Science fiction has long been an effective medium for examining deep questions of humanity, morality and our relationship with rapidly evolving technology as the world changes underfoot daily. Some of the best works of sci-fi, such as the 1982 neo-noir thriller “Blade Runner,” or 2014’s macabre “Ex Machina,” make this interrogation look easy. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Parables about human identity and relationships take time, effort and a deep desire to probe into the status quo. That might be why I’m surprised that the next big property to take a shot at this type of groundbreaking questioning is “Splatoon 3.”
Announced during the most recent Nintendo Direct, “Splatoon 3” is the third entry in Nintendo’s squid-themed third-person shooter series. Splatoon’s main appeal has always been its surprisingly addictive multiplayer option, where modes range from the paint-the-map based “Turf War” to the cooperative horde mode “Salmon Run.” There are single-player modes present in 2015’s “Splatoon” and its 2017 sequel “Splatoon 2,” but the campaigns generally felt like a loosely connected bunch of levels rather than a true narrative. If the announcement trailer is anything to go by, “Splatoon 3” looks to buck that trend by establishing a new setting for our squid-kids to explore. But this isn’t what caught my attention along with many other fans.
When creating a character in the previous two games, players were forced to choose between a male or female body type. No such option exists in what we have seen of “Splatoon 3,” merely the choice between hair length and whether you want to be a squid-based Inkling or octopus-based Octoling. There is no gender in the world of “Splatoon 3,” and I couldn’t be happier about it.
In a world that is rapidly changing, it has become increasingly difficult for game developers to ignore accurate representation of the LGBTQIA+ community. No longer are queer voices shoved back into the closet; to actively not include any queer representation is to exclude a vocal minority of gamers and their allies. Not only does it make for bad optics, but there are growing financial and societal repercussions for such a negative decision. Even still, not every developer chooses to acknowledge real-world issues. Nintendo has long been the top culprit for refusing to place real-world issues in their “family-friendly games,” which is why the decision to throw out gender in “Splatoon 3” is so refreshing.
Being a Japanese studio, Nintendo has a heritage of being on the more conservative side of the spectrum among game developers, which makes it all the more fascinating that they are doing more impactful work than some Western studios. Polish developer CD Projekt Red got flak for tying voice pitch to gender in their hard sci-fi action game “Cyberpunk 2077” (among many other issues).
It took over a decade for Ubisoft’s blockbuster “Assassin’s Creed” series to add a playable female character and still struggles with deeper issues apart from their generally white male protagonists. Even RPG darling Bioware has been on record saying it’s difficult to include non-binary characters since it would be “a lot of content.” All of these examples are only a smattering of issues facing diversity in the video game industry, so how is Nintendo leading the charge?
The development team behind Splatoon has always been made up of young, fresh-faced creatives. The entire point of creating the original game was for legendary game developer Shigeru Miyamoto to teach the next generation of Nintendo developers how to make new, polished games when the old guard inevitably moves on. This young blood has been vital in seeing a change within Nintendo’s content. There has yet to be a major drive from the Japanese giant to place diversity at the core of their many established and beloved properties, but the fact that they back Splatoon so much is commendable and heartwarming.
Since its reveal back in 2014, Splatoon was always a series that put representation first. It was the first Nintendo-developed game in my memory that put an emphasis on allowing players to choose their skin color, clothing style and hairstyle. “Splatoon 2” expanded on this customization, bringing in even more culturally specific cosmetics and making the wonderful Marina, a young Black woman, a major character within the narrative. Now with the release of “Splatoon 3” in 2022, Nintendo’s most progressive series is continuing this trend by pushing the envelope even further by entirely abolishing gender.
Players can now play however they want without judgment from the game or other players; anyone can dress in male or female-coded clothing and style their hair to suit their own culture and personality. This type of customization is rarely so free and fluid, so it is worth taking a moment to see this as a win.
More people than ever can now see themselves on screen in their favorite game. That’s amazing. These options may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but they promise a bright future of diverse creation within Nintendo’s walls. If the Big N can do it, there’s no excuse for anyone else not to.
Digital Culture Beat Editor M. Deitz can be reached at email@example.com.