I haven’t played very many video games lately. I’ve racked my brain for two weeks straight, trying to motivate myself to play something new and exciting—something worth writing passionately about—but I’ve come up empty each and every time. I’ve got a shitty new job. Working there nearly every day these past few weeks, my head filled with the ambient buzz of couples arguing over brands of bacon, children kicking and screaming in shopping carts, and the persistent beep…beep…beep of checkout counters, most video games just did not appeal to me by the time I got home—there’s just so much involved in them. Too many things I’d be forced to do to progress. Too much gunfire, grunting, and the clanging of swords. And…eugh…puzzles.
I’d planned to play so many games—Azrael’s Tear, maybe replay Mass Effect—but even the prospect of plugging in my mouse had me searching for something else, anything else to do. I was procrastinating video games the way a student procrastinates studying for finals. Katamari Damacy’s time limits were stressing me out, and even TripleTown’s ninja bears proved too much for my brain to handle.
Sometimes, even the most avid games enthusiasts fall victim to the sensory overload that their hobby can induce. So during my past few weeks of inactivity, in what little spare time I managed to set aside for video games, the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to play is… Animal Crossing: City Folk.
Yeah, I went there—Animal Crossing—the game where you spend hours upon hours fishing, digging up fossils, tending to flowers, and paying off extortionate, impossible debts. It is, to put it eloquently, relaxing as fuck. When I was an awkward pre-teen, another awkward pre-teen friend of mine introduced me to Animal Crossing for Gamecube. It was a revelation—a video game where the only objective was to pay off a hefty mortgage at your own pace? Until then, my experience with games had told me that they were all about solving problems, saving the world, and underwater escort missions. Animal Crossing was a game that was truly about nothing, and the Seinfeld fan in me rejoiced at that concept.
While it’s somehow never managed to come up when asked about my favorite games of all time, I’ve been a loyal fan of the Animal Crossing series ever since. Wild World was one of the first games I bought for my Nintendo DS, and City Folk admittedly played a large role in my decision to buy a Wii. I’ve abandoned towns countless times, returning months later to a place inhabited largely by weeds and rafflesias and ultimately deciding to start anew– but I always do return. The allure of characters as adorable as Pascal and Blathers combined with the draw of managing a small fictional world without the headache of actually having to think about what I’m doing is just too much to pass up. I love loading up my game each day to see if my gardening has yielded me any pretty hybrids, or discussing with my animal neighbors the merits and woes of eating fifty pounds of peach cobbler. I love the freedom of creating clothing patterns, and spending the in-game currency on useless things without having to worry about missing a payment deadline and hurting my credit score.
Similar games just don’t do this for me. Harvest Moon is a relaxing series for sure, what with all its pleasant characters and marriageable ladies and the looking after of crops—but miss a day of watering? Fail to woo your lady of choice? You’ve just screwed yourself over, my friend. But the possibility of screwing yourself over doesn’t really exist in Animal Crossing. The Sims brings about the same brain-usage dilemma, where rather than a life simulator it becomes a puzzle in which the objective is to figure out how to ensure your characters have time to sleep, eat, poop, climb their respective career ladders, eat, and then sleep again each day without their kids/spouses/friends/dogs dying of neglect.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the stress of ruling over island nations in Tropico, the intensity of fighting off hordes of zombies in Left 4 Dead 2, and the anxiety associated with sneaking past guards in Metal Gear Solid (the alert sound still makes my heart skip a beat every time)—but when I’m trying to use video games as a means to unwind, am I the only one that feels like the aforementioned are pretty counterproductive in that regard?
This is silly. I know, I know, I know. How lazy can I possibly be if I’m in such a slump that I can’t muster up the energy to do something as low-impact as lying on the couch playing video games? But sometimes everyday life is so full of crap that you’re forced to retreat to an everyday life simulator to make up for the pleasant dullness you’ve missed out on. Sometimes, even “casual” games aren’t casual enough to suit this purpose. Sometimes, you just don’t feel like using your brain, but you still would also really like to sit in front of a glowing rectangle and move shapes around in a vaguely coherent fashion with absolutely no end-goal, and I know of no games series more suitable to this purpose than Animal Crossing.