Still Playing: Animal Crossing: New Leaf

If people play games primarily for wish fulfilment, then Animal Crossing is a peculiar phenomenon indeed. While most social sim games prefer to gloss over the unpleasant realities of capitalism, Nintendo’s azure-skied spin on the genre positively wallows in it.

Despite its façade of sunstreaked meadows and endless oceans, you see, your new life in Animal Crossing is doomed to be a banal one – one of crippling obligation and perpetual graft.

From the moment you arrive in Helmouth (or whatever your village might be called), it’s made explicitly clear that you can expect no freebies from the state. Kafkaesque bureaucratic hoops have to be jumped through before you get so much as a tent to sleep in; from there on in you’re tethered to a succession of stifling mortgages, each one seemingly further out of reach than the last.

Such is the weight of your debt that you begin to see your idyllic village through green-tinted spectacles. Fruit trees are cultivated not for beauty but for financial gain – at one point I created a ghetto forest of exotic fruit trees in a godforsaken corner of Helmouth, purely to make it more convenient to strangle the life out of them and turn a quick profit.

Once a financial goal is in sight, any lingering trace of social responsibility inside you dies. Butterflies are plucked from the sky and rivers husked of life, just so you can sell them for cold, hard cash. Similarly, birthday presents are returned to the Re-tail shop, tags still intact, for pitiful returns. To succeed in Animal Crossing: New Leaf is to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. You’ll gladly pave paradise to put up a polka-dot lamp.

Even your positioning as mayor – New Leaf’s signature twist – amounts to little more than justified subjection. Those familiar with the series already know all too well that you are not the equal of anthropomorphic neighbours. Rather, your relationship with them is a sort of cordial parasitism, not unlike an owner and their pet cat.

While they mill around aimlessly in their perfectly co-ordinated houses, it’s up to you to keep society ticking over by plucking weeds, ferrying notes from one villager to another and delivering fruit and fresh fish to their doorstep. Fail in your obligations and your neighbours slyly lambaste you for your lack of attentiveness.

It’s human nature to covet your neighbour’s house and Animal Crossing taps into it in spectacularly subtle fashion. While you toil in the field getting stung by scorpions for pennies just so you can afford to buy some ill-matching furniture, it’s impossible not to look on enviously at Pecan the Layabout Squirrel, chilling out in her paid-for flat with its lavish regal furnishings. And guess who has to foot the bill for the town’s new fountain. You, the bell toiler, or the freeloading koala who lives next door?

These are just some of the many ways in which Animal Crossing’s cartoonish take on capitalism succeeds in condensing all the insecurities and anxieties that come from living in a materialistic society into a neat, cartidge-shaped package. Animal Crossing isn’t so much a release from real life as much as it is a simulacra of it.

So why, then, can’t I – and so many others – stop playing it? According to my 3DS chart screen, I’ve voluntarily clocked over 50 hours into what is – when you break it down into its component parts – effectively a second job. I’m not alone. Every lunchtime the Edge offices are a blaze of excitement as various work colleagues fire up their consoles to compare Stalk Market prices – but when I ask them why, they too trip over their tongues. It’s not a love that can be explained; it just is.

So what is that intangible that keeps us plugging away at this loveless land? I’d like to say it’s the charm – which is a quality Animal Crossing has in abundance – but witticisms from jock hawks only go so far.

No, on reflection, I think it’s this: Animal Crossing: New Leaf goes to great lengths to give us a childish slant on an adult world, but it makes one very important distinction – in Animal Crossing, there is always hope.

Since prices are fixed, no interest is charged and no heavies turn up at your door if you skip a payment, you can measure your debt going down in gradual but steady increments, apple by apple, shaken tree by shaken tree. While the myriad complexities of the real world mean destitution is never more than a few missed payments away, here in Helmouth, Cooltown or anywhere you are the master of your own fate. Your finances and your lifestyle are yours to control, and you can be assured that your graft will be rewarded in time.

There’s a tipping point in Animal Crossing where you realise your investments have made you independently wealthy; this happens to all players so long as they put their nose to the grindstone for long enough. Real life rarely honours that guarantee.

And that’s why Animal Crossing: New Leaf is my game of the year. Not because it replicates the ugliness that blights the beauty of life, but because it finds beauty in the ugliness of life.