Animal Crossing and the Season of Giving

This article goes live Christmas Eve, so it’s only fitting to tie it into that season of giving. I’ve been getting back into Animal Crossing: New Leaf recently after taking about a year off from it from last October to this October. Those of you who play AC games know the vicious cycle that happens when you’re unable to check in for a couple of days: you get nervous about how different things are going to be when you finally turn the game on again. The slogan for the original Animal Crossing on GCN was, of course, “the real life game that’s playing, even when you’re not.”

When I finally turned it on after about a year, the results weren’t as bad as I was expecting. One of my villagers, Dotty, had moved away, but she moved to GL Head Editor Christie’s town so I can still visit her. There was a new villager, Bree, and she moved away a couple of days after I started playing daily again. The town was, of course, covered in weeds. I had a bad case of bedhead. There were cockroaches all over my house. The villagers wondered what had happened to their mayor. Some of them thought I clandestinely moved away. Cranston thought I had just overslept. But they welcomed me back with open arms.

I think you look just fine.
I think you look just fine.

And now, what the world of AC playfully dubs “Toy Day” is fast approaching. In ACNL, this event revolves around the player playing the role of Santa Claus. Throughout December the villagers will drop hints about what they asked for. Your job is to make sure they get what they wanted. It’s a fun little diversion and a nice way for ACNL to reflect the holiday season. It got me thinking about my personal history with the Animal Crossing series and what it means to be able to go back to New Leaf after a year.

I was…pretty into Animal Crossing on the GameCube. Soon after I got it I brought it to a sleepover at my friend Garrett’s house. There were about five of us and no one other than me really knew what to expect from this game called Animal Crossing. It was late 2002 so we were all around 10 or 11 years old. One kid named Harrison who I don’t think I’ve seen in over a decade made a tasteless joke about it being a game where animals cross the street and you run them over. But we were juvenile so we thought it was hilarious.

Once we got it running it turned out to be a surprisingly good time for all of us. I was thrilled. Luckily, we were playing on a Saturday evening, so K.K. Slider was sitting in front of the train station with his guitar. We made requests for songs that obviously didn’t exist, but he humored us anyway. With our sense of awe and wonder yet to be corrupted by cynicism, we thought he was making all of these songs up on the spot. We had a great time laughing at how ridiculous they sounded. We had a great time, period.

Animal Crossing became deeply important to me, for a lot of reasons. It came during a time in my life where I could count the number of friends I had on one hand, so to have a virtual town full of animals that wanted to be my friend was very nice for 10-year-old Roger. I was so amazed at the fact that if you wrote them a letter, they would write back. I was thrilled that they could give you presents. My best friend was Ed, the horse.

"What's up, greenhorn?"
“What’s up, greenhorn?”

There was a diary item available in the original Animal Crossing. Though the onscreen keyboard wasn’t the speediest method of typing, I still used it daily for a stretch of time. I wrote about my friendship with Ed. I wrote about how I thought one of the female villagers had a crush on me—I think it was Winnie, another horse. I think I may have even written a letter to her saying I felt the same way. I’m not sure. But I felt deeply connected to all of these fake animal pals.

Boy, do I ever.
Boy, do I ever.

I also felt connected to the mother.

Those of you who know my history know that this sort of thing is deeply important to me. 1)My mother died when I was 13 years old. I write about her here. At the time, we were very close. I used to show her the letters that the player’s mother had written to the player. She used to tell me that she had actually written them. Of course, I believed her. There was no doubt in my mind that she had somehow played the game when I wasn’t looking and written these heartfelt letters to me.

I even had more than one town. My main town was dubbed Sam City. 2)I had a friend named Sam. Another town on a different memory card was dubbed Jim City. 3)I had a friend named Jim. A third town was named Garrett. 4)You get the gist of it now. They have all been lost to time, or memory card errors, or that kid who rode my bus who I let borrow my memory card that switched schools all of a sudden before giving it back to me.

Sam City was a utopia, man. Sure, most of its gains were illicitly gained via Action Replay, but at least I earned that golden statue of me in front of the train station. Most of the stuff stashed in my basement was what was illicitly gained, including the … wait for it … nineteen NES games stashed within the code of Animal Crossing. Ten of them were available in game. Five were via Nintendo giveaways. Four more needed external existence. But hey. That’s still nineteen full NES games. That’s unbelievable.

Let’s do some quick math here. Here, in 2014, Nintendo charges $4.99 for NES games on Wii U virtual console. Let’s round that up to $5 and multiply it by 19, giving us a grand total of $95. That is nearly one hundred dollars’ worth of NES games freely available within Animal Crossing for the Nintendo GameCube. It blew my mind then and it blows my mind now. No wonder they took that feature out of later games. Hell, not even NES Remix lets you play the full versions of the original games.

The next iteration of AC was Wild World on the Nintendo DS. It was the first title in the series that could connect to other players via the Internet. My first go round with it I didn’t have many people to play with. My town was named Dystopia and it lived up to that name. I don’t remember any of the villagers from that town and eventually I sold WW on eBay. Some time later, as the buildup to New Leaf escalated, our Head Editor convinced me to get another copy so I could play with her.

Kapp'n speaks from the heart.
Kapp’n speaks from the heart.

We play together in New Leaf a lot too. 5)If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned City Folk, it’s simply because I haven’t played it. There’s obviously greater room for expression in New Leaf. More clothes to wear, more ways to wear them, more emotions to mess with, more places to visit together, more activities to do. In a long-distance relationship, these sorts of things are very dear to me. We can go sit on a bench overlooking the ocean and crack jokes and make silly faces at each other despite living on opposite sides of the country.

Animal Crossing does a lot to help you with friends both real and virtual. One thing that happened very recently to me in New Leaf is a key accomplishment in my AC career. One of the hidden secrets in an AC game (well, in WW and NL) is framed photographs of villagers. If you do enough favors for a villager while also not flaking out when promising them you’ll do something, your friendship will obviously grow. At this point, they will offer you a framed portrait of themselves, complete with a personalized message on the back that also shows their birthday.

He's very photogenic.
He’s very photogenic.

I finally got my first one. It’s of Hopper. He’s a cranky guy but he trusts me a lot. The message written on the back is “Always have a comeback.” He was born on April 6th, so he’s an Aries. That surprised me—I thought he would be a Taurus much like myself. But I put his picture on the bookcase in my bedroom. He recently confided in me that he was thinking about moving away. I considered letting him, because I already had his picture. But that wasn’t the right way to look at it. I told him he should stay and he agreed. Even though I’ve been trying to get Ed in my town forever, Hopper is a good best friend too.

Stuff like that gives me a good reason to take Animal Crossing as seriously as I do, especially after neglecting it for a year. When I make plans to hang out with villagers, I set reminders on my phone so that I don’t forget. It’s always a bit painful when you talk to someone you flaked out on and they say “I knocked on your door but you didn’t answer.” I try not to make promises I can’t keep—Rhonda asked for a house centipede the other day and I politely told her no while trying to figure out why anyone would ever want one of those things.

Sable, please get up so I can hug you.
Sable, please get up so I can hug you.

I pop in and say hi to Sable every day. Ever since the original Animal Crossing, she’s been a shy, quiet, reserved character. She barely says a word to you the first time you meet her. Over time, if you keep paying visits to the Able Sisters shop, she’ll start opening up and talking about herself. She loves cheesy soap operas. She takes her work very seriously. Her parents died in an accident when she was very young, and since then she has taken care of her little sister Mabel. 6)The middle sister, Labelle, ran off to the city to be a fashion designer. Of course, the only way to find any of this out in-game is to befriend her.

Small touches like that, an entire family history that can only be found out upon befriending the shy older sister, make Animal Crossing a game worth coming back to even after taking a year off. Say what you will about me, but thinking about that year I took off and how much people like Sable and Hopper missed me breaks my heart a little bit. Yeah, it’s a video game. Yeah, they’re all programmed to do these things. But thinking that way takes so much away from the magic and wonder of games like these. When I showed my mom those letters in the original Animal Crossing, it would have ruined the game for me had she told me they were outright fake.

In Wild World, there is an observatory. On a clear night, you can see the stars in the sky. You can connect them yourself in order to make your own constellations. You don’t have to do it. But you can. Why wouldn’t you personalize your night sky?

Notes   [ + ]

1. My mother died when I was 13 years old. I write about her here.
2. I had a friend named Sam.
3. I had a friend named Jim.
4. You get the gist of it now.
5. If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned City Folk, it’s simply because I haven’t played it.
6. The middle sister, Labelle, ran off to the city to be a fashion designer.

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