You arrive in town. You're new and you're homeless; you have nothing but a couple hundred dollars and the clothes on your back. Fortunately (or not) the local shopkeeper moonlights as a loan shark. He takes you under his wing, puts a roof over your head... But how will you ever afford to pay him back? You'll work, of course.
It might sound like I'm just playing Cart Life again, but this loan shark is named Tom Nook, and he's not a shark at all -- rather, he's a raccoon. I won't be paying him back by running a paper stand or a food cart, but by picking fruit, gathering seashells, catching bugs and fish, and running errands for the locals (who are also animals.) This has been the meat and potatoes of the Animal Crossing franchise for over a decade.
Next week Animal Crossing: New Leaf will be coming out for the Nintendo 3DS. I don't have a 3DS, but I'm making it a point to get one just for this game. Now, you might be wondering what's so appealing about a mortgage-simulator (even if it's full of adorable animals). In anticipation of New Leaf I've been revisiting the previous Animal Crossing games, so let me try to explain what it is that makes this series such a gem:
Animal Crossing runs on a real clock: All the stores have hours, the townsfolk have bedtimes, and the many events that happen depending on the day, month, and season all follow a schedule. Halloween is Halloween, Christmas time is Christmas time and so on. Because of this, the game often lends itself to playing in bursts here and there throughout the day more than in marathon runs. This is why Animal Crossing always worked best (for me) on mobile platforms where I could run a few errands and write a few letters whenever I had a spare moment... Or play for quite a while if I had more than a few spare moments.
This style of play is pretty popular in Japan, particularly when it comes to mobile games with multiplayer options you can take advantage of with other players/commuters, and it's a large part of the success of franchises like Monster Hunter there. Animal Crossing is a game you can play while you wait for another game to load, while you wait for dinner to finish cooking, during the commercial break. While this is more true of the DS game than the Gamecube/Wii games, they're still not a massive commitment unless you want them to be.
A Sense of Humor
Animal Crossing has always been peppered with jokes, wordplay, and even little winks and nudges to other popular Nintendo properties. The game has never taken itself too seriously, leading to the kind of refreshing and light hearted gaming experience that makes for an excellent palette cleanser when so many other games still revolve around shooting bros in the face over and over again. To be fair I enjoy those kinds of games too; they can be entertaining and funny (even when they aren't trying to be), but Animal Crossing is different. Its sense of humor encourages you to engage with the game more playfully than you might otherwise. Even when you're working single-mindedly to pay off those debts, it's always reminding you to relax and just have fun.
Of course not every joke can be a winner.
100 Different Players, 100 Different Stories
I've been streaming the Gamecube version of Animal Crossing (clip above) as I've been playing it each night, usually for a couple hours at a time. I have a few regular viewers, and others who pop in and out to check on this strange internet lady's progress. They may have played every Animal Crossing game for months, but they may never have seen any of the animals I share my town with (which are drawn randomly from a remarkably large character pool). The animals' actions are just as random (including the correspondence you can exchange with them) and some may even move out.
My town tune is Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's "Pon Pon Pon", a friend's might be the Ghostbusters theme. I might swear constantly at virtual animals, they might be... A bit more laid back.
And of course, what I do in my town will be quite different from what another player would, much as it would be in other more conventional open-world games like Skyrim or even The Sims. What I see and what I experience may overlap in some areas with what they've seen and experienced, but there will inevitably be differences. Everyone approaches the game differently, so every experience will be unique.
100 Different Players, 100 Different Outfits, 100 Different Houses
You want customization? You got it.
Decorate and expand your house, start a collection, change your clothes (or even design your own)... Animal Crossing has always been big on letting players express themselves through their surroundings. New Leaf takes customization to the next level by letting you completely customize your town to suit your tastes, but features like pattern-designing and home decorating have always been a core part of the series, even back when character customization didn't mean much more than picking your stats and changing your armor.
I will admit that they could do better in this area. As many options as you have for your hair, accessories, and clothing, there's no way to change your skin color in any Animal Crossing game (save for getting a tan in New Leaf), and that straight-up sucks. Hopefully that will be the next major change in the series' future.
"Life is Gentle, and Hard Work Pays Off"
In this IGN article on the appeal of Animal Crossing, series producer Katsuya Eguchi explains that Animal Crossing offers "an escape, a world in which life is gentle and hard work pays off." I just adore that line, because it's probably a large part of what's always drawn me to Harvest Moon, another series that has proven to be enormously popular in spite of how dull it may seem on paper.
Not every power fantasy needs to be about raw physical power. I enjoyed Bioshock Infinite, but don't personally want to be rocketing through the sky shooting steampunk racists with a spunky reality-shearing sidekick. Really, the power I want most is to be able to control the most mundane aspects of my life in a supremely straightforward way. You do not get out of life exactly what you put in. Some things just won't work out for you, no matter what. College degrees don't automatically earn you good jobs. Sometimes, passion doesn't matter.
The allure of a world where everything is attainable if you just work for it, and wait for it, is undeniable. Watching the modest thing you were given grow through your efforts is supremely rewarding, and it's a mechanism that's at the heart of more games that you might think. All Animal Crossing does differently is lay that foundation out right in front of you, and leave the rest up to you.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.