who still use memory cards), but memory cards are generic, and their appearance is in no way reflective of what particular save data the card contains.
Contrast this with the amiibo: its very physical appearance says something about what kind of data it contains. In this way, it better does the job of representing the data of its corresponding player: much in the same way as a dog-eared book reflects your act of reading it, an amiibo that is yours, as opposed to a generic amiibo, is a physical symbol of your act of playing the game. One might liken it to the trophies is Super Smash Brothers, after which the amiibo are modeled: one’s amiibo are “trophies” marking the various journeys one has undertaken in their corresponding games.
I think that there is something appealing about this view of amiibo as emblems of the journeys players have personally undertaken in the world of games. Whereas the game worlds themselves are not readily accessible to those who are not actually playing the game, the amiibo stands as a physical entity that references not only those game worlds, but also the player who has taken the time and effort to immerse herself in those worlds. But, more important: if we do not accept this reason as the grounds for amiibo’s existence, then I do not see how we can justify their existence at all.