Animal Crossing, Progress, and Tomorrow's Promises

Tomorrow. Things will change tomorrow.


When I first stepped into my little town of Praha in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, I felt a comfortable familiarity. I named my town affectionately after the city that I studied abroad in. It brings to mind a time when I felt glad to be young and aimless. A time when, unlike now, unemployment was a gift of freedom, and money felt slightly less tangible. As I scrolled my way through the opening dialogue and character creation, I felt the waves of ease this series is known for conjuring. Everyone is so happy to meet me, their new mayor and neighbor. I plot out the spot where I want to live: a cliff overlooking the beach with just enough space to fit a garden out front. Tom Nook pitches the tent that the player calls home for the opening hours. This won’t do, I thought. My current apartment is small, sure, but a tent? No, that won’t do at all.

I paid the preliminary 10,000 bells for Nook to construct my house and was reminded
of how Animal Crossing is paced. “Construction will be ready tomorrow,” he explained. Back on the Gamecube version, I would have simply quit the game and pushed the time forward 24-hours. “Time traveling” as the community refers to it, is seen as antithetical to the game’s purpose, and I assured myself at the start of this play-through that I would resist the urge. So, I shut off my 3DS, and did something else, content with the fact that I would open the game tomorrow and things would have changed. For the better, surely.

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Tomorrow. Things will be better tomorrow.

I booted up my 3DS. It was a Wednesday morning, and I had applied for a few jobs and felt accomplished over my clean apartment. I would only play for an hour, I told myself. After all, the great thing about Animal Crossing’s progression system is how much it forces you to wait. It feels rewarding to know that 24 hours from now--real life hours--my town will change. Even right now, writing this at a local bar, I am eager to see my newly completed community fountain. Nintendo has had several chances to hone the gameplay loop, and everything manages to feel exceptionally rewarding. Catch some fish and bugs, gather fruit, and fulfill minor favors for your animal villagers, then use the bells you get from your engagement with the village to build it up over days, weeks, and months. 

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This slow progression is more rewarding at this moment in my life than it may have been a year ago. Admittedly, I feel stuck. Everyday feels the same: apply for jobs, clean, play a game, try so hard to write, and then go to bed and do it again. I keep telling myself that I’ll try comedy writing or join a gym or go for a hike or something that will break up the humdrum of life. Animal Crossing harnesses that core anxiety and works to mend it by presenting a clear way forward. Progress comes eventually, sure, but you have to wait for it. It is different from other games where your progress entirely depends on the work you put in. Patience is key, and right now patience is something I’m trying to learn.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow will be the same.

New people are filling my town everyday. I’m not exactly sure how this mechanic works. In past games, people moved into town in accordance with the work you put in, and moved out if they felt the town was neglected. That seems to be the general idea in New Leaf as well, but with a healthy dose of random chance thrown in. One of my favorite things about this game is how celebrated each new member of the town is. They are unique in species, color, style, and personality, and I can find the charm in each one of them. It feels different than the life I lived growing up where new people, especially “different” people, were met with skepticism in my school and neighborhood.

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Animal Crossing can do much better in terms of race. And of course the new feature in New Leaf to report the citizens as “problematic” feels weird, even though it is based in a legitimate concern over online interaction. But the act of inviting those who are different than you into your community feels particularly important now. As the current administration rips families apart and tries to make us afraid of our neighbors, seeing a healthy representation of immigration contrasts particularly effectively with present day.

Gaming feels like a distraction, right now. There is work that needs to be done, not just in my own life but on a grand scale, and I have felt that I can and should be doing more. Animal Crossing’s progression sneaks up on you. You make a small change here, a minor tweak over there, and suddenly you look back at the town you have been building--weeks or months later--to find that so many things have changed. In real life, I have felt paralyzed by inaction and the lack of progress. Mustering the strength to fight against the current injustices in the world is draining, and that’s coming from somebody afforded with quite a bit of privilege.  The work of people who care builds upon itself, but at this moment it feels that those who care are on the defensive. 

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Tomorrow. Tomorrow will come.

What do you do when you feel like the world is crashing down around you? I used to pick up a game and immerse myself in that world instead. Maybe I’d commit myself to a Souls game; beat my head against a wall a few times, but feel a rush of excitement and accomplishment at the conclusion of a boss battle. But now, that head beating feels too real. Maybe I’d dive into a narrative driven adventure game. My copy of God of War is still in my PS4, I could play that and get lost in the tragic and moving story of a father and son. Except, father and son tragedies aren’t fictitious; or at least, they can’t be made to feel as such anymore. Hell, maybe I’d dig into Trials to wheelie, flip, and race my way to a new high score. But the number only goes higher; it doesn’t feel conclusive enough.

Animal Crossing, with its charming humor, slow-paced progression, and lackadaisical gameplay scratches enough of my gaming itch at the moment to keep me engaged. But even within its boundless charm, I can’t help but find the same lack of meaningful fulfillment. Of course I won’t get that from gaming alone, and I’ve always known that. But something about this very moment, this ongoing crisis of halted progress and moving backwards, makes the frivolity of it all feel that much more palpable. The only reason I’m even able to talk about video games in this piece is because that is what is expected of my writing on this site. And that’s all well and good, I love video games, but there is no shame in failing to find the joy. There is always another day for those moments, until there isn’t. So keep finding the tomorrow.