words Alex Wiltshire
Collecting sea shells and rearranging the furniture might not sound like a wild time, but give it a chance and this game from Nintendo will take up a permanent residence in your head.
We know that video games can take an insidiously strong hold over their players, but who’d have thought they could get you to put up shelves, do the wallpapering or change the carpet? The thought of spending precious leisure time playing at the gruntwork of interior design is anethema to the sane. But in a new game from Nintendo called Animal Crossing the blurring between entertainment and mundanity is a central feature.
The game opens with you, a little guy or girl with horns, arriving penniless in a town populated with anthropomorphic animals. The local shop owner, a racoon called Tom Nook, takes you in his care and allows you to live in one of the shed-like houses on an estate near the station. Once you’ve done some little jobs to introduce you to the controls, environment and other inhabitants, you’re left to your own devices.
It takes a while to comprehend Animal Crossing; you can’t experience it at your own whim because the game happens in real time. If it’s half past eight on a Saturday in the real world, it is in Animal Crossing too. At half past eight a dog called KK Slider is outside the station (talk to him and he’ll play you a song), and Nook’s shop will be closing in an hour and a half. If it’s January, snow will be on the ground. From April 5 to April 7, cherry blossoms fall from the sky. On New Year’s Eve there are fireworks at the party near the pond. I know, I was there. Maybe it was the gin, but it was strangely affecting when the countdown ended and the bangs and whizzes in the game synchronised precisely with the sounds of the celebrations in the world outside.
There are no particular goals. You can improve your house by collecting and arranging sets of furniture, carpets and wallpaper to earn points from the “Happy Room Academy”, tasteless style police who seem to hate any layout I like. You can stock the empty museum with fossils, paintings, fish and insects, or you can plant trees and flowers and pick weeds in order to make the town beautiful. Or you can do errands for other residents, often earning furniture and money. Sometimes the sheer choice is exhausting.
But this is no idyll. The mundane reality is that the fussy, status-anxious Tom Nook owns your soul. You see, he expects payment for the house he gave you, meaning that you spend most of your time paying him off by selling him fish, fossils, furniture: anything you can get your hands on. Pay him back entirely and he’ll extend your house – raising your debt yet further.
Your complex relationship with Nook exposes a wry but unapologetic exposé of the consumer society that underlies the egalitarian surface. A large part of the game is the collection of the hundreds of different items, from sets of “Modern” furniture (think 1980s) and “Classic” (think Victorian) to bonsai trees and Japanese dolls. The comedy lies in the fact that the happiness of finally completing a set is quickly overtaken with dissatisfaction. Maybe the Cabana set would look better upstairs, and don’t those Space ornaments look fun? And before you know it you’re once again loading up the game every day just to find out what’s in Nook’s daily sale. There’s also humour in the doubts you have when you catch rare new fish or insects: do you donate that 17,000-bell Stringfish to the museum or use it to finally pay off the basement?
It’s remarkable how much freedom and character Nintendo have managed to squeeze out of such a simple and humdrum little world. Your time is spent mostly running around town, patrolling the seashore with your fishing rod (you can catch more valuable fish when it’s raining) or gathering fruit to sell. You may even be asked to do tasks like switching the lighthouse on between 6pm and 10pm every day for a week. You find yourself placing very distinct personalities on to the other inhabitants, based on the limited number of preset character types, what they look like and where
As in life, you come to appreciate the morsels of reward Animal Crossing throws you, like a festival or the final item in a furniture set. Ultimately, you realise that the more you invest in the game, the more you get out of it. Animal Crossing shouts in the face of those who say videogames stunt the imagination. It offers a world filled with every nuance you care to notice.
Animal Crossing, Nintendo, GameCube
Animal Crossing will be released in the UK on September 24