Over the past 18 years, I’ve thought a lot about Animal Crossing. “Dia, you say this of so many games,” I can hear the thought forming in your mind, my editor’s. I know. I do. But Animal Crossing is something different. It’s something special.
Perhaps strangely, it’s not a game I returned to over the years, and I passed on every iteration after. Poking at it’s systems, trying to break them apart, understand exactly how they work. I never even messed with the system clock except once to see what would happen. I didn’t buy merch until I found a Tom Nook Amiibo in a Five Below bin, buried under dozens of blocky Marios. And it wasn’t a game where I was compelled to complete everything, to look up guides or fixate on clearing personal goals. Sure, my museum was nice, but hardly filled. I threw away my Happy Room Academy letters like the ones from my student loan provider. I didn’t care what either really had to say. You could look at it as probably one of the last ways I truly played in my own way.
I bought my GameCube the night I was shown Animal Crossing. About to be snowed in with my friend while house-sitting for my mother, he brought his console over and ran me through the gamut of games released in the past year. Nothing really impressed me that much.
Then he showed me his town. It was snowing. The dim blue light of winter evening in his village, mirroring the creeping dark outside.
“What do you do?”
He wrote a letter. Showed me the town notice board. Shook a tree. And had a curt conversation with a disgruntled penguin.
“You can fish, I guess. And rearrange furniture.”
I ran around in the snow, driving his avatar, until I made a misshapen snowman. Then I called Best Buy.
They were still open, had GameCubes and Animal Crossing, and closed in 20 minutes.
A mad dash later, we had dragged a second TV into the living room, hooked both consoles up and played Animal Crossing in tandem until we passed out.
Months later he came by my apartment and showed me how his town was going. I took a train over from my village and grabbed up some cherries my town was lacking. And then…
I clear-cut his entire town while he slept on my futon.
I left the stumps.
It’s okay, he turned out to be a major asshole.
That scandalous moment of unbridled antisocial behavior aside, I largely played Animal Crossing alone. Ducking in when I got home from class and work building late-night relationships with villagers who shared my unfortunate circadian rhythms.
I wrote letters to the daytime animal villagers I never really got to see. Short notes of encouragement, little presents of a reclaimed parasol, a t-shirt, or an ugly sofa. I taught Sprocket to say “ROOOOOOOOBOT!!” when he wanted a new catchphrase (okay, I might have lost track of how many Os I put in robot, it might have been more). I fished (some), caught bugs (less), dug up a lot of gyroids (a lot), but mostly I tried to find a pocket for myself in this sleepy-bustling village of animals, where I was an outsider.
We play as outsiders in so many games. Whether it’s a Call of Duty as the trigger-finger of a government in a foreign country or the Chosen Undead, we come from without to bring violence within.
Animal Crossing let me circumvent that trajectory.
While I might always be an outsider, or at most a transplant, this was a game about an already established space that I was trying to find a way of being inside. Animal Crossing wasn’t a game about making it belong to me, it was about making me belong to it.
Which is why I think New Horizons has me so unsettled (that’s a pun, I’ll wait). See, as much as the original Animal Crossing came into my heart and mind and took up an endless, welcomed residence, the games that came after all seemed to miss the point. Aside from the much-needed addition of more diverse skin tones (please read Austin Walker’s “Me, On The Screen: Race in Animal Crossing: New Leaf“), I feel like most of the additions to the franchise have crowded and confused the delicate, simple game that made Animal Crossing stand out from the sea of Harvest Moons and Sims.
I didn’t want to go to the city, I lived in one already. I certainly never wanted to be Mayor. If I wanted to craft, I’d play Final Fantasy XIV.
And with Animal Crossing: New Horizons we have terraforming. Creating land and water to suit our needs, altering not just the appearance of the island, but its very form. It doesn’t even look like we need to have a town meeting over these hugely altering construction projects. Just like the ability to invite villagers and direct them where to live, rather than having them wander in and set up shop the way you had in previous games, it’s all about enacting the player’s will on this space. Even the marketing suggests that this is a game about player direction. About control. And while I mostly joked about New Horizon’s seeming genre shift towards colonialism simulator, it becomes impossible to ignore when Nintendo’s own website features copy like, “Nook Inc. invites you to create your personal island paradise on a deserted island brimming with possibility.”
If the villagers in my town even read the notice board, they never mentioned it to me. I like to think they saw it, and either ignored the weirdo out-of-towner who was trying too hard to fit in, or enjoyed my weekend giveaways (I know Bob couldn’t get enough of my old shirts, and Apollo always seemed to have a wallpaper I set out when I went to visit). Sometimes they thought my letters were incomprehensible. I wonder if they found my journal entries (where I opened up about my village feelings) equally bizarre. When my GameCube finally ended its run, I like to think that my village continued on without me. Maybe Ace brought me up with the other villagers from time to time, and wondered where that round-headed person with the rosy cheeks and perpetual groove disappeared to. Or maybe they moved on, ignoring the outsider they shared a few years with in passing.
New Horizons still sets us as an outsider. But it wants to imbue us with tremendous agency. The power to shape and forge the island and village to suit our desires and interests. To do more, and more, and more. And I want so much less.
My dream would have been to just focus on the social-interaction aspects and natural language processing from the original game. To make letter writing meaningful, to truly see that my notice board messages mattered. I want to just be, in a place that already exists independent of myself, without needing to enact dominion.
But, of course, I’m going to buy and play the new Animal Crossing on March 20. It’s going to dominate conversation and I need to see for myself how it shapes out. Besides, my partner is excited about it. So, I’ll share an island with them, and I guess we’ll steward it the best we can. I know they’ll enjoy it, I probably will too. And I’ll end up writing about it. At least, it seems like less of a coarse cash-grab the way Pocket Camp does. But it isn’t what I want, it can’t be, so I’ll probably never love it quite the same.
I understand that games need to evolve and grow, and that my feelings are tied into nostalgia about as much as they are to my thoughts as a game critic, but both have me staring at a media landscape that has added more life simulators and the indomitablity of Stardew Valley and Minecraft. Rather than continuing to be the weird little outsider that inspired love beyond reason, Nintendo is choosing to largely follow this new pack.
This is obviously someone’s fantasy. A lot of someones, really. But after all these years waiting for a new Animal Crossing that genuinely understands and builds on the promise of that first game, I guess I’m going to be waiting longer.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.