I reappeared in Western again after another extended time away—73 months, or a smidge clear of six years, according to the grumpy squirrel next door who hardly recognized me—to find the town had grown in on itself. Beds of weeds and an army of trees covered and crowded the landscape, smearing my old digital getaway into a picture of neglect. Cockroaches skittered across the floor in the spacious two-story house I’d purchased with thousands of Bells.
Well, I asked myself while emptying the cluttered mailbox, where do I go from here? After years of residency, my Animal Crossing town reflected little of the effort I put into living there.
From instances of loneliness and separation in his life, game designer Katsuya Eguchi drew inspiration for an experience that would evoke the opposite emotions in players. When it reached countries outside Japan in 2002 as Animal Crossing, this simulation of life in a town of talkative critters connected with a broad audience, and sold millions.
The three tenets of the game, according to Eguchi, are family, friendship, and community. With Animal Crossing, he hoped to recreate a closeness to these social occurrences within the jumble of any randomized town. The game satisfies these ideals on the surface through light approximations of interaction and uncomplicated ways of keeping the player occupied. However, the sober themes these gameplay mechanics address remain a noteworthy backdrop to playing—and living—in the game’s world.
Animal Crossing’s promise of fresh beginnings and lasting distractions comes with hard lessons, delivered casually. Starting a new game identifies the player as freshly independent, aboard a train bound for a nameless town and a self-governed life. Nevertheless, social obligations, work, and looming debt soon intrude upon this idyllic stay. Animal Crossing’s surreal setting and humorous writing downplay these adult burdens, but a stay within its borders is not simply the whimsical escape advertised. What Animal Crossing’s palatable exterior suggests clashes with what day-to-day life by its rules entails, and there’s a gentleness to how the game breaks that somewhat unsavory reality to the player. Everything shown prior to move-in suggests a rustic life, free of obligation. While Animal Crossing can create such experiences, fulfilling that reality requires as much doggedness as it does wonder and enthusiasm.
With your house mortgage in his pocket, the game uses resident shopkeeper and loan animal Tom Nook to lead you into a kind of casual serfdom. From Animal Crossing’s first moments, it sets you into a routine of errands, renovations, and busywork for others, ostensibly with the motivation of bettering your own small life. With such expectations, Animal Crossing sets a sliver-thin line between participating and acting neighborly, and engaging in what amounts to passive servitude.
Activity and improvement are the constants in Animal Crossing, the threads that make each narrow experience in town matter in a larger context, and the game takes subtle measures to keep you invested in them. Most elements in the environment, often sweetened with beneficial hooks, nudge you to perform a task and play a role in the community. Leaving the house is the first thing you do when the game loads; noticing the blink and buzz of the mailbox is likely the second. The town message board sits steps from your door. When you initiate conversation, neighbors eagerly dump inane pick-up-and-drop-off assignments on you without a second though. With these and other methods, Animal Crossing fixates on getting you out and engaged with the goings-on of the simulation.
Tending to neighbors’ problems provides mutual benefit, if not necessarily mutual satisfaction. Work in Animal Crossing, though a far cry from legitimate labor, is framed as a means of keeping yourself up to the standards of a responsible citizen, and as an obligation to yourself. By bartering, conversing, and performing general upkeep about town, you justify your place, and inch closer to paying off segments of your debt. If the open-ended game has one identifiable objective, it’s the expansion of your meager house to a respectable square footage, a prestige you can’t attain without cooperating with the game’s standards of activity. If you don’t work—if you don’t stay busy—you don’t improve the quality of your life, or the town. If you’re not making end roads to these statuses, the game, through visual cues and the words of neighbors, pegs you as ineffectual, irresponsible, and lazy.
Animal Crossing operates in this authoritative way because it makes assumptions about what you’re willing to do to achieve the escape it offers, and because you have little choice but to take life there day by day. The bores and nags of living are ground down to more manageable levels by the routine of playing when time allows, a system Animal Crossing takes advantage of to keep you invested.
Making a new home amid strange creatures gives Animal Crossing grounds to include different quirks and personalities for each neighbor, though the setting also serves as the basis for a broader parable. As the fresh face in town, you have to work for everything you get. The rustic refuge sold to you is pretty, and you might do well by yourself there, but that’s how it gets done: by yourself. You have commitments—you have debt—and the onus is on you to work through them. Neighbors provide aid, but it’s on you to tap those touch-and-go relationships, internalize what you can, and preserve yourself in the game’s weird world. In creating a whimsical diorama of escape, Animal Crossing also forms one of responsibility, priority, and identity. That’s life, no matter what species the homeowners are.
Animal Crossing is innocent, in appearance and in how it treats the player. The burden in its responsibility comes only from the noncompliance of the resident. The game sets a guide to its idealistic experience through simplicity and routine, and is explicit about what it offers and what it expects.
Tasks are yours to prioritize, though what you do with your time on any given day is mostly irrelevant. To fulfill its idea of responsibility, the game only asks that you do something. Embracing a more involved citizenship is the path to getting the most from Animal Crossing, and all facets of accountability introduced by the game are designed to steer you onto it. The game’s intentions are good, but your view of its activities, as a vehicle for pleasant interaction or as needless hassle, ultimately determines what they represent.
Pulling weeds was the easy part; they sprouted everywhere, but returned to the inviting green texture after a single button press. Restoring the neighbors’ recognition of me came harder. Pulling their conversation strings for the first time in a while, I was greeted with a scorn that dissipated into a question of why I had stopped them to talk in the first place. Fine, they seemed to say, you’re back after a hell of an absence: what was it you wanted from me? Shouldn’t you be busy?