My first job in Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is to renovate a school. I model it after my own college classroom, with lecture hall seats and a podium. Fearing the attendees may be closer to grade-school level, I install more age-appropriate accoutrements. In each quadrant I place an item representative of different child concerns: a dollhouse (grown-up play-acting), a goldfish (marine biology), a globe (world geography), a skeleton (orthopaedic anatomy). The wallpaper has an ornate marble luster and the podium is atop a bright red circular rug. My classroom has become an accidental recognition of a professor’s inherent egoism.
Each chosen object, in hindsight, is a direct reference to my own childhood: the same model skeleton I recall from my doctor father’s office; the same globe that I spun in his home study, where he’d watch slides of compound fractures; the goldfish a reminder of our dog and her appetite for small swimming things (I’ll never forget her dripping snout and that now-empty fishbowl). Isabelle, my client, surveyed my work and loved the result. But the homes and rooms you design, happily or otherwise, are more for you than for the programmable characters that meander through their halls.
Animal Crossing has always trafficked in human realities underneath the glossy charms of its zoo neighbors: the taxing reality of paying back a mortgage, the Sisyphean task of keeping up with the Joneses, the ceaseless mundanity of dying plants and changing seasons, the inevitability of roaches. Early on, Happy Home Designer feels like a potpourri plastic rose: It retains the scent but loses the potential for loss. Days cruise by and large projects are undertaken and completed in haste. In the original series, a certain building may require an exorbitant amount of Bells (the game’s currency) to buy, whereas now major additions are waiting to be unlocked and renovated, one in a long series of boxes to be ticked. We see more, more quickly, but the gains feel lighter and less-earned. Happy Home Designer lacks the necessary patience for its players to come upon these realizations on their own.
Whereas the franchise up until now has been a strange and beautiful kind of animal-life simulation, this is very much a digital dollhouse. The nomenclature leans on optimism to a fault, the same kind of language used by cult leaders. Everything is Happy this, Happy that. But instead of feeling like a child moving pretend pieces around the cross-section of a pretend house, Happy Home Designer embodies the rules and jargon of an adult’s workplace. When you choose the next facility to renovate, you’re a Project Manager. Saving your game means you sit down at your desk and “file your daily report.” When deciding where to lay the foundation for a new home, you complete a Land Proposal.
This thin layer of vocab-induced bureaucracy made me realize how seldom video games, as a medium, use the concept of Work as a platform on which to lay interesting ideas. Think of television and its starting formulae of Lawyer, Cops, Hospitals, Offices. Now think of games. If your job isn’t “soldier,” “superhero,” or “professional athlete,” most game-worlds exist in a time beyond work, running and collecting treasure for your own ignoble stash. Non-playable characters are there to deliver information or die convincing-looking deaths. But in Happy Home Designer, the entire point is to do your job well and satisfy your clients.
Your first opportunity is to design the inside of a character’s abode using pre-fabricated household objects. Behold a dozen kinds of chairs, a dozen kinds of tables, a dozen kinds of beds. But each new day drips another new way to use the same basic mechanics. The same core function of placing and arranging items inside a room leads to landscaping duties and exterior furnishings. After designing for a couple of homes with different styles, Isabelle, your secretary from the 2012 3DS title Animal Crossing: New Leaf, shows up and you start to renovate the town’s main street, now boarded up and in shambles.
What appears at first like a limited toolset soon evolves and overlaps back on itself. Once you renovate a hospital, you now have those same pieces of furniture to bring back to home decor. (Perhaps Stitches the Bear always wanted an anatomy model in his living room? Every basement needs the metronomic beep of an EKG machine.) As Happy Home Designer’s palette grows, the game itself becomes something larger and stranger than it was, taken over by a kernel of metastasizing cells that leaves its host more vibrant and alive than before.
Soon you spy the weird little artifacts of our lives: a magazine rack (small), a magazine rack (large), an IV drip, a vending machine, a fancy doll under glass, a water bucket, a takeaway coffee cup, a bubbling jacuzzi. And on and on and on. If you are inclined toward organization and detailed minutiae, this hole you are falling down into is deeper and wider than you first realized.
Still, it is disconcerting to walk outside, see a rock and not be able to knock it with a shovel. Or shake a tree. HHD is very much a focused experience, a more guided take on the indelible joys found only in this franchise. If the recent New Leaf was the series’ Thriller, an endlessly replayable journey through material iterated into perfection, Happy Home Designer is Captain EO, a single component of personality given its own story, albeit one inherently less open to interpretation.
In some ways, things are more realistic now. In previous games, you simply changed your clothing in plain sight; your character would back-flip and land, magically wearing denim cut-offs. Now you go upstairs to a changing room, pulling a curtain behind you. Objects are still barely interactive but what little you can do is still a minor delight. Press A in front of a fishbowl and you make swimming motions with your arms. Step in front of that piano and pound out single notes in tune with the background music. These are holdovers from the normal AC games but feel more needed here, since there’s less to do outside. I only wish certain objects yielded even more interactivity. In the GameCube original, you unlocked NES games you could actually play; I’d love to unlock a real pinball game when standing in front of the pinball table.
Perhaps the biggest change is the use of amiibo in the form of cards. Unfortunately, we were not sent the necessary hardware to test this feature; this reviewer doesn’t yet own a New 3DS with amiibo functionality built in, and an NFC Reader/Writer peripheral will launch alongside the game. In-game, you unlock an “amiibo Phone” that allows you to invite certain animals to clients’ homes, or to design a pad for a particular character. I will say: When I opened the physical retail package and saw a shimmering card featuring Kapp’n, the dirge-singing boat operator from New Leaf, I immediately wanted to see inside his house.
As in New Leaf, you can walk through a version of a stranger’s creation. But where before you could walk through the entire village, you’re now able to explore a single building. You connect to what’s called the Happy Home Network, your portal to others’ creations. A static image displays a preview. Some are opulent palaces, fantasy fairylands, or colorful toystores. Curious how it compares to my debut effort, I chose a school.
When I arrive, the opening is blocked by bags of garbage. I squeeze by on one side. Instead of a buoyant ditty playing on a stereo, I hear only the stale sound of blowing wind. A bronze bust greets me; the old headmaster, I assume. Walk up to the bust and press A; its eyes light up red. I enter a door into one of the classrooms. This is art class. Vines hang from the ceiling. Animals dawdle in front of their easels, the drawings stick figures with horrible faces. One painting is just a large red splotch.
I back away, entering the other classroom, this one the music room. A slow, melancholy tune plays. Rugs mark a path through the room, each rug stained with what look like bloody footprints. A bird’s nest hangs on the wall. More bags of garbage litter the room. Students meander; chat with one of them and the duck will think aloud how he doesn’t want to be called on because he doesn’t know the answer. He sounds afraid. I follow the bloody rugs back to the main room and leave. Then I assess the experience in four categories: cute, cool, unique, “I’d live there!” Lastly I “Favorite” this creator—I’ll want to see more—and return, inspired.
There is a magic to the mainline AC games. Much of this stems from its reliance on a real-time clock. You feel like turning on the game at 1am, and in your manicured town, the moon is out and the streets are quiet. Venture out to the ocean and find fish that only come out at night. Look up and the stars glow. Here, the only time you’ll see the nightsky is when you save the game and the moon moves automatically across the screen. As a devoted employee, your playtime is now dictated by that least-playful of time periods: business hours.
HHD’s best quality is how it turns the workplace into inventive, interactive fodder; give into its charms and you will lose many hours arranging lamps and laying down rugs.
In short: Nintendo has released an interior decorating game in Fall 2015. While Konami gives us Solid Snake on horseback (and then turns the horse into dog-food), and Bethesda sends us into another nuclear apocalypse, Nintendo tasks us with matching a sofa with a rug dictated by the fashion sensibilities of a vest-wearing giraffe. This is one of many reasons why Nintendo has lost the attention of a loud demographic that buys 100-hour power fantasies.
But in this comparison we also see hope for the future, that the boundaries surrounding what a game can and should be become larger (and, in a way, smaller), while including more and different people in their target. There is room for the mundane. It’s okay to seek harmony in our surroundings. The gaming industry is growing wider every year yet many in the dedicated console space remain devoted to that which has thrived with its loudest customers. But listen closely and the quiet ones make their own kind of noise: After a month of sales in Japan, Happy Home Designer has sold over one million copies.
We want to play in ways beyond the gaming population’s insular past, cavorting through catastrophes and destroying the present. Our future depends on the ability to create, and design, something new. It’s fun to tear something down but there’s a deeper joy in building something up. Besides, there’s nothing more catastrophic than the wrong wallpaper.
Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer was developed and published by Nintendo. It is available for the 3DS. (More game features can be unlocked with amiibo Cards, accessed by either an external 3DS NFC Reader or the New Nintendo 3DS XL.)
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.