The quiet genius of Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Editor Christian Nutt, having played over 100 hours of the captivating new portable title, tries to figure out just why it works so very well -- and why he doesn't want to stop.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf has sold over 4 million copies in Japan since November.

I don't remember this franchise ever being quite such a big deal. The Wii version barely made a blip. While the original DS version, Wild World, was certainly popular, it wasn't this big... Was it? Animal Crossing talk is now widespread on English social media -- a phenomenon that Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said helped push it to its massive success in Japan.

Here's the thing, though. The game industry generally recognizes Nintendo games are high quality, but I'm not sure how often we really reflect on that. Animal Crossing: New Leaf deserves attention. It also contrasts interestingly against superficially similar games from other developers.

As I've played it daily for the last month, I've tried to think about what makes it special.

There are a few major things that I think really bear discussion.

The first is one that only really becomes apparent over extended play, and that's completeness.

There is always something to do in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. While there is a great breadth of content to explore, let's take fishing as an example: You can fish in your town's river and ocean, but it splits off from there. You can sell the fish for money, donate them to the museum, fish to fill up your encyclopedia with all of the fish in the game, or fish because it's relaxing and lets you unwind after a long day of real-life work. You can fish for the rarest fish, fish to fulfill a request from a townsperson, or fish because you want to display an aquarium with a shark in it in your in-game home.

You can fish with a friend in their town, too. And the two of you can fish, together, with different objectives in mind.

But here's the thing: this illustrates not just the flexibility of one single game system, but also the fact that your relationship with it can change over time. You can start doing something for one reason and change your mind. You can get interested in something, abandon it, and pick it up later when you realize there's another reason to do it. And you can set a goal that stretches into the future: since the game runs in 100 percent real-world time, some fish are only available in certain seasons of the year, for example, so a completionist would have to play for a long time to bag each and every one.

But completeness extends beyond the nature of the game's activities. It's that these activities often appeal to entirely different interests and instincts within players. You can also design outfits and fabric patterns -- which you can then share online. This has lead to, for example, recreations of outfits from popular characters in fiction, blogs where clothes that vastly outshine the ones Nintendo included are shared by their designers, and elaborately customized homes and towns with a totally original look and feel.

Town customized by popular Japanese ACNL blogger bibi

Gundam series outfits created by Japanese blogger Mojio

But you don't have to get that involved, and that, in itself, is maybe the best sign of the completeness of New Leaf. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want, from the game's array of activities, as little or as much as you wish to. And you'll suffer no real penalty for not engaging with any of them.

In my recent interview with producer Katsuya Eguchi, he put it like this: "We've tried to lighten the stress of town life and made sure it's somewhere players want to go, not somewhere they have to go." This is actually the most forgiving iteration of the franchise yet, and that's part of its success. You're offered up a big menu of choices, but very few things are must-do.

Even completionist anglers can fish one day, and then forget about it for awhile, because the time-scale is so large that there's no real benefit to focusing on one thing and one thing only, and there's so much to do that it's easy to get distracted, too.

Its openness is another key part of its appeal, then.

You can flip open your 3DS whenever you like and find something to do (though, like the real world, your options change depending on what time of day it is.) None of the game's activities are difficult on a basic mechanical level, and the penalties around your level of engagement have been all but erased from the latest iteration of the franchise. It's open for you to engage with or not: the developers are trusting that you'll find something you like and stick with it just because you like it.

Because of that, what I do on a daily basis has changed over the last month. And because of the depth of the activities, I now have multiple short-term and medium-term goals for what I want to do with my town in both small and large senses (as I wrote this, I had a piece of paper with a list of items I needed to order from an in-game shop to complete an exhibit I was building in the museum space. There are three more open exhibit spaces I could move on to.)

At first, I struggled a bit with the game's focus on currency and objects -- it seemed altogether a bit too consumerist. That's a bit of what I was trying to get at in my interview with Eguchi when I spoke of "values." But the more I play the more I realize that the currency is employed like experience points in an RPG: you have to play to earn then and then you put the points into the upgrade you want. It's a progress-limiter. And the objects you buy are really tools for self-expression, which is precisely how Eguchi put it.

That pull towards self-expression is a big part of Animal Crossing: New Leaf's long game, at least for me.

Openness can also be seen in the way the game continuously expands. I've been playing for a month, and my town is still growing, week by week, in both form and function: new businesses are being added, old businesses are being upgraded. And it's subtle, too; yes, there's an underlying set of rules that governs this, but it's not transparent to the player, and I think this makes sense. Unlike a linear game where you'd want to unlock, say, a weapon or a mode, these new discoveries and modifications help keep the game feel alive and evolving.

Here's an example of how it works. One of my townspeople remarked that I ought to talk to one of the shopkeepers, Sable, because she's really sweet once you get to know her. Now, she barely replies when you try talking to her. But if you're persistent -- like, speaking to her every day for a week persistent -- she'll begin to open up, and you'll learn a little bit about her back story.

Eventually, you'll unlock a special sewing machine that allows you to scan and share QR codes for fabric and clothing patterns. You might get discouraged, but the game will give you gentle nudges in the right direction. That's the right kind of design for a game like this. The developers want you to keep discovering new things in a natural, not a game-like, kind of way.

I've played this game so much and so frequently -- and sure, I've seen a great deal of repetition. But I still find something new almost every day.

It can't be overstated how important it is that there is no critical path in the game, and that there's barely even any sort of tutorial at the outset. The game shows you a couple of things you can do, but you're left to explore the depths on your own. The key, though, is that the activities are logical and map to the sorts of interactions that makes sense in the real world (fishing, collecting insects). The game's dialogue and special activities nudge you, every so often, into trying something new, meaning that if you play (and pay attention) you won't be stumped for long.

Another way it is open and expansive, of course, is in its online play. You can easily visit friends or have them visit you, and they'll bring new ideas and ways of expression to light; you'll see items you want, or get new ideas about what you might do from talking to their townspeople. If they've been playing for longer or concentrating on something different, they might have something in their town that you don't yet, and now you have a new goal.

And you want to do it all again in a day or a week because things have changed for them and for you.

Playing New Leaf leads to a chain of realizations and choices -- little synaptic fireworks. "I can do this -- and if I do, then I can do this -- but wait, what about this? I can do that now!" I can verify (to the extent that I am capable) that this process is actually creativity.

Something that I would say is generally underrated in games is anything like a realistic sense of place, and in Animal Crossing, that's expressed in a number of ways. As I've mentioned, the game progresses in real, 24-hour time and through the four seasons. But your interactions with the world also affect it: if you run too much, the town's grass gets trampled and disappears.

And about that running: particular attention has been paid to the way the character moves, making it fun to move through the world, adding heft to your movements. A lot of attention was paid to subtle details. This is typical of Nintendo games, but unusual for games like Animal Crossing, and it adds a lot to the experience because it puts you in the world, and, as Shigeru Miyamoto so crucially observed while developing Mario 64, running around in 3D space should simply be fun in and of itself.

Of course, this is all supported by truly fantastic art direction (that town is a town you'd want to visit) and sound design: The sound effects precisely root you in the world, and the music makes you want to stay, gently suggesting a mood. This all enhances the game's sense of place.

But just as important is the other kind of world-building: the developers know a great deal about the characters that populate the world, but you won't necessarily learn much of it. The crucial thing is that the development team knows it, and builds the world while knowing it. That work was worth doing even if it rarely or never is surfaced to the player. Read this blog post to get a taste of how deftly it's done on the few occasions that it is.

The Animal Crossing team absolutely, unshakably knows what its world represents, and yet it's mostly expressed through a very fine attention to detail. And the well-written dialogue absolutely underpins all of this.

I can't discuss this without bringing up the game's finely honed capacity for conveying mood. When I play the game late at night, in bed, with its subtle but moving music playing as I wander around the town and water my flowers or hunt for fossils I was too busy to look for until right before bed -- and I stop for a moment and the camera pans to show me the moon hidden among the clouds -- it may not be a real world, but it is a real treat.

A large array of simple activities that spin into complexity the more you engage with them, yet retreat into trivialities when all you want to do is kill a few minutes. A sense of place and purpose. The world of Animal Crossing will never, ever confuse you into thinking it is the real one. But that is, in the end, also the point. It is idealized even as it operates on principles we can all understand.

Thanks to all of this, the game keeps calling me back -- not out of a sense of obligation nor a crude "compulsion loop," but simply because it is whole and inviting. It is filled to the brim with the charm so often absent from our industry's products, and so undervalued. In the end, that is its bedrock.


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