Out of a lack of imagination upon arriving, I named it Choux, after the pastry I was eating at the time. I’ve paid off my mortgage and expanded my house to the largest it can get – six rooms. I’m rolling in money, my citizen satisfaction statistics are the best they can get, and I even designed my own outfit, stylized to look like my favorite Robin, Damian Wayne. My town anthem is a high-pitched music box version of the line, Let’s get down to business! from the classic Mulan song, I’ll Make a Man Out of You. While the max capacity of my village is 10 (not including myself), I’ve had dozens of villagers move in and out over a course of 1.5 years.
So when do I stop? At what point have I won? When can I finally get my soul back?
Nintendo says, never. You can never “win” Animal Crossing: New Leaf or any of its earlier iterations. You can find all the fish and bugs and fossils you want, that’s fine. You can collect all the furniture, wallpaper, carpeting, and clothes you possibly can, that’s also cool. You can even cycle through all 333 villagers, all of whom have different names, species, and birthdays, awesome. But you haven’t won.
For those who are unfamiliar, Animal Crossing works in real-time. There are four seasons. They celebrate Halloween, Easter, “Toy Day” (aka Christmas), “Harvest Festival” (aka Thanksgiving), and more. It’s depressing to admit I spent my Thanksgiving day with my 3DS out, fetching groceries for a talking turkey named Franklin but I totally did. You can send & receive mail; mail is delivered twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Your “mother” (never the father, curiously enough) will occasionally send you sweet messages and gifts – I’ve never had a repeat. Your villagers will even schedule little play dates with you and you best be there on time if you don’t want them to get angry with you. If you really want to put it bluntly, the game never ends. Not to belabor my point but … you really can’t win.
I bought the game August 2013 – this means I’ve had time to circle through one year. Do you know what happens when you stop playing Animal Crossing? Try leaving the game alone for a week or two and come back. Your assistant, Isabelle, will wonder where you’ve been. Villagers will get angry at you for giving them the silent treatment – that is, if they haven’t moved away while you’ve been gone. Weeds will begin to sprout in your formerly meticulous town. Sometimes, you’ll even find cockroaches inside your house. There is no way to stop the game. You can shut it off, leave it for years, and come back to it – your town will be overrun with weeds and your villagers won’t like you very much but it’ll all still be there. It’s simultaneously heartwarming and creepy.
I was the type of kid who had too many stuffed animals to put on her bed all at once. In order not to hurt their feelings, I kept them on a strict rotation where I’d swap ’em every few days. You can see why I’d have a bit of a problem leaving the game. Fictional talking animals or otherwise, I’d rather not have my villagers hate me (I am their mayor, after all). So I keep playing. I go in every few days, wander around, talk to villagers, make sure none of my favorites are thinking of moving. I pluck some weeds, take note of any upcoming birthdays, and my little island stays perfect. It’s quite a love/hate relationship.
So where does the popularity of the Animal Crossing franchise come from? What brings me back, besides some weird sense of satisfaction I get when these little animals send me gifts? After all, upon the release of New Leaf in the summer of 2013, the game got amazing, near perfect reviews. People were falling in love with the game, myself included, but, for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why. Playing games like Blackbar and Papers, Please for class made me realize – I like Animal Crossing because I enjoy it. Not because it excites me or because it’s a challenge but because it makes me happy. I can never imagine myself playing Papers, Please on endless mode for weeks, much less over an year, but Animal Crossing is different.
The concept of the game itself is incredibly simple. There is no overarching plot, no missions, nothing particularly exciting – it’s just life. But, at the same time, it’s alive. Each villager has their own personality, their own catchphrase, their own nickname for you. It’s personal and it makes me happy. They celebrate your birthday, they play hide-and-seek with you, they call you their best friend – how can you possibly leave them? You’re the center of their world. They might be a little snarky sometimes but, at the end of the day, if you’ve put in the time to be their friend, they’ll care about you. My favorite villager, Kabuki, once sent me this letter, after I had a really bad day:
Sure, it was a complete coincidence and, sure, he’s a cartoon cat, but it actually made me feel better. (On a side note, Kabuki moved away after I accidentally forgot to check up on my town for a week and I mourn the loss.)
I guess the point of all this is that a game doesn’t have to be super thrilling or action-packed to be addictive. We talk a lot in class about what makes a “good” game – immersion, accessibility, whatnot – and many of the games we’ve played so far are political in nature. They have a “point” or a “message” of some sort. Animal Crossing doesn’t really have that. Instead, Animal Crossing relies on attachment – you have to feel in a different way than in, say, Papers, Please. The world is yours – your villagers, your island, your home – and to stop playing would be to abandon something very personal. The incredibly custom nature of the game makes it inherently difficult to let go and more so because the game will not let you go. (Is that some kind of weird Stockholm Syndrome or what?)
This isn’t the kind of game where you play for seventy hours at once and high-five yourself at 3AM when you’ve finally won. This is the kind of game where you play for twenty minutes every few days, taking some time to shuffle through your mail and see what the department store has for sale that day. Sure, I’ll eventually have to stop playing, but I don’t see that day coming anytime soon. For all the stress and pressures of being mayor, I love my little island and I think it loves me too.