Okay, so here’s the thing, I’m just gonna come out and say it: I love Animal Crossing. I love going to my little town filled with animal people. I love to move all the flowers around. I love to dig up all the fossils for the day, and run pointless errands for my animal friends, and shake the trees. Oh, God, do I love to shake all the trees. It is strangely embarrassing to love something that is so silly.
For those of you who haven’t encountered it, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is pure pablum, a smooth, conflict-free concoction of sweetness, wrapped in bright colors and tied up in a pretty little box with a ribbon and a balloon. It’s the vanilla wafer of the game world. There is absolutely nothing here that represents a challenge, not narratively, not emotionally, not physically. You play the mayor of a small village populated by talking humanoid animals. Gameplay consists of futzing around town, doing a little fishing, catching a few insects, tending to the local plants. You can talk to the denizens of your town, do some shopping, arrange the interior of your house. Your mayoral duties consist of ordering and personally paying for public works projects, but they are completely opt-in — your town gets built at whatever pace you like. If life gets too stressful in town, you can take an island vacation with a flirtatious turtle who will sing you a ridiculous song. This game was clearly designed for 4-year-olds. It is as soothing an experience as I could possibly imagine. As a 27-year-old woman, I am ashamed at how much I love it.
But why? Why do I love it so? I’ve never been very interested in this sort of completely open-ended goal-free unwinnable game before. The Sims never really managed to hold my attention, and I have no interest at all in Second Life. I like story in my games, or at least concrete and achievable goals. Animal Crossing has no story to speak of. The year progresses along in real time – each day of Animal Crossing takes an actual day to pass. People may move in or out of town. You might build a new room on your house, or put up a new streetlight, or renovate the local museum. But there’s no plot, just an accumulation of more stuff.
And, oh, the stuff! I’m not sure if I should be troubled by all the stuff. The game certainly seems to have an intensely materialistic undertone. After all, most of your time is spent getting money to buy more stuff, and also acquiring other stuff which you sell for money to pay off your mortgage so you can take out another loan so you can build another room so you can have more space to put all the stuff that you get, and then getting more money to pay for the stuff to fill your new room, and ahhh!
The accumulation of things, particularly matching things, is so completely contrary to the way I actually live my life. The game does put a very mild pressure on you to fill your house with matching objects. Your house is scored for its interior design (by a beaver named Lyle), and having a complete set of matching furniture scores very highly. That couch in the middle of my living room in the picture above – the one with the blue ruffles – that’s an awesome couch. But if I wanted to satisfy the obnoxious little interior design beaver, I would have to have 5 or 6 things that matched that blue couch. I had a bunch at one point, but I couldn’t stand having them up. It felt too soulless.
If you like that sort of thing, more power to you, but I find it too factory fresh. I like my stuff to feel more like I actually accumulated it over a period of time, not like I ran out and bought it in a single batch. But still, the drive to find or purchase more stuff…that’s a powerful motivating factor in the game, even for someone who doesn’t really want to want more stuff in real life.
But the thing is…a lot of that stuff is really awesome and surprising and fun. You can have a rocket in your house! In fact, you can have a whole room full of space things.
Or someone might just hand you a harpsichord for some reason, maybe because you brought them a pear or something. “Thanks for the fruit. Here’s a Baroque instrument!” It’s delightful! And random delightful things happening…that’s the core of Animal Crossing. A few weeks ago I turned it on and found feathers and confetti floating down from the sky while everyone danced around wearing feathered hats, because it was Carnival…I mean, Festivale! And a dancing peacock named Pavè gave me that blue ruffled couch. It was the best day ever! Except for Christmas… and New Year’s…and my birthday…and Valentine’s Day, when someone gave me pink roses but never answered my beautifully worded love letter and then moved out of town. Those were all scheduled events that I knew were going to happen, but I keep checking in, almost every day, to see if some other, smaller, lovely thing is going to happen to me. Maybe today I will find that last darn fossil for the museum. Maybe today they’ll be selling more space stuff at the store. Maybe today I’ll catch a new bug, or a new fish, or a different color of flower will appear. And even if it is a totally ordinary day, there’s a very high probability that someone will say something nice to me. And we all need a little more of that.