It’s 3:30 AM. My “villager,” a bobble-headed avatar with the face of a Tarutaru, is sitting on a sofa in a model home, her legs swinging, an idle loop. Near her, a television is tuned to static. In my real life I’m ignoring the Nintendo 3DS, which I’ve left open and running on the kitchen counter.
At 3:32 AM—a full minute early, by my estimation—a UFO crosses the television screen. The animation quick-cuts to a space alien’s silhouette. I hold the 3DS closer to my ear: the alien really is speaking, and its voice is kind of spooky. Then, static. As suddenly as the alien broadcast had begun, it’s stopped again.
I smirk at this, then open the model home’s shopping catalogue. I order a television set of my own. It’ll probably show up sometime tomorrow; I think I’ll put it in my basement.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the first full game I’ve downloaded to my 3DS. Someone told me it was a good game to not-own-on-cartridge, since I’d want to dedicate only a few minutes each day to playing. That friend was a liar: I haven’t played anything else on my 3DS since I downloaded this software.
I always swore I’d never play an Animal Crossing game, probably half out of disgust—were a game’s screenshots ever more gooily twee?—and half out of conviction. I know I’ve been addicted in the past: to a browser game called Glitch, for one, and to a Facebook game called Mafia Wars, for a much more humiliating other one.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf isn’t quite a simulation; rather, it’s part of a genre I’ve always called “cultivation.” It’s a game about gardening, really, where “gardening” is an apt metonym for New Leaf’s low-key economy of reaping exactly what you sow. But it’s also a social game—not in the nasty way we usually mean “social,” but in the way its reward system sinks its hooks.
What is the point of this game? Who are you? What do you do in it? I’ve been playing for weeks, and I still can’t tell you. You’re a town mayor, right, and you have this house, which can get bigger if you spend enough money on it. And you have NPCs for neighbors. And fruit trees. And flowers! And fish, and bugs crawling around everywhere making noisy bug sounds. And there’s an island! And if you play enough, you can go to strangers’ islands, and they can come to yours! But only if you want to do that, because you don’t have to do anything.
It’s tough to pinpoint New Leaf’s appeal. From the outside, the New Leaf phenomenon must be terrifying. It seemingly breaks grown men, turning them into idiots who commiserate over pieces of furniture and turnip prices.
“I have never felt so betrayed,” I typed to a friend last week. “I can’t believe it. Ricky threatened to move away.”
Ricky is an NPC. Furthermore, he is a squirrel.
I guess I can’t really blame Ricky—not because he isn’t a real person, but because, uh, he’s cantankerous, so he has trouble getting along with other townsfolk sometimes. I feel bad for him, you know?
I was terrified to even start playing. From the get-go I had no idea what I was doing, which is horrifying, as I’d already begun my reign as mayor. There are no tutorials here; you are left to wing it. Other villagers are happy to help you find your way, of course: chief among these is your assistant Isabelle, a blonde canine who is in turns instructive and conciliatory. She speaks to you in a chirpy sort of Simlish.
But Isabelle’s guidance was eventually not enough for me, so I took to the Internet with my questions. I heard from friends and strangers alike: I should plant red rosebushes close together if I want to grow black ones; to reel in a shark, I must close my eyes and listen harder for audio cues; if I find myself tripping a lot, I have been temporarily cursed with bad luck. My flowers are shimmering because someone recently watered them for me.
Soon a real-life friend is teasing me for what he feels is my wholly inappropriate crush on Cranston, a stork. Another friend marvels to me how adorable my villager Bluebear is. (“Thank you for noticing,” I agree, much too pleased.) Another friend instant-messages to let me know that Kyle, my rock star wolf-man who has a way with the ladies, is the love of her life. “I’m writing him a love letter right now,” she tells me.
I start leaving my town’s gates open while I work at home on my laptop, hurrying across the room toward the 3DS anytime I hear the little reveille announcing a visitor’s arrival. We keep having these protracted conversations in-game: I’ll hunch myself over the machine, jabbing at its onscreen keyboard with a stylus, slow and deliberate.
By evening my town will shutter, so I look for other open towns. At 2:00 AM I find a friend in England, where it is 10 AM; I take the train to visit his town, where it is also 10 AM. One late night I’ll host three men in my villager’s house. Two of these men live in different parts of Australia, while the third is in Malaysia.
My real-life friends trade me furniture, send letters, leave dryly funny notes on my town bulletin board. A friend puts his clothing designs on display in one of my shops; another visitor remarks how amazing these are. One morning, when I am packing my 3DS into my purse—not to play it, but to get streetpasses from other Animal Crossing players while I run errands—I realize I am staying in a very real neighborhood dotted with strangers, each with her own spectacular inner life. It’s stunning.
A colleague recently asked me whether he should bother with New Leaf. “I don’t know,” he admitted, “I played the others. But they all felt so lonely.”
I was astonished. “I don’t know what you played before,” I told him, “but there is not a more social game.”
What gets me is how immediately alive Animal Crossing: New Leaf is. It isn’t just that NPCs will approach to tell you they talked to one of your real-life friends and add “she’s such a fashionista!” and you think to yourself, yeah, she really is. It isn’t that the writing is good—and it’s beyond good, it’s ebullient and snappy and very, very funny—or that townspeople never seem to say something out of character. It isn’t that you can yell into your 3DS to call for a villager’s attention, and she will reply, “Follow my voice!”
It’s the way, if you build your house close to the ocean, you can always hear the tides pull in and out. There’s the sound of mud squishing after rain. Everything is clangy or clacky or crunchy. A colleague recently wrote at length about New Leaf and the sound of its cicadas.
And the lighting…! Sunbeams flood through windows or dapple apple groves. Sometimes the landscape is illuminated by a bright moon. My friend Daphny David pointed out to me that, for as much as mainstream game developers try to get light sources down pat, only New Leaf does it right. Her purple-shaded lamp, for example, casts a purple glow. I agreed: “I’m a fan of ambient lighting,” I told her, “and just as in real life, I always turn my overhead lamp off.”
There are so many fine details, too, like if you cast a fishing line too short, there’s a little half-second flicker of disappointment on your villager’s face.
What’s more, this is the only game I will crank the machine’s 3D effect for. Butterflies flutter into the foreground, while grass literally rolls underfoot. When rain falls, individual droplets splash here and there, and the 3D effect isn’t a distraction at all; it’s perfection.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf has its share of problems. The simple morality of the game is galling: get too greedy and you might be stung by bees, punished with very mild, temporary disfigurement. Run too fast through its pastoral greenery and your grass will die off, leaving sandy dunes behind.
Other issues are slight but significant. The most glaring problem is—and this is true of the entire franchise—your villager is invariably pale. It suggests an ethnocentrism I’m not even barely equipped to discuss, but it persists anyway. And for all the gains the series has made regarding gender identity, my villager Muffy has twice remarked on my character’s decision to wear a mustache, always in gendered terms.
Meanwhile other characters, like the aforementioned ladykiller Kyle, are actually programmed to respond differently to the opposite sex. Kyle, why can’t we just be friends?
It’s all very difficult to reconcile. “When I acknowledge the game’s problems,” I told a friend, “it’s like, I also love the game so much, my complaints feel like lies.”
Still, what Animal Crossing: New Leaf doesn’t get quite right, it does get better. The sum franchise, I am told, has been tweaked and refined, and New Leaf is the organic result.
For a game that glorifies life’s simplest pleasures, New Leaf is ambitiously, dreadfully massive. Your village is so changeable, thanks to “town ordinances” and “public works” projects, that possibilities can overwhelm. (The game guards against this, of course: You may only pursue one project at a time.) There are 313 characters who might move in and out of your village, while the maximum population of any given town is just ten. Because of QR codes, your villager’s wardrobe is restricted only by the vastness of the Internet. The comforting repetition of the town’s day-to-day is staggered by moments of authentic surprise.
What I’m saying is, there is no way to really stop playing this game. It never ends. It’s a trap. The experience is always evolving, always becoming impossibly more perfect. It’s your own private island paradise, and you can share what you like with whomever you want.
If this sounds insidiously evil, that’s because it is. New Leaf is as wicked a game as there ever was, the way it endears itself, slowly ingratiates itself to you, and then manages to infiltrate your waking hours (and your sleeping hours, too, if you leave your 3DS on).
Here is one small relief: If you choose to play the game a little different, it probably won’t eat you alive. You can, in fact, stop in once a day, check your mailbox, pluck some weeds from the ground, contentedly live in your single small room. You don’t have to visit friends or check on your neighbors. You don’t have to fall hopelessly in love with the tireless Isabelle. Maybe mysteries and wonder won’t unfold for you the way they did for me; if you’re pressed for time, maybe that’s better. Maybe you’re less compulsive. Maybe you’re the better man.
If you can stop yourself playing for a day or two, the magic will instantly disappear. “I don’t want to work on the island today,” you might remind yourself. “I feel lazy. And there’s nothing else to do right now.” If you can tell yourself this, you’re free.
But if you flip open your 3DS’s lid one morning and discover Isabelle announcing a new town activity, I can’t say what will happen to you next. If you stay in town for just a minute too long, only to discover a new animal wandering around—a camel carrying rugs, a human-sized seagull on the beach—New Leaf could catch your heart all over again, as if it were your very first day playing.
The nicest thing about Animal Crossing: New Leaf is—depending on your real-life schedule, your emotional wherewithal, your ego’s appetite—the game conforms. It will read you like a fortune-teller and uncannily predict your needs and desires. The game, for you, might score a 2 or a 10. Because, see, the thing about paradise is, it’s whatever you want it to be.
Jenn Frank has written for Unwinnable, 1UP, Motherboard, Wired Gamelife, and Gameranx. She blogs about video games at Infinite Lives.