The Game Jar Files Animal Crossing: My life amongst the animals

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 04/07/2013

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Recently I had a twitter conversation about Animal Crossing with fellow Game Jar writer, Paul Everitt. He was asking whether the game was worth a try, and I, in a completely ham-fisted way, attempted to explain that yes, it’s a great game and he should definitely try it. After three tweets I gave up. I simply couldn’t convey to him what the appeal was in a game that is essentially about going to work every day to earn money, so that you can buy cool stuff. Unperturbed by my inability to describe in 140 characters  just why this particular form of video game masochism is worth playing, I decided that many more words were needed.

I’ll start by asking you a question. If you had to, how would you describe Animal Crossing to somebody else? Very probably, your answer would look something like this: You start off by rolling into your new town with nothing but the clothes on your back. A friendly Raccoon called Tom Nook offers to build you a house, which you’ll have to pay for obviously, but he’s generous enough to do the building work before he’s seen the colour of your money. You earn some money by selling fruit and catching fish, and eventually you pay off the money you owe. Debt free, you’re at liberty to run around town, living for pleasure alone. Well almost. Because old Tom Nook doesn’t take kindly to folks running round free of debt, so he convinces you that your current home is too small, and offers to expand it – for a price. And so begins your life in Animal Crossing, at the mercy of an evil loan shark Raccoon.

In addition to supporting your new house improvement addiction, there are other tasks that demand your time. For a start, your town needs to be kept pretty. That means pulling up weeds, planting trees and nurturing flowers. Then there’s the museum collection to take care of. Obviously a museum without exhibits is somewhat pointless, so the curator – Blathers,  would like you to take care of that. All on your own. Then there’s the animal townsfolk. These guys borrow stuff from each other all the time, and frequently pester you to return it for them. In fact, your neighbours apparently live the life of luxury. They don’t run their own errands, they don’t help maintain the town, and they certainly don’t donate things to the town museum. In short then, you spend all your time doing exactly the sort of things you do in real life – working to earn money, and paying bills. So why the hell is Animal Crossing so damn popular? I think it’s because it taps into two of our most basic desires.

Most humans feel the need to collect stuff. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know, we just need to collect things. Animal Crossing exploits that need both beautifully and ruthlessly. I’ve already mentioned that you begin your new life with an empty town museum. Filling it up begins a collecting mission that could realistically last a whole year. You see, fish and insects are seasonal, and if your collecting begins on the first day of spring, you can forget about seeing any winter fish or bugs until the following year. Fail to have caught a spring-only fish or bug by the first day of summer, and you’re similarly boned. Almost everything in the game is similarly tied into real-time; house furniture, gifts from special visitors, prizes for seasonal events.

Deep down, we all have an idea of what a perfect real life would look like. Most of us are fine with knowing that it’s never really going to be wholly obtainable, but that doesn’t stop us enjoying it digitally. Animal Crossing allows us to realise our vision within a video game world. It gives us the freedom to mould our house and its surrounding environment in any way we wish. Want all the trees to be laid out in straight lines? No problem. Want only red flowers in grow in your town? Just change them. Want your house interior to be entirely decorated in a bizarre mushroom theme? A little weird maybe, but OK. Almost nothing is off-limits. The whole process of arranging things “just so” is immensely therapeutic. It’s akin to getting everything in your head neatly organised.

Trying to describe Animal crossing in 140 characters is impossible then. So many of its core game mechanics sound like a tedious chore when described in isolation and out of context, and yet no fan of the game would remove any of them. It strikes me that Animal Crossing is a prime example of something being greater than the sum of its parts. On paper, a game that replicates so many of aspects of our day-to-day real lives shouldn’t be that interesting, but strangely, it is. Nintendo have bottled lightning with Animal Crossing. Thanks to Tom Nook, and all the other crazy animals in my town, I look forward to going to work every morning, and I can’t say that about any other game.

The Game Jar Files: Are Mario and Nathan Drake the saviours of Handheld Gaming?

Originally published on The Game Jar – Oct. 24th 2012

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Oh dear, it’s the old mobile versus handheld debate again. Many, many opinion pieces have been written about this subject already, but what fascinates me is that it seems that nobody really knows for sure whether one side or the other can actually win. The common consensus seems to be that handhelds are nowhere near as dominant as they once were, and it’s unlikely in a post iPhone world that they’ll ever be top dog again, so what keeps them alive? It strikes me that the reason many commentators (including myself) can’t call a potential winner is that the handhelds have something in their corner that can’t be measured very easily; our emotional attachment to familiar titles.

With the possible exception of the PS Vita’s Skype app, I think it’s fairly safe to say that mobile devices do all the non-gaming things better than a gaming handheld. Whether it’s surfing the net, updating social media, or taking photos on the fly, I find that no gaming handheld does it as conveniently or as intuitively as a smart phone. Sure, the web browser on the Vita is OK, but when you also have an iPhone in your pocket, only being OK isn’t good enough. The 3DS one isn’t any better either, in fact if you’re not surfing a mobile enabled site I’d argue it’s quite a bit worse. This kind of social functionality on gaming handhelds always feels shoe-horned in to me. So handhelds lose the social media connectivity part of the fight then, but that’s not the only battle they have on their hands, as smart phones and mobile devices also do gaming very well too, all of which begs the question; why carry a gaming handheld at all? If Nintendo and Sony are to convince us to not only invest in a new system, but to carry it around in addition to our phones, they need to either do mobile gaming exceptionally well, or offer something that’s not possible to do on a touch screen phone.

To me it seems very simple, handhelds are kept alive by catering to many gamers attachment to specific marquee titles. The app store might have a large number of cheap games on offer, but unearthing the gems can be tricky. With a rating system that largely feels broken to me, picking out a quality game is done either via friend recommendations, or by trial and error and a willingness to potentially waste a pound on a crappy game. For every Plants vs Zombies or Infinity Blade I’ve found, there’s been five other terrible games that’ll never darken my touchscreen again. With this uncertainty over quality control in mind, I and many other gamers will often fall back on familiar titles like a some sort of gaming security blanket. If you’re looking for a side scrolling platformer to play for example, Super Mario is the safe option. Eating special mushrooms and jumping down big green pipes might be a little overly familiar these days, but in a weird sort of way it’s also quite comforting. Human beings are creatures of habit in the main, and gamers are no different. A recognisable name on the box seems to have a built-in guarantee of quality, Super Mario Kart was a great game therefore all future Mario Kart games will be great. But what if we stop caring about these franchises, what happens then?

Consider for a moment that your favourite Sony or Nintendo IP didn’t exist, would you purchase the hardware? If instead of Mario there was Dave the fat builder from Hackney, staring in New Super Dave Land 2, would you even give the 3DS a second look? As an avid fan of the Mario Kart series of games, I find it hard to think of a time when I would pass up the opportunity to play a new version of the game on a brand new system. Maybe I’m too easily parted with my money, but other people buy consoles on the strength of the games available too. In fact, the success of every console launch I can think of has hinged on launch titles. We all go through the same process don’t we? Am I going to buy the latest generation of console – what games does it have at launch? Years ago, when I bought my PlayStation 2 on launch day, I totally ignored the salesman’s advice to buy Timesplitters because I didn’t recognise the name. Tekken Tag Tournament and Ridge Racer were what I knew, so I bought them instead, much to my later regret. For as long as I’ve been a gamer, people have cared about the name on the game box, and I don’t see it changing any time soon.

It’s this attachment to our favourite titles that keeps handhelds viable in my opinion, mobile devices will only truly win out when they can offer you a proper Uncharted game starring the real Nathan Drake, and not just a mockbuster. With that in mind I’ve come to the conclusion that if mobile devices ever do kill off gaming handhelds, it’ll be because Sony and Nintendo let them. The value of having a great Uncharted game only on the Vita or a must have Mario title only on the 3DS cannot be overstated in my opinion, and as long as the big two remember that there’ll always be a place for their machines. I think everyone has at least one game that they love enough to buy based purely on the name, and Sony and Nintendo need to exploit that. It’s not going to be easy for them, sustaining a console with a comparatively small user base is going to be hard work, but I think it’s possible with a steady flow of high quality games. The only unknown variable here is you. Would your favourite game being available only on a handheld be enough to prompt you to buy one?

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