Thursday, December 15, 2011

Animal Crossing: Mini-Games Within a Simulation

The Animal Crossing franchise is among Nintendo's most popular brands and has been a part of every Nintendo system's lineup since the Nintendo 64 as a result. But what is it that makes the series entertaining? The original Animal Crossing was a game without any conflict outside of a passive compulsion to pay off your house's debt and collect things to decorate it with. The game itself is entirely based around collection, which is reserved for side quests in other games. There is no end game, character progression, or punishment for doing poorly. These things make Animal Crossing abnormally difficult to define and make describing what makes it entertaining difficult. The word 'fun' is not one that can be used in tandem with Animal Crossing, because it is not truly a game. Animal Crossing's closest relative, The Sims, can be defined as a game, but also as a simulation. Although it contains mini-game elements, and is well designed, Animal Crossing differs from The Sims in that it is purely a simulation. Animal Crossing is its own breed of simulation where the goal is discovery and experimentation for the player's own benefit rather than for the benefit of a game system.

The original Animal Crossing is a well designed experience whether it is a game or not. The town is relatively small, but a town map is provided to assist in navigating it. After playing for a short time, the player rarely needs to check their map. The controls are very intuitive, and rarely rely on any buttons other than A or B. The A button is used the most consistently and it can be pressed to achieve almost anything, from talking to people to digging and fishing. The constant use of A ties the player's thumb to that button. While many true games provide a 'run button' or a 'punch button', the A button acts more as a unified 'reaction button'. When a player runs into a mysterious character in their town, they impulsively press A and await what happens next. When the player falls into a pitfall in the ground, they repeatedly press A to escape without thinking at all. There is some general direction initially; when the player first gets a shovel, the store keeper tells them to press A to use it. But these reminders are almost unneeded and lack of direction in button use introduces the player to experimentation. The experimental nature of the game removes its ability to access the player's expectations initially, which is what first truly separates Animal Crossing from a game.

The player is thrown into a world without rules, which is initially fairly shocking, and does not support an obvious mental model. At first glance, the player has no idea what they are about to experience or how they can affect the world around them. A short tutorial is provided in the form of a job at Nook's Cranny, the local store, but there is no actual instruction involved. The storekeeper, Tom Nook, tells the player to go meet all of the villagers, change into a work uniform, and plant flowers, without actually telling them how to do any of it. It may have made more sense to include some indication that there was a menu outside of the game screen, but the purpose of omitting this is clear. The user must figure out how to talk to people by pressing A, and they must find the menu with START in order to accomplish the tasks in front of them. These things are very easily figured out, but they reveal to the player what kind of experience Animal Crossing is going to be. Nintendo purposefully removes the player's ability to form a mental model, in order to force them to experiment. This taps directly into what Animal Crossing is all about.

Tracy Fullerton describes a game as having three key aspects: it must be “a closed, formal system”, it must “[engage] players in structured conflict”, and it must “resolve uncertainty in an unequal outcome”. Animal Crossing is a closed, formal system, and there are many uncertain situations that end unequally, but it is not structured. It is purely a sandbox, with no lose or win conditions. There are environmental reactions that could be perceived as negative by the player, but these things have no bear on the system itself. The Sims is a life simulation, but it is also a game because the player can lose. If a character dies, they are forced to make another character and start again from the beginning. There is little in the way of winning, but the losing state renders all other states 'winning' states. Animal Crossing, on the other hand, is entirely about exploration and experimentation and is never about winning. Webster defines a simulation as “examination of a problem often not subject to direct experimentation by means of a simulating device.” This definition is a perfect one for Animal Crossing. In the same way a flight simulator allows someone to experience flight without fear of repercussions, Animal Crossing allows them to live a separate life without the fear of loss or regret. This does not mean that Animal Crossing is not rewarding though.

The feedback that Animal Crossing presents mostly takes place in the shape of collecting trophies that reward the experimentation and exploration that the simulation presents with its other features. Players who fish at different times of the day and in different weather conditions are rewarded with various types of fish. Players who talk to various villagers at different times are rewarded with fetch quests that result in furniture and clothing. The sheer number of items and collectables in Animal Town is staggering which leaves a lot of room for exploration. The true reward though, is discovering the many events throughout the year that Nintendo has planned out.

Staying up very late can result in meeting Wisp the ghost, while rolling two snowballs together can result in meeting the Snowman. Additionally, holidays introduce characters like Jack, the Czar of Halloween and Jingle the Reindeer. There is a huge cast of characters to meet and each reward the player with special items or services. In addition, every character has a unique task that the player must perform to receive their reward, making meeting exciting and rewarding. Events like these are what truly drive the experience and invite the player to play each day and explore in hopes of meeting new, outlandish personalities. These events are fairly game-like in that they have win/loss conditions, but a player is free to experience them or not without any negative impact. There are other game elements that sway Animal Crossing slightly down the gaming path however.

The simulation features fishing, which is performed somewhat like a mini-game. The player casts out a line and waits for the fish to pull their bobber underwater. They must then push A at just the right time to pull the fish in. The player who fails to push at the right time, loses the fish and must move somewhere else before another one returns. Likewise, players who wish to collect insects that are perched on trees or flowers must do so in one swipe or suffer a similar fate. These activities are the closest that Animal Crossing gets to being a game due to their structured win/loss conditions, but their inclusion is not enough to call the entire package a game. They are optional mini-games within a simulation and their simplicity and seamless inclusion with the world remains consistent with the rest of the experience. In a similar vein, the original Animal Crossing featured collectable NES games which could be played from the player's house. Again, these were distractions within the simulation and are not enough to call the entire program a game. However, they are significant because of their comparison to The Sims.

In The Sims, players could direct their character to play a video game, which their character acted out. In Animal Crossing, the player walks over to the NES game and plays it directly. The Sims treats the player's characters as separate from themselves. They are people in the care of the user. Animal Crossing acts as if the player character is a version of the player in a virtual world. The Sims features interact-able game objects that act like people, while Animal Crossing features an avatar through which the player can live out a separate life. This is an important distinction between a life simulation game and a pure life simulation.

The life that Animal Crossing presents is fictionalized and idealized, much as an amateur flight simulation program simplifies the complexities of flight. Therein lies Animal Crossing's purpose. It is an idealized life that a user can live separately from their own. It cannot be considered a game because it lacks the typical win/lose structure of one, but that does not mean that it is not worth experiencing. Those who inhabit its charming world are able to let go of their lives in the real world for a time and experience another version of it where they are completely in control and where exciting things happen all the time. Animal Crossing is a well designed simulation that happens to feature a few game elements, but is just as entertaining as a game.

Fullerton, Tracy, Christopher Swain, and Steven Hoffman. Game Design Workshop: A 
     Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. Burlington, MA: Elsevier 
     Inc, 2008. Google Books. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. .

"Simulation." Def. 3b. Merriam-Webster's Student Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, 
     2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. .

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