Let me tell you, I’ve done some fantastical things while playing games. Saved the world. Visited galaxies. Destroyed evil — you know, that sort of thing. And yet none of that has baffled me as much as the idea that there’s a game where I accrued a home mortgage and was able to sit down and go, “Yes, OK, I will work for one hour to pay the entire thing off.”
Maybe it’s just the part of me that graduated university and entered the workforce in the year of Occupy Wall Street talking, that this would stand out to me so much. Either way, that’s the world of Animal Crossing — Nintendo’s immensely charming life sim. Like previous games, players are dropped into a rural village full of quirky animal townsfolk. What happens from then on out is up to you, although, like always, you’ll find yourself in debt to the Tom Nook, the raccoon. He’s the one that builds and expands your house.
Arguably, there are no shortage of things to do in town once you’re settled in. You are given a home which you can furnish and landscape however you’d like, and to some extent you have that power over the town itself. That’s because this Animal Crossing, unlike the ones before it, allows you to become mayor. This means you have the ability to construct “public works projects” which allow you to decorate the town. For a price, of course.
The town itself is bursting at the seams with wildlife — from fish that change every season, to insects and bugs which buzz and crawl about. And every day, there are a number of fossils and precious gemstones to unearth. You’re free to acquire as many of these resources as you can find.
I can’t help but recall days when, as a kid, I would visit the park with shovel and metal detector in hand, hopeful that there was treasure out there waiting to be found. Not treasure that could only be excavated out of ancient tombs or lost cities, but rather everyday treasure: a rusted horseshoe, a cracked seashell — that sort of thing.
I didn’t aim for anything grand, but I was never able to find much anyway. That’s life, kid. But here, in the town where a bear is my neighbour and not a caged beast in a zoo, I know that I can set out every day and find the bones of three prehistoric beasts and at least one gem. If I’m stubborn and take to shaking the trees and turning over rocks, I might find sacks of bells (this game’s version of money), too.
If it’s not obvious, Animal Crossing is a fantasy land. That is why my character wears a cute bear hat in the rain, that is why I let my character walk straight into the ocean with the knowledge there’s absolutely no way I can drown. In a world where you can’t drown, is it a surprise that my mortgage can wait indefinitely? The worst that can happen here is that I might scare off a fish or insect because I’m running too fast, or I might bump my butt against a jellyfish while diving for deep sea treasure. Their sting doesn’t hurt, but it does look kind of funny.
The game might appeal to our child-like sensibilities, but its simplified world works much like ours does. Money is important, and it’s the reason that you’ll indulge in fishing, bug catching, gardening and whatever else you decide to do for a profit. Although open-ended, you’ll likely find yourself trying to build a dream house or taking up expensive projects around town. That stuff costs money.
The mortgage might be easier to pay here, but you’ve still got to work and pay it; the escape can never be total. But that’s OK. You have a whole lot more control over it all in a game like Animal Crossing — and even this little world has its own “escape.” That’s where the island resort area comes in, which you can ferry to. If your town is bursting with wild life and things to do, the island resort feels like it’s exploding by comparison — to the extent that the island almost makes your town feel boring. It’s a small space, but not only can you do minigames in exchange for coins that you can use in a special store, the game also generates sometimes exotic fish and insects at a much more rapid pace than it does in town. It kind of feels like too much, although it’s a great way to make bells to pay stuff off.
Curiously, one of the things that’s stood out to me about Animal Crossing is the type of living it promotes — particularly when compared to my own ideals. In real life, I reject so many of the ideals the game encourages me to participate in: domesticity, small town life, the grind, amongst other things. But in the game, I play along gleefully. I’m into it. I might have sounded detached at some points as I analyse the game, but oh no, I’m definitely in love with it.
The other night I could barely sleep because I was thinking about my long-term plan for my house — and yet the idea of owning one in real life is immensely unappealing to me. It’s not just that, either. Stuff like gardening and flowers? Hell. No. And yet can you explain to me why every day I’m watering this bed of tulips around my house? Playing this game feels absurd, and yet here I am. I don’t use a white picket fence or anything, but I might as well.
The game is bullshit, but I only say that because I’m not a fan of what my in-game choices seem to reveal about myself.
If I was to “blame” my complicity on something, I would point straight to the villagers. Each one has a personality, and up to 10 villagers can live in your town. Your interaction with them is not what I’d call deep (unfortunately!) — most of the time, the animals will talk at you, and your responses and actions are limited — but the writing is incredibly strong. I’ve had a sheep ask me why so many pop songs talk about “shawtys”. I’ve had a bear urge me that — dude, bro — I should totally carbo-load.
It’s so silly, like having a bunch of cute stuffed animals coming to life, but it’s difficult not to get sucked into their weird little world. That’ll mean a lot of things, like doing errands for villagers, making sure that they stay hip to the newest lingo, and sometimes even picking fleas from their fur. Don’t think it’s all fun and games with the townsfolk, either. If you check in with your secretary, you can hear about what the townsfolk expect for the town’s upkeep. You’re free to ignore what the townsfolk say, although listening to their wishes is good if you’re the type of person that needs a little direction. On top of this, the townsfolk will sometimes demand that you devote attention to specific public works projects. So you see, they might be adorable but they still want something from you.
Beyond this, what’s stood out to me the most about New Leaf is its pace. It’s not just that I’m a city girl at heart. Much of life’s conveniences and pleasures have become instant — from movies to food. Mind, I don’t say that negatively; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a fast-paced life. But most games take my impatience into account; some even bank on it. For a price, things can move quicker. For a price, I can buy the cosmetic items I want.
In Animal Crossing, everything seems to happen tomorrow. Mayor certification? Tomorrow. House upgrade? Tomorrow. New store or venue in town? Tomorrow. Visitor in town? Tomorrow. Planting something? It’ll start growing tomorrow. You’re going to wait a whole ton while playing. At first, it’s irritating — especially when you consider that many things are only available from 8am to 10pm at first (this can later be changed via “town ordinances,” which allow players to dictate edicts for the town). Sure, you have something to look forward to in the future (if you happen to have free time during the day), but gosh, why does every little thing in the game exist in the future? It’s difficult not to have the entire thing feel like that night right before an exciting field trip; the anticipation is palpable. That’s especially the case when you’re not always sure what’s going to happen “tomorrow” — maybe there’s a fishing competition, maybe you have a travelling merchant visit your town, maybe the season finally changes and the available wildlife changes. You’re going to have to play and see. Clever, clever. That’s how they hook you.
Adjusting to this patient pace seems inevitable. Most of Animal Crossing’s design urges players to slow down. Yes, I mean this metaphorically, in that some of the smaller things in the game — like watching fireflies light up the night sky — can only truly be enjoyed if you step back and soak it in. But I mean it literally, too. If you run everywhere, you’re going to destroy the flowers around town, you’re going to scare away fish and insects. Animal Crossing is the rare game where I don’t take the option to run, although it’s there. That’s kind of amazing.
It all serves a purpose, of course. Slowing down makes me feel more observant, more able to pick up on the small complexities of the game’s world. As a quick example: it never crossed my mind that the mysterious faraway buzzing might be insects which I have to dig up — not at first, anyway. I was moving too fast. I wasn’t noticing where the sound became louder and where it seemed to fade away; I wasn’t connecting the dots. Not when I ran everywhere, anyway. Admittedly, some of the complexities are difficult to pick up on, period. You can’t know that you can make hybrid flowers with special colours unless you’ve played previous games, you stumble on it, or unless someone tells you. Still, there’s more to Animal Crossing than immediately meets the eye.
I can’t say I wanted to escape to an idyllic town that taps into childish fantasies yet also betrays some of my core ideals. But, gosh, it’s such a charming game. How could I resist?