The type of snow falling now is the kind you see rarely in life but often in movies – large round flakes falling slowly in uniform patterns and sticking perfectly to the grass and pavement alike, perfect for leaving footprints in or making snowmen with. At this time of the night the shops are all closed, darkened storefronts displaying careful arrangements of aesthetically pleasing items. Itâ€™s a few days before Christmas, and the night is given a dream-like glow by the reflections of multicolored lights hanging from the roofs of houses in the snow. The only sound comes from the snow crunching under my feet and the occasional acoustic guitar strum in the backgroundâ€¦there isnâ€™t much to do at this hour, but thereâ€™s a certain romance I feel wandering this sleeping town on a winter night.
Back in the real world, itâ€™s hopelessly green outside for December 24th. Some stubborn, dirty snow piles cling to the corners of parking lots, and itâ€™s entirely too windy and cold to lure me outside for any reason. It certainly doesnâ€™t feel much like the type of atmosphere promised by all of the seasonal films theyâ€™re showing on TV this week.
Perhaps this is what prompted my return to the digital town of Brahms, a place I used to come to at least once a day for a good amount of time roughly a year ago. Returning to it now after so long yields a strange feeling of familiarity and foreignness – Iâ€™ve been here before, but itâ€™s not quite the same as it used to be. Everything is where it used to be, but the occupants of the houses are all different. My own home is filled with cockroaches and weeds and clover patches punctuate the snow-covered ground over every square inch of the townâ€¦ doesnâ€™t anyone know how to pull weeds in this place? (Clearly this is not the same pastiche of cleanly modern living seen in Nintendogs: your home and surroundings grow dirty and unkempt with neglect in this universe.) Yet thereâ€™s something about the music that takes me backâ€¦
In Animal Crossing, each hour of the day has a different song associated with it. Itâ€™s not something that is immediately obvious, but there is a subtle difference between the jaunty music that plays in the afternoon and the more slow-paced music of the early evening, blending finally into minimalist and sparse warm tones for the late night. These subtle changes in tempo and instrumentation give each time of the day a unique feeling that helps to lay the foundation of the basic game experience. Itâ€™s odd to hear a musical cue and think to yourself â€œThis really feels like 3:00am.â€ but itâ€™s something that happens when you play Animal Crossing enough.
Itâ€™s not difficult for a video game to evoke a feeling of nostalgia in me, or many of my peers I imagine. As part of the generation that grew up with the Nintendo and Super Nintendo, it generally only takes a few 8-bit bleeps or a particular sound effect to whisk me back to a childhood of kneeling in front of a television at my grandmotherâ€™s house (yes, she had an NES and is possibly the most awesome grandma ever) holding a rectangle in my hands attached to a gray box. But there are very few games that take me back to a specific time in my life. [In example – The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker always makes me think of the summer before I left for a semester abroad in Australia. There was something about the feeling of the unknown and adventure the game captured so perfectly in those long meandering sailing sequences, the feeling all humans must feel at some point when they stare at the blue horizon of a large body of water and feel, if only for a moment, a sense of wanderlust and romantic longing for exploration and discovery larger than themselves.] Animal Crossing is one of those games, but for the life of me I donâ€™t understand why. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when you play the game, the time in your virtual town corresponds to the actual time. As soon as I hear the opening chords of the game, I immediately recall spending some time every night in my bed after everyone had gone to sleep, exploring a similarly sleeping town. Looking for something to keep myself busy in the real world led me to the game, and in the game I found myself wandering around looking for people to talk to or items to find to keep myself busyâ€¦ a sort of recursive loop that further assisted the blending of my darkened bedroom in the winter to the snow-covered virtual town of Brahms.
Yes, you can talk to that penguin.Â Itâ€™s exciting.
For those unfamiliar with the game, it is essentially a small-scale world that you move into and inhabit. You can tweak the accessories your little villager dons, but compared to other â€˜virtual world simulatorsâ€™ the players choices of avatar customization are sparse. The real meat of the game is collecting things. Fossils, furniture, shirts, letters, decorations, fish, bugsâ€¦ almost everything you see displayed in Animal Crossing exists for the sole purpose of being collected, catalogued, and perhaps displayed in your virtual house: a sort of consumerist wet dream.
You can, of course, interact with the other villagers of your town, but most interactions inevitably lead to you getting more stuff. It sounds so trivial, but there is something about this game that really grabbed me and Iâ€™m still trying to put my finger on it. As someone who derives a strange pleasure from seeing lists of optional items in games checked off (recipes in Paper Mario, figurines in Minish Cap, Gauâ€™s rages in FFVI, etc.etc.etc.) there is an immediate draw. But thereâ€™s something about this game that adds up to more than the sum of itâ€™s parts. It doesnâ€™t even take long to see through the veil of this virtual town and identify the games limitations – it doesnâ€™t take long before NPCs start repeating strings of text interactions, the store in the town stocks the same items over and over, the same holidays and events come up every couple of weeks, and you keep bumping into the same visitors again and again. But thereâ€™s an unmistakable thrill about finding a new fossil or seeing a new type of bug that kept me coming back for much longer than it should have. Barring this, the general layout of the game is just attractive. Bored in the real world? Pop in Animal Crossing and see whatâ€™s going on there. Itâ€™s meditative just to pick some apples or make a snowman for a few minutes before going to sleep. The formula wears thin after awhileâ€¦ for myself, I suspect it took longer before diminishing marginal utility finally made the pleasure derived from playing the game not worth the time it took to do so.
So why bother to even boot it up tonight? I pretty much knew what to expect – all the same buildings and objects exactly where you left them (thereâ€™s that dapper shirt I inexplicably buried next to the palm tree by the shoreline), villagers with new faces but who have one of the same five pre-selected dispositions and personalities as those who used to live there, a few letters in your mailbox from the town hall asking where you went, and a whole mess of weeds. I havenâ€™t really thought about it since I stopped playing, but now that I do I find myself thinking that it feels like even when the cartridge isnâ€™t in your system, there is still a tiny world going on inside of it waiting for you to come back and visit in a moment of nostalgia.
And so tonight, I did.