Nintendo’s Call on Zelda Tribute to Robin Williams is the Right One
Actor Robin Williams was a well-known fan of video games, and that aspect of his personality has caused the gaming community in particular to mourn his recent death and search for ways to memorialize him.
Last week, players created a petition to ask Nintendo to add a non-player character called “Robin” to the upcoming entry into the Legend of Zelda franchise that will see release on Wii-U. The petition quickly gained serious traction, garnering more than 100,000 signatures from fans. Williams was a big fan of the franchise: He named his daughter Zelda after the titular game character, and he and Zelda Williams appeared together in several Nintendo advertisements a few years ago.
So it makes sense that players would want a Williams tribute to appear in what was clearly a well-loved franchise for the actor and comedian. Nintendo responded to the petition on Friday, however, and declined (at least) to talk about putting Williams in an upcoming Zelda game.
“We appreciate the outpouring of support from the gaming community, and hear the request of fans to honor him in a future game,” Nintendo said in statement to Polygon. “We will not be discussing what might be possible for future games during this difficult time, but we will hold our memories of Robin close.”
And while it would be nice to see a Robin Williams tribute in a Zelda game, Nintendo’s stance is, at least right now, the right call to make in the situation.
Williams’ death is still very fresh in the minds of many people in the U.S., as well as those of his fans around the world. There’s a very real consideration for Nintendo in this moment that adding Williams to an upcoming, unreleased game would be a ghoulish means of cashing in on his death.
Make no mistake: I give Nintendo the full benefit of the doubt in this situation, and probably would even if it decided to go with the petitioners’ request and add Williams to the game. But there’s definitely a viewpoint on the situation that could see that hypothetical situation as Nintendo benefitting from Williams’ celebrity and his passing. After all, the game in question is unreleased; Nintendo means to sell it for a profit; and there’s absolutely a contingent of fans of Williams who might be inclined to pick up the game in order to see Nintendo’s tribute, when they wouldn’t normally. Even if Nintendo added him to the game in good faith, in a very practical way, the company would be profiting from a tragedy.
A similar situation has cropped up with another game Williams was known to enjoy: Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. Fans of that title also have requested the developers add a tribute to Williams to the game, and Blizzard has agreed, intending to bring a tribute into the game in the form of another NPC.
But I’d argue that Blizzard’s situation and Nintendo’s are qualitatively different. Yes, Blizzard sells WoW and has an upcoming expansion to stump for, but there are some key divergences between a new Zelda title and WoW. For one, WoW includes free portions. It’s perfectly possible for Blizzard to add a Williams tribute to the game in a place that’s accessible to anyone free of charge.
Second, WoW is a persistent community of which millions of players are already a part. WoW players are probably less likely to be drawn into the game, and to spend money on it, just to see the Williams tribute. It’s much more of a situation in which the tribute will be made available to the people who are already part of the WoW community, without it potentially being used, purposely or inadvertently, to profit from Williams’ death.
That’s to say nothing of other idiosyncrasies of the situation, like negotiating likeness rights. Williams’ likeness still has a great deal of value, obviously, and especially in the future, it’s something his family and estate are going to need to protect. They’ll want to be careful about how Williams’ name and his memory are used, commercially or otherwise, and that adds another layer for Nintendo to deal with. The situation is potentially a little more complex than just chucking in an NPC called Robin and calling it a day.
Regardless, Nintendo’s choice to at least let some time pass after Williams’ death is the right one. It’s intelligent — as well as respectful to Williams — for Nintendo to think carefully about the situation; a company exploiting the death of so beloved a fan, even with best intentions, is a weak way to honor him.