Retrospective: Animal Crossing

DO NOT ESCAP.

Several Christmases ago, I went to Guildford to interview Peter Molyneux. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked him what I thought was a pretty sneaky question in order to get him to spill the beans on his next, as yet unannounced project. "I know you can't tell me what you're working on at the moment," I said, laying a trap so elegant that even a canny panther might find himself caught within its snare, "but can you tell me about the problems with games that you're currently interested in solving?" I sat back and complimented myself on my underhand brilliance. Maybe after this interview, I should apply to the CIA.

Molyneux thought for a minute. His phone went off - a weird Jools Holland-style dum-der-dum-der-dum piano ringtone, I'm sad to report - and he ignored it. Then, he looked at me. "Games," he said, allowing for a portentous pause, "games have lost their sense of wonder."

I smiled and nodded, and pretended to turn that thought over in my head a little. Really, though, I was thinking, "Well, that didn't work." Then I went home and spent most of Christmas stuck on a train just outside of Tonbridge.

I haven't thought about what Molyneux said since - until a few weeks ago, anyway. A few weeks ago, I was having a curry with a friend and chatting about my first encounter with Animal Crossing, Nintendo's weird village sim that I played quite a bit back in the days of the GameCube.

My friend Stu and I - we worked, at the time, two cubicles away from each other - had seen pictures of the game in Edge, but didn't know much about it. When the US version turned up at our local import shop, we picked it up, paying half each for one copy so we could split the shame if it turned out to be a stinker. We didn't bother to read the manual: we just started to play.

It was a morning in early Spring. We pootled around our village a little, met Tom Nook who is, as I'm sure you're aware, an utter bastard, poked around our new houses, and messed about with a shovel. Animal Crossing seemed strange, but fun: a weird kind of expanded Tamagotchi.

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If you know Chris Schilling, ask him about the Able Sisters' backstory. IT WILL MAKE YOU CRY.

We checked back in that evening - and that was when Animal Crossing started to come into focus. It was evening in the game now, too, the little windows of the houses sending out warm yellow light, and snow had started to fall. That was enough for us - a game that moved through time exactly as you did, which kept pace with you, evening for evening, month for month! - but there were more surprises in store. We dug a hole, and stuck a pear in the ground, and then buried it.

A shoot emerged! We went for a wander, and saw a gift box floating through the air on a balloon. We chased it, but couldn't catch it, and it didn't snag on any trees. The next morning, Stu phoned me up and said, "That shoot is growing!" (Then he said, "Oh, it's Stu, by the way.") It was all a bit much for us.

I hadn't thought about Animal Crossing in years, but it all came back. In the gloom of that curry house, I heard, as country singers often put it, that lonesome train whistle blow, and I suddenly realised something. Something big. Something original. Something important. "Games," I said, allowing for a portentous pause, "games have lost their sense of wonder."

And so last weekend I tore my house apart looking for a village. The village was called Tristero - I was going through one of my tedious literary stages at the time I named it - and it lived on a friendly chunk of light grey plastic: a GameCube memory card with a sticker on the front that said, "DO NOT ESCAP". (The reason for this, incidentally, makes a strange kind of sense. I had meant to write "DO NOT ERASE" and had been doing a pretty good job of that. Early into writing the word "ERASE", though, my mind started to wander, and I ended up trying to write "ESCAPE" instead. I don't know why exactly. Then I ran out of room for the last "E".)

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