In Thom's review above, he touched upon the fact that Animal Crossing is structured to be played for about an hour or two instead of the longer, sometimes marathon sessions that other games inspire. This type of slower, more leisurely game design is a very new way of thinking in our field, but seems to be establishing a firm foothold. Its ironic really, since many people typically associate videogames with short attention spans and instant gratification. Animal Crossing's play offers up some strong proof to the contrary and joins the ranks of an inchoate genre that I like to think of as "Patience Games".
The beginnings of this genre were quite apparent in two high-profile Sega Dreamcast titles: Shenmue and Seaman. Personally, I wasn't the world's biggest Shenmue fan, although the idea of being in a realistic town interacting with independent characters is a strong one in theory. In reality, I felt that the available simulation and item-collection elements didn't mesh well with the games plot and action-film motif. It ended up feeling like a rather schizophrenic experience.
Taking a different approach, Seaman had the incredibly interesting concept of strictly rationing interaction to replicate a living creatures month-long growth cycle, but it was totally hamstrung as a game. Once you had listened to the ugly fish's short diatribe each day, there was literally nothing to do except watch him swim the aquarium and occasionally feed him a bug. It was such a slow-paced experience that I don't know a single person who didn't cheat the hardware's clock and quicken the pace.
Seamans "non-game" status was avoided by increasing the number of activities available. While the games big events are far apart from each other in real-world time, there are a number of pursuits to enjoy at your discretion. If it suits your fancy, you're free to do some bug-hunting, fossil digging, fishing, redecorating, gardening, or a number of other things at any time you desire. In effect, the player can create their own personal goals and spend as much time as they want with the game despite the fact that there may not be anything to actually "do" that day.
However, while Animal Crossing incorporates elements found in both of those games, it has skillfully managed to avoid the pitfalls that plagued them. It's quite admirable, really. Unlike Shenmue, the point of the game is to simply live in the town. This avoids any motivation that would make players rush through as quickly as possible for the sake of progressing the story there isn't one. Following this logic, it creates a confidently casual pace where small and even menial tasks become enjoyable and interesting rather than time-wasting distractions.
I'm quite impressed with Animal Crossing's well-balanced design, but that's not to say that there aren't problems. As an example, for a disc being labeled a "communication game," the conversation and letter-writing elements of Animal Crossing were surprisingly frustrating, as Thom hinted.
After using the GameCube controller to tediously peck out a note, the reply back from the recipient was invariably something like "I don't understand what you said; speak English next time!" I quickly gave up on correspondence since every approach I tried met with failure. This is particularly galling since Seaman was able to implement a highly sophisticated voice-recognition system and actually understand human speech. With a powerful machine like the GameCube, why can't it analyze and respond to simple written sentences? Interactions with the towns population are little better. The number of phrases the non-player characters can speak is quite limited and you'll hear the same speeches over and over again until it becomes nigh unbearable. There's no real way to skip over them, so running errands and gabbing with your neighbors comes off as far shallower and less involving than it could have been.
Finally, as a warning to all the nocturnal gamers out there: if you're like me and tend to get your game on in the wee hours, you might want to consider setting the games clock so that it registers daytime as night and vice versa. The majority of events in the game happen between the hours of 9am and 6pm, with very few things happening after the virtual sun sets. If its inconvenient for you to be playing games at that time, you're going to be missing a lot.
Those annoyances aside, Animal Crossing is simply too unique to pass up. Besides all the things that Thom and I have already mentioned, the game also possesses qualities of stability and permanence that are rarely seen electronically. The fact that this quaint little place continues to exist even when I'm not in front of my television elevates it from being a simple videogame to an appealing alternate version of reality. Its a warm, safe and inviting place to escape the harsh realities of life in the new century. After turning on the GameCube, I can find neighbors that are friendly, earn my living just by casting a line into the sea, and no threats of physical or mental harm from any source domestic or foreign exist. Without getting into M-rated territory, what more could a person ask for?
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