Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Your mayoral duties don’t really consist of more than occasionally deciding to build a bench or a streetlight, though; for the most part you’re left to wander about as you please, watering flowers, hunting insects, going fishing, or furnishing your home.
Nintendo calls this a ‘community simulation,’ which doesn’t even begin to describe just how huge this odd little game where nothing ever happens actually is. ‘Ideally you’re playing the game year-round,’ says one guide to New Leaf, knowledgeably – a fairly intimidating commitment for the average gamer, but one that I have so far fulfilled happily.
Animal Crossing’s signature trait is its simulation of real time; your town’s goings-on revolve around the Nintendo 3DS console’s internal clock and calendar, which easily makes visiting town as routine as the coffee I have for breakfast each morning. At least once a day, I make a point of flipping open my 3DS to visit my town, Marpet. I’ll typically do one round of the town, watering its ever-spreading flowers and pulling up the occasional weed that’s grown overnight. I’ll dig up fossils to sell to the town’s museum and chat to my furry and feathered townsfolk. Sometimes I’ll help out at the coffee shop (just like us humans, each animal has their own preferred preparation of caffeine, and god have mercy on you if you get it wrong). Besides these daily, self-imposed to-dos, Animal Crossing provides few other pressures: browsing the town’s shops or fishing in the river is a deeply relaxing, even joyful way to pass the time.
I’m not the only one who finds this gentle routine vastly appealing, if the meticulously maintained Animal Crossing Wiki is any indication. Like other persistent game worlds, familiar patterns and times of day offer comfort. In the past few months, I’ve watched my town thrive through three seasons as well as everything that comes with the changing weather – now that it’s springtime in Marpet, the snow has given way to butterflies and greener grass.
But directly contrasting these familiar comforts, I also suspect that much of Animal Crossing’s appeal lies in its sheer absurdity. It’s ridiculous enough getting served at the post office by a lipsticked pelican, or hawking hand-picked fruit and unwanted furniture to the proprietor of the town’s second-hand shop (a pink alpaca who seems to have an inexplicably endless supply of ‘bells’ to pay me with). In its anything-goes gameplay, Animal Crossing makes itself ripe for emergent storytelling – one journalist’s hysterically funny story exposes the American Beauty-style ‘terror’ of New Leaf, while another lengthy account layers a fictionalised narrative with a deeply sinister hue.
I certainly have my own stories to tell. For instance, while carrying my 3DS around at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year, I StreetPassed a fair few other Animal Crossing players. A few days later, one of these players’ villagers showed up in my town. This sullen bunny, Tiffany, explained that she had moved via StreetPass from Bumtown. Yes, that’s what someone had actually named their Animal Crossing town. I like to think I saved Tiffany from a life of hardship under the rule of the kind of person who’d name their village ‘Bumtown’.
Then there’s the saga of Marpet’s homeless resident, Muffy the black sheep. Just like in real life, townspeople come and go; some stick around for mere weeks, while others have been in Marpet since the town’s founding. Muffy only stuck around a couple of months before announcing to me one day that she was leaving town – but since then I’ve seen her daily in the shopping district, where she tells me that she’s ‘just passing through’ and that it’s ‘nice to see Marpet again.’ It occurred to me one day that though she left her house, for whatever reason she never really left town and has been living on the streets since. Each time I see her, she greets me with the feigned surprise of just happening to bump into me. That she maintains a stoic demeanour and story of living elsewhere and only ‘visiting’ Marpet on a daily basis is actually kind of heartbreaking.
And then there’s the surprisingly well-simulated spread of slang through Marpet’s community. Each animal has its own catchphrase (for instance, Curly the pig will often greet me with a ‘nyoink!’). Like image-conscious teens, some animals grow self-conscious about their catchphrases over time and may eventually ask you to suggest a new one for them to use.
Meanwhile, many animals who become friendly enough with the player will begin to use nicknames; Nana the monkey bestowed me with the moniker ‘K-Cat’ not long after she moved in, which was adorable enough already before I discovered that the nickname was spreading, word-of-mouth, to other villagers. Now half of Marpet’s residents call me K-Cat.
These are all surprising pockets of depth in the bubblegummy utopia that is Animal Crossing. Yes, it looks airy at first glance – but in comparison to the tightly constructed linear narrative of whatever the console blockbuster du jour might be, Animal Crossing has some serious potential for stories both ridiculous and touching to unfold. The casual gameplay makes no demands of its player, but the returns are huge: it’s actually pretty amazing how much can happen in a game with no rules and no goals.