Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Serial Gaming: Animal Crossing

 This feature can also be found on One Hit Pixel, here.

When I committed myself to writing a set of features on my opinions of gaming series, it looked like a cakewalk. But after some thought, I found it needed a more tentative approach. You see, I’d like to say that I am ardently opposed to ‘sequelitis’. In my mind, the greatest gaming achievements are rarely held by sequels (sales figures notwithstanding). Ideally, I would want to say that I don’t have a favourite series, followed by many words about the indie gaming scene.

Sadly, that’s not true at all. I’ll hold my hands up and say that there are a few series where I’ve played most, if not all of. Today, I’ll talk about one that’s not my absolute favourite, but one I’ve recently clocked as having some genius game design I didn’t appreciate way back when.

Serial Gaming: Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing is not a series I’ve followed from the start – my first foray was Animal Crossing: Wild World on the DS – but every game since then I’ve sunk countless hours into.

In my high school years, Wild World had me completely enthralled with its miniature idealistic world. However, I wasn’t a genius authority on game design back then – I took the game experience entirely at face value. It’s difficult to give an honest answer as to why it clicked with me so well.

The best I can manage is a reference to the Skinner Box theory. Animal Crossing keeps you coming back every day with the prospect of something new – fossils that your museum might not have yet, another item of furniture for the themed set you’re collecting, or that fabled Coelacanth. To a kid raised on Pokémon Trading Cards, that kind of game design is like digital cocaine.

I befriended villagers to get their photo items. I expanded my house so I could better show off the rare furniture pieces I procured to my classmates who also played. What AI and design work that went on behind the scenes went unappreciated.

Serial Gaming: Animal Crossing
Years later, the Wii semi-sequel, Animal Crossing: City Folk came out. On paper, it was the kind of content expansion I could have ever wanted. By that time I was in sixth-form, older and more jaded about my gaming habits.

I no longer had a raw, completionist instinct. I could carry over my character from Wild World, but I wasn’t motivated to play every day any more. The game had more robust content, but I was looking for story-driven experiences in that time of my life. I still played, but I was failing to ‘get’ what Animal Crossing did best. Eventually I lost a couple of hours progress to an internet connection drop and I set the game aside for good.

So then, fast forward to this year. Animal Crossing: New Leaf had me excited, but I couldn’t have explained to you why. Just two or three days of play later, the pieces clicked into place, and it dawned on me what was so special about the series.

In no other game does the player’s creative input have such a direct payoff. Every choice made available – how you arrange your town, how you decorate your house, what you wear – can be shown to and enjoyed by other people. It’s been present across all of the games (even in the Gamecube and Japanese only Nintendo 64 games, where you are encouraged to have everyone in the household play), but New Leaf goes leaps and bounds into make both creating and sharing content as easy as possible.

The most salient example is with pattern designs. In all the games you could make designs for clothing or house furnishing. With New Leaf, not only are the uses for your patterns pretty broad, you can turn it into a QR code and share it with other players. I’ve been designing patterns of my own, and it’s the best feeling ever when some sends you a picture of them wearing something you’ve designed.

Serial Gaming: Animal Crossing
New Leaf‘s heavily pushed feature of being the mayor of your town feels like a gimmick at first glance, but it means that your town is now like your patterns – customisable, and can be shared with your friends. More so than the randomised town layout every player starts with, what kind of public works you build makes your town truly unique.

There are other games that run a theme of sharing customisations (It’s the only way I can fathom people playing Minecraft), but I’ve not found any others that makes the process so simple yet so immediately rewarding. You can bask in the satisfaction of your town not only looking good, but everyone else you know with the came can see for themselves how sweet it is.

Ah, but there’s another trick up the game’s sleeve. Even though creating content is hassle-free, it doesn’t give you all this customisation up front. For example, you can’t get the ability to share pattern QR codes until you properly befriend the hedgehog sisters that run the clothing store – which could take around 10 days from starting the game!

Getting new furniture is a slow process unless you talk to the other residents and help them with errands. Anyone who plays Animal Crossing knows to set aside 10 minutes every Saturday night to score some new bootleg songs from a guitar-playing dog (on a side note, never try to explain this to your friends unless you want to be labelled unhinged).

You find that when you’re engaging the game world so you can make creative and completion progress, you form a kinship with the characters you encounter. You don’t need to have a favourite town resident to be able to expand your house, but every player has one.

It was a side of the overall gameplay that I didn’t fully appreciate as a kid (I made maybe eight patterns in the two or three years I played Wild World). Animal Crossing each instalment of the series to further blur the lines of getting immersed in the game and letting you explore your creativity through the game, but the present results blow me away.

If there is to be a Wii U incarnation (and that’s rather likely), if they integrate the sharing of content to the Miiverse and allow cross-platform play with the 3DS, it would be all that easier to reach some stranger on the other side of the world with a little bit of my self-expression.

Oh, and as a side note, go read through Dave Irwin’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf diary if you haven’t already.

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