It’s not exactly uncommon that video games can hold deep, sentimental values for their players, but it’s rare to come across a game like Animal Crossing that basically requires sentimentality to be played. The Animal Crossing franchise has been a commercial success since its first title on the Gamecube in 2001, and the newest title in the main series, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, has just received a pretty significant update that allows for a plethora of new features, including Amiibo support. When I saw the Nintendo Direct, I knew that I had to get a copy of the game to play again. I went to GameStop and got it used for $18, and had a strange reaction when I booted it up.
GameStop doesn’t typically retain the save data of the previous owner, as most used games I’ve gotten have been wiped—but this one still had a town, Polis, with one resident player, Bri. Something about that made me get very worked up. When I buy a used game, I go into it expecting someone else to have had an experience with it, but Animal Crossing is more than just a game. It’s a whole ecosystem, a whole world that person crafted and lived in. Buying a copy with a world in it would be like buying a Moleskine and discovering it was half full with another person’s written life. I know the animals in the town are just strings of code and graphical representations, but they’re all programmed to “feel.” I wondered what it must be like to be abandoned by the only thing keeping their existence relevant; without their mayor, they had no vessel, just souls floating in the cartridge. Do these abandoned villagers look at the letters sent to them by their mayor, the furniture in their houses they bought from the Re-Tail shop that makes them all different even from other versions of themselves; do they still walk on the beach alone at night, gazing out at the vast expanse of #2D5094, wondering when they will get to spend time with that human they cherished so much?
I think Animal Crossing has a special popularity among LGBT+ people because it is a world not unlike our own, but one that is much friendlier. Our human avatars stand out from the animal residents as being different from all of them, much like how we stand out in reality from the overwhelming majority of cisgender and heterosexual people around us. But unlike reality, the animals don’t hold this against us. From the first moment they meet us, we’re a welcome sight. They treat us as an equal, as their friend and their neighbor. The huge variety of clothing options allow for so much avatar customization that, like many online games, Animal Crossing may be the first outlet some people have to gender nonconformity.
Tom Nook, who’s often portrayed as an antagonistic character—the greedy landlord who owns essentially everything in-game—will not kick you out of your home if you don’t pay on time. He has no interest in evicting you, and won’t refuse to house you for being different than the other residents. It’s these little factors that all add up to a game that might be one of the few safe spaces a lot of queer gamers have to go to.
It’s especially important to note how these accepting features can make a difference to young players. Although fun for all ages, Animal Crossing is still aimed at kids, especially younger teens and tweens. Some of these kids might be getting the first feelings that they are different than their cishet friends, and may not have a place to turn. Even if they decide they want to come out, they may not have a space that is safe for them, and their home away from home in Animal Crossing could be their only sanctuary. The letter-writing feature has a function to write a letter to your future self, and with this, you can create a memorial of your life that only you can see. Getting these letters down the road might be that extra push someone needs to keep going, knowing that their past self was thinking about their future and pushing them to go farther.
I will never know why Bri sold her game, or what the citizens of Polis thought before my town was constructed. I hope that my villagers will never face that problem, which is another strange feeling that Animal Crossing creates—a sense of guilt. Most video games have some sort of time or day/night cycle by now, since the technology is easily available, but few give you the power to control time and be affected by time as greatly as Animal Crossing. If you leave your town unattended for days or weeks or even years on end, the town will change, often for the worse, with villagers leaving and weeds growing—even Rafflesia flowers can bloom, toxifying the atmosphere of your town (aesthetically, mostly, but they do attract flies.) It’s an odd feature for a game to have, but one that drives players to maintain their relationships with their villagers. Just as going without the safety and comfort of friends and neighbors can affect the player, it affects the residents of the village. The safe space away from home for the owner of the game is only able to help them when they reside in it, and at least for me personally, this drives me to play as often as possible. I want my villagers to lead happy lives, and they want to see me succeed and keep the town alive and well.
Animal Crossing is as close to an organic video game as I can think of. Other life simulators like The Sims and Spore are too omnipotent; Harvest Moon offers interaction with villagers, but without the real-time changes, it still feels too much like a game and less like a world I am also living in. Animal Crossing lives and breathes with the player; the passage of time, although controllable to a degree, can never be fully escaped. Though still just basic NPCs, all of the villagers have personality and give you mementos of themselves, and keep things you send them as well, creating a diverse web of interaction that can usually only be achieved through player-to-player contact in MMOs and other multiplayer games. The experience Animal Crossing provides is truly unique, and if you’ve never experienced it yourself, there’s never been a better time than now to get involved.
In the end, I’m also left to wonder about Bri. Their avatar in game was the standard “girl” character, but beyond that, I will never know much about them. I have to wonder what their reasons for selling the game were. Perhaps they just grew tired of their town and villagers, or maybe they couldn’t justify keeping it anymore because they had other things to spend their time on. I hope that Bri had an enjoyable experience and felt as touched by their villagers as their town once was by them. I hope some of that spirit continues on to my town of Peaks, and that maybe, my villagers will carry on some of the stories Bri left behind, or that Bri’s former residents will find a new home in my town.
Art by Jun Joestar.