Animal Crossing is a Nintendo video game that was first released in 2002 on the gamecube console. In the game, you play as a humanoid character who moves to a village of animal neighbors. You meet Tom Nook, the owner of the shaggy-looking Nook’s Cranny (get the pun, haha), the general store of the town. There’s been some new houses built in town by Nook and he offers one to you. You’re in need of some basic shelter, of course, but there’s one problem – you don’t have any bells (the currency of the Animal Crossing world). Nook has you carry out some errands for the store until you have enough bells to afford the down payment. And then… you’re on your own. There’s no guided levels to travel through in this game.
The main objective, at first, seems to be to keep on earning bells, so that you can pay to get expansions and rooms added on your house. You can earn bells in various ways – by selling fruits and shells found in the town, by catching bugs and insects or digging up fossils and selling them, or by selling items you get from doing favors for your animal neighbors.Once you’ve made the final payment for the fully expanded house, you get a little statue of yourself put in front of the train station. There are other achievement-oriented tasks in the game. If you catch all the possible insects and fish or find all the fossils in the game, you get special decorations added on to your house. You can display all the specimens you’ve caught in the town museum. You can fill your house with themed furniture sets and get points from the “Happy Room Academy.”
But a lot of the game actually steers away from goal-oriented activities, which seems a bit strange up front. Isn’t that the point of a game? To win it? But that’s part of the magic of Animal Crossing. The game teaches the player how to enjoy the game just for the sake of enjoying it.
From a 2001 Nintendo Online Monthly interview, Kazumi Totaka, the main composer of the music in Animal Crossing, has remarked that every person seems to enjoy playing the game differently. For him, it’s all about “just walking around in the game.” I would have to agree with Totaka on that one. I love just walking around and listening to the different sounds – my character’s footsteps in the ground (grassy swooshes in spring and summer, crunchy snow in winter), the sounds of different insects (Taro Bando, who did the sound effects for the gamecube version, actually went to the mountains in Fushimi to record the local insects there!), the trickle of the river, the rush of the town waterfall, the relaxes waves of the ocean – and how these sounds fade in and out and combine with one another as you travel throughout the town. Totaka himself has said there “there’s music hiding in all these spaces.” This sentiment reminds me of the John Cage idea of music existing in all sounds and spaces depending on your perspective of listening. In this way, Animal Crossing allows for an appreciation of the little everyday things that might otherwise go missed. All the activities your character can partake in are so normal – walking around town, talking to neighbors, sending letters, earning money to have a roof over your head. I can’t help but be reminded of the Japanese philosopher Sen no Rikū, who sought to put meaning, ritual, imagination into the seemingly routine and unremarkable.
One of the most defining features about Animal Crossing that I haven’t mentioned about is its slow pace. Animal Crossing occurs in real time – that is, when its June 25th at 3 o’clock in real life, it’s June 25th at 3 o’clock in the game. Each hour has its own background music track. Each one is a little different in instrumentation and mood, but they all loop around little melodies that are variations of the main Animal Crossing theme song that can be heard on the title screen. As Totaka has described, the sounds used are very electronic and sythn-thy, reminiscent of classic 8-bit video game music.
I love the slightly funky quality of the rhythmic interactions within the different the sound-groupings in each hour. For example, take 7am. There’s this syncopated beatbox-like back beat in a synthesizer chord, studded with sparkly celeste dings. A xylophone-like sound plays one of the most straight up renditions of the song, with some added bluesy notes and range-expanding extensions of the main Animal Crossing melody. As the melody finishes out, the backbeat circles to the beginning again, like ever-repeating minimalist music (but with a happily tuneful tinge). Things shift a little going into the 8am hour. Now, we hear a bumbling arpeggiated ostinato in keyboard, along with snare and hi-hat combination that creates this feeling of briskly walking about the town. A clarinet-type sound directly quotes the main melody. A lot of these midi sounds sound like hybrid crosses between instruments – this clarinet seems almost part-saxophone, with a playful touch of honky abrasiveness. The melody is punctuated by harmonica-like interjections. These little interjections are one of my favorite parts about these tracks, giving each hour its own special flavor. 1pm includes cat noises, from gentle meows to playfully fierce mrawo. At 6pm, little owl hoots finish out each phrases. The owl hoots increase in frequency in the 7p hour, a reminder that bedtime is coming soon.
As the background music gradually morphs across the day and night, so too do other elements of the game. In addition to changes in the music, each hour brings on a slight difference in the lighting, in the activity of the animals, and in what bugs and insects might be found. The seasons change gradually, too, with the ground changing from a bold green to orange to brown to snow-covered. Weather comes and goes, with rain showers and even the occasional thunderstorm. In an increasingly urbanized world where our lives seem to be sped up and put on overdrive by technology and the media, it’s refreshing to return to a slower pace. Animal Crossing subtlety encourages players to slow down and smell the roses – literally. If you make your character run around too much instead of walking (by pressing the “b” button while moving), there’s a chance your character might trip and fall. If you reset the game or time travel in order to undo an action or speed up a process by jumping ahead (such as waiting for planted trees to grow, which takes three days), you’ll be punished with a lengthy tirade from Mr. Resetti the next time you play.
It’s not uncommon to hear members of our modern society described as hyper-connected through things social media, yet suffering from deep sense of loneliness due to a lack of relationships that go beyond surface-level. Animal Crossing, however, places an emphasis on communication that in a way, serves as an antipode to that. Friendships with the animals gradually form. When interacting with your animal neighbors, you can ask if they need a favor, and if you complete it successfully you can receive a gift from them – a more transitional interaction. But you can also choose to just chat with them for no reason in particular. There are several different “personalities” that the animals can have (in the gamecube version males can be “grumpy,” “lazy,” or “jocks,” females can be “girly,” “snooty,” or “normal.”) But as you talk to each personality-type more and more, they start to reveal more layers of themselves and say things they’ve never said before. What the animals say can be friendly, funny, or even rude. But they’re almost always deeply thought-provoking in some way. This notion extends to other residents of the town as well. Take the two hedgehog siblings that work in the Able Sisters fashion shop, where you can design your own clothing. One of them, Sable, is always quiet, working in the back at the sewing machine. But if you talk to her every day, she’ll gradually warm up to you. Who knew a video game could be a lesson in what it means to have an authentic relationship.
Animal Crossing will always hold a special place in my heart, as corny as that may sound. Every time I play this game, I feel a wave of comforting nostalgia. The sense of rhythm through time gives the game a sense of structure, a sense of here-ness – a feeling that you’re at home and everything is going to be okay.There’s something so peaceful about the rhythm of a quiet life. This rhythm stems not only from the game being in real-time, but also through a sense of routine and ritual by having events happen only at certain times of the day, week, or year. Take, for instance, the postman pelican, who flaps down to the house mailboxes every evening at 5pm to deliver the mail. Or K.K. Slider, the singing dog with impressive eyebrows and a guitar in hand, who sets up next to the train station every Saturday after 8pm to take song requests. Or the turnip lady, who comes by every Sunday morning selling turnips. Your life outside the game may be changing, you may be growing up, but what goes on in your town in Animal Crossing is something that is constant, that you know you can go back to and will be there.