The first thought that comes to most people’s heads when they think of the Animal Crossing series (if they haven’t played the games) is usually that it’s a cute game that has more in common with Farmville than, say, Gears Of War or something out of the Call Of Duty franchise. For the most part, you’d have a hard time finding anybody who would classify Animal Crossing as a series of titles for hardcore gamers (ugh) due to its bright colours, light and cheery music, and lack of a story structure or mandatory objectives. This is a false train of thought however, and as anybody who is a longtime fan of the series since the release of Animal Crossing for the GameCube in 2001 (the first title released worldwide) will tell you, Animal Crossing requires a tremendous amount of focus and diligence.
Animal Crossing hardly relies on your sense of hand-eye co-ordination and too many, this immediately disqualifies it as being any sort of game for a mature, “hardcore” gamer. Indeed, outside of the fishing and bug catching, there isn’t a whole lot of stress put on your ability to hit a button at the right time. This ignores the real challenge of the game though: patience. Animal Crossing is a waiting game through and through. One of its chief features is the real-time clock. Unlike other open world games like Grand Theft Auto or its many clones that utilize an accelerated time system which mostly functions as a means to determine whether streetlights are on or off and also move at an accelerated rate (e.g. 1 second = 1 minute), Animal Crossing has a true real-time clock. One hour in-game is one hour of real time. When you aren’t playing, time goes on inside the game. This leads to situations where playing at the late hours of the night leaves you with no way to buy furniture or sell the various things you’ve collected during your time in the game. You could adjust the game clock forwards or backwards, but your town will become overgrown with weeds and your villagers will leave after you ignore them for too long. The only option, if you want to “game” the game is to wait.
The developers of Animal Crossing seem to want to point out that anybody can focus hard and twitch their finger hundreds of times a minute at targets on a screen. What most people can’t do is plan ahead, make their own goals and take action. In Animal Crossing, these are the most important skills to getting anywhere in the game. You need to plan ahead to play when you have time in your real life, You have to decide how you’re going to go about making money to pay off your loans (more on that in a bit), you have to boot up the game every day and repeat this in order to achieve any sort of progress. In the world of Animal Crossing, the carrot and stick present in other games still exists, the proverbial carrot is just a lot smaller and on a much longer stick.
Animal Crossing is frequently touted as having “no objectives”. It’s commonly described as a game about boredom or relaxation. This is true to a degree but like most games, Animal Crossing has goals and objectives you must clear. The common “jobs” for the player in all games of the series are filling the museum, expanding their house, and paying off their loans. Filling the museum requires (without save file-ruining time travel) At least one year of continuous gameplay. Certain fish and Insects only appear during specific seasons and fossils can only be found at a rate of roughly 3 per day or less. Along with this, finding authentic paintings is a matter of sheer luck and anybody who has managed to fill their museum’s art gallery has a level of willpower that I envy. The other primary goals go hand-in-hand. When you first arrive in your town in any Animal Crossing game, you are required to purchase or build a house for an amount of money far beyond what you can afford. From then on, you are required (until New Leaf) to upgrade the size of this house and add floors for ever-inflating cost until you are eventually in a prohibitive amount of debt that must still be paid off. Raising the funds to fully expand the players house and also pay off the loans for this expansion consumes most of the time spent playing the game. In the later stages of the home improvement process, it’s a battle of attrition as you sell fish, bugs, and fossils for mere thousands of Bells (the in-game currency) while your loans total in the sub-million hundreds of thousands. This brings the “casual” nature of Animal Crossing into doubt. Sure, the game can be picked up and played for 20 minutes a day, but you’ll never make any headway on your museum collection or making enough money to pay back your loans at a decent rate. The only way to “clear” the game in a decent amount of time is to put in hours a day over the course of a year or two, more akin to a game like Skyrim than Facebook Peggle. That being said, I don’t know anybody personally who has cleared every part of the game. I, myself, usually run out of patience and abandon my games long before I ever pay off even my third house expansion or fill even one section of the Museum. Somewhere, on a lost GameCube memory card, my town waits for me to return and take care of these things as if I never gave up and started wasting my time on Fire Emblem: Awakening.
The lack of any storylines is also frequently brought up as both a positive and a negative point for the series. Like most other assumptions however, this is wrong. There’s a rich story in Animal Crossing, you just have to learn to listen to the people in your town. Other than the villagers themselves who over time develop friendships and rivalries and trade furniture and clothes while you try to pay off your loans and occasionally stop to interact with them, the background characters (as if there were any foreground characters) have stories of their own. If you put in the time to say hello every so often to the quiet hedgehog at the back of the tailors shop (it makes sense in context, trust me), you discover not only the story behind her life and why she’s so shy, but also that of the mercantile tanuki Tom Nook, who goes from owning a small shack selling a few essentials and one item of furniture to becoming a real-estate developer in the latest game in the series, New Leaf. Indeed, there is a story to Animal Crossing, you just have to take the time to listen and gather the clues over the course of the series. Unlike most games, you don’t figure it out at your pace you figure it out at the pace of someone else’s life, as it’s their story to experience first-hand and yours to find out about later. Contained is an important lesson about paying attention and getting to know the people around you.
Animal Crossing is one of the hardest games you will ever play because it requires you to have mental fortitude rather than an ability to shut out distractions and react over and over to the same stimuli and engage in simulated violence with no repercussions. Push villagers around or hit them with your bug catching net? They will get mad and through some manner of Video Game Developer Sorcery, everything they say will hit on a personal level despite being tiny 3D animals that speak in a weird gibberish language. Chop down all the trees? They’ll begin to hate the town (and you by proxy, as the town is an extension of the player) and move away. All acts of violence in Animal Crossing end with your friends leaving you. Any attempt to play Animal Crossing how you would play most other games ends with a condescending rebuke from the game itself. Running itself is an action for which the game extends a giant hand from the screen and wags a finger at you to say “No, no.” When running, fish disappear into deeper water, bugs fly or jump away, flowers are torn up, in the rain you slip and fall. You’re punished for trying to do anything quickly. Trying to catch the biggest fish you can find will frequently net you a Sea Bass, which are far from worth the trouble for the amount of Bells they net for sale. Furthermore, being too twitch-happy on the A-button while fishing will scare the fish away, you have to wait for them to nibble and draw the lure underwater before you can reel them in. Changing the system clock brings more terrible annoyances. In the end, it all comes down to patience once again.
Animal Crossing is a special type of game. For all it does to infuriate anybody who considers themselves a “hardcore gamer” with its forced slow pace, colourful and cheery “for kids” aesthetic and emphasis on diligence and patience over brute force or quick-but-satisfying acts of violence, It gives back by providing a challenge to the part of the brain that doesn’t often get much attention from modern entertainment. Animal Crossing requires that you set daily goals, stick to them, and be diligent if you ever want to “clear” the game. It also lets you do everything at your own pace and develop your own type of gameplay. Maybe it’s truly the first real-life simulator in an age when “realism” to most people means gruff stubbly men with big guns and boob physics. Animal Crossing wants you to believe it’s a casual game to play every so often, but that’s just so it can trick you into using your head for a few hours a day for a change.