- June 15th, 2013
So after years of observing them from afar, I finally have an Animal Crossing game. And I've got mixed feelings! I'm only about a week in, but I still want to jot down my impressions...
First of all, there is far, far less to do in the game than I had always had the impression of there being. You basically run around town and click on things, either to collect them or to exchange pleasantries with them. Despite this, though, while I perpetually feel about five minutes away from getting bored, I haven't yet *actually* gotten bored! It's oddly satisfying, maybe because you never know what you'll get from the chores or the neighbours, maybe because the interface of wandering around a little forest is just more pleasant than the disembodied "click the things that you're floating above" that superficially-similar Facebook games would ask of you... it's making me realise that you can sell people on a pretty simple interaction, as long as the experience itself is nice (and maybe as long as the outcome is at least slightly unpredictable)..... after all, that pretty much describes most RPG battle systems when you think about it!
On a similarly love-hate note.... Animal Crossing is one of those games that proceeds according to the real world's clock. And I love the way that paces you; accomplish something great, and they'll say "fantastic; your reward will be ready tomorrow!", and you can turn your system off, and you have something to look forward to. It's cute, and nicely relaxing.... it's nice to have a game that isn't designed to keep you playing. (Well, actually, it IS designed to keep you playing, but in the long term, rather than being designed to keep you from putting it down.) Unfortunately, the OTHER thing that it uses the clock for, is having certain events take place only at certain times, or on certain days...! And that seems absolutely insane. Almost all week I was unable to advance in the game because the store that I needed to access was closed whenever I got off work. I had to play on the subway in order to get into the store and make the next (i.e. nearly first) thing happen. Who thought that would be a good idea? Who could take a concept like "we'll make a game that encourages you to play at a leisurely pace" and then think "and also we'll force you to try and find time in your schedule in order to have fun at the times we designated for you"? (As it happens, there IS an option to make the stores stay open late..... but they cost in-game money to use, and require the storyline to be advanced to a certain point, which you CAN'T advance to without playing by their rules for several days first...!) And for example, right now, I'm aware that my villagers are all participating in the bug-catching contest, and I can't attend unless I stop what I'm doing to go play the game.... and I am just not fond of the idea of having to schedule my days off around playing games that I don't want to play at the moment, which I guess means that there's some content in this game that I'll just never encounter! (Common knowledge on the internet is "mess with your system's calendar to play Animal Crossing how you want", but if I have to resort to things like that to make a game enjoyable, then the game's designers have made a misstep somewhere.)
Another thing is how bizarrely false the whole town feels, because of a choice I don't understand... Basically, the "villagers" in your town don't have jobs (they just mill around 24/7), and the "workers" in your town don't have homes (they are either behind a counter or they stop existing)! This doesn't sound like much, it's certainly how most games work, but when the ENTIRETY of your game is the experience of talking to the characters around you and the feeling of living in this town, it really brings to your attention the bizarre falseness of RPG towns.... when you wonder why Crono's mom doesn't have a bedroom, you think "whatever, I'm sure it's around there somewhere, I have to save the entire planet now"; but when a fellow villager tries to tell you they just spent their life savings buying an eel from you, it just immediately feels strange because you saw this character wandering around ALL DAY, doing nothing.... And by the same token, this game's whole concept is that it encourages you to try and befriend the villagers; they'll notice when you talk to them more often, you can send them presents, or drop by their house and see how they live... and just as you're starting to cozy up to the idea (it really is rather cute, if a bit shallow), you meet the people who run the shops... and they're adorable, and personable, and friendly..... and all completely nonexistent outside of work. I want to visit the kindly old man who runs the museum at home, and talk about something besides his work! I want to visit the family of raccoons who run the shops, and learn about their lives. Hell; they set up your 'mayoral secretary', the character who appears on the game's splash screen, as being your supporter and ally in this new town; she helps you get settled in, asks how you're doing and how you're integrating into the town, tells you about her life and how she regrets always working so hard...... and then, rather abruptly, as soon as you complete the tutorial quest, she just completely refuses to talk to you about anything other than the 'menu options' that she basically exists to present. The 'how are you' option just straight up disappears. I feel snubbed! It's even worse than with the other workers, because UNTIL then she had existed as a character who was apparently my confidant, but then she just runs out of script and turns into an automaton. I'm worried that it sounds like I'm expecting too much, but you have to understand -- this is all that the game has to offer, and it goes out of its way to encourage your suspension of disbelief in the matter, but then it just turns around and says "no, no -- only them. Leave the WORKERS alone." Even though it has a full system for cobbling together semi-dynamic characters -- there are over 200 villager characters in the game -- they couldn't outfit the worker characters with that same system? Or better yet, populate the stores with random villagers instead of predetermined workers, thereby solving BOTH problems at once...?
The last thing I want to mention is the weird implied message of going forth and subduing nature... The two main activities in this game, other than socializing, are to catch bugs and fish. This gets you money, and it also lets you fill up the town's museum whenever you catch something unique, which is one of the only traditional 'completable' goals that the game has. To be fair, the game absolutely never forces you to do either of these; but for lack of much else to do (and since I needed the money to unlock the later town schedule), I went ahead with it.... and it feels a bit strange to be stalking and subduing these creatures that are minding their own business, especially when the game is so flippant about their capture (I'm not sure if I'm more weirded out when it says something cute about the animal trying to escape from my line, or when it playfully mocks them for the fact that they weren't able to evade capture...!) It just feels like that whole attitude that the world 'deserves' to be caught by those who are able to catch it, which.... is a weird and uncomfortable worldview to be projecting onto people who just want to live in a quiet town, maybe even children... You could say I'm reading too much into it, but it's the subtle messages that can sometimes dig deepest, because most people never look at them consciously enough to realise what they're being taught. I dunno.
Anyway, all that to say I'm still having fun despite it all. I made my character a girl, which feels wonderfully natural enough that it probably deserves its own post, and I've been wandering around town, laying out my furniture, designing town songs, talking to the little polygon animal people who I feel 'really get me' (somehow), and giving a wide berth to the one who tells me I should be exercising more. It's oddly compelling, and it's got me thinking about how I would do it differently, and tempted to try and figure out a similarly passive experience.... for all its faults, it's one of those games that tried something wildly different enough that it's chock full of food for thought. (Which gets me thinking about the growing consensus that most of the "great" games of this generation are going to be indies, since they're the only people who are still trying new things besides "shooter", "car racer", "fighting game"... but, that's also topic enough for another post!)
I realise this journal has virtually no actual news about my life any more, since that's all on twitter........ and, so be it. ;)