One thousand twenty-eight hours and thirty-three minutes. That comes out to just shy of 43 days, or almost a month and a half. That’s how much time I spent playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf for the Nintendo 3DS over the course of about five years. Why did I spend so much time in a single game, much less one that’s reviled as hardly a game at all?
Animal Crossing, for those who may not know, can best be described as a series of life sim games. You play as a young human who moves into a small town full of animal villagers and spend your days fishing, digging up fossils, decorating your house and making friends with your neighbors. There’s no end to the game and no set goals to accomplish. It goes on forever, and it moves along in real time. If you start playing at 3pm, it’s 3pm in your village. It’s designed to be relaxed, easygoing and something that doesn’t demand very much of you.
Animal Crossing is my favorite game series. I’ve played and loved them all ever since the original game hit the GameCube back in 2002. It’s a story for another day, but I owe some of my best friendships and my marriage to Animal Crossing. It’s incredible how much it’s steered my life.
New Leaf was one of my most anticipated games of all time. I remember being at a convention and a Nintendo representative showing a small group of us the game on his personal 3DS months before the game came out. He smiled and said “I’m not supposed to show you this, but…” and his character put on a wetsuit and jumped into the water. “YOU CAN SWIM?!?!?!?” We were all knocked on our asses. This is Animal Crossing hype. It only sounds stupid if you’re not already wrapped up in it.
It probably sounds stupid even if you are. Whatever.
I fell in love hard with New Leaf right from the start. Unique to this game, you are made the mayor of the town you move into and as such get to customize your town even more than in other games. While previously you could only really customize the inside and outside of your house, in New Leaf you can also add more buildings like a coffee shop and police station, install things like statues, playgrounds and bridges and even change the appearance of the town hall or train station.
Again, if you’re part of it, this is all very compelling.
I took a lot of pride in decorating my town. I meticulously planted trees, flowers and bushes all over my town to make everything look lush and green. I used the game’s design tools to make a wooden path that went all around my town, providing a clear path to everyone’s house. I decorated my in-game house with all kinds of fun things that I wish I had in real life. I got all my favorite villagers to move into my town (like Ketchup, the duck who looks like a tomato).
Animal Crossing is a game, sure, but for me it’s always been a sanctuary.
Let’s be honest, life is hard. Even when you don’t have kids or anything the world has a way of knocking you around and making you feel like you’re nothing more than a sack of soggy butts. You go to work, you come home, you do it all again the next day. Even with friends and significant others to help keep you on your feet, life is just tough a lot of the time.
New Leaf gave me respite from that. I had this tiny world in my 3DS where nothing ever went wrong and everyone was always happy to see me. Villagers would make up nicknames for me (my favorite was “J-Money”). The biggest problem of the day would be checking the store to see if it had the furniture or tree I wanted. It was warm and friendly on days when real life was not.
I would never say I’m macho (unless I misheard you and thought you asked if I wanted some nachos) so I don’t really feel embarrassed about spending so much time with a game where I lived next door to a penguin and a goat. I liked my villagers a lot. They always had a joke or a story or even just a friendly hello. Checking on them every day made me happy.
Animal Crossing is a friendly game that’s designed for kids but provides things for adults in an entirely different way. The draw for me as an older player wasn’t sharing how I’d customized my town (although I did plenty of that on Twitter) but just having something NICE to look forward to every day. TV shows, movies and games that are “adult” are often mean, grim and vulgar. I like my share of mean, grim and vulgar content but sometimes, you just need some warmth, some joy, something to make you feel happy.
I was a guest on a podcast a couple of years back and when I mentioned that I was still playing New Leaf one of the hosts asked me “but haven’t you seen all the content?” Sure, the villagers would all say things they’d said a bunch of times before and I had all the furniture and stuff I wanted, but it wasn’t about “seeing” anything. It was about the experience. Even if I only popped in for five or ten minutes before playing another video game, I liked knowing the little town of Rad City was there, waiting for me.
The next Animal Crossing game comes out for the Switch this year. I can’t wait to do it all again.