The cash machine showed my balance at 245,000. It was the most money I’d ever collected. I’d already paid off a good portion of my balance in sensible parcels — you know, skim a little bit off of each week’s income and set it aside, chip meaningfully at your debt before you even realise money’s missing. It gave me such a good feeling.
I did it. Took the plunge. Paid off the rest of my mortgage, and still had some savings to spare.
My character, a spry kiddo in a striped tank, knit cap and huge glasses, did an ecstatic dance at the ATM. I did it! Paid off my Animal Crossing house, fistpump, yessss.
Oop. Here comes the unexpected tightness in my throat. Here is the particular indignity of being ambushed by emotion in the middle of a Nintendo game. Here is the feeling: oh god, I’m going to have to write one of those sentimental Animal Crossing articles that everyone always writes, aren’t I.
I mean, I have to, because my job is to write about video games. As a result, I will probably never pay off a mortgage in real life. This game is as close as I will ever get, I realise.
I haven’t ridden a train during commuter hours in a long time, not since the days when I had a Real Job. I went to acting school in New York City, and then afterward I needed to make a living so I became an administrative assistant. I had a salary and benefits and health insurance, and every morning I’d get up at some dark, absurd hour of the pre-dawn, when the sky was Martian with old light pollution. I would join a column of people burrowing underground, pressing groggily into trains with no room to spare.
During the winter it is dark when you wake, dark in your cubicle, and dark when you get home. I wore awful, cheap dress clothes from a place called “Strawberry” while earnestly pretending I had no dearer ambition than to serve photocopies to a condescending man in a suit so that I could rise through the ranks of tiny, sullen departments locked within massive, uncaring conglomerates.
I made the reservations for everyone to have lunch at Le Bernadin. The administrative assistant is never invited to Le Bernadin, but sits alone with the phones for two hours. The vacant office becomes a lonesome place. Sometimes the only intimacy you achieve with others is to be accidentally tucked into a stranger’s armpit during the rush hour train ride home.
If anyone caught a whiff of my boredom with the fantastic opportunity I had been handed, I would have been fired.
A numbness began in my belly and radiated outward. The shadow of a ravenous sadness that had waited over my shoulder for years caught up with me and I began to walk like a deer who had just been born, and then I lay down and went on lying there, my finances and nerves shredded, and really the only way I was ever going to get up again was going to be to run like hell from the world of coffee pods and Microsoft Outlook and business casual and dehumanizing commutes and never ever go back to it.
I thought about what I might be good at, what I might know something about, and I came up with video games.
Seven or eight years later I’m on the London tube, trying to catch a shark.
My Animal Crossing character’s job is to sell rare fish and beetles and to do favours for the animals in town. I’m on a tropical island, and I dangle the lure carefully into the water above where a dark fin cleaves the tranquil sea. My head is close to the 3DS, the better to hear the sound of the bobber slipping under the water, the cue to press the button immediately. Sharks are worth a lot of money and you don’t have much leeway.
In Animal Crossing these days it’s enough to have more money than I know what to do with and all my expenses are elected and I buy more clothes from friendly porcupines than I will ever wear.
Except I can’t hear the sea. I forgot how noisy trains could be. Now it’s been a long time since I’ve been on a packed train during commuter hours. I mean, I need a specific business reason to get up that early. The shark gets away and I make a quiet noise.
I look up and see a woman my own age, suited for work, staring down at me hunched over my blue 3DS XL where a childlike avatar jogs amid virtual palm trees. The expression in her face is alienating, and what I feel in response is hard to describe.
A gigantic three-story mall is the absolute worst place in the world to find out that, due to various bank inconveniences related to moving big sums while overseas and trying to make and cancel certain transactions and manage bills, neither you or your boyfriend are going to have access to any money for up to a week.
The two of you think about betting your last 30 pounds on casino roulette, decide against it. “Everyone thinks casinos are just going to be like James Bond, but they’re bleak as fuck,” your boyfriend says. He knows enough about game design to be frustrated that casino games are not good games. Your boyfriend is a writer, like you. He is also the mayor of your Animal Crossing town.
Very quickly the pair of you go from being excited to make a lot of purchases at the gigantic mall to being really excited that you still have 30 pounds. "Any time we’re unhappy in the future, we can just say, 'remember that time we were so happy just to have 30 pounds,'" you tell him as you share a Coke Zero you bought with coins scrounged from your handbag.
The pair of you discuss which Animal Crossing public works projects to invest in next. You call him your "fish and bug star." When you walk home you see the sun sinking, a vivid red disc, over the half-cocked, mazelike and strange remnants of the Olympic Village London erected last year.
These video games have a sweet, sunny-soft veneer, stitched together with the building blocks of childhood storybooks. Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon games begin with jaunty tunes, adorable avatars who look chipper and ready to begin the tough work of building a life. There are swaying flowers and friendly animals and people are easily pleased by small gifts.
I used to think Animal Crossing didn’t have enough 'game' for my taste. I preferred Harvest Moon, rationing my sparse energy across the days and years to build not just a home but a business, hundreds upon hundreds of daily to-do lists. Water the crops. Pet the cows and then the sheep and then the ducks. Deliver gifts to the townsfolk. Create, through elected discipline, a gruelling yet strangely comforting framework for success. Ride a horse to the top of the mountain every day to watch the sun set in Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall.
This was work I could do back in those years ago when I could not do anything else. There were days I fainted in the grocery store. In the game I’d faint in the bottom of a mine after digging my way all the way down and I’d look at the clock at it’d be 4:30 AM and regardless of anything else I’d finally be able to get to sleep. Because of the game.
I am OK, these days, with a little less 'game.' In Animal Crossing these days it’s enough to have more money than I know what to do with and all my expenses are elected and I buy more clothes from friendly porcupines than I will ever wear. My friends and I collect fruit and dig some things up and bury other things and it is much more exciting to talk about bells and bugs and medals and frogs on Twitter than nearly everything else. I mean, we are all being followed by misshapen anxieties. Sometimes they take the shape of long shadows on the horizon behind us, and other times they are very close.
Sometimes the game lets you have a dream where you go visit people who’ve built stranger and more robust villages than yours. Sometimes you visit friends on trains and there is no one on the train but you and a talking cat. Usually it’s best not to think about it. It’s the only thing you can do.
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large at Gamasutra, columnist at Edge and Vice Creator's Project, and contributes gaming and culture writing to Thought atalog and Boing Boing, among others. Her work has appeared in Slate, NYLON, Wired and the AV Club, and she blogs at LeighAlexander.net.