Neko Atsume: the best game where you can’t do anything

About a month ago, at the behest of a friend who knows me well, I downloaded a game called Neko Atsume, or “Cat Collector” in its English language mode. Fast forward to the present date: Neko Atsume has become a localized cultural phenomenon and is getting full-length NY Times coverage. In other news, I have deleted the app after being wholly and completely delighted with it for the length of time that I used it.

In Neko Atsume you have a backyard, and that yard attracts cats. Upon opening the app you may view said yard, and there may be cats in it. Cats leave you fish, the de facto world currency, with which you may purchase objects and toys and cat equipment to strew about your yard. As you accumulate ever larger quantities of fish, you will be given the option to remodel your yard, or open the door to your living room; although it is unclear precisely why the latter should cost you so much to do. The house is the province of man, after all, not of cats.

There are certain nebulous goals in Neko Atsume, if you choose to view them as such: there are a finite number of cats and you can endeavor to photograph them all (some cats are anthropomorphized and ostensibly rare), and each cat will at some point give you a unique and special gift. In this sense it is technically possible to consider yourself to have ‘completed’ Neko Atsume.

But none of that particularly matters, because the most remarkable thing about Neko Atsume is that it is a game (and I have no hesitation whatsoever about my intuitive inclination to call it such) that you can almost entirely not play.

When you open Neko Atsume, there may be cats in your yard. You cannot observe the cats arrive. Furthermore, the specific charm of the cats themselves is such that no matter the collection nor number of cats present at any given time, the player experiences a singular and unconditional delight. By accident or by design Neko Atsume has stumbled upon an experience that rewards the user equally almost regardless of activity level. Every gameplay element is auxiliary to the fact that opening the app and seeing cats is pleasurable without reservation.

Neko Atsume successfully isolates only the feelings of victory and reward normally achieved by winning a game, or clearing a subsection of a game. In the case of Neko Atsume, the goal of the game is, at its core, to see cats. At the same time, the only direct interaction the characters has with the cats themselves is to open the app and instantly see cats. It is a masterful example of repeatable instant gratification. As I played Neko Atsume I gradually became aware of the existence of the ‘rare’ cats, and placed toys accordingly. I saved fish to purchase cat towers and delightful colored balls. Yet each time I opened Neko Atsume to see no rare cats, or to find myself just a few fish shy of a major purchase, I did not care in the slightest except to feel unadulterated joy because there were cats in my yard and I could observe them.

Is this symptomatic of some profound isolation within my own heart (and clearly one easily assuaged by cute pictures)? Or a deep-seated internet-nurtured Pavlovian reaction to any feline image? Perhaps. But several months after I first downloaded the app — the minute I realized I was forgetting to set out food for my cats frequently enough to ensure a populous yard — the minute I found myself checking the app out of habit rather than impulse — I instantly removed Neko Atsume from my phone. I had found bottled joy and yet observed the warning signs of boredom; I deleted Neko Atsume while I still loved it, rather than face the black horror of watching that love wane.