How Animal Crossing Taught Me the Value of Savoring the Moment

Jack Ford
Jack Ford
May 18, 2019 · 11 min read
Promotional art for Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the Nintendo 3DS

It’s been almost exactly a year since I graduated college, and suffice it to say I’m not where I wanted to be by this point. The past twelve months have had a lot of ups and downs — I’ve had a couple different part-time retail jobs, but all my attempts to break into any sort of full-time, entry-level position in a creative industry have been met with either form rejection letters or complete silence. I created an alternative controller project and got to present it at GDC, meeting lots of cool people and attending some great talks along the way, but it hasn’t yet helped my career pursuits as I’d hoped. Really, while my GDC experience definitely reignited my excitement about games as an art form and a community, it also repeatedly underlined just how messy and tough an industry it can be, and made me again wonder whether this is where I should be concentrating my efforts.

I got a car. (I broke off the left mirror from said car.) I voted in the midterms for the first time. My big brother got engaged! These were the big moments of my past year. But a lot happened in-between, too: family meals, therapy sessions, movie showings, bad allergies, beautiful thunderstorms. Good nights, rough nights.

Despite all my life has going for it right now — and really, I live an incredibly privileged and fortunate life — I think I’ve had more rough nights than good in these twelve months, and it’s taken me until this past week or so to come to some understanding of why. But first, let’s talk about Animal Crossing.

Animal Crossing, for those unfamiliar, is a video game series where you play as the human newcomer in an idyllic village of friendly animals. You can customize and decorate your house, chat with neighbors and do favors for them, design your own outfit, go fishing, collect seashells, and even help fill up your local museum with fossils you find in the ground. This all plays out in real-time, so if it’s 2am in the real world, so also will it be in your virtual town— most of your neighbors asleep, the shops closed until morning, etc.

The last main entry in the series, New Leaf, came out back in 2013, and since the release of Nintendo’s newest system, the Switch, I and countless other Animal Crossing fans have been clamoring for the next installment, which is supposed to come out sometime this year. And while we wait for the likely June gameplay reveal and the anticipation builds, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I love this series in the first place.

It’s not a conventional game — there are no real “win” scenarios, and the game doesn’t have an ending. You could spend years picking apples and designing new clothes to wear if you wanted to. And many people do! This is especially uncommon in modern character-focused single-player video games, which are often one-and-done experiences for all but their most passionate fans. It’s even different from its peers in the life-sim genre: farming games like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley share the cutesy, colorful, small-town aesthetic and day-to-day life mechanics of Animal Crossing, but with a greater focus on strategy and management, and bringing with it the opportunity for failure, at least in the short-term. Other games like The Sims treat the player more like a god figure, building whole towns and micromanaging the lives of many citizens, whereas Animal Crossing is a more personal, singular experience.

All of this is to say that there aren’t really any other games quite like Animal Crossing, and I think this is mainly because it dares to just let the player be. It gives the player goals, but allows them to work towards them at their own pace, or even not at all. Many games, I think, are afraid to give players this much freedom, especially in the AAA space, for fear that they might get lost or confused and stop playing. (That’s capitalism for ya!) Idle around in one place long enough in any recent big-budget action/adventure game, and the main character or one of their companions will probably start thinking out loud, reminding you what you’re supposed to be doing or where you should be going. There’s this constant focus on getting things done, of treating games as something to be completed rather than savored.

Animal Crossing is different. It’s not about completing tasks, although there’s usually plenty of stuff to do. Rather, it’s an exercise in making the most of each day, whatever that means to you personally. There’s a limited amount of “new” opportunities each day: the fruit on the trees regrow, there are some new items available at each shop, etc. There’s also added variety in the occasional change of weather, the arrival of holidays, and the moving in and out of villagers. Once these few things are dealt with, however, it’s up to you to decide how you want to spend your day in town. Maybe rearrange furniture in your house? Go fishing and bug-hunting, either to put on display in the museum or one of your own rooms, or to sell for cash? Talk to your neighbors and help with favors? There’s also long-term goals, like saving money to go towards upgrading your house or funding public works projects. Regardless of what you choose, the game never pushes you in one direction or another, and your time is yours to use (or waste) as you see fit.

Of course, Animal Crossing is far from the only game to allow or encourage freedom of play. I think what really makes this series special is its real-time mechanic. Time in-game matches the real world, so there’s no “fast-forwarding” to the next exciting event or shop opening time (unless you change the system clock, you dirty, rotten, time-travelling cheater). While in theory this system could make things boring or frustrating, in practice it adds value to every part of the experience. You might have to wait a sleep before going peach picking again, or a few weeks until the next in-game holiday, but all that time in-between just makes these things more precious when they do arrive. AC’s art direction, music, and sound design all contribute to a world that encourages taking things slowly — the leisurely tempo of the soundtrack, the relaxing sounds of the ocean tides, the soft crunch of the grass beneath your feet, the way the town changes color for each season. When every day in this world is full of these wonderful little details, waiting for the bigger things isn’t that hard.

Which brings it back to my own life. I’ve been in therapy for anxiety for a couple years now, but it wasn’t until I did some soul searching on my own a couple weeks back that I came to a concrete realization about why (at least in part) I’ve been so frequently unhappy this past year.

I’ve always been a perfectionist of sorts — I have ambitious goals and tend to hold myself to a high standard. While part of me takes pride in that, I also know from experience that it can make things difficult, and it can even be self-torturing to set such lofty targets. By any normal, reasonable standard, I’ve had a good year: I’ve been working harder to take care of my health, held one part-time job for eight months and recently got hired on a better one, and got chosen to present my most recent major creative project at the largest video game development conference in the world. Yet I usually just feel frustrated with myself. I should have a full-time job, be living on my own! My project for GDC should have been so much better — if I had just put more time into it! I should have lost weight by now!…

It’s this “should”-ing that becomes the bane of my existence. I live with this constant feeling of guilt and uncertainty, of fear that I’m not doing enough, that I’m wasting every day if I’m not working towards something big and ambitious enough to make up for lost time and opportunity. Time is always something there’s either too much or not enough of. Just fast-forward to the big moments please — let me know that all this hard work will pay off. Because that’s what really matters, right? What people will remember me for?

This is the realization I had: because I put so much stock in reaching those big moments and milestones, I feel like every day in-between is a waste.

I think I’ve felt this way for a long time. When I was still in school, it wasn’t as obvious to me, since I could clearly see the path forward, and each milestone had been set a consistent length apart — get from fifth to sixth grade this year, freshman to sophomore another year, and so on. When I graduated with my degree, I had hoped that this same rhythm would continue, that my four years of academic work would be enough to get me a starting position in the industry I want to be in, and I could move forward from there. But the milestones aren’t as clear or consistent in post-academic life.

I dove into my job hunt immediately after graduation, did my best to present my accomplishments clearly and concisely, and applied to every major game studio and company in the US that I could think of — to no avail. I felt I was qualified for the positions I was applying for, but realized there were just too many people more qualified going for these same positions, and I didn’t stand out. And so, my next step was, of course, to try something big — I attempted something I had never done before and created a unique, physical game controller. That’s something many, even most, writers and game designers in the industry would have never done before, and if I could get accepted into the Alt.Ctrl.GDC exhibition in San Francisco, that would demonstrate it as something worthwhile.

So I tried it, and I got in! I kept working on it until the conference in March 2019, and spent the bulk of five days setting it up, watching it, explaining it to passersby, and repairing it when something inevitably fell apart. Pretty quickly though, I realized that my project just didn’t measure up to many of the others on display — others that had better, more fleshed-out games to go with their controllers, or more team members to help out, or were more slickly put-together, or were easier to understand, or clearly took more skill and knowledge to design and build. I felt like the runt of the litter.

The good news is, I don’t regret going to GDC. I learned a lot, met plenty of kind, passionate people, experienced new things, and even got featured in a couple online articles. It just hasn’t helped me get a job yet. Exhibiting in San Francisco was a great experience overall, but the months leading up to it and following it have been full of anxiety and second-guessing. Before GDC, I thought: am I doing the right thing? After GDC, I thought: did I do the right thing? The uncertainty never goes away.

via bearie.tumblr.com

One of the thoughts I had these past couple weeks was regarding my commitment to becoming an artist for a living. For years and years, I’ve known that the first piece of advice any professional creative gives aspiring artists is to practice: do the thing every day so you can get better at it. Yet this is rarely something I’ve done, despite knowing this is what I want, and knowing that I’d enjoy doing it daily. Why?

I realized it’s because I overvalue the big achievements — large projects, awards, recognition — and undervalue the little, day-to-day accomplishments. It’s not out of vanity, I don’t think. Rather, the standards I set for myself are so unrealistically high that I can’t bring myself to work on anything that won’t directly contribute to my getting the job I want (or getting into the college I want, or…). I know, logically, that practicing every day will only get me closer to where I want to be, but my insane perfectionism and anxiety sees them as too small. If it’s not going to get me anything, then it’s a waste of time. Which is ridiculous!

All this time I’ve been making myself miserable not doing the things I love, which is making art and writing and trying my best to be a source of optimism and positivity in people’s lives, regardless of the work I’m doing. Making the most of every day isn’t about waiting for the perfect opportunity and constantly second-guessing whether I’ve chosen the most efficient path to success — it’s about making this day one you’re glad you lived. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big or having ambition — in fact, I still take pride in it — but there’s definitely something wrong if that ambition leads you to make decisions that make you miserable, that lead you to neglect the precious, important, daily things.

So. Animal Crossing.

Animal Crossing has never been about managing resources — anyone who’s spent thirty seconds trying to organize all the fruit and bugs in their pockets could tell you that. It’s also never been about reaching some “ideal” version of your town, your house, or yourself. Rather, it’s been about finding the joy in each day, and working slowly towards your own version of ideal. Maybe you want the largest possible house, and if you hustle, you can certainly get there faster. But there’s only so much you can do — at a certain point, you have to just let time run its course, and, for now, learn to live with and enjoy what you already have. Plus, these games have never been about the big achievements, either. They’re about the days in-between. They’re about the slow passage of time, and the pursuit of happiness in the moment. I may not live among talking animals (although how rad would that be???), but I think Animal Crossing works as an idealized microcosm of our own lives, showing us how to live day-to-day and moment-to-moment rather than milestone-to-milestone, even as we work towards things bigger and better.

I’m not foolish enough to think that a shift in perspective will entirely solve my problems. I don’t even know what this lifestyle change will look like in a concrete sense. But I know a few ways I wanna get started, and one of them is by writing and making things more often, without any ulterior motive, just to enjoy myself and get better at it. And I think if I spend much longer on this blogpost I’ll never hit “publish” so HERE I GO.

Jack Ford

Written by

Jack Ford

Writer // game designer // UT Austin '18 film school grad // can almost adequately explain the plot of Kingdom Hearts jackmakesgames.com

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