I do remember some things about my birth father.
I do remember his impossibly long stride as he came down the airplane’s gangway. I remember his brown guitar case in one hand, his duffel in the other. I remember the worn leather patches on the elbows of his corduroy jacket. I remember the way his sly smile swelled into a boyish grin as he walked toward me.
I was nine years old when this happened, but I do know that this memory is almost certainly correct.
It’s almost certainly correct because I rarely visualize that moment at all, and also because I’ve never, ever written about it, or even discussed it.
So I’m sure the memory is “real,” see, because I haven’t screwed the memory up yet.
Tomodachi Life is a video game about avatars.
At the game’s outset you are invited either to import Miis—these are avatars usually created each by its own maker—or to recreate your family and friends entirely from memory.
You may also specify, for each of these avatars, whether that character is “related” to you and, if yes, how: You can assign relationships like “father,” “mother,” or “sibling.” (Presumably this is all to safeguard your avatar from an ugly romantic pairing.)
You can also tell the game whether an avatar is your “spouse,” but Tomodachi Life doesn’t seem to take that particular type of relationship into account—the game apparently match-makes couples at its own whim, whether or not you’re IRL-married.
Once a Mii is either imported or designed fresh, you may assign any number of characteristics to it. Perhaps she walks quickly, or talks quickly. Perhaps his gestures are broad and ebullient. Maybe she is extremely self-serious; perhaps she is “relaxed.” You can also tweak settings until an avatar’s vocal tone, timbre, and cadence are exactly correct. The avatar goes on to read game text aloud in its bizarre digitized voice.
Once you’ve assigned X-many values, Tomodachi Life evaluates the avatar’s “personality” using a rubric resembling the Myers-Briggs. In this way, one friend—a slow-moving, serious woman—is a “confident brainiac.” Another—a quick-moving fellow with a flair for the dramatic—is an “outgoing” showboat.
“But Ted,” I teased my fiance, “this is the old you.”
“Don’t delete me!” Ted cried. “Didn’t you fall in love with the ‘old me’ when we first met?”
At the beginning of my Tomodachi Life, there were only two Mii avatars in my “MiiMaker,” one of whom was a thinner, clean-shaven Ted.
I initially hadn’t realized I could import more Mii avatars through the 3DS’s Streetpass Plaza; now I had two Teds to contend with. There was the out-of-date Ted I’d downloaded from our WiiU a year earlier, and then there was the new, up-to-date Ted I’d streetpassed just this week.
And since Old Ted’s avatar and mine were the only two avatars on the island at first, my Tomodachi Life “lookalike”—the game explicitly refers to your doppelgaenger as a “lookalike”—had already begun to fall in love with the Ted of Last Year.
“Fuck it,” I told real-life living-with-me Ted. “I’m just gonna delete Old Ted. While I still have a chance, you know?”
“Don’t do that!” Ted insisted, suddenly and weirdly attached to the Old Ted Avatar.
“Look,” I replied lightly, “I’m sure she’ll eventually fall in love with New Ted.” Here I meant, once I’d deleted the old WiiU avatar, my “lookalike” would fall in love with the next-newest cast member, Ted From a Week Ago. After all, I’d marked this character as a “spouse,” too.
Instead, my doppelgaenger wanted to romance two of her male colleagues. “No, no, no!” I shouted at the tiny screen. “This is all wrong! This is so wrong!”
The dissonance didn’t end there. One avatar, one of my best guy friends in real life, insisted on having a haircut. “I’m tired of my hair,” his avatar harrumphed.
NO, I told the game.
No! Because my friend doesn’t need a haircut, or if I do give him one, how is he supposed to resemble himself?
I dressed another avatar in clothes she would approximately wear. “She doesn’t like it,” the game grumbled at me. I shopped for clothes until I found an ensemble she’d hate.
“She loves it!” the game told me giddily.
In-game I can set another avatar as my “father,” “mother,” or “sibling.” But in life, I can’t. Oh, I could fudge the facts a little, sure. I could invent a little avatar of my best friend and call her my sibling for the hell of it. I could make avatars of Ted’s parents and recast them as mine.
Sometimes, in-game, I wonder how—if I were made to try it—how I might design an avatar of my birth father.
I don’t remember his face very well. I do remember his ash-brown hair, his green eyes, and his eyelashes, which were long and black and curled like a cartoon’s. I remember that he was grand and lanky, at least to a nine-year-old girl. I do remember his twice-broken nose.
But, trickily, I don’t actually remember what any of these details look like. Rather, they’re ideas of memories. They’re things I remember remembering.
Now, when I try to remember the details of his face, there is no memory. Instead, I find my head filled with simple mental sentences—“He has green eyes.” “He has ash-brown hair”—and the still-frame images I ought to have of him are instead replaced with entire spoken paragraphs.
There is a picturebook on my shelf, ‘Stories Every Child Should Know’, copyrighted 1936. It is bound in fine blue fabric; its title is printed in barely-faded gilt. My adoptive mother used to read to me from it because her mother used to read aloud from it, too.
Ted never had a chance to know my adoptive parents. He’s never met any of my family. I sometimes joke that, as far as he knows, I made them all up. It’s a sick joke: He moved into my childhood home with me, so that we’re surrounded by photographs of them, and books.
I opened the picturebook to its first page and, automatically, Ted began to read aloud.
“Stop it!” I screamed. “Please, stop!”
Ted looked at me, confused and hurt. I caught my breath.
“Please,” I said, quieter now, “please, please don’t do that. You’ll overwrite the… I still have a distinct memory of my mother reading, and you’ll overwrite it.”
Ted nodded grimly.
“You can overwrite it someday,” I conceded, “if we ever have children. I mean, we’ll have to. We’ll have to read out loud. But I’m not ready for that.
“But also,” and I started to laugh, “also, you’re reading it wrong.”
As I’ve uploaded my friends’ avatars to Tomodachi Life, I keep guessing at the characteristics I think they might give themselves. “How would this person describe herself?” I am always wondering.
Still, I am acutely aware that I am the one who is, in fact, authoring their personalities.
To my credit, they seem enough like themselves. My close friend Daphny, according to the game software, is a “trendsetter,” which she really is. A friendly colleague was designated as an “outgoing” “leader,” which I liked for him. Ted was given the “showboat” personality, which I guess is sort of true. (“I love being the center of attention!” my fiance’s avatar shouted at me. It rang tinny: Maybe Ted does love being the center of attention, but he would never say so.)
As I imported a friendly acquaintance’s avatar, though—and this avatar belonged to a someone I haven’t seen in at least a year—I began to wonder if I had his “personality” wrong. And if I did have his personality wrong, wasn’t that… unfair? Sinister, almost?
Because, if I do have him all wrong, I’m memorizing this backward version of him, cementing that version of him in my head, instead of knowing him for the way he really is.
I began to overthink it. I began to worry.
In a sense, aren’t I doing that to every friend in Tomodachi Life? I am secretly writing my own mental sentences about people I’ve met, and I am making those sentences permanent.
It’s almost like when someone appears to you in a dream, and he says something wrong, and you’re angry at him the next morning even though he never really said that thing.
My adoptive mother appears in every single dream I have. Whenever I wake up, if I can remember the dream, I make sure to remind myself that I was the one who wrote both halves of our conversation.
I do remember the way, as he disembarked the plane, my birth father’s stride lengthened. His little smirk broadened into a grin.
I remember his smile because one of his front teeth was missing.
That one excrutiating detail changed his appearance so much, somehow. He looked so different to me. I think I must have taken a step back.
My birth father stopped several feet away from me. He stood there motionless. His smile faltered.
I remember this, not because I can picture him without his teeth, but because I remember my sudden, deep embarrassment.
I remember my birth-father pausing in his walk toward me. He stood there, silent. Finally he said, “Daddy got some teeth knocked out.” I nodded, and we left the airport that way.
In one particular memory, I can see a gold cross earring dangling from my birth father’s ear. It is a half-inch long, gold-plated, jittering from his earlobe and catching the light.
I probably remember his earring because I asked him why he was wearing it. He told me it was because we were going to church. It was his church earring.
Tomodachi Life is a game about avatars.
More important, it’s about the avatars you create. It’s entirely about how you choose to remember others.
The problem with nonfiction writing—the problem with remembering anything, ever—is that, with each act of remembering, the photograph might fade. With enough remembering, the mental image dissolves completely.
With enough remembering, I am left with an oversimplification, an abstract map of a memory. I am left with a mess of so many sentences about a person, with just a cartoon of a face.
I cannot remember my birth father’s face.
I can remember specific details, but none of these is a salient fact about his appearance. Every feature is a mistake. I’m left with elbow-patches on his sports jacket, his boyish, toothless grin, and that’s it. That’s all.
“The map of places passes. The reality of paper tears.”
This review of Tomodachi Life is based on an earlier piece of writing, “Lapse,” from 2004.