I skipped Animal Crossing three consoles running, and I almost skipped it again. My reason for it is because the publisher, Nintendo, and everyone connected, officially or not, had one overarching challenge: they could not describe what Animal Crossing was, or why they loved it so much. I almost missed out again, and for the benefit of others still waiting for a reasonable case to try it, I’m going to do the impossible. I’m going to do what nobody, for the creator, to the publisher, to its 4 million or so fans pleads they can never do.
I’m going to tell you what sort of game this is, and why, in moderation, most people will like it.
To accomplish this, I’m going to turn up the critical heat. Don’t be surprised to see me mention other prominent games that seem to be like it, as I will be trying my best to describe Animal Crossing to the best of my knowledge as an assemblage of software, as a cultural commodity, and as a psychology trap. Now let’s get started.
I’m going to skip the history of the series, and its lore, as frankly, many better qualified sources have already done this in depth. Instead, let us focus on and describe New Leaf, the most recent title on the 3DS, in exacting detail.
The first scene is on the train, and Rover, a friendly passenger, is asking the player questions about whom he or she is and where he or she is going. This is a gentle inquiry, as the game is asking the player to pin down some of the details the player desires for the game world. Are you a boy or a girl? Where does the river flow through town? What is the name of your town? A player new to Animal Crossing doesn’t know what the “right” answer would be, which ensures that the game gets a creative answer.
This is the first of Animal Crossing’s mysterious design choices. The game doesn’t allow the player to design a face, instead it makes one for the player in response to answers to a short questionnaire. There are not many reasons for which the questionnaire could be seen as the preferred choice; certainly EAD Tokyo (the internal Nintendo developer) is conveniently ignoring race issues. But skipping the all-too-obvious oversight, the questionnaire is short, quickly resolved, and nearly permanent. Comparing it to the Mii creator, or other products on the market that allow for face customization, the questionnaire is obtuse, preventing easy to design and change at any time faces for a face proclaimed from on high as correct. A face tied to the player’s own responses, that cannot be changed later.
I want to contrast this with other games with a similar focus. For instance, in the Sims (full disclosure: I’ve only played until Sims2) the player is given a chance to tailor their player character, in a special, completely removed from game Create-A-Sim system. Right away I noticed a very different focus, as the Sims becomes much more exacting in details making the Sim more like yourself, or designing a whole new look. Rover is talking straight to you, not your avatar; the player’s avatar is being created in this scene, and absolutely the face is being detailed. But it’s the player’s responses, not aesthetics, that are deciding the face. It’s not the only time this first person thing comes up, but it is hugely important – Animal Crossing is putting you in its world, where the Sims is creating pocket dimensions where you can make a Sim to be you. There is a lot of odd thematic dissonance here, and academics should mark this, as it will come up again.
Once Rover has the details he needs from you in friendly conversation/interrogation, the game drops the first person view, and cuts to the train station. A chubby, chibi, human steps off the train, hereafter referred to as Villager. Because he/she could be both pronouns, I use a specially made up pronoun “V.”
V’s features are different depending on the player’s responses, but this is mainly ignored. The train platform is tiny, and V hasn’t much to do here. V can talk to the train yard attendant, Porter, but using the train to leave is temporarily unavailable. V can rummage in the lockers provided, but there is as yet nothing to rummage about in it. V can sit perfectly still for a while, but why? Sooner or later, every player becomes curious as to what lies beyond the doors to the train station, and explore. The world outside has some crazy surprises in store…