Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Animal Crossing: New Leaf; the perfect game?

Digitally Downloaded Animal Crossing
Digitally Downloaded is invading your games!
My little avatar is sitting in a cafe, having a mid-afternoon digital coffee and chat with Digitally Downloaded editor, Clark (or, at least, his avatar). They're not actually doing much. Just performing the in-game action of sitting and chatting via short, single-line conversation bubbles. Afterwards they'll go and do a spot of fishing, and trade fruits to grow take back to town to grow an orchard and set up a farming operation to earn those ever-precious bells to build up their towns and homes.

But there's no goal to any of these interactions or actions. Staying in that cafe all day long achieves as much in Animal Crossing as building an awesome house filled with Mario-themed toys. Why? Because Animal Crossing isn't prescriptive. It's a toy box in which players are welcome to do whatever they like without pressure or the ever-looming threat of not finishing the game if they don't do something. And to me that experience is the perfect game.


Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the first time I've ever played a game in the series, so I wasn't really sure of what to expect when going into it. Within the first hour of play I realised I would love it for the simple fact that it is oh-so-similar to the Harvest Moon game that I consider to be the pinnacle of the series: Tree of Tranquility on the Nintendo Wii.

Coffee house!
See, where some Harvest Moon games throw a plot at the players, Tree of Tranquility really doesn't. Players are instead left to their own devices. They can build a farm, go fishing, tend to animals, or even engage with the "main" story, which is really much more like a side quest than something central to the overall experience. As a point of reference - I spend over 100 hours in Tree of Tranqulity and didn't get much further through the "main story" than I had at the 10-hour mark. If I was feeling especially lazy, I would do literally nothing and just wander into town and flirt with the girls or pat the local cats and dogs. It was pure immersion - a break from the real world where I never felt pressured into doing anything.

In fact, it struck me as I was playing Tree of Tranquility that I wasn't really playing a video game, as the games industry is pushing towards a definition of them. There was no defining start, middle or end. There were no mid-act dramatic peaks. Where the industry is so desperate to obtain the cinematic by copying cinema wholesale, Tree of Tranquility's entire experience rested on what the player, not developer, wanted to do at any given moment of time.

This photo op achieves no purpose. Except that it's fun.
Animal Crossing is exactly the same. Players set themselves goals, or they don't. They play for ten minutes once a week, or a hour a day, and the experience in fundamentally the same. What Animal Crossing is, as was Tree of Tranquility, is a virtual toy box.

There are other examples. PlayStation Home. Minecraft. Games that don't dictate to players what they should be doing. Games that don't drive players in the specific direction that some faceless writer sitting inside the offices on some development house has decided that players need to travel down. I've written in the past about how interactivity in gaming remains an illusion despite the gains in technological capabilities.. Games like these above are the counter argument and are, I feel, a lesson for other game developers to learn from.

So much is said about how short many modern games are. A Call of Duty campaign is over in five or six hours. Even The Last Of Us, which impressed many with its depth of content, is over in 20 hours, at most. Developers compensate with multiplayer modes that are functionally endless, but overly competitive and results-driven. The intensity of a game's multiplayer is beyond the tolerance threshold of many.

Home is where the tent sits.
And yet, the Animal Crossing games have incredible replay value - if you look at the data for the Wii game, for instance, players clocked in an average of 80 hours of play per person. This is incredible when you consider that those games like Call of Duty and The Last Of Us takes place over massive spans of land filled with all kinds of visual wonderment to see an experience. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (much as Harvest Moon Tree of Tranquility did before it) take place in one or two tiny, enclosed environments.

So what gives these tiny toy box games such a lengthy play time? I keep coming back to the hands-off approach of the developers. Because players are free to do as they will, there is no need to produce expensive cut scenes, or force people to experience them because of the expense of making them. But more critically, because the developers are so hands-off the experience, a game like Animal Crossing becomes a deeply personal experience for each player.

Every house and every town in Animal Crossing is entirely different from every other house and town. The more control players have over their experience the more personal responsibility they take on for their experience within the game.

I have spent literally dozens of hours fishing.
Numerous times I've felt a compulsion to check in on my town because I need to see what's happening to it and because I am so involved in the development of my town and the small world that these characters inhabit, the social interactions from the online side of the game feel more real.

Which brings me back to that cafe meeting with Clark. It achieved nothing within my game, and yet that is entirely appropriate since there's no levelling up to be had by having a coffee with friends in real life either. It's simply good fun, and Animal Crossing, more than perhaps any other game, understands that sometimes the primal urge to simply play with virtual toys is enough to drive long-term interest for no other reason than you can.

That is true depth. There's not a statistic or Hollywood actor in sight in Animal Crossing, and yet as an experience it is more deeply personal than anything else that has been released this year, if not ever. If that isn't pushing towards perfection, then nothing is. 
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