The type of snow falling now is the kind rarely seen in anything but movies: Large, round flakes fall slowly in uniform patterns and stick to the grass and pavement alike — perfect for making footprints and snowmen.
At this time of the night, all the shops are closed, and darkened storefronts display attractive arrangements of seasonal items. It’s a few days before Christmas, and the reflections of multicolored lights hanging from the snow-covered roofs of houses give the night is given a dream-like glow. The only sound comes from the snow crunching under my feet and the occasional acoustic guitar strum through my headphones. There isn’t much to do at this hour, but there’s a certain romance I feel wandering this sleeping town on a winter night.
Back in the real world, it’s hopelessly green outside this December 24th. Some stubborn, dirty snow clings to the corners of parking lots, and it’s entirely too windy and cold to lure me outside for any reason. It certainly doesn’t feel much like the type of atmosphere promised by all of the holiday films they’re showing on T.V. this week.
Perhaps this is what prompted my return to my digital town of Brahms, a place I used to come to daily with unwavering loyalty a few years ago. Returning to it now after so long yields a strange feeling of familiarity and foreignness: I’ve been here before, but it’s not quite the same as it used to be.
Everything is where I remember, but the occupants of the houses are all different. My own home is filled to the brim with cockroaches, and scruffy patches of clover punctuate the snow-covered ground over every square inch of the town…doesn’t anyone else know how to pull weeds in this place?
Clearly, this is not the same pastiche of clean modern living observed in Nintendogs: Your home and surroundings grow dirty and unkempt with neglect in this universe. Yet there’s something about the music that takes me back….
In Animal Crossing, each hour of the day has a different song associated with it. While not immediately obvious, there is a subtle difference between the jaunty music that plays in the afternoon and the more slow-paced tunes of the early evening, which finally blend into minimalist and sparse warm tones for the late night. These subtle changes in tempo and instrumentation give each time of the day a unique feeling that helps to lay the foundation of the basic game experience. It’s odd to hear a musical cue and think to yourself, “It's 3:00 a.m. already?” But it’s something that starts to happen when you play Animal Crossing enough.
It’s not difficult for a video game to evoke a feeling of nostalgia in me or many of my peers. As part of the generation who grew up with the Nintendo and Super Nintendo, it generally only takes a few 8-bit bleeps or a particular sound effect to whisk me back to a childhood spent in front of a television at my grandmother’s house where a small rectangle wired to a dumpy gray box were my truest definition of happiness. Although, there are very few games that take me back to a specific time in my life.
For example: The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker always makes me think of the summer before I embarked for a semester abroad in Australia. There was something about the feeling of the unknown and adventure the game captured so perfectly for me in those long, meandering sailing sequences; the feeling all humans must experience at some point when they stare at the blue horizon of a large body of water and feel — if only for a moment — a sense of wanderlust and romantic longing for exploration and discovery larger than themselves.
Animal Crossing is one of those games, and I'm still trying to figure out exactly why. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when you play, the time in your virtual town corresponds to the actual time back in the real world. As soon as I hear the opening chords of the start screen, I immediately recall spending some time every night in my bed after everyone else had gone to sleep and exploring a similarly sleeping town. Looking for something to keep myself busy in the real world led me to the game, and in there I found myself wandering around looking for people to talk to or items to find to keep myself busy…a sort of recursive loop that further assisted the blending of my cold, darkened bedroom in the winter to the snow-covered virtual town of Brahms.
For those unfamiliar with the game, it is essentially a small-scale world that you move into and inhabit. You can tweak the accessories your little villager dons, but compared to other "virtual world simulators," the player's choices of avatar customization are sparse. The real meat of the game is collecting things. Fossils, furniture, shirts, letters, decorations, fish, or bugs — almost everything you see displayed in Animal Crossing exists for the sole purpose of being collected, catalogued, and perhaps displayed in your virtual house: a sort of consumerist wet dream.
You can, of course, interact with the other villagers of your town, but most interactions inevitably lead to you getting more stuff. As someone who derives a strange pleasure from seeing lists of optional items in games checked off (recipes in Paper Mario, figurines in Minish Cap, Gau’s rages in Final Fantasy 6…the list goes on), there is an immediate knee-jerk draw.
But there’s something else about this game that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t even take long to see through the veil of your virtual town and identify Animal Crossing's hard limitations: Non-player characters start repeating strings of text interactions, the store in the town stocks the same items over and over, the same holidays and events come up every couple of weeks, and you keep bumping into the same visitors again and again.
There’s an unmistakable thrill about finding a new fossil or seeing a new type of bug that kept me coming back for much longer than it should have. Barring this, the general layout of the game is simply attractive and suitable to the type of bite-sized gameplay that makes you come back time and time again. Bored in the real world? Pop in Animal Crossing and see what’s going on there. It’s meditative just to pick some apples or make a snowman for a few minutes before going to sleep.
But the formula wears thin after awhile. For myself, I suspect it took longer than most before diminishing marginal utility finally made the pleasure derived from playing the game not worth the time it took to do so.
So why bother to even dig out the cartridge tonight? I knew pretty much exactly what to expect: All the same buildings and objects exactly where I left them (there’s that dapper shirt inexplicably buried next to the palm tree by the shoreline), villagers with new faces but who have one of the same five pre-selected dispositions and personalities as those who used to live there, a few letters in your mailbox from the town hall asking where you went, and a whole mess of weeds.
I haven’t really thought about it since I stopped playing, but now that I do I find myself thinking that it feels like even when the cartridge isn’t in your system, there is still a tiny world going on inside of it waiting for you to come back and visit in a moment of nostalgia, boredom, or curiosity.
And so tonight, I did.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!