Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
What I love about it
For those who don't know, Animal Crossing has you move a character into a town of cute animals. From there you can do an assortment of things: talk to the animals in town, write letters to other residents, purchase furniture for your house, go fishing, plant trees, chop trees… all to no defined end. The town has a flag you design, everyone greets you with a jingle you compose.
The town exists in real-world time: when you play at 8:00 AM, it's morning, and many of the shops haven't opened yet. If you play at 11:00 PM, some villagers are out clubbing, and different fish are swimming in the river to catch. When you play in December it snows. When add to your house the contractor says "your new room will be done tomorrow!," they literally mean tomorrow, so its time to turn off the game an enjoy your real life.
In an interview linked below, game maker Daniel Cook describes its appeal with
we had a working group trying to understand the psychology 'comfy games' like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing. One thing we noticed is that many games focus on the bottom portion of Maslow's Hierarchy of needs. They deal with survival, food, shelter and physical threats. Comfy games are instead comfortable spaces where you can work on some higher level human needs. You can dabble with self reflection, little social moments and maybe self expression. Games that treat players like higher order humans instead of twitchy, fear-based animals are a super cool thing!
And I think that's the best description. Also, its aesthetics are adorable.
A few words on what else I love about it:
Most software I'm using these days employ people whose entire job it is to increase my engagement with their product. Each engagment is designed to be a seed for future engagement: it's not enough that I'm using the product, I have to be reminded that it offers SO MUCH MORE VALUE and it needs to be hard to leave. See this article on engagement hacks. In theory these companies are merely adding value to your life by making you more aware of their offerings; in practice, they're just trying to squeeze more value from you so their bosses and investors can make fortunes.
The worst of this type is dark patterns, where they give up the pretense of even being valuable and just trick you into shit they can monetize.
It's a game played by rich people where you're the ball. Animal Crossing feels different: when you catch a fish, there's no Share button. There's no NOW CATCH MORE FISH. Just… "hey, you caught a fish. Nice!" It's the anti-Zynga game: we made a game, we hope you like it. It's not phoning home tracking your every action. I don't think everyone will react this way, but I love a game that can never have Internet and still be its full self.
This isn't to say there aren't incentives to keep playing. One of the ways you spot pellet dispensers in games is multiple currencies: you buy your gear with Flobos, your food with Gizmos, and power-ups with Sheeshos. This game has Bells, but it also has MEOW Coupons, which you get for completing daily and weekly initiatives. I've never felt it intrusive, nor do I let it impact how I play the game, but it's the Diet RC Cola version of the same mechanic and it'd be remiss not to mention it.
Overall, it's peaceful to play, which isn't something I can say about almost anything else I do.
The game is fine fun, but it's really fun if you share a space with someone or someones. I'm thinking of getting a 3DS and leaving a copy in my office for coworkers so we can blow off steam between commits. I shared my first town (Risotto) in the original Gamecube Animal Crossing and am sharing this New Leaf town with my current girlfriend, and it gives us a fun, low-pressure thing to bond over. She wants to cut down some trees so I leave her axes. She knows I love Gyroids, so she leaves them for me.
What could be better
While not being Internet-connected is a core part of the charm, you can't help but feel there's missed opportunities on visiting other towns, or sharing your town with others. I'd love an easier way to share the little place we're building with friends without them having to have 3DSes. I worry that everything we're building is in one physical cart.
I'm glad design decisions opted towards offline rather than online content, but I feel like Something Greater lies in the space between the online experiences of this game and the Click Factories that Zynga got temporarily rich with.
Not _Pocket Camp_
You may be tempted, as I was, to see if there's a version of the game you can play on your phone. I have the newest Layton game on my phone and certainly don't carry my 3DS around. You'll find Pocket Camp.
I haven't played it, but there's been writing that it isn't congruent with many ideals of the series: pressure to log in, microtransactions, a non-transactional relationship to the other animals. My girlfriend downloaded it and didn't feel compelled to keep playing it.
Besides, I like the form factor of not having it on my phone. The 3DS sits in the apartment as the "Animal Crossing" machine we pass around and/or leave for each other.
- GamaSutra had a great set of interviews with developers about Pocket Camp, where I quoted Daniel Cook above. It also included this great line by Yoko Taro:
I played the 3DS DobuMori (Animal Crossing), and you know the raccoon who makes you get a mortgage without agreeing to it? It was like the Lehman Shock (The Bankruptcy Of Lehman Brothers), so I wanted to get revenge on him in the mobile version.
I was kind of sad because there are fewer things you can do in the mobile app, compared to the 3DS version. The fact that you have less freedom, makes the Ditch-Forest seem even darker.
Let's take, for example, what the "monsters" eat. The rabbit seems to be of the normal herbivorous variety, but can be seen, in this game, grilling and eating fish. Also, in this game, pigs and cows enjoy barbecue (but you can't see what they're grilling). What is going on in this ecosystem? When you run out of things to eat, do you resort to cannibalism? Is there so much difference in the intelligence of birds and fish? If you walk on two legs and talk, does that mean you won't be hunted? Is the value of your life determined by your intelligence? There are so many interesting themes hidden in this game.
Also, I want to say something about the unreasonable shopping. You need to predict what those monsters want like an esper (human who possesses ESP), and give those things to them to get your big reward. What is this a metaphor for? Why do you have to collect things that are right next to the monsters to make them happy, like a slave? I guess this represents the divisions between people in class society.
I haven't put any furniture or anything in my camp except a kerosene tank. I started this game to get revenge on that raccoon, Tanukichi, but now I have a different purpose.
I'll enjoy playing this game until I burn that dark forest down.
- People are making little prisons and cults in Pocket Camp.
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