Nintendo’s Animal Crossing is, fundamentally, a game about socialising. Why I have played it to death across three platforms so far is something of a mystery to me.
I can’t remember why Animal Crossing piqued my interest back during my first GameCube era, but I imagine Edge magazine or something of that ilk had harped on about it, and there was an ongoing and intriguing battle with Nintendo Europe to release it for these territories — hard to imagine now, given the massive success of the franchise, but Nintendo just didn’t think it was worth the effort of localising it for Europe and spent years insisting that that was the case. An Australian release made it playable without region-lock annoyances if you were willing to stump up the £50 it went for on eBay, which I was, because the harder it is for me to play something, the more I want to. I’m that sort of fool.
Back then, the idea behind the game was that up to four people — most likely a family — would share one memory card, and although you couldn’t play simultaneously you could send letters and gifts to each other and the animals would reference other players to you. Not that that was how I played it; my village had one player, and that was me. At the time I lived with three non-gamers and the GameCube stayed strictly out of their reach. I tried to play Wind Waker in front of them once and Christ, I may as well have been masturbating in the living room for all their confusion, fear and disgust at what I was doing.
I got a solid few months of play out of the GameCube version, playing largely as an crazed isolationist, knowing nobody else that might understand or appreciate the game. I think at one point I started playing as a different character in addition to my regular one but it got too weird seeing the animals talking about me behind my back and I started feeling like I was on Substance D. I furnished my home as best as I could, regardless that I was the only one that would see it. I managed to get a few NES games that were built in, and played those by myself as well. One of my fondest memories is of going to Brixton one night to see the Pixies on one of their four reunion tour dates, and getting home at 3am to find a ghost in my village that could be made to do all my weeding. I mean, the band was good as well, but my village really did benefit from that weeding.
Years passed, and the DS version of the game arrived. This time I was a little more sociable, congregating once with three friends in an East London cafe over Turkish coffees and fry-ups to awkwardly and self-consciously visit each other’s villages and pillage the trees, and a second time with a friend in Islington’s ghastly and inexplicably-popular Breakfast Club. If you’re not familiar with the sheer awfulness of that particular chain, just visit their website. What tremendous cunts.
But, I’m not writing about the Breakfast Club, despite feeling like I could devote at least three paragraphs to the fact that they have a menu item named “WHEN HALOUMI MET SALAD WRAP”. No, Animal Crossing. When Animal Crossing hit the DS, the social features made a lot more sense just because it was so much more practical to meet up with people with your DS than giving away your entire village to someone on a memory card. And…it really was socialising on my preferred terms, i.e., infrequently, and by appointment only; I even found the hassle of exchanging friend codes to be a delightfully prophylactic measure.
Like everyone else, I skipped the Wii version. I understand that it came with a microphone to allow you to speak to your friends online, if you can imagine something as wonderfully bizarro as more than one Wii in the world being online at any given moment.
Now I’m playing it again on the 3DS and it’s pretty much the same game again, but inexorably refined as technology and society has caught up with it. Brilliantly, they’ve made it possible to enjoy the social features without ever having to speak to another human being — I just have to walk around with my 3DS; after an hour or two at a Japanese pop culture exhibition I came away with about 20 visitor notifications and I never even had to make eye contact with anyone. Then there’s the addition of the “Dream Suite”, which allows you to visit copies of other people’s villages without ever having to befriend them or arrange a time when both of you are free.
So, I play for the expected 15 minutes a day or so, crafting a village that nobody will see, decorating a house that nobody will visit. I silently encounter other players by hiding my 3DS in my bag and walking through crowds. I visit other villages only in dreams, and can take nothing back from them besides the memory.
In its own way, it is a kind of bliss.