I finished Animal Crossing: New Leaf last week. This isn’t a situation where I came to a game late, or started it at launch and only just got around to going back to it. This is a game which I bought on release, June 2013, and played every day since then.
It’s unusual that games, much more so than books, films or television series, are only discussed when they are first released. A game like Animal Crossing is designed with the express intention of being played in short chunks over a very long period of time, yet the people who talk at length about videogames aren’t built that way.
From the magazines and the big websites, through Mickey Mouse operations like this one, down through web forums, the twittersphere and friends in the pub who share an interest in games, the rush is to finish something shortly after release, finish the conversation and move on.
I could write at length about the mechanics of the game, the warm visuals and the endlessly wistful and nostalgic music, the sneaky gameplay hooks that keep one coming back. Nothing I could say on the subject would be original, or much different from a review written in 2013. All I can talk about is what kept me playing, and how the game made me feel for the three years it was a major part of my life.
I logged in every day, went through whatever my routine was at that point in time. Early on, I concentrated on digging everything. Once my fossils and gyroid collections were complete, I went through stages of wanting bugs and fish, or wanting to travel to the island and gather as much money as possible.
Even when no goal like this was driving me to switch the 3DS on, I was always pulled back by my villagers. Even when I had other games on the console I wanted to get on and play, or a book I would rather spend my lunch break reading, I would fire up AC:NL to speak to these guys; and inevitably get sucked into spending a ludicrous amount of time doing odd jobs for them.
My videogaming friends were always incredulous when I spoke about playing the game. They’d completed the goals they’d set, or grown tired of the villagers. They spoke about the repetitive, digital natures of the animals’ personalities; a small selection of archetypes which, though well-written, lost their charm when this cat, that dog and the new bird in the corner all spoke in the same selection of anecdotes and phrases.
Partly, I was lucky enough that my favourite villagers remained unique among the animals I encountered, for the most part. I also had the same powerful weapon that has maintained Pokémon Blue as one of my favourite games for 20 years: my imagination. My villagers were alive, god damn it, whether you saw it not.
Various characters and locations in my village made me fall in love with the game. The creepy way I kitted out my house provided endless amusement. A combination of visiting Brewster every day and my love of Ace Attorney’s Godot are the reasons I started drinking coffee in real life. Villagers like Camofrog, Hugh and Gladys delighted me with their weirdness.
My favourite, by some margin, was Kid Cat. There were a few others who amused me, or who I liked the company of, but when they left I could live with it as long as KC remained in my village.
Kid Cat was a fitness and sports freak, dressed like a superhero. He was absent-minded and energetic at once, with endlessly quotable lines about his abs and his hyperactive routines. This polygonal cat and his few lines of code felt like a real friend, and a positive influence.
I genuinely felt like getting up and exercising more thanks to this cat. During my time on Animal Crossing: New Leaf, I left a relationship, spent a while as a single pringle and entered a new one. Throughout that time, I went from fat, to fit, like a yo-yo, from a guy with foppish hair and pipe cleaner arms to a slightly muscular bald man. Part of this change can be attributed to my love of Wrestling or my desire to get the ladies, but a part of it is definitely thanks to Kid Cat.
The longest period I spent not playing Animal Crossing in these three years was after the “grave incident”, which is what I came to call the night I spilled KFC gravy down my trousers while my 3DS and phone were on my pockets and killed the console, requiring me to eventually send it to Nintendo for repairs. When it returned, I was terrified I would fire up AC:NL and find my favourite villagers had left. When Kid Cat was still there, I was overjoyed.
It was in this second phase that I started to have weirder, darker thoughts about the game and wonder why exactly I was so addicted.
Villagers, naturally, move from the village and are replaced by new ones. If you make sure to speak to everyone, every day, you’ll hear from them as soon as the idea of leaving enters their heads, and be able to talk them out of it. Paranoia about missing out on this opportunity was what made me turn the game on, at least for long enough to speak to my favourites, even when it was extremely difficult or inappropriate to do so.
On occasion, even Kid Cat would talk about leaving. Whenever he did, I’d say I wanted him to stay and he’d seem happy to have a friend who cared so much, and change his mind. Eventually, I’d known him long enough he had no new dialogue for me. I’d visit him every day, and he’d share the same observations, stories and gags.
He was staying for me, and it was killing him.
If you’ve read this far, I can only assume you’re okay with reading something wanky and introspective, so I’m going to talk about myself a little. I live in the smallest city in England. They filmed Hot Fuzz here, and calling it a city is a joke. It’s a large village or small town, which happens to have a cathedral.
There’s little to do here, no shopping or entertainment. Most of my coolest friends and acquaintances have gone on to better places. I stayed here because I had no idea what I was doing with my life. When I was younger, I thought I’d waltz out of school and join the police. Since then, I’ve been trying to build life experience and qualifications, all while staying there just because it’s where my friends live.
I don’t like living in the country. I don’t like the awful public transport, the exorbitant prices, the Brexit voters who’ve never seen anyone who wasn’t white outside the local takeaway. I don’t like the smell of cows, the pokey cinema, the lack of jobs that don’t involve providing a demeaning service to old people.
But every time I think about leaving, I realise I don’t have anywhere else to go, and my friends are here. So we go to the same pubs, tell the same jokes, and march towards the grave.
Animal Crossing is a slice of country life for people who live in the city. For me, it was a taste of what it would be like to live in what people tried to pretend the countryside was still like. In 2016, even country bumpkins like me have access to the internet, to a wealth of information about the world outside of the little section we see every day. Nobody knows their neighbours, nobody goes to the village fishing tournament.
Kid Cat was me, and I was the only reason he was staying in Animal Crossing. I was gaining nothing by keeping him, by turning on the game every day and visiting, but I couldn’t stop. I was an addict, so far past the point he got any pleasure from his drug but who couldn’t face stopping. I was clutching onto this cat so I wouldn’t have to admit he had more spirit than I did. He was a computer program created specifically to give me company in the countryside and he was more enthusiastic about leaving than I was.
A short while ago, Monster Hunter Generations launched and I found myself playing it so much, Animal Crossing fell to the wayside. I popped in less and less frequently until one day, I went on and Kid Cat had moved away.
I still had other villagers I like, and new ones I could meet. There are wings of my museum I’m not close to completing, and countless extensions I can still make to my house. But I’m done. My connection to that world is gone, and it’s time to let it go.
I’ve been applying for jobs more. Now that I’ve seen some response, I’m more motivated to keep going. My first novel was appreciated by agents for the writing style, but considered too weird to publish, so while I work on that one I’m writing another slightly more down-to-Earth one. I’m in another happy relationship, and I’ve been spending time with a wide net of friends.
I can let go of Animal Crossing because, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I can escape the village.
Kid Cat inspired me one last time.
Wait, what do you mean there's a big update coming with Amiibo functionality and a whole Animal Crossing Direct? How did Nintendo know I'd stopped playing? Damn them!