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  • Ambition and Compulsory Design in Animal Crossing

    [05.01.07]
    - Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
  •  The thing about portables - and not everybody cottons to this - is that people use them differently from other game systems. You cradle them in your hands, within your personal space. You drag them around with you, pull them out of your pocket like a dime novel, then snap them closed when you step off the bus. Where console and PC games ask you to set aside blocks of your time, portables fill the cracks in your day.

    All of these situational dynamics, and the psychology lurking behind them, inform the basic checklist for a portable game. Are the concept and presentation optimized for your personal space, as opposed to a TV on the other side of the room? Can they absorb you for hours, as you sit and wait for your next meeting? Do they permit you skip out on a dime, when real life resumes?

    As a portable, the DS is finely tuned. Its clamshell design immediately lets you suspend any game, however poorly optimized, and jam it into your pocket as you rush out the door. The stylus enhances the navel-gazing element, giving you tactile, personalized input. The two screens... are underutilized, I grant that.

    I unload unto you this preamble so as to better explain the significance of Animal Crossing - one of Nintendo's more inscrutable console titles - being ported to the DS, as Animal Crossing: Wild World. There are, as I see it, two major issues to consider here. First, how well does a portable format suit what the game is getting at, either thematically or mechanically? Second, how well does the game take advantage of the new format? (A third, less important though interesting, question is: which format - console or portable - better suits the game's purpose?)

    What Is It?

    As for what it's getting at, Animal Crossing is sort of an anti-game - if by "game" we're talking about a goal-oriented production where you collect 100% of the allotted trinkets before blowing up the last boss real good. Or if we're thinking of a sandbox, where the player is left unsupervised to conduct middle school science experiments with a game's reality. Neither is this a "god game", where you're given an omnipotent and omniscient overview of a certain scenario - resulting in a sort of a sandbox through a telescope.

     The best way I can think of to explain Animal Crossing, strictly in modern videogame terms, is Shenmue without the plot. This isn't a minor distinction, though the reasons aren't as straightforward as they sound. In Shenmue the plot serves as a vague MacGuffin, creating a cognitive dissonance in the player between what knowledge of videogame law and the protagonist's sense of honor (a fun parallel, that) compels the player to do, and what alternative paths the gameworld thrusts before the player.

    The distractions of Shenmue's gameworld are so plentiful, so prosaic, and yet so much more interesting than the player's "obligations", that the player is continually lulled into a routine. Wake up, take a walk, appreciate the solidity of the asphalt beneath your feet. Rotate the stick to gawk at the scenery, get a sense of place. Shop a little, take care of a cat, go down to the arcade and play some Space Harrier, chat up some random people, play some pool, practice your martial arts. When it gets late, go home and go to bed.

    This stuff eats up oodles of time. Though mundane, it is cozy. Reassuring. The world of fictionalized Yokosuka would be a gorgeous, tranquil place to live. Though the player does have a mission, the only impetus the game provides to follow it is the onset of tedium, eventually brought on by the limited lifestyle provided in any one area. The game is linear in the same sense as completing your college applications as a sixteen-year-old. "Yeah, yeah, ma," you say. "I'll get to it. Look, I'm busy with my vitally important teenager business. Don't bother me." Of course moving forward does open up new areas and options; it also means abandoning a certain innocence, a certain framework, for what you hope is a more rewarding one.

    Disobedience

    Shenmue's flow has become the subject of endless ribbing and criticism, in that it was hard for gamers to wrap their heads around. It's just that, when your Platonic model of a videogame is Super Mario Bros. - run right, press the "A" button to jump - it's hard to see a reason for a game to place greater significance in playing another videogame within a game, or in collecting dozens of absolutely useless trinkets from the capsule toy machines outside the drug store, than in tracking down the villain outlined in the game's introduction. Compare Shadow of the Colossus, which does the same thing as Shenmue, except backwards, and has become the critical darling of the last few years.

    Colossus presents the player with a gameworld so gorgeous it could break your heart, leaves it completely open from the word "go", and fills it with absolutely nothing. If you want, you can spend hours upon hours riding around on horseback or exploring on foot, climbing landmarks to get a view of the scenery, and claiming the place for your own - but this task quickly becomes empty, and depressing. There is no obvious action or reward outside the "game" - the gamey game - that the game puts before you: wake up your comatose girlfriend by tracking down and slaughtering beautiful and unique creatures, getting their blood all over you, and becoming less of a person in the process. The game tempts you into horrible, destructive, and ultimately tragic action because it's the only meaning, the only action handed you on a platter. And the action is all the more exhilarating for the bargain.

    Again, cognitive dissonance: do nothing in particular, of your own free will, or move forward and be the "gamer". If you can find meaning in nothingness, you can resist the dark temptation to jump through the hoops handed you simply because you're playing a videogame and so thereby (ironically enough) you expect to be told what to do. It's a pretty savvy take on the paradox of a typical "game" structure. You go into it expecting freedom; to live out an alternative life, and do whatever you want within it. Instead, generally you're a happy little automaton dutifully and without question completing the arbitrary tasks set before you, simply because that's your role as a player. (Good lord, what are we teaching these kids?)

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