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The Animal Crossing: New Leaf Letter Series

In this email conversation series, our UK editor Mike Rose and our news editor Kris Ligman join Christian Nutt for a wide-ranging discussion on the game. All three of have been playing New Leaf and each brings a different way of looking at the game, as you'll see.

There's already been a lot of ink spilled on Gamasutra about Animal Crossing: New Leaf for Nintendo's 3DS. We've run an interview with its producer, Katsuya Eguchi. Christian Nutt also wrote an in-depth editorial where he tried to capture exactly why he thinks it's such a well-designed game.

But we're back with another look at it because more perspectives on a game like this -- one that can stand up to the analysis -- are always useful. In this email conversation series, our UK editor Mike Rose and our news editor Kris Ligman join Christian Nutt for a wide-ranging discussion on the game. All three of have been playing New Leaf and each brings a different way of looking at the game, as you'll see. 

From: Christian Nutt
To: Mike Rose, Kris Ligman

I really loved the original Animal Crossing for Gamecube, but even the fact that I played it a lot never remotely prepared me for the amount of time I've devoted to this game in the last month, nor how much I both like and respect it. You know how sometimes before the year is up it's just obvious to you what your game of the year is going to be? Well, for me, it's Animal Crossing, and I think very deservedly.

I'd be curious to know what your thoughts were going in and, now that you've spent some time with it, how they align with the reality of having played it.

From: Mike Rose
To: Kris Ligman, Christian Nutt

Okay, so get this -- I didn't like Animal Crossing on the Gamecube. At all. I remember picking it up following all the hype, and both myself and my brother playing together in the same village -- yet he was clearly getting way more out of it than me. I just didn't get it; I'd boot the game up, look for some fruit, smash some rocks, talk to some ridiculous animals (and usually suggest that they greet me with swear words), and then turn the game off, wondering what exactly I'd accomplished, and whether it was a huge waste of time.

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So why did I pick up New Leaf, right? Well, it was all Twitter's fault -- I just kept seeing devs and journos gushing over the game with rambling enthusiasm, and I'm the sort of person who hates feeling like I'm missing out on something big, especially when it's to do with video games. For the first few days I regretted the purchase... but then something inside me twigged, and now I'm grabbing my Nintendo 3DS each morning, bombing around collecting everything possible, upgrading this and that, worrying about whether turnips prices will be kind before the end of the week... it's fair to say that I've caught the Animal Crossing bug (although I haven't handed it over to Blathers yet.)

I think the huge difference for me between this version and the Gamecube one is that it's handheld, such that I can immediately jump straight into it regardless of where I am or what I'm currently doing. With the original, I had to turn the Gamecube on, grab a controller, sit down, navigate menus, you know the drill. Here, it's a simple flip of the lid and I'm in. It does make me wonder whether I would have enjoyed the Nintendo DS version (which I dodged due to my hatred for the original game, as you'd expect).


From: Kris Ligman
To: Christian Nutt, Mike Rose

This is my first Animal Crossing. I skipped over the Gamecube entirely, and I always got the franchise confused with Harvest Moon, which I've also never played. I'm not sure why -- maybe I'm just not terribly into busywork games, which is how they were always presented to me.

And there is a lot of busywork to this, to be sure. Most of my morning routine in the game is canvassing the entire town for loose change and unwatered flowers. If this game is supposed to teach Japanese kids that the key to successful adulthood is the embrace of repetition, it has that down pat.

Like Mike, I was planning to skip over New Leaf as well, but the Twitter buzz lured me in. I think, in particular, Daphny David's tweets and retweets did it. I started seeing screencaps of animal villagers saying these shockingly subversive things (subversive for Nintendo, I suppose).

The one that finally sold me was of a villager saying something like, "It's 2013 -- boys are wearing makeup!" I decided there was more at play here than a cutesy town-building sim, so I picked it up right after E3, when I was heading up by train to visit my family.

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And, surprise, when I got there, two of my sisters had the game as well, as did my oldest nephew. Cue the four of us spending what should have been a lot of time spent frolicking out of doors instead harvesting beetles from the family living room. Seriously, we stayed up until 2 in the morning on this thing.

The local co-op really hooked me on the experience in a way long-distance play has yet to, which isn't to say I haven't been enjoying visits from internet friends and the like. The inclusion of the easy screencap function is great, especially.

Leigh Alexander wrote an article on Candy Box as more social than social games, and I feel like Animal Crossing: New Leaf operates on a similar wavelength: not so much because of how much you interact with others THROUGH the game, but BECAUSE of the game. As someone who routinely just checks out when it comes to online multiplayer-type experiences I find that I'm actually really loving that I can go do my own solitary things in this game, gripe about something on Twitter, and get a half-dozen commiserations in response.

I'm at 85 hours at the moment, by the way. How about you guys? 

From: Christian Nutt
To: Mike Rose, Kris Ligman

Well, I sailed past 100 hours a while ago. I'm not even sure where I am now. Somebody asked me if I'd been leaving my town open and idle so people could visit... and no, I haven't. I've been playing quite actively for almost all of that time.

One thing I wrote about in my editorial that interests me about the longevity of the game is the natural way in which your attention can shift to something new and engrossing for awhile, and then shift again to something else entirely. The game encourages this through its unlocking system (naturally, I got interested in QR code patterns when I got the QR code reader; I got interested in building a museum exhibit when I got the second floor exhibit space, etc.) But I think there's more to it than that.

I also have a funny story that illustrates one of the things that's so good about the game. I set up a bathroom in my house, and in the bathroom is a urinal (or to use the game's term, "men's toilet.") One of the animals asked if she could visit my house — and when she did, she critiqued my decorating skill, of course. She said, "This is an unusual touch, putting a men's toilet here for everyone to see."

She followed that up with something about how displaying it made it like a sculpture, and thus context turned it into art. My Animal Crossing game accidentally became the Dada Manifesto! I suspect she would have delivered the same spiel about whatever object seemed most incongruous with my house, but the fact that she chose that one put a huge smile on my face just for the serendipity of it. And I think those little moments of serendipity keep me coming back to the game. 


From: Mike Rose
To: Kris Ligman, Christian Nutt

I'm nowhere near as crazy as you guys; I've only put 15 hours into the game. To be honest, my attention is starting to wane -- a week ago picking up my 3DS was pretty much the first thing I did when I woke up and just before I went to bed, but the last few days I've not really bothered as much. Even when I am playing the game, I'm starting to grow tired of what it offers -- there's plenty to do, but it's all started to feel too much like work and grinding to me. Collect that fruit! Hand in those fossils! Catch those butterflies! The magic is definitely dying down, and I don't see myself playing it anymore in a week's time, or perhaps even in a few days' time.

The problem for me is that there isn't enough surprise or variety. The days when I boot the game up and something slightly different is happening are the best -- someone new is hanging around town and wants me to do something, or a new building has appeared -- but most of the time this doesn't happen, and I'm essentially grinding away to earn money to pay off my loan and build more structures. It's starting to feel a lot more like the awful free-to-play mobile games I used to dabble in, where I'd pick up my phone, harvest some crops, plant some more crops, and then get on with my day. Why am I doing this? Am I actually enjoying myself, or is it more that I feel compelled to keep going in the hope that I'll eventually get some real worth out of it? 

So the game had me for a little while, but its grasp is weakening and I'm fairly certain I'm on the cusp of slipping out. I just need a lot more substance to my game, and right now Animal Crossing isn't offering that at all. 

From: Kris Ligman
To: Christian Nutt, Mike Rose

I see where you're coming from a little bit, Mike. But, I don't know, I find the repetition part of its charm, in much the same way as the game uses grass erosion to teach you not to run everywhere. It invites a sedate daily ritual inasmuch as it's infrequently interrupted by little life events -- people moving in and so on. I don't think it's much of a stretch given its presence in other media like film and TV that routine is part of its aesthetic. Animal Crossing is as much about the daily rhythm of life as it is discovering new things in it.

That's not to say I think your criticism is invalid or anything -- far from it. I think it's a totally valid reason to check out. So many games are based around creating exciting, show-stopping kind of experiences that a game about pastoral quietude -- and which isn't using its shtick to foist microtransactions on unsuspecting Facebook users -- can register as a sour note even amidst the din. But, if you're into that aesthetic anyway (as I suspect both Christian and I are), it's all the more gripping.

For instance, the game just transitioned to midsummer mode as we're writing this. Someone I saw on Twitter made a remark like "great, now every day the game is going to sound like a wistful end-of-summer episode from an anime." And in a way I think anime (which is the Japanese pop culture most in the West are exposed to, at any rate) has a great way of instilling a sense of nostalgia for a past we never had.

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It's commonly said that Satoshi Tajiri and Shigeru Miyamoto based Pokémon and Zelda, respectively, off of their longing for their own youth exploring nature -- and I think that transmits not just through the culture, but across cultures. As we become more urbanized and these natural and small-town spaces disappear, we escape to a sort of virtual outdoors out of comfort.

In fact, I love how Animal Crossing also serves as a critique of the encroach of modernity. All the things you do in order to update the town take a toll on it: the bugs you collect get "recycled," the grass erodes no matter how carefully you walk, and the more money you spend the more Tom Nook and his children overhaul your quiet main street with oversized convenient marts and shopping centers... You start out the game escaping to this rural town and then you spend the whole time catching it up to the big city.

...Anyway, that's a bit of a breathlessly academic read of the whole thing. And to be sure I don't feel it's the ONLY possible interpretation. I'd like to think Christian started it by bringing up Duchamp, though! Actually, Ian Bogost has written a few things about the series, so recently I ordered a few (more) of his books and we'll see where that gets me, when you guys hear from me next.


From: Christian Nutt
To: Mike Rose, Kris Ligman

I'd go much further than Kris and suggest that you're failing to see the crucial distinction between Animal Crossing and "awful free-to-play mobile games," and this is a point I tried to make when I wrote my take on the game but which I think really deserves more emphasis. Those games are generally punitive in their design, because they need to motivate you to come back.

Do this -- or else. That is your only choice: make sure your crops stay healthy, or lose them. This game is about X and you had better take care of X now, or we're going to take your hard-won X away from you.

Animal Crossing does not have this constraint. Of course, flowers will wither or weeds will grow if you don't take care of them. But slowly, and new flowers grow even as old ones die. Fossils will stay buried if you don't dig them up -- but so what? If you don't care about digging up fossils, then don't dig up fossils. Do something else. Like everybody else, on July 1st my town got cicadas. I could collect them... or I could do as I have been, and just ignore them, and enjoy them as part of the scenery of the game's season cycle. Blathers can go without.

You have a lot of choices, and the game has no critical path to speak of. And all of the activities are of both the same intrinsic worth from a systemic perspective (you get out of them what you put into them) and also probably just as intrinsically fun as any other possibility you could be doing at the same time. The game is, in fact, intrinsically fun -- so it doesn't really need to scare you into returning.

Now, if you don't like any of the options that are open to you, then yes -- this is the wrong game for you and I can see how it would feel like all you can see ahead of you is a list of chores. But if you see a list of possibilities, it's the right game for you, conversely. To me, it's been a gently unfolding palette of possibilities I discover one way or another (through friends, through their appearance in my town, through social media...) That's what has made this so much more to me than the Gamecube game ever was.

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As for what Kris said, of course that's true. You can see Japan's taste for nostalgia in its pop culture all the time -- an obvious example would be Studio Ghibli's Porco Rosso, and if it's good enough for Hayao Miyazaki, it's good enough for anybody. But Animal Crossing can touch off real nostalgia, too, as in this essay from Jeremy Parish that's well worth reading if the appeal of the game still eludes you.

Both Tajiri and Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada have explicitly mentioned increasing urbanization as a motivation for creating their series, too -- Tokyo is a huge city in every dimension, and I think that it brings this out in creators in a way that doesn't seem to have any corollary in the Western game industry. (Incidentally, you should really watch Wada's Harvest Moon postmortem from GDC 2012 if you haven't. It's free.)

The truth of the matter is that Animal Crossing feels like a mini-vacation to me, not work. I play it to relax, and to escape. 

Mike, I'd be curious to know why virtual caretaking isn't satisfying to you in and of itself? Is it the stigma of social games, or because the gameplay actions are simple? When you speak of "a little substance" that Animal Crossing doesn't offer, I'm wondering — what are you looking for? 

From: Mike Rose
To: Kris Ligman, Christian Nutt

I think my comparison with the sorts of free-to-play titles I used to play was less a parallel between the design constraints, and more that I just feel like there isn't much to do. Actually, let me rephrase that: I could easily sit here now and play Animal Crossing for the next two hours, filling that time with activity, so clearly there is lots of do.

Rather, it's a case that what the game offers becomes increasingly repetitive and lackluster very quickly. I mean, I'm literally picking fruit from trees, swiping bugs and catching fish day-in, day-out, and while that did have a significant charm to it a couple of weeks ago, it's well and truly worn off now.

I now find myself each day grabbing the game, finding the rock that has all the hidden cash in it, and then turning the game off again, simply because I feel like if I don't grab that cash, I've wasted a day. And that, to me, displays at least vague parallels with the free-to-play constraints that you were talking about.

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Additionally, I see people on Twitter getting excited about the clothes they are dressing their characters up in, or the new patterns they have created, but none of that kind of thing is exciting to me whatsoever. I don't have a single creative bone in my body when it comes to art, drawings etc., nor do I have any interest in experimenting with fashion. I chose clothing for my Animal Crossing character on the day I got the game (a gas mask and American Indian headdress combo) and I've stuck with that. I can see why people enjoy it, but it's not for me at all.

So, yeah, I guess what I'm saying is that I stuck around for the game's charm and wit, the bright colors, and the general lack of men with guns, but after two weeks of what my brain tells me is incredibly simplistic, I'm ready to claim my early mornings back.

I read my original email to you guys back, and I noticed that while I said I had "caught the Animal Crossing bug", I never actually said what it was that I was enjoying. I think I realize now that I don't even know if I was enjoying it -- it feels more like I was hooked on collecting things and being part of something, and now that that feeling has died off, I can't really see why I was playing it in the first place. 

RIP Rave of the Dale. 


From: Kris Ligman
To: Christian Nutt, Mike Rose

The thing is, regarding the comparison to free-to-play: I don't find it inherently bad. Not the comparison, nor the charge that either is monotonous. Those games can be and often are, sure. And if you're of the sort of temperament where these sorts of daily routines are a drag or worse, definitely, at least some parts of Animal Crossing are going to be a disappointment.

I can't speak for anyone else but I find all the game's many tiny rituals relaxing. There's been some scholarly work done comparing repetitive gameplay and certain kinds of spiritual activity, for instance Buddhist koans which also draw a lot upon repetition. Not to say Animal Crossing is a religion (although some no doubt play it religiousLY), but when you take into consideration the sort of meditative state of mind it's possible to enter when you're doing certain tasks, whether it's this or Tetris or Bejeweled or whatever, I think the appeal of all of AC's little systems (and that of many F2P games) is quite clear.

Similarly, if you're not an adherent to whatever spiritual or meditative practice is being put on, it's easy to look at these repetitions and think "this is wasting time," "I've done this already," "when are we going to get to something new?" That was almost the EXACT reaction I had to much of BioShock Infinite, actually. If a game's verbs ring hollow for you, they're going to become less meaningful for you than the verbs that don't.

This is almost veering completely off-topic but I also don't believe there is anything inherently problematic about the "mindless clicking" of F2P and casual games. Zoning out can be great. It's the monetization and its ties with compulsion, as Christian mentioned, that make those titles problematic.

And, come to that, if we're just making the comparison to free-to-play based on the busywork aspect, I can think of plenty of "core" titles with the same amount of tedium. Borderlands, for instance, or pretty much any FPS, or practically any classic arcade title. Few games on the whole have actually transcended the "clear the screen" imperative, if we want to get bloody-minded about it.

Frankly I think all the reference to F2P does is serve as a dog whistle for "casual," "for women," "mindless" -- again, all supposing those things are negative or undesirable, which they're not, and all three of us know better. I feel like the more we harp on that the more we're doing a discredit to the game. And, yes, I include myself in that criticism, so I'm going to go ahead and move on.

Did I tell you guys I got StreetPassed by another ACNL player the other day? Not a colleague, just a random passerby while I was out on errands. To put into perspective, I live in Los Angeles and I can count the occasions I've StreetPassed someone in public on one hand, outside of events like E3 (and I hardly got any E3 passes this year either!). That, to me, says volumes more than all the buzz on Twitter ever could. 

From: Christian Nutt
To: Mike Rose, Kris Ligman

I can't really stand for the game being labeled shallow. Sure, the individual mechanics are not deep -- the fishing isn't in itself complicated or rewarding, and there's no mastery component to it -- but that is not the only form of depth that a game can take.

Rejecting the validity of any game that doesn't concentrate on depth of mechanics is, I think, not really a great idea. It's very limiting. I love Bayonetta -- that game offers incredible depth of mechanics, so much so that I can't even get close to plumbing them because I'm just not good enough at games to do so. But that is not the only kind of depth games could, or should, pursue.

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I guess what sticks in my craw is Mike's charge of it being "incredibly simplistic" -- the game is not simplistic. It's simple. There's a world of difference between the meanings of those two words. The fact that it is simple is what let me do this; the fact that it is not simplistic is what enabled me to do it.

And, of course, as Jeremy Parish described in that link I shared above, the game has tremendous thematic depth. I think that counts for a lot, too, and is exceptionally undervalued by the industry in general. HD games may have a lot of textures, but they don't usually have much texture. 

Kris' Borderlands point in specific is, I think, particularly well-observed.

One of the things that keep me coming back, also, is that I still find something new every time I turn the game on, pretty much. Sometimes these are small things, and they can certainly be infrequent, but the truth remains: there is always something going on. My pace of play has slacked off dramatically, but I still play every day, and it's not because I need to get money from a rock (though I do that too, of course.)

In the end what I am left with is this: how long can this go on? I don't see an obvious end to it. I'm sure it'll taper down and down, but for right now, I've forged a real emotional connection to my game, and I can still see uncharted territory, too. I've rarely been so satisfied with one single game for so long. 

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