Yeah, it’s pointless. But so is every other game you like.
When I tell people I’m playing Animal Crossing, they often ask me, “What’s the point of that game?” To be honest, Animal Crossing has no point. Some people can’t seem to wrap their heads around that idea: when I tell that that AC has no goals, no achievements, and no way to “beat the game,” they get even more confused. “Why would you play it then?”
It’s a loaded question. If you have to ask why somebody would play a game with no point, you should also ask yourself, “What’s the point of any video game?” What’s the point of The Legend of Zelda? Superficially, you could say that the goal is to defeat Ganon and save Hyrule, but in terms of what the games actually does for you, what was the point of playing it? Will your life be any better or worse if Hyrule gets saved? Probably not. What’s the point of Halo? Is the real world a better place because you stopped the Covenant? Are you more likely to score a high paying job or get into a good college because you improved your KTD ratio? Doubtful. What’s the point of Tetris? Or God of War? Starcraft? Or Phantasy Star and Mega Man? Do people really feel that a game has to have a meaningful “point” in order to be a worthwhile experience? Do you play games just to see your name on a high score screen? Or are you only playing to get an ending cinematic that pats you on the head and strokes your ego with a few lines about what a great hero you were? Is the end goal of a game more important than the content you experienced to get there?
I’ve heard a few people negatively describe Animal Crossing as “pointless,” but honestly, most video games are pointless if you really think about it. That statement will probably piss off a lot of self-aggrandizing fanboys who feel the need to imbue the act of playing video games with some sort of grandiose higher purpose, but honestly, when I say video games are pointless, I don’t mean that as a bad thing. Almost all media is pointless — most movies are pointless, most TV shows are pointless, and hell, most books (even those that are deemed to be “Literature” with a capital “L,”) are pretty goddamn pointless too. This review you’re reading right now is definitely pointless.
Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely believe that games are art, and the people who create them are artists in every sense of the word (Okay, maybe not the people who made Duke Nukem Forever.) I don’t mean to marginalize the work that goes into creating games, or the time and effort that people put into playing them, but let’s not kid ourselves here: it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that you’ve actually achieved something real and meaningful when you complete Skyrim or Batman: Arkham City or any other game, but in many ways, it’s a false sense of accomplishment. You didn’t actually do anything; you didn’t learn any important skills that you could use to get ahead in business or make the world a better place. Playing a game probably didn’t inspire some sort of grand epiphany that caused you to rethink your entire life.
So what is the point of playing video games? Just like most other forms of media consumption, playing games is simply entertaining, and nothing more than that. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Of course, there are those rare movies, TV shows, songs, books, and yes, games that leave a lasting impression on you — those rare masterpieces that affect you emotionally, challenge your values, and stick with you for the rest of your life (in terms of games, BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us are the most recent personal examples I can think of,)– but in general, most of the media you consume will be simple, gloriously pointless entertainment. Simply being entertaining is a huge accomplishment, as God knows there are plenty of games out there that fail to accomplish even that, so the ones that do manage to pull it off are rightfully celebrated. I’m glad that there are games nowadays that aspire to something more, but there’s nothing wrong with simply wanting to give people some simple fun.
So when you ask me, “What’s the point of playing Animal Crossing?” I’ll reply with “Cause it’s fun.” In the end, that’s the point of most video games, and that’s probably the reason why all of us started playing them in the first place. When you look at things from that perspective, then Animal Crossing isn’t all that different from any other game, because in the grand scheme of things, they’re all equally “pointless.” The thing that separates AC from the rest is that it doesn’t even pretend that there’s a point to it beyond having fun, and that lack of pretense is exactly what makes it so great.
In the last two weeks, I’ve probably sunk more than thirty hours into New Leaf. A good chunk of that time was spent rearranging the furniture in my house. You don’t really get anything for setting up your furniture in a particular way. I just simply wanted to make my house look nice so that I could show off whenever any of my friends came to visit. I have no passion for interior design: the only furniture in my real life apartment are a bunch of shelves, a futon, some posters of leggy women, and a TV. But while I’m completely okay with my spartan residence in real life, I spent hours in Animal Crossing agonizing over the best place to put my new couch. I couldn’t sleep at night because I wondered if my new hutch matched the rest of the decor in my (virtual) kitchen. My floor in real life is littered with empty Coke bottles, discarded fast food wrappers and old Best Buy receipts, and I really don’t care enough to clean it all up. In contrast, I’ve spent dozens of hours expanding and redecorating my house in New Leaf, and I can’t bring myself to put my 3DS down until every piece of furniture is in exactly the right place.
Is there a point to any of this? No, not at all. You don’t unlock new content for figuring out the most aesthetically pleasing spot in the room to put your new flat-screen TV. There’s no achievements for finding a carpet that compliments your wallpaper. It’s completely pointless… and for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I can’t stop playing it. I simply need to have a nicer house than everybody else I know.
The lack of a clearly defined “point” or end goal in Animal Crossing has led to an interesting side effect: everybody I know who plays the game seems to be playing it for completely different reasons.
You could almost use the game as a sort of Rorschach Test to determine somebody’s personality. Since the game doesn’t tell what you’re supposed to be doing, people end up making up their own goals. Some of the players I’ve met have spent hours beautifying their town by funding the construction of fountains and by planting flowers everywhere. Some of my friends have dedicated themselves to catching all of the collectible bugs and fish in the game. The more artistically inclined seem to spend all their time drawing new patterns for clothes and furniture. The game has tapped into my more materialistic tendencies has turned me into a Queen of Versailles-esque maniac. I simply can’t stop until my McMansion is complete.
Animal Crossing is a blank slate that people project their personalities onto, and it seems like nobody can stop playing it until they fulfill some sort of personal ideal within the game. When you visit another player’s town, you can genuinely get a feel for what kind of person they are by observing what they’ve accomplished in the game and what aspects of the experience that they’ve focused on. I can’t really think of another game that’s like that, and the way that the game reflects the personality of its player is truly Animal Crossing’s most unique and compelling feature.
The Animal Crossing series debuted long before the term “social game” was even coined, but there’s some undeniable structural similarities between the game and Farmville and its ilk. Like other social games, Animal Crossing wants you to play it every day. It encourages you to make the game part of your daily routine. But despite its similarities to the games churned out of the Zynga assembly line, Animal Crossing manages to avoid all of the negative traits associated with social games: it doesn’t have micro-transactions, so you’re free to experience all of its content without the developer trying to nickel and dime you at every turn. You aren’t encouraged to spam your friends with invites to join the game either. Over the last few years, the term “social game” has become a pejorative tossed around by gamers to refer to games that aren’t “real” games, but are instead money making schemes that put micro-transactions first and gameplay second. Animal Crossing is not one of those social games; rather, it’s a good example of what social games could and should be.
The “social” aspect in most social games revolves around filling your Facebook feed with advertisements for the game until all of your friends ignore you or decide to try the game for themselves (the former is probably more likely than the latter.) Animal Crossing rises above the shameless panhandling associated with most social games by creating an experience that you’ll actually want to share with your friends. The game never forces you to play with others: you can unlock all of its content by playing by yourself if you really wanted to. But even though it never forces you to do so, you will definitely want to hook up with other players: besides being able to trade items, swap designs, etc., it’s simply fun to talk with other players about what’s happening in your town. The game is filled with all sorts of random, fun events: for instance, last night one of the animals in my town had a birthday party. None of the players on my friends list had ever seen this in-game event before, so when I told them about it over the game’s messaging system, suddenly everybody wanted to come visit my town to see what was going on. It was such a simple — and again, pointless — thing, but it was an event that people actually wanted to experience together.
Animal Crossing doesn’t have any pop-up messages that encourage you to tell your Facebook friends about the game, but even without being coerced into peddling it, I found myself talking about it on Facebook and Twitter constantly. Since everybody seems to be playing the game for different reasons, people experience different events as well, so it’s actually legitimately interesting and fun to swap stories with other players.
Unfortunately, Nintendo’s inexperience with online features makes sharing the game with others slightly more of a chore than it needs to be. Online play is surprisingly smooth, but setting up online meet-ups is a pain. Besides having to exchange the usual 3DS Friend Codes (protip to Nintendo: give us Miiverse on 3DS already,) you’ll also need to set up a meeting time outside of the game, since you’re not allowed to message other players until you’ve met them in game and added them to your “Best Friends” list. Travelling to other players’ towns is one of the highlights of the game, but the process is overly clunky as well: for instance, if you’re visiting one friend’s town and you decide that you want to visit a different friend, you first need to board a train back to your own town (which takes awhile, since the game needs to save and reload all of your data,) then hop back on another train to your other friend’s town (which again requires the game to save and reload.) The game also lets you take your own screenshots, but in order to upload them online you need to load up a separate app. These problems don’t ruin the game, but they definitely make the experience a fair bit clumsier than it needs to be.
Still, despite the clunky online set-up, it’s hard to not be enamored with Animal Crossing. Look beyond its cute veneer and you’ll find a game that’s actually a pretty intelligent deconstruction of the whole medium: Animal Crossing New Leaf is a game that understands that most games don’t offer anything beyond “pointless” fun and it absolutely celebrates and revels in that idea. If you’re looking for a game that you can use to prove how much “hardcore” machismo you have, keep walking, cause this isn’t the game for you. A lot of narrow minded gamers who mistakenly cling to the idea that games need a “point” will still probably take issue with its goalless nature, but if your goal is to simply have some fun, then Animal Crossing: New Leaf will keep you satiated for months. One of my elementary school teachers used to say, “If you play for fun, you’ve already won.” It’s a cheesy saying sure, and I’m pretty sure she only said it so that the loser kids who failed at everything wouldn’t feel bad, but its an adage that rings true with Animal Crossing: it’s not perfect, it’s not for everybody, there’s no point to any of it, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.
Final Score: 8.5/10