I’m playing Animal Crossing. My little bull-cub protagonist removes a shovel from his inventory. He digs a hole and he buries a couch. I have no idea why.
There have been several video games with no discernable plot; from Pong to Pac-Man, it’s evident that we don’t necessarily need premise to play. Why is Pac-Man running from his ghosts, anyway? Are these specters metaphysical apparitions, the physical constructs of some terrifying past? Or are they merely vicious predators who hate Pac-Man, and who were born hating Pac-Man, and who are eternally jealous of his yellowed life, his bouncing smile? Make it up as you play; it doesn’t matter. I used to pretend that the levels of Super Mario Bros. 2 formed an elaborate royal garden, and I, the loyal Toad, was assigned to weed it of the many turnips and onions I spotted. Unlike cinema, a video game’s assigned narrative can be safely dismissed.
Objective, though--objective has always mattered. As Pac-Man, you must run from your ghosts and collect those non-descript yellow dots--that is the point. In Sim-City, you are the mayor, assigned with the task of building and maintaining a thriving metropolis. The game has no ending, but there remains an objective, there remains a goal. Isn’t this why we play video games? To embrace a colorful problem, and to work our way toward finding a solution to that problem to the best of our abilities? That’s the challenge, that’s the art, that’s the fun.
And that’s why Animal Crossing is so intriguing. It is a game without objective. And it somehow remains a joy to play.
You are the new arrival in a strange town populated by cartoon animals. The specific arrangement of your town, as well as the particular cast of animals who live there, is completely random. This introduces one of the most critical successes of Animal Crossing--it is different for everybody, and therefore distinctly yours. You become attached to your town and its citizens. Your house, which is initially a small shack fit for any hobo, slowly molds itself to your fancies as you collect furniture, improve the floor patterns and wallpaper, and gradually expand it by paying off a debt you owe to Tom Nook, the local shopkeeper. The amount of furniture to be found is astounding. From model Master Swords to children’s bookshelves, one could spend a year collecting furniture and still feel that there was more to be found.
The reason I know this is because some people have spent a year--or more--collecting furniture, and they continue to play. The genius of Animal Crossing is its consistency with the internal clock of your GameCube. Morning in the real world is morning in your town; December in the real world is December in you town. A long list of date-specific events occur throughout the game which requires you to play Animal Crossing, for example, on December 24th if you want a chance to harass a reindeer for some useful presents, or to play at certain times of the day to take advantage of different traits of your town--some fish are best caught in the morning; a ghost appears in the game, but only at night. This real-time progression furthers the illusion of your town as a vibrant, living thing, and it is the key to the game’s addictive quality. After starting a town, you may find yourself playing Animal Crossing first-thing every morning, eager to check your mail, or to see what Tom Nook is selling today.
Gameplay is woefully limited; you run around your town, which is quite sparse, really, and you have only a few important tools at your disposal: a shovel, an axe, a net, and a fishing rod. These four items will typically be acquired within your first few days of playing, and they constitute the only diversity of play control the game offers. This is not an action game. You cannot kill one of your townsfolk, no matter how hard you try (and believe me, I’ve tried). The game does offer some interaction with the furniture you collect, but that is for the most part limited to laying in your bed, sitting in your couch, storing items in your dresser, etc. As a rule, your furniture merely looks nice.
There are a few exceptions: letters can be sent with parcels of paper you receive, fruit can be planted, music can be played on your stereo equipment, and--perhaps most significantly--a selection of full-version NES games can be acquired and played. The Memory Card included with the $30 dollar Player’s Choice edition of Animal Crossing includes as a gift Pinball and Donkey Kong Jr. Math from the start of your game. These games are emulated impeccably, are extremely gratifying to collect, and they further increase the credible illusory power of Animal Crossing as a form of life; the game-within-a-game dynamic implicates your town as a non-fictional place. Donkey Kong Jr. Math is the fiction; collecting furniture and saving money--that, at least in comparison, is real.
I have, of course, only scratched the service as to what Animal Crossing has to offer. I have not discussed the ingenious almost-on-line trading system you can utilize with other players from anywhere in the world. Nor have I discussed the ability to visit your friend’s village by bringing your memory card to his GameCube. I have not discussed the chores your villagers ask you to complete for random gifts, or any of the various ways to make money (called Bells) to pay back your debt to Tom Nook or purchase some additional furniture, or described any of the dozens of tiny secrets available in the game. I have merely described the general nature of how Animal Crossing works. And the game does work, and it works quite well--it’s addicting, absorbing, fun, and depending on your personality, just may provide you with more hours of gaming than any other game you’ve ever owned.
But Animal Crossing is merely a hint of what future games in its genre will be able to accomplish, and as with any other new-concept works, it’s limited by all the possibilities which could have been, but alas were not, included. First and foremost is on-line play, obviously--the direct communication with other gamers. But also important is the game’s lack of gameplay variety, which future, even more ambitious life-sims will be able to improve upon. Because of what it lacks, Animal Crossing can become quite boring. It is structured too strenuously on the concept of fetch-quests and can feel like more of a chore than it should. There are not enough unique events that occur, not enough surprises, and you might begin to feel tired of your town, the ho-hum repetitiveness of what it has to offer. Visiting your friend’s town can often be an experience which merely reveals how similar their town is to yours, and you begin to realize how wide this game is in imagination, but lacking in implementation. Your town’s animal population, God bless them, are all quizzical retards who don’t understand your letters and never seem to accomplish anything. Having one animal saying the exact same thing as another is a very disillusioning experience. The graphics, finally, are cute and bubbly, but would have been much more enjoyable had they been fully realized. Animal Crossing, for all that it is, for all that it attempts to be, could have been so much more.
But it is not fair to be too critical of the game, because what it does accomplish is striking in its ingenuity. The whole game seems to have been created with an implicit confidence, with some magical quality that could only be attributable to Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka Miyamoto, and their various unsung colleagues. Animal Crossing, in its essence, is the future reality of a whole philosophy of video game creation, where objective is exchanged for personality, and the sort of ghosts we seen in Pac-Man are exchanged for thoughtful, living citizens, capable of mindlessly chasing us, or stopping and wondering what they’re actually trying to accomplish.
To preserve its surprises, Animal Crossing is best enjoyed without a strategy guide and without muddling with your system’s internal clock to force timed events. To take full advantage of the game, invite family members or friends to live in your town, and try to do some traveling. If you ever run into me in the real world, bring your Animal Crossing memory card. There’s a couch buried somewhere near my town’s post office, just left of an apple tree.