Written By: Erika Haase
I’ll admit it. I didn’t really get the point of Animal Crossing the first time I played it on the Nintendo DS. Animal Crossing: Wild World had just come out, and everyone else I knew had picked it up, so I figured I’d join the fun and see what the big deal was about. I’d been working for EB Games for years at that point, so I had innumerable memories of unpacking copy after copy of the Nintendo GameCube version of Animal Crossing from years prior but I’d never found it appealing. It was always described to me as being “The Sims but with animals in it,” and I knew that aside from a random binge of wanting to design crazy houses and drown hapless Sims in their own swimming pools, The Sims had never interested me longer than a week. Why would Animal Crossing? If you were hoping that Animal Crossing: Wild World changed my mind, you are sadly mistaken. Frustrated by the day/night cycles of the game, and the clear intention to only be played for a little bit at a time, with no real end goal in sight, it wasn’t anything I wanted to dedicate a massive chunk of my life to.
At the time that Animal Crossing: Wild World came out, I was somewhere between 22 and 23 years old and my relationship with my then-boyfriend, now-husband was just beginning. My Contacts list was still full of friends I could hang out with in that dumb, youthful assumption of people being available at a moment’s notice for random aimless activities. I was still working my way through affording the next phase of college, and every dead-end job, and insufferable customer I had to ring up, was a stepping stone towards that “next big thing” coming in life. I never took people for granted, at least I’d like to think I didn’t, but since I never allotted any skill points to being a psychic when I was born, I didn’t fully comprehend how much life changes with the passage of time. The reason Animal Crossing didn’t connect with me at this point in my life was simple – it wasn’t supposed to.
Animal Crossing doesn’t share space with anyone as a game. It is its own genre in many ways. Its closest comparisons are Harvest Moon and The Sims, however neither game has the same whimsy or rely so heavily on a real-life sense of time. While Harvest Moon has a day/night cycle, it happens at a rapid pace in comparison, and when you turn off your DS, the game stops as well. Animal Crossing keeps going without you, and your neighbors remember if you’ve been away for a while. Of course, you can cheat and play with the internal system clocks to “get ahead” in the game, but that’s not the intended experience.
Created by Katsuya Eguchi, a Nintendo veteran who was a designer for Super Mario World 3 and the director for Star Fox, his inspiration for the game was his own loneliness after having to move far from home for work. In an interview about his inspirations for Animal Crossing, he is quoted as saying:
“Animal Crossing features three themes: family, friendship and community. But the reason I wanted to investigate them was a result of being so lonely when I arrived in Kyoto! Chiba is east of Tokyo and quite a distance from Kyoto, and when I moved there I left my family and friends behind. In doing so, I realised that being close to them – being able to spend time with them, talk to them, play with them – was such a great, important thing. I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to recreate that feeling, and that was the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing.”
Every Animal Crossing begins with you, the player, as a passenger on a train. You are the sole human villager in a town full of animal creatures. When you arrive, you quickly find yourself in debt to the infamous raccoon landlord Tom Nook, and have to take on all sorts of jobs and get used to the schedule the game world runs on so you can earn enough money to pay off the loans on your home. While there are plenty of lighthearted interactions with villagers, there are also a lot of moments that remind you that adults made this game. Whether it’s a bit of humor that would fly harmlessly over a kid’s head, or words of wisdom that only hit home with a certain amount of life experience, Animal Crossing is more than meets the adorable eye.
In the most recent main entry, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you get to play as the Mayor of this fictional town which gave you the most direct sense of purpose of any of the previous games, however even then, you’re still tasked with making friends, and raising the towns overall “happiness rating” through various public works projects and the completion of shops on the main street. Even as the Mayor, you start life in a house with very few items. Your first night in town is spent in a tent, and you feel very much out of your element. Since all the prior games had the Mayor of the village as an elderly turtle named Tortimer, you are basically handed an enormous responsibility to uphold to the standards that everyone else around you remembers.
It fits, then, that Animal Crossing is not a game that everyone will immediately connect with. Its biggest criticism is usually that it moves “too slowly” and that there’s “no point.” Those are both valid arguments about game play, however the definition of “slow” and “a point” are simply different from your average game.
Time passes the same as your everyday life, and the point is to give you company and the feeling of love if you’re lonely. This might sound melodramatic, but it’s the truth and the very foundation of the game. I lived this for myself.
With the purchase of my first Nintendo 3DS, Animal Crossing: New Leaf entered my life. I was somewhere between 27 and 28 years old, and my life was very different than the last time I’d tried to get into the series. I was married, and college was over and done with. A series of job opportunities had come and fallen short of their promises, despite a Summa Cum Laude earning GPA and a successful year-long internship in Manhattan. The market crashed, and I was drifting, aimless. I wandered in and back out of retail – jobs I once thought were a stop gap measure until my “career” started, and quickly realized that these weren’t filler jobs. This had become my life. My Bachelor’s degree in Marketing was swiftly becoming meaningless as unemployed months ticked by into unemployed years with a few temporary assignments sprinkled in. Friends I’d had since I was 14 started winking out of my usual rotation of interaction for all sorts of reasons. My marriage was (and still is) a happy one, but my husband was lucky enough to have secured a career, and I hadn’t. The last straw was an irreparable blow to my family structure. Jobless, nearly friendless, and facing the loneliest period of my life caused anxiety to rear its ugly head. Not just for a brief stay, either. For a solid year of my life it crippled me.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf became the centerpiece for my days (and many sleepless nights). Since it would always be the same time in-game as it was in my world, I could check in with my neighbors who always had time for me. I could get a job helping Brewster make coffee and get praised on how well I did. I could walk around at 3 in the morning if I wanted to, catching bugs and fishing to help fill up the city museum. On my real-life birthday, I turned on the game, and was grabbed by the hand and taken to a surprise party thrown to me for by my grateful residents. On New Year’s Eve, I sat cuddled on the couch with my husband, and we watched the town ignite fireworks and drink punch amidst a party. Every day for a year while I rebuilt my confidence, self-esteem, and an almost entirely brand new circle of friends in the real-world, I would spend time in my Animal Crossing one. My actual life had taken on the role of that lonely Villager in every Animal Crossing game, and if the criticism is that it takes too long for anything to happen – believe me, I agree with you. It does often take too long for life to happen when you’re living it, and there are days where you swear there was no point in waking up. However, just like in Animal Crossing, even if it’s just one interaction – or surprise visit from a friend – you’re often proven wrong. There’s a reason you’re here, and someone thinks you’re important. Life isn’t going to be easy, but it has its rewards even when they’re quiet.
While Animal Crossing got a fresh coat of paint in recent years with two spin offs to the main title – the Wii U’s Mario Party style Amiibo Festival, and the 3DS’s Happy Home Designer, it’s high time for a new main entry. Many people are eagerly awaiting news about the franchise from E3 2017. The appearance of Animal Crossing profile picture options on the Nintendo Switch, for instance, have plenty wondering if these are hints at a new title. The existence of 450 Amiibo cards that work with Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, Amiibo Festival, and the updated Animal Crossing: New Leaf “Welcome Amiibo” also hint at the fact that there will be continued support for the tech in the future. Since the Switch supports Amiibo, it seems likely that any new game would make use of these cards and the line of character Amiibos as well.
To those who haven’t found an Animal Crossing game to get attached to just yet, I can only say – maybe that’s a good thing. While the music is soothing and a great way to unwind, and the game world is full of happiness and ways to pass the time in peace, I can understand wanting something faster paced. Maybe your life is bursting with purposeful interactions, and the very best of friends that you can text at 2 AM to complain about an annoying boss or a bad date. Perhaps you’re on the cusp of everything good in life, and it seems silly to take a moment to think about a town full of fake animals who want to ask you about your day. Maybe you’re like me who has moved on from a very rough patch in life (as much as any of us ever do), and don’t need that kind of moral support as regularly any longer. However, for everyone out there who still needs friends to come home to, “parents” to send you letters and care packages reminding you to dress warm in the winter, and who feel lost and adrift in the world – maybe the next Animal Crossing will be for you.
I’m not sure that there will ever be another game made like Animal Crossing, and that’s probably a good thing. It certainly isn’t a prerequisite to be depressed and lonely to get the most out of the experience, but it does makes the whole franchise more relatable in an odd kind of way. Good luck explaining the point of Animal Crossing to the skeptics, however. The point always was to simply not be alone – in that world, or this one. If this sounds like something you need in your life, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a great place to jump in, even if you’ve looked it over in the past.
Here’s to hoping all those E3 2017 rumors about a new game are true!
Disclaimer: All screenshots used in this article are taken from my own play through of Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the Nintendo 3DS.