If wake up in the morning, I check my mail to see if I’ve got any messages from my friends, I see who’s been talking about what on the discussion board, I head out into the world to see what people are going to say and how my world is different today…
Animal Crossing is one of the latest games to come out for the Nintendo GameCube. Anyone expecting bosses and bonus levels should be warned, as Animal Crossing is best described as a simulation of life in a small rural village. But it has many aspects that separate it from the simulation games that we are used to seeing and which make the game a unique experience. Uniqueness is not a good enough reason to play a game, however. Luckily, Animal Crossing is not merely unique, but also highly addictive and entertaining. In this case, the unique experience is refreshingly simple on the surface but surprisingly complex in its depths.
Interaction in Animal Crossing takes the form of controlling a character moving into a town and then settling down to create a life. The player works for and relates to the animals that live in the town, while collecting items to use in their ever-expanding house. The town also has a number of public areas, including a police station, a shop, a museum, and a train station that the player can use to travel to other towns.
Graphically, Animal Crossing is simple and bright, involving lots of primary colors. The simplistic style and bright visuals match the gameplay and overall feel of the game very well. The general impression that is created is that of a child’s fantasy village, a fantastic youth’s vision.
The official Nintendo description of Animal Crossing labels it as a ‘Communication Game’. This refers to the interactions of your character with the NPCs as well as other players who also might be living in the same town. This communication is done through talking with the NPCs and sending and receiving letters from both the NPCs and the other players. The Animals will give you plenty of little jobs to do and will reward you upon completion with various items. What’s more interesting is the ability to send letters to the Animals and receive replies. It’s entirely possible to start a correspondence with a villager that will span a dozen letter exchanges or more. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. The AI for the animals’ letter-reading abilities is more than a little arcane, and it seems often to be a shot in the dark as to whether the animal will even understand what you’ve written. The most frustrating element of this experience is ‘typing’ with the controller, where writing a simple sentence can be quite a long process.
A description of Animal Crossing as a ‘pointless game’ would be, well, missing the point. What people mean when they say that is that there is no ‘win state’. The concentration is on how the player interacts with the system of the game world, and how that game world changes over the course of time. Indeed, reviewing this title so soon after its release risks missing many of the significant aspects of the gameplay, as they are deeply intertwined with the concept of playing the game over a long period of time.
One aspect that really helps enhance the experience is the multi-player. Although you cannot be in town with another player at the same time, you can exchange letters and gifts with the other players. Sometimes on a special day, it can be quite important as to who gets to the game first, especially if rare items are at stake. Another aspect of Animal Crossing allows you to travel to other towns if you save traveling data onto a memory card, or have another town in the other slot of your GameCube. Traveling to other towns allows you to converse with other animals, import fruit that your town might not have and allow animals from your town to move to the town you’re visiting.
Animal Crossing can also use several of Nintendo’s other peripherals to enhance the game. Although none of these activities are essential to enjoying Animal Crossing, it is nice to have a game that takes advantage of some of Nintendo’s neat little toys. However, the line is sometimes crossed in terms of pandering, as often villagers will come across as shills when the extol the virtues of various Nintendo products.
The nature of Animal Crossing’s gameplay has engendered a widespread comparison with the most popular videogame of all time, The Sims. Both The Sims and Animal Crossing are concerned with creating a simulated world. Not necessarily a representation of the real world, but a system with logical connections. The enjoyment that the players derive from the game is based on their ability to interact with the system. Figuring out how the system works satisfies the player’s curiosity. Developing the ability to manipulate the system satisfies the creative urge of the player. This is crucial for a simulation-style game. The aim is to present a system that is simple enough to be initially understood, yet complex enough to challenge the abilities of the player.
Animal Crossing does a good job in this area because the world is so accessible. Once the player gets used to navigating their town and discovering where the various animals live, there’s almost no way to become ‘stuck’ in the game. Once the player has figured out how the game works, there is a lot of work still to be done; the player must discover how interacting with the simulated world changes it and what secrets remain to be discovered.
Animal Crossing also distinguishes itself from The Sims in how it presents itself to the player, that is, who or what the player controls. In The Sims, multiple characters are controlled, but in an abstract way. The beings are capable of independent actions and will often not do exactly what is wanted. In Animal Crossing, the player is in absolute control, but of only a single character; the non-player characters (NPCs) are uncontrollable - and often unpredictable. Although the game is still played from the traditional camera perspective of an eye in the sky, the gameplay largely eschews aspects of the ‘god-game’ genre. The only method the player has of interacting with the game is through the actions of a singular character, creating a more focused experience.
The difference that most clearly separates Animal Crossing from just about every simulation-minded game ever made, is that real-world time passes in the game. In most simulations, time may pass, but only when the game is being played. In Animal Crossing, the clock keeps ticking away no matter what. This means that if you take 34 hours off from playing Animal Crossing, 34 hours have passed in the game world. Even as the game sits unused in its case, the illusion is created of activity occurring within the game, unseen by the player. This creates a higher level of immersion for the player. Because the game is affected by events that occur without the player being present, an illusion is created of an independent game world; like the real one, this world hurtles on regardless of whether you decide to sleep in. Indeed, there are many aspects of Animal Crossing that make it harder to use metagame techniques to manipulate the game world, further cementing the illusion of a separate existence.
Overall, the game could be described as ‘simple’, or at least on the surface.. The gameplay is pretty basic. The A button does pretty much everything, with spot duty for the other buttons on the controller. It is fairly easy to see that the game was designed with the GameCube controller in mind, and the control will never become an issue for a player. This is helped by the fact that the game doesn’t require much in terms of motor skills in order to play it. The only notable exception to this rule is when the character is fishing, which is a fairly simple reaction test.
The aesthetics of the game are well-designed and consistent. But there are some minor flaws. Animal Crossing is an upgrade of a game originally designed for the Nintendo 64, and it shows. The game is nominally 3D, but there is very little in terms of camera control and rotation. The game plays basically like an isometric title, and it’s easy at times to figure out how the grid runs on the terrain. Too often are bit-maps easy to spot, especially on the faces of the characters, and the texturing is a little blurry. However, the graphics are very consistent. Nothing feels out of place and everything fits together well. The music is consistently decent, with a couple great tunes. Many of the pieces hark back to a simpler sound, and the MIDI-keyboard light jazz that powers the soundtrack feels appropriate without being aggravating.
A complaint has been that the game reveals too much of its secrets early on. It is possible to maximize the size of your house within two weeks or less of starting to play, and the speech of the animals does repeat at a fairly even rate, but there are many aspects of the game that can only be unlocked through time. Even after playing the game nonstop for weeks, the player will only have a small percentage of the items that you can collect in the game. Many of the collectible items are available only at certain times of the calendar year. Add in the seasonal events, some of which only occur once a year, and Animal Crossing becomes a game with serious legs in terms of replayability.
The deepest and most complex aspect of the game is the feng shui rules that are applied to how you arrange your house. Every couple of days, you receive a ranking of how stylish your house is, and you’re encouraged to try and collect like items and experiment in how you arrange your rooms. Although this may seem like a fairly minor aspect of the game, it is the most involving and challenging aspect, and something that you will be spending a lot of time with the longer you play the game.
And as I’ve stated above, playing the game is a unique experience. Not only because of the new takes on simulation, but because the game is designed to be played at a different pace than most video games. The game is intended to be played every day, usually only for an hour or two, as opposed to the multi-hour sessions that are usually devoted to videogames. Because of this, somebody expecting to be able to play Animal Crossing for five hours straight will probably get bored at some point. However, unlike other games, you can play the game for eight straight days and have a different experience every day.
The unusual design of Animal Crossing means that there are going to be two basic reactions to the game. There are going to be people who love it, and those who hate it. It is true that the gameplay is often overly simplistic, and the amount of repetition can be pretty daunting, especially in terms of dealing with the NPCs. Some players will simply be unable to get into the collecting and small discoveries that really drive this game. Others however, will find the joyous nature of the game and surprisingly deep internal systems a constant delight.
When the sun goes down and everybody heads off to go to sleep, I either try and find fellow night owls to talk to, or I head back to my house to relax and then fall asleep, wondering what new things the next day will have in store for me…