A Simple Kind of Life

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When I started this blog, it was my intent to write about nothing but the retro gaming experience. After doing a lot of retro and contemporary gaming, I’ve decided my primary focus will still be on gaming in the ‘SD era’ — a term I coined in my previous post to categorize games made prior to the proliferation of high definition televisions — but I will write about certain contemporary games if I think there’s a story to tell, or a message to convey.

As of this past Sunday, June 9, 2013, I’ve been spending a lot of time developing my new town in Animal Crossing: New Leaf for the Nintendo 3DS. It’s a game not unlike its predecessors. Each installment in the Animal Crossing series starts you off on a train bound for a town you’ve never been to. Another passenger — a talking cat named Rover — sees you sitting by yourself and decides to strike up a conversation. The friendly feline asks you a little about yourself, thus ascertaining your name, gender and destination (the town where you’ll eventually begin your new life).

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Upon arriving in your new town, you’ll soon realize you have nowhere to live. Enter the infamous Tom Nook. Veteran Animal Crossing players will undoubtedly have a love-hate relationship with this anthropomorphic raccoon (tanuki in Japan) of a businessman.

Tom Nook will in fact help you obtain a home. But then you’re stuck doing his grunt work. And you’re now in debt. To pay off this debt, you must run errands for ‘Nook’s Cranny,’ Tom Nook’s general store. Once your debt has been paid, you’re no longer under Nook’s employ, however, he will take it upon himself to expand and enhance your home. And then just like that, you’re in debt again.

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Therein lies the fun, though. The entire point of the Animal Crossing series is to carry out the simple, seemingly mundane tasks in life. There are no enemies. There is no conflict. You’re not killing anyone, and no one is trying to kill you. In Animal Crossing, the closest thing to violence is bopping your neighbor on the head with your bug-catching net. It’s a much-needed reprieve from the carnage-fraught, exceedingly grotesque games many of us play on a regular basis. Here, you live a quiet, peaceful life. But that doesn’t mean boring. These games — and in the case of one possible neighbor, a stuffed teddy bear named Stitches — are bursting at the seams with personality and charm (‘charm’ is the manly way of saying ‘cute,’ by the way).

The beauty of this series is in how it does away with all the inconvenient and ugly parts of life. Your only real job is to enjoy yourself. Go fishing, catch bugs, collect rare dinosaur fossils, visit the museum, play games and make friends. The game plays in real time, which means most of your neighbors will have gone to bed come nightfall. When you’re done for the day, you, too, go to bed. And the next day, you get up and do it all over again. It’s an escapist’s dream. Because, even those of us who live fairly comfortable lives have things we wish we didn’t have to face.

In need of some bells (the in-game currency)? Just sell the fruit that came from the trees you planted. You don’t have to work a minimum-wage job you hate. You also don’t have to worry about your neighbors judging you by your looks, because your neighbors are animals, and animals don’t care. On Saturday nights, the local musician — a guitar-playing beagle named K.K. Slider — will perform at the café.

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Before New Leaf came out, I began to wonder what became of the citizens in the first town I ever took residence. This was the original Animal Crossing for the Nintendo GameCube, which was a localized port of the original Japanese game, Animal Forest, for the Nintendo 64.

It was the summer between 8th grade and 9th when I played for the first time. I was on vacation at the beach (Hilton Head Island, SC) with one of my best friends, Kenny, and I had brought my GameCube with me. We had to have a way to entertain ourselves during the evening, so we took a trip to the local Blockbuster to see what games were available for rent. One of the few games left was one I’d seen only once before, but had never heard  anyone talk about. So we settled on Animal Crossing.

Once we became next-door neighbors in the game, it consumed the majority of the remainder of our vacation.

When I returned home, I went straight to Babbage’s (which was eventually swallowed by GameStop, unfortunately) and bought my own copy of the game. I played with the same save file Kenny and I played on. Eventually, as happens with all games, I grew tired of what I was doing and I moved on to the next thing.

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Many years, and incarnations of Animal Crossing later, and I’m returning to Kokiri, the original town that started it all. When I step out of my house and into the sunlight, I notice that my mailbox is crammed full gifts, as well as letters from my neighbors asking where I went. I set out to find one of my animal neighbors and happen across a short blue/green frog named Jeremiah. Jeremiah was my favorite neighbor in all of Kokiri.

When I approached him and started a conversation, he did not recognize me at first. Then, shocked, he realized I was his long-lost human neighbor. Then, he said he’d missed me for the past 94 months. That’s nearly eight years. And I was genuinely a little sad I hadn’t spoken to, nor seen Jeremiah since I was a junior in high school.

But I couldn’t dwell on that. I had a whole new town to explore in New Leaf.

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In New Leaf, due to a misunderstanding, you are bestowed the title of mayor. This allows for new freedoms while building your new life in your animal town. You can build new structures, such as fountains and bridges. There are also a number of ‘laws’ you can put into place to enhance your life and those of your citizens. My first order of business was to enact the ‘Beautiful Town’ ordinance. Now, my neighbors will help to water the flowers and pull the weeds that sprout up over time.

There’s much more than I’ve touched upon in this little piece, but you get the idea. Your life in Animal Crossing is impossibly idyllic, and in many ways, a reflection of what we might wish our real lives were like.

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