Saturday, January 23, 2016


Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer

Happy Home Designer was never really on my radar.  All of the early press made it sound like it was just some throwaway minigame to encourage people to buy the new amiibo cards.  I even reported, erroneously, that the game would be a free download, like amiibo Tap! on the Wii U.  A version of Animal Crossing that's stripped down to designing houses for the animals?  As someone who considers the house decorating the weakest aspect of Animal Crossing, this doesn't even sound like a game, much less a full retail product.

And then I tried it.

By the time I was done designing Goldie's "forest of books" home, I realized that this game was scratching an itch I didn't even know I had.

See, I have long had a fascination with creating spaces, digital or otherwise.  That's the real reason that I was interested in games like Sim City or Rollercoaster Tycoon -- I wanted to make worlds.  I wanted to imagine people living in them.  I wanted to go down inside them myself.

And that's what this game allows you to do.  You open up the Animal Crossing furniture catalog bit by bit, and you use it to create homes.  And when you're done, you can dress up your character and the animal characters like little dolls and make them have tea parties and stuff.  It's a little world that you make for your own amusement without having to worry about nonsense like scores or game currency.  And that speaks to me.

So why do I enjoy this so much while I hate the interior decorating in the Animal Crossing series proper?

Obviously there's the million little conveniences they've added in.  Animal Crossing has the interface of an adventure game, so getting anything done requires you to move your character around the world and muck about with inventories and shops and so on.  Happy Home Designer, in contrast, gives you a magic tablet computer that gives you instant access to everything.  Search the catalogue by tabs or keywords, drag and drop items, change colors with the tap of a button, design and apply custom patterns -- you're like a tiny god.  And, of course, you get access to entire furniture themes all at once.  No more waiting weeks or months for the last piece of cabin furniture to go on sale so you can FINALLY finish the room you wanted.

Then there's the fact that you get more than one home to design.  The problem with Animal Crossing is that there are dozens of different furniture themes to try out, but you only have the one house.  If you want to try something different -- such as the various holiday themes -- you either have to store or sell all of your things.  And if you want to go back to a design you like, you have to repurchase and drag everything out all over again.  But in Happy Home Designer, you can just crank out house after house to your heart's content.  Let one villager keep your favorite design while you move on to try the next one.

But probably the most compelling thing about this game is that you're actually given a concrete goal to achieve.  Every time you meet with a new client, they give you a vision -- they want a game room, or a sidewalk bistro, or a play room for their children, or a gothic bedroom, or a pirate's hideout.  Then they give you three pieces of furniture which must go into the design and a tab in your interface with suggestions for appropriate accessories, although of course you're allowed to use any furniture you've unlocked.

This is actually really cool.  By giving you some concrete guidelines to follow, they stir up your brain and make you think of possibilities you might not have considered otherwise.  Left to my own devices, I'd probably just dump a hot tub and a sushi bar in every home and call it a day.  But... a gothic bedroom?  With a dollhouse, a bed, and a cabinet?  Well, this is probably going to be a bedroom; what's a good combination of wallpaper and flooring to match this furniture?  And we'll need a lamp, a clock on the wall, this will probably be a little changing area here, so we'll need a vanity, maybe a small rug to set it apart from the rest of the room... what about some music?  An old-fashioned phonograph seems appropriate.  And let's set up a little table where the doll house can go.  And maybe a plant next to it to give the room a little color.  Not very flashy, oh no, this is a gothic bedroom.  And what about a place to sit?  Everyone needs a little coffee nook.  And so on.

Of course, not every design trips my interest like this.  An alligator requests an indoor jungle, and gives me a bunch of cardboard trees and bushes, and it's like... what am I supposed to do with this?  So I just spread them randomly around the room.  But there are some good requests in there too, and lots of opportunities for me to flex my style muscles to try and come up with something that seems both functional and visually compelling.  I can spend half an hour to forty-five minutes on a single home for no reason other than I'm having a great time weighing all of my options and putting little touches and flourishes on everything, even though there's no gamey "point" to it.

In fact, people have complained -- correctly -- that there's no real "game" here.  Your designs aren't critiqued in any meaningful way by the computer, and you aren't under any pressure to save or earn money.  And all I can say is that I don't want there to be a game here.  I don't need to grind for currency for hours so that I can afford the idea I have in mind.  I don't want to have to worry about whether my designs are following the rules -- I just want to make something that looks nice to me.  I remember all of the spam I used to get from the Happy Room Academy back in the original Animal Crossing, and how upset they'd get when my furniture wasn't all in the same set, or I was missing a piece I didn't want, or whatever.  Computers are not yet very good at aesthetic choices.  I'd much rather come up with something that I think looks nice and post a picture on Miiverse to see how other people like it.

Another complaint is that this game would be better served as an update or DLC for Animal Crossing: New Leaf instead of a completely separate product.  And... I'm not sure how to respond to that.  I like Animal Crossing for what it is -- a sort of life simulation adventure, with all of the hassles that come with life, such as working for money and moving your furniture around by hand.  And I like Happy Home Designer for what IT is -- a virtual doll house where you can do anything you want with no restrictions.  To put the two together would sort of dilute their ideas -- you would either put this overpowered magical ability into a game that's more or less supposed to be about real life, or you would have to take the fun out of HHD's magic wand by making the player worry about costs and limitations.  I'd like to see some of Happy Home Designer's ideas blend into the main series -- particularly ceiling and exterior decorations -- but I think I'm okay with them being two different games.

And then there's the fact that this game isn't really Animal Crossing.  While you're building this town and meeting all of these characters, it's natural to expect that you're going to have the same sort of experience, where you can meet your favorite villagers every day and have all sorts of conversations and stuff together, but this game doesn't have the same sense of a solid reality that the main series has.  The town has a map, and you can select the location for a client's house, but it's less like you're putting the house in a real, physical location and more like you're selecting a predetermined land mass in Sim City.  And I actually think that's kind of cool!  There are plenty of unique places where you can set up a home, with ponds and bridges and overlooking cliffs and even train tracks running past, but a lot of people are put off by this sort of disconnect.  You're not building and exploring a single, cohesive world -- you're just making these little islands floating in the ether.

In fact, the question arises:  What's the point of making all of these houses?  What can you DO with them?

Well, machinima.

See, probably the biggest disappointment with Animal Crossing is that you can't really do anything with your home.  It's not like The Sims where you surround yourself with furniture that can do things -- it's mostly just there for show.  I don't care to decorate my home because I don't spend a lot of time in it.  There's nothing to do there.

Happy Home Designer ups the ante here.  Slightly.  A lot more pieces of furniture give you some sort of interaction animation, like pulling a book off a shelf, or pulling out a fork and knife when you're seated at a dinner table.  There's still no real point to it, but it gives you just enough of a visual cue to make the world seem like it's alive.  And it's not just your own character -- you also get direct control over the animals.  You can put them in front of a radio and watch them play a tambourine.  You can sit them on a porch swing and watch them sip a cup of coffee.  You dress them, pose them, and take a picture.  And then you tell your story on Miiverse.

Seriously.  People are using this game to write and tell little Animal Crossing stories all over Miiverse.  If you play the game for long enough, you can't help it.  The game gives you just enough stage dressing to get your imagination warmed up, and then you start thinking about, oh, here's what this sheep is doing today.  It doesn't try to simulate your characters' lives the same way Animal Crossing does, but that's fine, because you can do it just as well on your own.  And that's potentially more powerful than any computer simulation could ever be anyway.

Do I have any complaints?  Well yeah.  I've designed about twenty houses -- plus shops, a school, a hospital, a concert hall, a hotel -- and I have to admit, I don't have the same fire that I started with.  When I first began the game, I couldn't wait to unlock more options and build bigger houses with larger floorplans and more rooms, and now that I have the option to do it... I feel like I'm kind of burned out.  After a while, it starts to feel like I'm just making the same placement decisions over and over, just changing out the furniture themes.  I don't want to just drop a bed and a rug and all it a day.  On the other hand, trying to meticulously detail a three-room home (plus the surrounding yard) for nearly an hour starts to wear on my patience, so I end up opting for smaller, simpler projects.  It's not really a game that holds up well to marathon play.

All this chattering and I haven't even mentioned the amiibo features.  Considering that this game was developed largely as an excuse to print a new series of Animal Crossing cards, the amiibo features are pretty subdued.  I imagine that, at some point in development, someone stepped in and said, "You know, we want to sell to people with the old 3DS too -- maybe let's back off on the amiibo stuff."  The cards are used to phone a character and offer to make a home for them, but there are plenty of requests to do even if you never use them.

There's basically two things the amiibo are good for.  One is that the special NPC characters -- Tom Nook, Isabelle, K.K. Slider -- will never come to your town unless you scan their amiibo.  The other is that you can summon any character to visit the room you're in, which is useful for creating group photos with your favorite animals.  Happily, the game doesn't matter if you're using a card or a figure, so if you've already got Isabelle and Digby with your copy of amiibo Festival, you're set to go.  Neither feature is really what I would call a killer app -- it's just kind of a little treat for people who already collect the merchandise and want it to cross into the game in some way.

All in all, I'm very happy with Happy Home Designer, but that's not to say I would give it a universal recommendation.  It's not a game -- it's a doll house.  It's probably going to appeal more to people who are already Animal Crossing fans while simultaneously alienating Animal Crossing fans who are looking for a more robust life simulation adventure.  But this is a game where I can build a winter resort lodge for an African wild dog and then jam on his guitar while he dances all night.  If there's anything about that idea that trips your interest, give it a look.  It might surprise you.


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