Somewhere around my 20th hour of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, I began to suffocate.
At that point, I had about 10 hours invested into the U.S. version on top of goofing around in the Japanese import a few months back for a similar amount of time: A fair amount of time, yet a tiny little radar-blip of the hours Animal Crossing is meant to consume. On a good day, I can pull in about 30 to 40 thousand Bells (the local currency) for a couple hours' work; reaching the equivalent of the "end game," which is to say expanding my house to its mansion-like potential, requires nearly a million of them. And that's not even considering all the other things to spend money on: Public works projects, boat rides, new local ordinances, and of course a ludicrous amount of clothes and furniture with which to customize my villager and his ever-growing home.
Those 20 hours seem so trivial in the grand scheme of things, really, but nevertheless I felt a flash of something almost akin to a panic attack at that moment -- the same sense of claustrophobia I experience when I watch The Shawshank Redemption and Andy Dufrense begins to crawl through that narrow, two-mile-long drainage pipe in the rain and dark. The difference between that scene and my Animal Crossing experience is that Dufrense was crawling toward freedom. Me, I'd inched a mere 30,000 Bells into a multi-million-Bell indentureship to capitalism.
As I made the exact same pass over the same little corner of my tiny village I'd wandered 100 times before, watering the same flowers and shaking the same trees in the hope of netting loose coins rather than angry wasps, I found myself overcome by the mundanity of it all. Now, I've never been much for simulation games. I've dabbled in games like Populous, Civilization, and The Sims, and I always find myself tuning out after an hour or two. I feel too disconnected. Shuffling abstract numbers and assets around a spreadsheet -- however prettily they've dressed up those numbers -- just doesn't do it for me. So what is it about Animal Crossing that makes New Leaf the third time I'll be pouring entirely too many hours into tending plants and writing letters to idiotic animal people?
I think, in part, the appeal lies in the game's directness. Since I'm controlling a little guy running around in a 3/4 perspective rather than skimming over the world as a disembodied cursor, Animal Crossing kind of feels like an action game minus anything resembling violence. It's tangible -- concrete. The other side of the coin is the game's sense of boundaries. Animal Crossing doesn't give you a blank canvas or a vast palette of options to deal with; you move into a town with a government, an economy, and a handful of citizens. It's about renovating and improving rather than creating. And it does that unique Nintendo thing where it entices you to play a little bit every day without nagging you about it.
But that same finite scope is exactly what made me feel like the walls were closing in. Do I really not have better things to do with my life than run back and forth over the same acre of ground, I wondered? Planting trees and looking for freshly revealed fossils for an hour every day? Why am I doing this again? Even though Animal Crossing casts players as the only human resident in a town full of beast-men, I was the one that felt like the animal. Caged up, stuck in my endless run of repetition, waiting for -- what, exactly? I closed the lid of my 3DS, set the system aside, and vowed to spend a few days away from New Leaf.
A few hours later, I was back at it again. No sense in letting the day's fossils go unearthed, right? And it would be a shame to let the weeds propagate. And maybe an interesting visitor would show up in the town. And there was that new shop under construction in the business district the day before. And....