Sunday, July 27, 2008


Animal Crossing: Wild World

What can I say about Animal Crossing that hasn't already been said? What perspective can I give that is uniquely mine? What story is left to tell?

I don't want to describe the game, exactly -- I should hope that it doesn't surprise anyone that the game involves paying off a mortgage by selling everything you can get your hands on to a sleepy-eyed raccoon. No, I'd like to get closer to the heart of the matter. Why is this game enjoyable? Why isn't it? Why do I keep coming back? Why do I stay away?

And the problem with that is that everyone's experience with the game is going to be different. There's so much going on in the game, and so little of it is truly mandatory to progress, that everyone who plays it is going to have a slightly different experience.

So. Where to begin?

Animal Crossing Can Be Very Absorbing

The odd thing about Animal Crossing is that it doesn't really feel like there's a whole lot of meat to it. It's not like there are massive dungeons to crawl or a 50-hour storyline to read through -- when you pare down your options to just the things that you want to accomplish in one sitting, it doesn't seem like you've got much to work with.

And yet, sit yourself down with it, and you'll find the hours just melting away.

Part of the reason is because the game flirts unapologetically with the hunter/gatherer nature that lurks inside us all. It doesn't matter what personal chore you're trying to accomplish when you set out from your house -- if you see a brown cicada perched on the nearby tree, you have to catch it. Same with the enticingly large shadow of a fish in the river. Or the little X-marked patch of dirt that you come across. The game world, small as it is, is constantly being restocked with delicious, live game, trembling in fear before the might of your bug net, just waiting to be exchanged for a paltry bounty at Tom Nook's.

And with your tiny inventory capacity, you'll be taking the walk to Nook's very, very frequently. And you'll be seething with jealousy at all of the treasures that you'll have to pass up along the way simply because your pockets are too stuffed to get more.

And if you can resist the urge to grind for bells, there are all of your animal neighbors who need your constant, unblinking attention. I've developed a soft spot for Lobo, a rude, cranky wolf who values fishing and his own masculine stench. I'm compelled to visit him every time I play, because if I don't, he might move away.

Even putting that aside, your random social encounters tend to be pretty entertaining. Your neighbors will engage you in fetch quests and fishing competitions and ask you to inspire them with nicknames and catch phrases. And, you know, it's something to do.

And after a hard half hour of work, you can spend some of your extra bells on an animation of your character sitting down and drinking a cup of coffee. It has very little impact on gameplay -- the only visible result is that it improves your relationship with Brewster, the barista, which seems to be limited to changing what he says when you talk to him -- and yet, I find that I've developed an addiction to virtual java. If a play session doesn't include a trip to The Roost, I feel like I've missed out. (And this game is pre-Godot, so I can't blame his influence.)

And I guess the personalization aspects are pretty cute. My character doesn't change his wardrobe very much, but why should he have to? He's wearing a bunny hood, a gas mask, and a homemade Melbourne Tatty shirt. Tell me that's not Animal Crossing cosplay in its purest, most perfect form.

You're wrong.

Filling up the museum is entertaining until you've done it and/or you get sick of trying to find where they hid the last five bugs on the list. Making a town tune is cute if you know how to compose music. K. K. Slider's weekly show is a must-see event. I'm glad that there are more interactive holiday events now -- the Flea Market days, in particular, are a lot of fun. I'm sure there's stuff I'm missing, but the point is that the experience as a whole is deceptively solid.

Animal Crossing is a Rather Inconvenient Game

The first point against Animal Crossing: Wild World is that it's just not a very good portable game. Now don't get me wrong, I'd rather have it portable than not, but it requires roughly the same amount of commitment that it takes to play a console game. Entering and exiting the game seems to take forever, and there's the threat of reprisal from Mr. Resetti if you have to power down in a hurry.

Okay, fair enough, but what the hell did they do with Sleep Mode? To preserve their precious little "real-time life adventure" thing, they removed the single most useful feature to ever come out for portable video games ever, the snap-shut sleep mode. If you close the system, the sound is killed and the screens go dim, but the power indicator stays solid green, suggesting that the system is still running (and still draining batteries) to keep its little world simulation running whether you're there to appreciate it or not. Certainly not the sort of thing I want to leave unattended in my pocket for an hour or two.

Second problem, the game needs a damned babysitter. Engrossing and enchanting as Animal Crossing is, my recreational hours are few and precious, and I want as wide a range of experiences as I can possibly get. Animal Crossing is a needy, clingy little game. If you put it away for a month, you'll come back to find that garden you planted has been replaced with a field of weeds, your house is crawling with cockroaches, and that shy little koala that you thought was kind of cute has been evicted, leaving behind nothing but a tear-soaked farewell letter.

I mean, god dammit, am I the only one who ever does anything in this town?!

Maybe this is a good baby step for little kids who need some exercise in dedication and responsibility before they encounter it in real life, but for an adult who has to practice it every god damned day and wants to pick up a video game to escape from that sort of thing, the whole experience is just a little unsatisfying.

And finally, Tom Nook's. Gosh, I really feel for the guy, working sun up to sun down and all, seven days a week without fail, always chipper, always amiable, but... would it kill him to hire someone for third shift? Thing is, Tom Nook's store is Animal Crossing. In a game where the biggest looming objective is to make money, there's not much to do when the location that transforms your activities into money isn't open. Sure, you can get some fishing in at 7:00am before you have to go to work. But then you'll have an inventory full of fish and nothing to do with them until 8:00am.

The game demands your dedication. You have to manage your life around what it wants. Not exactly the most polite recreational activity in the world. And what do you get out of it?

Animal Crossing Can Be Pretty Boring

Catching bugs and fish repeatedly doesn't sound like the most engrossing gameplay ever devised, and yet I'll do it for long periods of time as I'm playing this game.

Maybe it's because there's really not much else to do.

In the Gamecube game, the NES consoles were one of the most coveted items you could get. And I'm willing to bet that it has less to do with our undying devotion to Balloon Fight (though that's certainly part of it) and more to do with the fact that they were the only damned things you could put in your house that you could do anything with.

Let's look at The Sims. There was a game where you had to fill your house with furniture and appliances, but that served a purpose -- your simulated people needed care, and those things helped you achieve your goals.

In Animal Crossing, the majority of the pieces are just for show. Yes, you can stack things on tables, lamps will light up a room, you can make your character sit in a chair or lie down on a bed, cupboards can be filled, and certain objects like televisions can be turned on and off. Woooo. The point is, none of this crap has any point from a gameplay perspective, and none of it really does anything entertaining enough that you'll want to bother.

I dunno, maybe it's just because I'm a guy, but playing Virtual Doll House just rapidly loses its appeal for me when the doll house you've set up becomes a stage for a single character wandering around purposelessly. As my mansion grows ever larger with every successful loan payment, the emptiness weighs in on me. I live there all alone. No one to share my sumptuous Cabin decor with. An upright arcade machine quickly loses its charm when you're the only person in the arcade.

So one of the biggest features of the game -- the acquisition of furnishings -- is completely lost on me. I rarely go to Nook's to buy -- only to sell. I'll accept or purchase the things that my neighbors offer me strictly as an act of goodwill; everything I get from them goes to Nook's or attached to a letter and given to someone else. I guess I could play the Happy Room Academy game, but the feedback is too finicky for me to really feel involved in it. Or I could look up a Feng Shui guide and fill my house with lucky charms, if I wanted my house to look like a pile of randomly arranged crap. Not that my current organization model works much better -- just dump at random the things that managed to catch my interest which I haven't bothered to sell off yet.

... Which might explain why my real house looks the way it does, come to think of it.

Anyway, the postal system. When I first heard about Animal Crossing -- you know, back when it was a Nintendo 64 game -- I was smitten with this idea of postal exchange. You can send a letter to one of the in-game characters, and he or she will write back to you! This was mind-blowing stuff! And...

Well, it wasn't what I was expecting. Rather than try and implement some sort of chat bot system, the good folks at Nintendo opted to reward letter-writing players with random messages. As cute as some of them were, it got old pretty quick. There's just nothing rewarding about using the crummy keyboard interface to knock out a four-line letter of any substance whatsoever only to receive the same old messages you always get from that character in reply.

So after a day or two of fishing and bug hunting, I start to get this creeping feeling that there's really nothing useful to work toward in this game.

And Then It Went Online

Yeah, boo hoo, friend codes, etc. Look, I had my character hacked in Phantasy Star Online, I really don't mind that Nintendo is taking steps to protect me from jack asses who think it's funny to turn other people's town gates into museums. I don't mind being restricted to playing with people I know and trust, and friend codes, imperfect as they are, are at least tolerable.

The real problem is what happens once you're all connected. Basically, it's exactly like playing alone except there's another player character wandering around. And you can chat with each other.

So it's a lot like a super restricted chat room. Where you can fish.

I dunno. I just don't get it is all.

So What the Hell?

The game doesn't hold up well to in-depth analysis, but it's fun to play. It's not especially rewarding, but it can suck you in just the same. It can be hard (for me) to shoehorn a play session into my schedule, but I'm generally pleased when I can.

So is Animal Crossing, in the end, a good game? Is it worth owning? Yeah, probably. Good night.


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