So for the last couple of years, in an erratic, incompetent, beautifully satisfying way I’ve been playing Animal Crossing New Leaf. Much has been written and theorised about this series because it is, in many ways, unique—even compared to broadly similar things like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley. All these games emphasise self-expression, personal and community narratives, and low-pressure play. But I think Animal Crossing goes further in having goals even more nebulous than “have a successful farm” and by happening, essentially, in real time. Truthfully, although I found Stardew Valley one of the most charming game experiences I’ve had for a very long time, and I was obsessed with it for an embarrassingly lengthy period, I never found it that relaxing: I was ragingly committed to improving my farm, I worried that I was planting the right crops to utilise my resources and maximise my profits, and I could play for literally hours, sprinting my little farmer from one end of the valley to the next, driving them to bed exhausted, only to chivvy them out of it again at 4am the next day.
The basic premise of Animal Crossing New Leaf is that you’re the disturbingly human mayor of a town of strange but not unfriendly animal creatures and … that’s kind of it. There’s a vague notion that maybe you should improve things, but absolutely no pressure to do so. In fact, things will develop regardless: spending money makes the shops grow, new animal-people will arrive and open new businesses, trees will fruit and flowers will bloom, the sun will rise and set, and the seasons will pass. In all honesty, my attempts to improve my town have been grossly questionable: I planted a random rose arch on a clifftop and stuck a café in a really stupid place. But such is the gentle resilience of Animal Crossing that it’s all good.
Of course, it’s also Dystopian as fuck. I mean, when the game opens you’re on a train, and the next thing you know, you’ve got off at the wrong station and everyone is claiming you’re the mayor of their town and refuse to believe you when you say you’re not. That’s the kind of situation I could have nightmares about. And let’s not even get started on the dodgy racoon who insists on building you a house and then charges you through the nose for it. And the fact that you have to pay for all improvements to the town yourself. That is not how government works. But then I’m pretty sure most governments can’t officially sanction you if you wear a T-shirt they don’t like which, err, I have been known to do to my citizens. Oh Jesus, I’m a tyrant.
But, anyway, it’s remarkable how quickly you adjust to the rhythm of life in Animal Crossing. To fishing because you feel like fishing. To collecting fossils because you want to build up the museum. To wandering around the shops conspicuously consuming because, well, if you were the Mayor of a town of animal-folk wouldn’t you want to wander around in a gas mask and knee socks. Or maybe that’s just me. It’s genuinely pleasurable to watch your town evolve and, now that I’ve bothered to do the bare minimum of internet research, I’ve realised I’ve done it all wrong. I could have, for example, not answered the initial questions in a way that resulted in my character having demonic red eyes. I could have not put all my public works in stupid places. I could have made paths and orchards and gardens instead of just swamping my entire town in a completely uncontrolled deluge of plants and fruit trees. And, obviously, I could start again. Build a new and better town, efficient and beautiful, and bristling with facilities, by applying everything I’ve learned over the last two years. But I’m not gonna. Because this town is mine. And feels authentic to me in a way something less hopeless would not.
And I’ve got friends here. Very dear friends. Yes, oh reader mine, the time has come to speak of Peanut.
Peanut was a small pink squirrel and my bestie. She was the first weird-animal-creature to speak to me when I was non-consensually made Mayor. And she called me slacker, which I feel displayed an inherent understanding of who I am. Though, as we grew closer, she bestowed a variety of nicknames on me, including the short-lived Sweet M, and the much preferred and Bowie-esque Major M (M is my initial in Animal Crossing). Fundamentally, Peanut was a lovely person: she was always happy, never held a grudge, and, best of all, when she asked me to do something for her she usually forgot she’d asked. Also her house was next to mine so we were like special closest neighbour closest friends: she was usually the first thing I saw when I left my home. And so was so adorable, her chirpy pinkness, that I was always glad to see.
We had good times, Peanut and me. Like when I forgot her birthday and she invited me to her birthday party and the only item I had in my inventory was a Gentleman’s Toilet. But she acted like that Gentleman’s Toilet was the best present in the world, and told she would always treasure it because it came from me. Indeed, whenever I visited her, the Gentleman’s Toilet would always be there, proudly displayed. How many of us have friends so kind and true? In all honesty, if someone gave me a Gentleman’s Toilet for my birthday I would not take it nearly so well. And I certainly wouldn’t put it in the middle of my living room.
And then, then Paula happened. Paula moved into my village fairly recently. She is a bear with ill-advised eyeshadow and she built her house aggressively close to me and Peanut. And while I am, on some level, aware Paula is a virtual bear … I can’t stand her. Her personality is a strange mixture of pushy and cloying. She insists on greeting me with yodelay, interfering in my shit (like this one time, I had a hammerhead shark in my inventory and she was all commenting on it, when what I have in my inventory is none of anyone’s business, thank you very much) and talking to me like we’re friends. We are not friends, Paula. Peanut is my friend.
And if you think that’s bad, it gets worse. She viciously stole Peanut’s nickname for me and started calling me Major M too. Was nothing good in my life to remain untainted by this damn bear? There are supposed to be ways you can encourage villagers to leave your town – but no matter how many times I complained to Isabelle (my deputy), nothing changed. It got to the point that I stopped playing Animal Crossing as much because there was Paula, in my face, makin’ it weird.
Months passed. And Peanut would always forgive me. Make some excuse for me. Talk to me with all the old warmth. But I could tell it was getting to her. And, finally, one day I started up the game, and there was a message from Peanut in my mailbox. I guess it’s time, she said. You were pretty fun to have around. I hope the neighbours in my new town are just like you.
My Peanut was gone.
There are, maybe, about a hundred potential villagers in Animal Crossing. When a villager moves out, another will take their place, chosen at random. Even if I found a way to drive every villager repeatedly from my town, which, as far as I can tell, is impossible the likelihood of me ever seeing Peanut again was negligible.
Paula had ruined everything. Invaded my space, destroyed my peace, driven away my dearest friend, probably forever. I’ve never engaged in hostile behaviour to villagers but I wanted to hit her with my net so hard. So many times. I didn’t, though. There are some depths to which I will not stoop.
I didn’t play Animal Crossing again. Until, very recently, an update came out that … well, I don’t know quite what it does. I’m not really up for having virtual worlds interface with accessories in the real world, but that’s a very Nintendo thing to do. In any case, there are things called Amiibo Cards, which you can buy fairly cheaply in randomised packs. Each represents a villager and by scanning the card into your 3DS you can … oh frabjous day … invite that villager to live in your village. I’ve been a committed nerd for long enough that I know buying randomised packs of anything is for the birds. I hopped onto Ebay and bought a Peanut card for the … admittedly slightly excessive rate of £6.50. But it was worth it. This was Peanut, after all.
Anyway, the card arrived. I scanned it and, sure enough, Peanut moved back the next day.
Except … not back. She was the same Peanut, happy, bouncy, overly fond of pink, but she greeted me like I was a stranger. Called me slacker again. Our friendship… the memories of our friendship … lost like tears in rain.
What happened to you, Peanut? Are you a clone? Is this a Prestige situation? Did darkness take you. Did you stray out of thought and mind? Was the pain of our parting simply too much to bear?
I mean, okay … obviously it’s a different version of Peanut.
But still. I will not forget. She is still my Peanut. She will always be my Peanut. We are souls entwined and I believe, I truly believe, that, as the flowers bloom and the trees fruit, and the seasons roll past, we will find each other again.
Also, I still need to get rid of that fucking bear.