I’ve spent three years of my life in Animal Crossing’s strange alternate sleepy world, across three games (the Gamecube release, Wild World for DS, and now New Leaf for 3DS) and over a decade of my life. Those three years I would go and I would do all of the Animal Crossing things, watching as the seasons and animal friends came and went. I wasn’t tireless about playing every day, but I played most days. The first time I played the original Animal Crossing I was convinced that I had found a game that I could play forever. I still think that I probably could, but I won’t. My third year is up, and I’m packing up and getting the hell out of town.
Animal Crossing is unique in that it is an endless game that rarely actually has concrete goals to help drive the need to play more and more. I paid off my house months ago, the game’s only obvious numerical goal. I’ve had Perfect Town since last fall. I’ve had all the bugs and fish since February. The addition of Mayoral decree has made it so I never have weeds and the flowers get watered by my horticulturally minded citizens. Outside of the general flow of people in and out of town, I’ve achieved perfect homeostasis. If I leave, the town will continue. If I stay, I can only mess things up. It is a small, perfect box. It would be a little creepy to consider if it wasn’t so endlessly charming and genuinely peaceful.
And yet I still come to it most days enjoying my time spent there. I gather fossils to sell (I long since filled my museum, and even got a whole other set for myself) and make sure my favorite villagers aren’t moving away. I hope to see Redd because the art wing of the museum could always use some work. I don’t even shop most days because none of the stores have anything new anymore. I’m not acquiring anything. I’m just existing in that town. And Animal Crossing, in all its incarnations, is a world that was created for you to exist in. It asks almost nothing of you, and is warm and vast like a blanket just out of the dryer for you to wrap up in. There’s not much shape to it, but you can fill it with the entirety of your being and it feels right.
Which is why I impose this year long limit on myself. It’s something I eventually decided was my burden to hold with each new game in this series I would buy. A responsibility, if you will, to taking on the task. I can get the quiet homey escapism of Animal Crossing, but I have to commit. And I have to commit for a full year. To see all the ups and downs, take on all the duties of the game, and truly live this tiny (15 minutes most days) other life. Why? My own vague sense of guilt, I suppose. Not guilt over the escapism, which I don’t begrudge myself or anyway. But guilt that it’s so easy to step into this other life, and how easy it is to just abandon it once the days stop bringing novelty and the tasks you chased with zeal suddenly start feeling like work. Guilt that I made all these strange animal friends, and in their primitive simulated way they made friends with me too, and they rely on me to be there not just to see like you would a friend, but as a key component to their entire existence.
Without me, there’s nothing. The cozy hamlet of Winhill is no more. The blue/black ‘Baller’ shirt that was a big hit disappears. The same Jurassic Park theme I’ve used over three games no longer plays. And I know that Flora and Zell and everyone else continue on as data, but they don’t continue on as my data. Zell doesn’t say ‘brother’ in any other game but mine, because in my world he’s way into Hulk Hogan when he’s not into being lazy. There isn’t a stump with a view of the ocean naturally in any game, but in mine you can sit and watch the sea. No other game has a campground right next to a fire hydrant, because Winhill is very conscious of the risk of campers causing forest fires.
And you might think those things are silly, which would lead you to discount them, but I would say that those moments of uniqueness are so vitally important because they are silly. Animal Crossing presents a very similar world to every person who boots it up, but within that space you can make something that is fully and utterly you. You aren’t God in a real sense or even a work-driven Minecraftian sense. You can’t reshape everything. Randomness still is at play. And luck. And just the limits of the simulation. But you still end up with your thumbprints all over your experience. And that experience, the ups and downs, the moments where you’re tired of the work or delighted by a holiday or sad that you didn’t pay attention one day and a beloved neighbor moved away? All that stuff is life. Animal Crossing is often silly and seemingly trivial in the extreme, but the things that make my experience of the real world and my life different and special compared to your experience of life that is also different and special often are the trivial things.
We all live in the same world. Most of its rules are immutable. We take what we can get out of it, making our homey spaces where we can, finding companions and enjoying the good moments and suffering the dull moments. It’s not always great but it’s there and there’s really no recourse to it. Animal Crossing offers up something more intimate but in the space of time it allows you to fill if you take it at its word and use it not as a Sims-style life game but a unique living simulation, what comes out of it isn’t a game about paying off the house and getting cool new furniture, but instead a game about what it means to be a living being. About living past all novelty and working on past the point of fun and still finding things to appreciate.
And it does it without real grinding like most games, and never offers you a release aside from either your own willpower to break off or your own waning interest if you drift away naturally. Most people choose the latter, just playing less and less until they stop playing at all. The game never demands you come back. Aside from the greetings of your neighbors if you take some time away, there’s little to keep you from not coming back at all. The reality is that Animal Crossing fosters an examination not of living under capitalism (though the early Tom Nook debt loop certainly does that) or under the demands of work (like Papers, Please) or social obligation (Persona 3 and 4); instead it asks you to examine what it means to live with yourself. The external is nice but the specifics are trivial. The only constant in most people’s lives is ourselves, our inner being, our own self-driven narrative and desires and ethics.
And in the course of four seasons with New Leaf, and in the course of three years with Animal Crossing, and in the course of 28 years of being a living human being, that’s what I take away from it. Animal Crossing is a mirror that can reflect your own feelings about being alive, if you let the reflection linger long enough. Which makes it fully unique. Not in its constructed gameplay loops, but in what it is when you move past them. The Animal Crossing end game, formally stated as not even being there, is the appreciation of life itself. Which is why, a year later, I pack up this small boutique version of my life, and let it remain forever a snapshot of that year. There’s still plenty of life to live out here.
The rest that follows is just a bunch of pictures of various parts of my town for posterity. Feel free to skip them if that’s not your thing. No great insights will be hidden below this point.