Monday, 19 August 2013

The Folk of Animal Crossing

  The Animal townsfolk meet the player controlled Villager when V is fresh off the train.  They’ve probably been about the entire first day while V is getting the iconic tools together.  When there’s no more trees to shake and fishing for piranhas and boots is becoming stale, the townsfolk are still there, and may well be the key to saving the experience from fatigue.

  I should define some details first.  Isabelle isn’t a townsperson, as the programming powering her is quite different.  Neither is Tom Nook, or any of the NPCs entrusted with functions around town.  They are each programmed to relate to the player in simple ways; Blathers the Owl stays in the museum and collects bugs (reluctantly), fish, fossils and art.  The Able Sisters sell fashionable clothes and accessories, and Mabel allows the player to access the design tool.  When they become unlocked, Copper reports on public disturbances, and Lyle runs the Happy Home Academy storefront inside Nook’s Homes.  There is an enormous amount of care and energy that went into each and every one of these NPCs.  They will each act out their little scripts on and on, until they themselves become tiring (I’m already a little short with Kicks the Skunk).

  None of this is true for the townsfolk, who are a category of NPC apart, and the work making them deserves special attention. 

  For starters, if you (the reader) decided to play this game, you should have a whole other cast of these townsfolk other than me.  There is room for repetition, but each villager is different, and can grow differently, depending on the software that forms their world.  Tom Nook is always going to be Tom Nook, and you and I can discuss Tom Nook as he is.  Not so Big Top, or Bud, or Monique, or Tangy.  Your mileage will vary, and there are, therefore, real differences from the minute you enter town.

  Similarly, each of the townsfolk have definite personalities, and a large pool of scripts.  I suspect some of these scripts may be recycled, but if so, I’ve not seen it.  For example, Monique, commonly found in online wikis listed as Snooty, shared next to no lines with another cat resident, Tangy, who is listed as peppy.  Meanwhile, my town has included two characters of quite different animal templates, Kevin the Pig and Bud the lion, who are both listed as Jock, and shared a couple of common lines related to fitness.  Meanwhile, Bud was something of a clean freak and Kevin maintained slightly messier outlook.  The range of personalities and kinds of expressions they’ve maintained shows a lot of detailed computing under the hood.  Subtle changes can also be worked at the player’s discretion, changing catchphrases and greetings, gifting items that change the feel of the townsfolks’ houses. There’s a lot the player can do over time to nurture this town and its residents.

  Fetch quests are mini quests given to V by the townsfolk to bring certain fish, bugs, or other items for them.  They can also ask V to bury a timecapsule, but don’t look at the contents, give out delivery quests, and sometimes request that V bring other townsfolk together for a meeting.  Scheduling playdates happens often enough too.  In one instance, the game realized I was so bored that it pitched the idea of playing an impromptu game of hide and seek.  There are only a finite number of activities, but there’s enough of them that the player is kept busy, or has sufficient ulterior motivation to keep going.  Frequently enough, the townsfolk caution me about playing too long – yet another bit of text showing the game’s familiarity with the game time clock.  I know, it’s a mechanic known for over a decade now, but it further exemplifies the level of polish Animal Crossing has undergone.

  There is truly a complex decision system operating under the hood of Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s townsfolk.  It injects a silly bit of humor at the worst, and at its best it provides the player with new missions, objectives, and even mini games to keep the action varied.  I expect at least some of these vary – I only recall being challenged to Hide-and-Seek by the sporty townsfolk.

  One pet peeve remains: I don’t think that I would call them “Sims.”  Sims have needs, and wander around looking to satisfy those needs.  They don’t need to interface with the player Sim, in fact, all of the Sims I’ve ever seen half-heartedly ignore the player until the player learns to override their need-seeking.  With the townsfolk, this is not so.  They are completely designed around the player; if the player turned on the game and left it running, they would at most stand around and bobble their heads all day.  They don’t have needs to fulfill, what they have is a player seeking some meaningful interaction, and I think they are cleverly optimised to deliver it.

  It might be the conventional NPCs like Isabelle or Tom Nook that set up the game and gateway the player through its rules, but the townsfolk are the stars of the game, and the parts that the player will carry around some of his or her most meaningful memories.

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