Something unexpected happened to me today: I fell in love with Animal Crossing.
I guess that sounds weird. After all, I've been playing New Leaf for nearly two months now (longer if you count the import version), and I gave it a very positive review. And yet, until now I don't think my heart was ever really in it. Don't get me wrong, I like the game. I enjoy all the changes present in this latest entry; I appreciate the fact that it's much easier to farm money if you just want to blast through your home upgrades; and I love that Nintendo has enough respect for my time that they've made tons of tiny tweaks to reduce tedium and repetition.
Still, much as I've enjoyed building my little virtual presence, there was something rote about the way I've been playing. That's been especially true since our review went up, because I live under the cursed blessing of all game reviewers: We get early access to games, but we're forced to move along to the next review right as everyone else begins enjoying the experience. With a game as social as Animal Crossing, the need for me to work on other releases has kept me from properly savoring its depth by isolating me from other players.
But this morning, things were different. Literally different; Animal Crossing operates on a rigid schedule based on the calendar, with fairly dramatic changes happening on the first of each month. Today, July 1, marked the beginning of summer in New Leaf. Yes, the solstice happened a week ago, and the game marked that occasion, too. But real summer -- the kind where you feel uncomfortable and long for a drink of water just by playing the game -- kicked off today. June saw unpredictable weather: Sunny one day, rainy the next, with occasional days of leaden grey skies that spoke of withering humidity through the quality of light alone. With the advent of July, however, the weather has changed. The skies are clearer, the sunlight more vivid. And most of all, the cicadas are out.
Normally when new bugs and fish appear at the top of the month, it clicks with me on a mechanical level: Look, new things to collect and give to the museum. Summer's arrival hit me differently. It provoked a gut reaction -- an emotional reaction. It wasn't any one particular element of this month's new additions to the game world, but rather the gestalt of it all.
I stepped out of my little imaginary home today and, as often happens on warm summer days in this game, my little imaginary avatar fanned himself to denote the heat. But he didn't have to. I heard the cicadas singing, and immediately I was transported to summer.
I don't see a lot of summer these days. I live in San Francisco, America's least summery city. We have our warm days, even a handful of hot ones, but even those fall out of sync with the rest of the world's seasons: Our hottest days tend to fall in April and October, with foggy, chilly summers in between. You won't hear me complaining. I spent more than 25 years of my life in Texas and Michigan, places whose summers oppress for entirely different reasons: Texas with blistering, dry, desert temperatures that can vault 100ºF for weeks at a time, Michigan with a perpetual humidity index that generally equals the air temperature plus 10. I love the cool August climes on this weird little Pacific peninsula, but as is human nature I still have fond memories of suffering beneath Texas' merciless July sun.
New Leaf took me back in time this morning. Walking through my town, the sounds of different cicadas -- the shimmering rattle of the brown cicadas I know from my own childhood, and the raspier oscillations of the Japanese cicadas that provide the background noise of so much of the anime I freebased in college -- mingled with the whirr of grasshoppers and the thrum of frogs lurking beneath the northeast pond. As I passed through the trees, the sounds of these bugs and beasts dopplered across my senses. I was struck by a powerful memory of wandering the woods behind my great-aunt's lakeside home in Michigan, seeking shade beneath the trees as respite from the merciless afternoon sun. Of stepping over fallen branches, kicking rotted logs to watch the bugs inside scurry to safety, and plucking cicada shells from the bark of oak trees. I remembered catching cicadas by hand and holding them up to show our house cat through our home's screen door, which sent her into absolute paroxyms, eager to get her paws on and play with those fascinating little creatures. Animal Crossing's Japanese name translates to "Animal Forest," but only today has the series ever lived up to that title for me.
The funny thing is, none of these details are new to the series. This is how Animal Crossing works with every single release. What's different this time around is me. Like the cave on Dagobah, what you find in Animal Crossing is only that which you take with you. In my previous flirtations with the game, I lacked the distance -- both physical and emotional -- to really appreciate the ambiance this tiny world creates. I still lived in Michigan when the GameCube Animal Crossing debuted, so miserable summers were still a part of my life. And when Wild World debuted a few years later, I was a recent enough arrival in San Francisco to revel in its estival chill, a world removed from Texas' scorching heat.
Now, though, New Leaf offers a tiny way to surround myself with the ephemera of bygone times, and not with the strained pop culture references or other contrivances so many other forms of entertainment lean on. Rather, it simply creates a context, a backdrop that hooks into my memories and sends my mind reeling backward with the same sensual purity that I experience when I taste strawberry-rhubarb jam (though it's never as good as the stuff my grandmother made for us with the berries and rhubarb she grew in her garden) or get a whiff of someone wearing the perfume my other grandmother used daily. The susurrant buzz of New Leaf's imaginary insects can't truly take me back in time, but they evoke something inside me that I find almost inexplicably profound. And most of all, these new experiences are as fleeting as the original memories in their own way; Animal Crossing runs on a real-time clock, and before long the seasons will change. The cicadas will vanish again for a year.
I've heard a lot of people say that Animal Crossing has truly come into its own with New Leaf, and to a degree that's true. The workings and mechanisms of the series fit together with far more grace than in the past. Yet on so many levels, this is still the same game as every other Animal Crossing to date. I think, more likely, Animal Crossing fans have finally grown up enough to appreciate Animal Crossing on a deeper, albeit more intangible, level. People who first explored the series on GameCube in their college days are in their 30s now; we have jobs, or desperately seek them; we're married, or maybe divorced. We've moved, we've lost precious things, we've grieved, we've celebrated. Some of us even have our own kids who are old enough to play the game, just like the characters we meet along the way.
Of course, an elementary schooler won't appreciate something like New Leaf in the same way as their parents. But that's OK, too. The wide-eyed openness a child brings to this game is as valid a lens through which to view such a wonderfully protean experience as their parents' wistful nostalgia. And in the process, the game that dredges up so many subconscious recollections in the older generation is becoming a part of the younger generation's tapestry of formative memories: Something that will in turn be evoked years down the road by some other creative work, or a random sound, or a disconnected snippet of music.
Maybe tomorrow I'll be back to methodically gathering a small fortune in fruit and making my perfunctory tour of town in search of the last two fossil fragments my museum is missing. But for now, I'm content to sit in San Francisco's mild July air and let the songs of cicadas take my mind on vacation to places far away and long ago.