Cute, comfy, calming.
While games have always had inherent loops or hooks to gameplay, the modern stock has started to blow things out of proportion.
Nearly every AAA experience is saturated with some sort of progression constantly calling to be chased.
Games, as a result, are much less about playing to play than working through endless checklists. It’s why a series like Animal Crossing, one of Nintendo’s most unique, never ceases to confuse in terms of its appeal.
Animal Crossing’s mix of real world connection, aimlessness, and mellowed atmosphere means its something that’s always flown in the face of well timed rewards and spikes of pleasure.
Mindfulness replaces an eye for what’s ahead and it’s all the better for it.
So…what’s the point?
Most of my time with the series is stretched between Wild World and New Leaf. The former is where my adoration truly started and is the spark of nostalgia that’s kept my interest since.
Being younger naturally meant it was easier to sink into the laid back atmosphere and forgo the goal oriented mindset that growing brings.
And therein lies the essence of Animal Crossing’s achievements as a game. There’s no definitive point and is arguably at its best when your just soaking it all in.
Yes, there are countless items to collect, animals to talk to, things to uncover, and ways to take the reign of your town.
But there is no right way to play.
You could decide that collecting fossils or fishing a bit everyday is your relaxing getaway.
Or you might decide you want it all and obsessively grind out bells (the in game currency).
The point is that while there are things nudging you in certain directions, you’re path is whatever you make it. If I had to pin Animal Crossing down to a genre I’d call it a life sim.
But it’s also just as much of an “atmosphere-sim” and it’s the reason why I’ve never stopped keeping tabs on the franchise. Through an eclectic mix of quirky dialogue, sound design, music, and a general emission of coziness, Animal Crossing is the digitized warm blanket on a chilly winter night.
The end result is a virtual world that’s welcoming in the truest sense and a place that serves well as a simple hang out spot. Like most of the greats of media, its simplicity and distillation of distinct moments is what allows it to tease out the most heartwarming of emotions. Animal Crossing is at once just within view and inexplicably out of reach in the way it evokes feeling out of the player.
Of course, it’s easy for any sort of artistic expression like this to get lost in the weeds when relying purely on abstraction, and the anchoring effect of collecting, creative expression, and simple gameplay loops prevents this from happening. The latest installment, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, only makes the traditional video aspects more prominent.
How things have changed in New Horizons
There’s no more story in Animal Crossing: New Horizons than in prior entries, but it’s certainly a more goal oriented game if you want to play that way. As incredible as I’ve found the experience to be, I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t feel as though Nintendo has come close to straddling the line of “too much”.
Similar to games like Fortnite or Destiny 2 (although at a much more pared down scale), AC:NH offers daily objectives to work towards. In return, you’ll earn a currency called Nook Miles that can be used to visit random islands, purchase items, learn crafting recipes, upgrade your character, and exchange for the game’s main currency (Bells). Some goals offer more of a return than others and there’s a whole host of milestone based objectives that function as achievements (think Xbox achievements or PS4 trophies).
The end result is a grind that never quite ends. But where the game really moves against the more open air nature of past installments is in the increased level of personalization via crafting. Isolated, the introduction of DIY recipes, gathering materials, and terraforming aren’t problems in and of themselves, but they do have the potential to make the game a more stressful experience if you let it.
Venture on over to Twitter or YouTube and you’ll see an infinite mix awe inspiring island creations, ways to feverishly maximize Bell earning, and exploit the game in order to attain the “best” villagers. You’re never forced to take part in any of these things – the game at most offers a slight nudge in that direction – but for those with obsessive gaming tendencies it can get to be a bit much.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons retains the pointlessness that the series is best known for when all is said and done. There’s a new perceptible pressure there, but I’ve still spent most of my time with the game leisurely. From its reliance on real world time to the often eccentric neighbors, Animal Crossing still allows you to play and define your sessions at your own pace.
Despite the potential for stress, it’s a game that still encapsulates a cathartic sigh and mellows me out with its thought out pointlessness.