This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Animal Crossing: New Leaf.
Imagine what it would be like to have your body taken over by some strange alien intelligence, but with you still being alive and conscious inside, silently screaming and staring out your own eyes as your limbs move by themselves and your voice speaks words that are not your own. Imagine then that instead of trying to undermine the human race or sex up your wife, your mysterious puppeteer instead made you do really innocuous things like bum around the house in slippers, do a bit of gardening, make some oat biscuits and go out of your way to avoid having sex with your wife.
That's basically what playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf is like, a weird mix of entrapment, Sunday teatime banality and staring existential horror, not unlike daytime television. The higher part of your brain can see how utterly asinine the experience is but it's just getting dragged along for the ride like a bunch of helium balloons tied to a wonky supermarket trolley. "Sure, lower part of the brain, a blue-tiled roof probably would solve all our constantly crushing sense of emptiness- OH GOD, STOOOP!"
Animal Crossing is a property that started its life on the GameCube. It was somewhat before its time because it was a Facebook game before Facebook games were a thing. The premise of New Leaf is that upon arriving at a randomly chosen coastal village of animal people, the locals welcome you as the new mayor they've been expecting, something you have no knowledge of but all the paperwork checks out and it even references you by name. Already I'm getting a creepy sort of Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner vibe from all this, like I'm going to wake up one night and find the koala man from two doors down standing at the foot of my bed maintaining unblinking eye contact as he unhinges his jaw and swallows a live guinea pig.
But now that you're the mayor as opposed to the random jack-off you were in previous games, you have a responsibility to manage the prettiness of the suburb and decide what new features to build for the benefit of a handful of random number generators in colourful costumes. And since all the random number generators are unemployed (unless faffing about is a job, in which case they're fucking workaholics!), you have to pay for pretty much all of it. Still, it's a useful way to launder the money you make from your illegal unregistered fish farm.
It's a very bleak experience. A life catching fish might seem idyllic, but do you think you're ever going to eat them? Have a little fish fry and piss up on the beach with all your pals? No, the moment your inventory's full, it's straight down to the pawn shop to flog the lot. "Oh thank you for this thoughtful gift of a lovely sofa, Goose-woman. It doesn't go with my place, but it would just look perfect at the pawn shop!" "Oh, what a beautiful butterfly, the morning dew beading like perfect jewels on multicoloured- Don't care, pawn shop! Gimme my bells, I'm in deep to the raccoon mob!"
The raccoon moneylender who gives you your home loan being the local mafia don is the obvious Animal Crossing joke, but what stuck out for me in New Leaf is that once you've paid off one loan, he doesn't upgrade your house and put you in more debt until you specifically ask him to. But that's worse! Radiohead put it best: "You do it to yourself, ba-dow-dow, and that's what really hurts". Go, run back to your newly paid-for house, lie upon your bed and listen to the ticking of the clock, you'll break! You'll be back at the house shop inside 24 hours. Paying off that loan was the only reason you got up in the morning, went fishing, exchanged the time of day with the local brightly-coloured dullards. Existing with nothing to strive for is no existence at all. "A life free of debt?! You naive fool. DEBT IS YOUR LIFE!"
The obnoxious thing about Animal Crossing for me is that I'm the kind of guy who likes to play a game for six hours and then hook myself up to a saline drip and push my eyeballs back in with the back of a spoon, but in this game everything gets implemented in tomorrow. All the fossils will grow back tomorrow. You can replace your broke-ass fishing rod tomorrow. We'll know if your eyeball cancer is responding to treatment tomorrow. It's successfully recreated the excitement of calling your Internet service provider at the weekend. I suppose you can just change the date on your 3DS, but the main hurdle in the way of that is that I can't be arsed and I wouldn't want the game to think that I care.
The average session runs out of shit to do in less than an hour and that's when you have to start coming up with games of your own to pass the time, like try to use the speed-up dialogue button without accidentally cancelling out of the conversation when a choice comes up, or Furniture Tetris where you rearrange your living room using only pushing and rotation. You win the game when you realise you could be having precisely as much fun with a plate of beans on toast!
And yet it's hard to stop playing Animal Crossing and now I will explain why. First it gives you something unique to you. The towns are all randomly generated (to a degree - there's no chance of getting a place where it rains mayonnaise on a bronze statue of Margaret Thatcher's left bollock. I mean the trees are in different places and you have a unique selection of residents. Whoa, Will Wright, eat your heart out!). Then it gives you that most cruel of gifts; responsibility. Only you can keep the weeds under control and do everyone's odd jobs. If you fail to check in for a while, you'll come back to find the animal residents sucking on the tearducts of corpses for hydration and giving each other Glasgow smiles over the last classy sofa in the pawn shop!
Thirdly, it has the Cooking Mama quality. I'm just going to say it; I enjoy playing Cooking Mama because gaming is an eternal quest for petty victories, and there are none pettier than being ridiculously overpraised by a warm motherly voice for completing simple tasks. It is basically the quickest way to score. Not much of a high, but easy enough to get that it doesn't matter so much, the video game equivalent of solvent abuse.
Finally, once you are more familiar with your town layout than you are with your mum's house and each day becomes a dull routine of pawning fish and birthday presents, anything that relieves the monotony becomes exciting. "Ooo, they're opening the flower shop, can't wait til tomorrow!" And my higher brain can only shake its head. "Look at you, Yahtzee Croshaw. The virile mountain lion of games criticism excited by a flower shop."
Don't start playing Animal Crossing. Animal Crossing doesn't end and can't be won. At some point, you're gonna get bored or catch Alzheimer's or get trapped by a house fire, and your town will be abandoned, prompting several random number generators in tasteless shirts to express silent disappointment at your screaming melting flesh. Might as well snap off the limb before it grows nerve endings.
You know, there's a theory that the popularity of violent war games in a community goes down the closer that community is to an actual war, in which case Animal Crossing is the best possible game for soldiers in World War I trenches. Maybe at the Christmas truce, they can all rise up and exchange Streetpass codes. "Ach, you vill reveal your secrets, you Britischer svine! At vhat time of year did you catch ze vhale shark?"
- Tends to prefer animal tossing: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Oh god why did I have to catch a fucking new kind of fish now I have to go all the way to the CUNTING museum again!
- Laugh at the cock on your shirt now for it marks you forever