On Animal Crossing: A Bleak Portrait of the Human Condition

So I really, really like Battalion Wars. It's a clunky, uneven game, to be certain, but it's also one of the best things Nintendo has produced in a long time. While I generally enjoy the likes of Metroid and Fire Emblem, both take themselves with a tone of seriousness that is uncharacteristic of the portrait Nintendo paints for themselves. Batallion Wars is about tiny little soldiers with helium voices screaming goofy rallying cries as they cruise around curves in jeeps, destroy other tiny little soldiers, or generally just fuck shit up. It's the kind of light-hearted glee that those god-awful Army Men games tried to capture but never remotely got right. As far as personality goes, it even beats out Advance Wars, the series from which it spawned. And when compared to Nintendo's recent line-up, it's brilliant. It has the ridiculous sadism of Pikmin without devolving into the rote busywork of a gardening sim. It takes some of the familiar mechanics from Advance Wars but uses them in an entirely unique way. It's one of those games that remains light-hearted and charming without relying on the appearance of goddamned Mario for the hojillionith time.

Nintendo fans are always hailing the company as the true savior of gaming, the tiny giant that stands against the evil behemoths of Sony and Microsoft and their insidious non-gamer ways. But every time they publish a "Mario n' Friends in: Wacky Sports Game 11" or "Pokemon Still Exists For Some Reason" game, it's not hard to see their true colors. They are a corporation that, like most corporations, are evil, and are in pursuit of little more than the almighty dollar (or yen, as it were.) It's the type of company that preys on the likes of clueless mothers, who wander into toy stores and ask equally clueless clerks what kind of game they should buy for their screaming little brat who won't shut the fuck up. That's not to say the pursuit of money can't make for some decent video games, especially when they try to branch out a bit. You look at Nintendo's library with the past few years and you'll occasionally see a "Decent Game Outsourced to Some American Company Because We, Quite Frankly, Have No Idea What You Non-Japanese Guys Want" title, and you're at least kinda thankful Nintendo is still around. It could be worse, yes, but I'm almost jealous of the naivete expressed by the most hardcore of Nintendo fans.

One of their most successful new franchises this generation is Animal Crossing, a happy little game where you control a happy little viking thing as you move into a new town, decorate your house, make friends with cute little talking animals and generally get involved with all kinds of prosocial activities. It is rated "E" for Everyone, pictures a blue sky and a bevy of smiles on the front, and even includes a free 51 block memory card! See, not only does it radiates joy, but it's value-added too! How better could you spend your $20?

The looks are deceiving, because you get into the game, and it's just the most depressing thing imaginable. It's soulless in the way Batallion Wars isn't. Batallion Wars is about war and killing, but it's amusing and enjoyable. It does not teach harsh lessons about the cruel reality to unknown children who are just playing their games to have a bit of fun.

Even though Nintendo likes to let Shigeru Miyamoto out of his cage to give speeches or maybe play with a ball of yarn for a bit, but I almost have the feeling he's a very atypical video game developer. This is because he is the most famous, and is probably pampered by Nintendo to hell and back. Designers here in America are very vocal about how disillusioned they are with the video game marketplace, and the infamous "ea_spouse" blog just shows that maybe video game development isn't all sunshine and flowers like we all expected. But the Japanese developers aren't nearly so vocal about their disappointments, perhaps due to some corporate cultural issues. But repression always finds its way out somehow. And nowhere does it shine through so much as in Animal Crossing. I imagine the designer (I'm too apathetic to look up his name) to be a balding, slightly overweight man, probably in mid-fifties, burnt out at having worked his way up through the crushing corporate structure of the Japanese business world. On the nights he is allowed out of the offive, he enters the doorway to his huge, empty apartment, filled with expensive and useless things. He walks past his boring wife without saying a word, and says "hi" to his teenage daughter before she tells him to fuck off. He then goes home and puts on his headphones and listens to Linkin Park for the rest of the night before cleaning his tears with a luxurious box of tissues that cost 10000 yen. He is bitter, and wants the world to pay.

So how could one possibly get that image? At first, you wouldn't even begin to imagine this. Animal Crossing is the ultimate type of sandbox game, where what you get out of the game is equally proportionate to how much you put in. I am not a real big fan of this kind of design. I demand that a video game asks something of me, promises me an experience I won't find elsewhere, and leaves me somewhat changed at the end, hopefully for the better. However, that is just me. I can look at Animal Crossing or The Sims and at least see where people get enjoyment out of them. If you don't have a Gamecube, you can emulate playing Animal Crossing by going outside and digging up your backyard or shaking trees or painting faces on rocks. It's just like being a kid again, except better, since writing letters to that little squirrel outside will likely result a trip to the doctors and some potentially dehabilitating medication. So as much as I think games like Animal Crossing are wastes of time, I can see how some people would at least enjoy the concept.

The problem starts not more than a few minutes into the game. After you've gotten off the train, after you've had a delightful conversation with some kind of animal that determines your character type, you meet up with Tom Nook, the delightful little raccoon shopkeeper. Since you've apparently moved into town without any planning or foresight (God only knows where you came from), Tom gives you shelter in an empty house in the middle of town. But this isn't free - you've just created your character seconds ago and already you're in debt. It's like handing your kid their first student loan payment as soon as the doctors cut the umbilical cord. Reducing your debt is, for all intents and purposes, the only concrete goal the game has to offer. Other games dangle a reward in front of you like a carrot. Sure, the actual gameplay, the journey, is what everything is all about. Maybe you'll save the princess! Maybe you'll save the world and be reunited with your long lost father! Or, in Animal Crossing, maybe you'll pay off your bills. To be fair, there is never any pressure to pay back that dastardly little raccoon, but as long as you don't, there's still that lingering debt that hovers above you, like a lion that sits on its perch, licking its lips but never pouncing. I'm the kind of person that only got a credit card to build up a rating so I might be able to, say, obtain a mortgage. Every time I use it, I go back home and immediately pay it off. I don't like debt, at all. I have a feeling that home ownership is going to drive me absolutely insane. But this game is for, you know, kids. A harsh but true lesson.

So, you earn money by digging up treasure, or fishing, or planting trees. In other words, mindless busy work. Just like real life. I swear to God, Nintendo could make a game about filing paperwork and denying insurance claims, and as long as they had grinning animals and blue skies, it would sell. (Actually, in writing that just now, I really want this game to be made.)

Once you actually raise enough money, naturally, you're cleared - but then Tom offers to upgrade your house. What do you say then? Do you stop your progression and hit the plateau, or do you climb up the economic class ladder? So, not being content you upgrade your abode, and now you're even more in debt. The cycle starts anew, over and over, until you've upgraded to a mansion. And that's it. No other rewards. The game teases you with more and bigger and more until the expansions run out and there is no more. Just a huge, empty house with a whole ton of useless shit sitting around. And the feeling that you've just wasted a whole ton of cash, which you spent a whole hell of a lot of time working for. Which, in all honesty, couldn't have been used to buy anything else of worth anyway. The game taunts you with NES "classics" like the painstakingly awful Clu Clu Land, but that's it. You're doomed to keep working for, in essence, nothing.

It is pretty bleak.

It gets worse when you factor in your neighbors. The game is all about interaction with all of the other people in town, but oddly enough, they never come over to visit. They just sit around, and spit out a script that is generated based on the internal clock of the Gamecube. You can trade stuff with them, and engage in idle conversation, but that's about it.

Animal Crossing tricks you into thinking that communication is possible with these creatures. It isn't. You can write them letters telling them what nice friends they are or much you enjoy their flowers or how much you would really, really like to fuck them, and they won't understand. Maybe you'll get a friendly reply, maybe you won't, but they won't understand it regardless. It's like meeting a totally gorgeous Japanese girl but being unable to ask her out because she doesn't understand the language. Also, she is blind and maybe just a little retarded. Whatever. The point is, you only interact with the rest of your town on the most shallow of levels. It's like the designers felt the world was only populated by cold, unfeeling individuals for which to trade stuff back and forth, but never to share your innermost feelings with. It's undoubtedly held back by technology, but when the end result is so bereft of life, you wonder why they even tried.

You can have other, real world friends (if you have them) move into your town. The catch is, you can never play at the same time. You decide to stop playing the game, then you save. Someone else plays for a bit, or maybe you'll watch them, or maybe you'll leave the room. In game, the only way players communicate with each other is through a cold, unfeeling message board in the center of your homestead. Animal Crossing taunts you with real human interaction, yet tosses a brick wall of separation for reasons that are not entirely apparent.

It's the loneliest fucking game on the planet.

Maybe the DS game, which actually has Internet play, lends itself better to this type of game. I'd imagine it would, and could potentially be a lot more fun. But given how desolate the Gamecube edition is, I'm not eager to try it.

The final nail in the coffin is that Animal Crossing for the Gamecube was ported almost exactly from Nintendo 64, which was previously released only in Japan as "Doubutsu no Mori". Once the game has loaded, you can take the disc out of your system, and everything runs fine - the entirely game sits in the memory of the Gamecube. You can argue that Nintendo is more about making "fun" games than technologically advanced ones, but that's just fucking lazy.

So this is Animal Crossing, the saddest video game ever made. It's not like there aren't other games that pride themselves on gloom and doom. Chrono Cross is about a young boy who discovers that his continued existence will eventually cause the implosion of the space-time continuum. Valkyrie Profile is about an undead warrior who harvests the souls of departed mortals, victims of the most tragic suicides and sacrifices imaginable. Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne is about the destruction of all humanity, and the recreation of the world in the hands of a demon. None of these stories are happy, persay, but they can all be resolved, given some sense of finalty. Maybe even joy. And most of all, they are just that - stories. They aren't, you know, real. Animal Crossing is a philosophy. It's preaching that life is nothing but a bunch of work for pointless trinkets, just so you can survive and interact with other people, all of whom are frauds anyway who don't give a damn about what you say. And it doesn't end until you decide to stop playing. Sticking it on the shelf is putting yourself in a coma - deleting your memory card with all of your saved village data is analogous to slitting your wrists. And Nintendo has the balls to gloss this depressing little world in smiling faces and happy little penguins and porcupines, all blissfully unaware of their empty lives. It's not surprising, I suppose - Animal Crossing is entirely representative of the company that gave birth to it, a company full of crooks that puts happy faces with the likes of Shiggy and Reggie, but are just as devoid of soul as their competitors.

Maybe some mother could buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto for her kid, and that kid would learn that punching hookers is fun. Maybe that same mother could buy a copy of Animal Crossing, and give the same kid an existential crisis. I guess it's entirely subjective as to which is preferable.

Rating: Three thick-rimmed emo glasses out of zero, because nothing really matters anyway.

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