Animal Crossing: New Horizons

A nice space: Astroneer, Animal Crossing and friendly survival

My dad was a workaholic. He grew up on a dairy farm with a strict father figure, and carried that attitude through the rest of his life, for better or worse. Mostly worse, to be honest. Dad never could separate the difficulty of a task from its inherent worth; if something wasn’t hard to accomplish then it was essentially pointless. In his eyes, the struggle was an important part of the task. So he would work very, very hard all the time, to the point of absolute exhaustion, as a way to prove to nobody that he was doing something worthwhile. Anything relaxing was meaningless and needed to be stamped out, including anything anyone else in the house might be doing to relax. My childhood was a little stressful, at times.

Video games have a similar challenge-focused mindset, wherein worth is often measured by the effort and skill required to master or complete the game. The colloquial “git gud” mentality everyone who plays has heard when referring to the difficulty of Dark Souls or the addition of a permadeath mode to The Last of Us Part II. As such, there’s an emphasis across the board on survival. Survive the obstacles thrown in your path to reach the end of the level; survive the enemies trying to stop you; survive the elements. Survive even being alive. There’s even a whole genre dedicated to the concept of eking out a life under harsh conditions with limited resourceswe call them survival games, and they come in a variety of flavours: crafting, open-world, massively multiplayer, etc. As you might imagine, survival games are viewed through the standard video game lens, which means they are scary, violent, deadly, harsh, dangerous, frustrating, exacting and punishing experiences, designed to test the limits of human pain and endurance. They’re filled with moments that aren’t fun, per se, as much as they are a chance to triumph over something horrible.

But is that really what survival is all about? Struggle?

Certain games take a softer approach, taking players by the hand and saying “hey, this is a tough situation, but I want you to have the best chance of success.” These games ask you to survive in a more sedate, realistic sort of way, encouraging improvement instead of punishing failure. They’re nice, but they’re also still about surviving. After all, surviving the real world is often a matter of degrees rather than brutal game over screens.

Astroneer is a sandbox crafting game, set on strange, uncharted planets and superficially similar to something like No Man’s Sky. Players are dumped on a landmass with few materials, an unforgiving landscape and no particular goals. Unlike Hello Games’ infinite procedural playground, however, the world of Astroneer has very little desire to kill you. There’s no need to protect against radiation poisoning, plants and animals aren’t out for blood, and deadly robots won’t pitch a digital fit because you touched the wrong tree. In fact, the only major hazard in Astroneer is running out of oxygen, which is very much in your control and easily avoided in most cases. The experience of playing Astroneer is peaceful, even serene. Guiding your tiny astronaut around the surface of the planet is more about exploration and progress than fighting against insurmountable odds.

And yet, it is a survival game in its own right. Players begin with a small base and need to conquer the environment to carry out more complex tasks and therefore explore further. Adapt to the world around you, or fail to make progress. Creatively utilise limited resources. Scavenge materials from your own rotting corpse.

Crucially there is no urgency to anything in Astroneer, however. Survival games like ARK: Survival Evolved, Don’t Starve and even Minecraft run on a series of interlocking clocks. Sate your hunger and thirst, manage the dual dangers of day and night, keep your fire burning to cook and scare away beasts but think about how staying too close for too long will leave you light on resources later. Wheels spinning inside wheels, keeping the player alert at all times to the many time sensitive challenges, maintaining a solid baseline of intentional anxiety. Obsidian’s Grounded, which is a delightful 1980s take on the genre, currently falls prey to the same need for constant management; hunger and thirst meters drop rapidly while you try to carry out simple tasks, requiring characters to eat and drink far more frequently than a normal human being. The result is a persistent sense of being unbalanced, of barely keeping your plates spinning no matter how much control you exert over the game’s systems. In contrast, Astroneer’s oxygen supplies are limitless when connected to a base or vehicle, and even the portable oxygen canisters deplete at a respectably sedate pace. Day and night cycles occur, but they don’t represent any sort of line in the sand between danger and safety, instead simply providing more or less favourable lighting conditions. With no resources dedicated to micro-survival—making sure you make it to the end of the day, or the hour—Astroneer allows the player to step back and take in concerns of a larger scale; survival becomes less about keeping up and more about moving forward.

The question games like this ask is: can survival gameplay mechanics be fun? Many games in the genre are entertaining, challenging, complex, but much of the pure enjoyment is wrapped in stressful timers and false scarcity. Often to even reach the fun parts of a game like this you’re forced to metaphorically or literally punch trees to get the required resources for a mediocre starting weapon, or the water skin that will keep you alive long enough to punch more trees. Don’t worry, the game promises, a bunch of cool things are coming, and you glimpse on the horizon a smorgasbord of possible story content, complex machinery, and exciting locations. Hopefully you have the time and energy to reach it.

By contrast, Animal Crossing: New Horizons (yes, I’m comparing Animal Crossing directly to Minecraft, Lost Oasis and Don’t Starve, stay with me on this) almost trips over itself in offering the player power and agency. The game immediately telegraphs its intent to ape the style of a survival experience, dumping the player on an empty island and asking them to collect twigs. But the zeitgeist is upended by the sheer cheerfulness and overwhelmingly player-centric nature of the adventure. Welcome to this deserted island, devoid of resources, now here’s your free tent and by the way you are the most important person in the world. Yes, you need to mine for materials, but instead of building a rickety fence to keep out the dino-zombie cannibals, you’re constructing a museum to keep track of your accomplishments and discoveries. Many survival games eventually make a pivot from ‘getting by’ to building a life, the experience evolving slowly away from avoiding destruction and towards the act of creation itself; but Animal Crossing, Astroneer and similar games shift that experience to the early game, rather than treating it as a reward for hard work.

It could be argued that by removing the challenges of basic survival from a ‘survival’ experience, you render the genre somewhat pointless. After all, if there’s no chance of failure, how does the player measure their success at surviving? Really, though, it’s all about shifting the perspective on what counts as success and failure. Failure in these more peaceful, forgiving environments amounts to an inability to create what you desire, falling short of grander goals, not being capable of designing the perfect machine or most self-sufficient village. Success is superficially similar to a harsher mode of play—explore, master the world around you, increase the range and scope of your crafting abilities—albeit with a shifted overton window regarding the minimum capabilities of a human being presented with five rocks and three coils of plant fiber.

Removing barriers to enjoyment also incentivises exploration; since players don’t have to dig through the basics to get to the complexities, they’re more comfortable striving for larger goals and taking greater risks. Constant management of hunger, thirst, stamina, sanity, light, bowel cancer, invading monkey-cats, manure supplies, climate change, necrotising fasciitis, and juice levels has sapped the motivation clean away from many of my own playthroughs in countless survival titles well before things got interesting. Yet in Astroneer I’ve put dozens of hours into crafting mobile science bases complete with alternating renewable energy power sources; my Animal Crossing island is replete with commerce and a complicated maze of hybrid flowers; planets in Starbound are covered with elaborately decorated skyscrapers full of furniture I stole with zero consequence.

None of this is to suggest that survival games as they currently are—dangerous hellscapes designed to test the limits of patience and panicked ingenuity—shouldn’t exist, they clearly have a place and an audience. But, like most of the gaming landscape, there’s a very narrow, violent and challenge-heavy focus where something much broader and more inclusive could be blossoming. Just because a game is about surviving, doesn’t mean it has to be hard, or painful. We’re all just surviving out here in the real world too, after all.

Getting to know the human animals of Animal Crossing

There’s an ugly frog living in my partner’s village. His name is Frobert, and he hasn’t done anything wrong, exactly, but she hates him a lot. It’s not been so long since Animal Crossing: New Horizons released, and already a lot of her playtime has been dedicated to making sure Frobert has the worst possible time on her island paradise. Hitting him with nets, refusing to speak to him for days, even reporting him to Resident Services for foul language and inappropriate clothing choices. Frobert has a weird face that makes everyone uncomfortable, and he has to go. Not long after the island settled, a mouse named Chaddar moved in; he is very literally made of cheese. His home is furnished with nothing but toilets and a hot tub. He brings nothing but further hate to the shores of the village.

Something about Animal Crossing villagers provokes strong emotional reactions in players. Superficially, they’re just strange looking anthropomorphic animals who spout limited variations of the same phrases as you walk back and forth breeding rare flowers; NPCs like any other, except perhaps even less than that, given that they don’t even have a particular informational purpose. But they are beloved, reviled, talked about as if they had real personalities, nurtured and punished in equal measure. People form genuine friendships with these bobbleheaded weirdos, some of them lasting decades, and work to predict—or even shape—their thoughts. Every morning I go and talk to Phoebe, the mean girl ostrich who lives near the beach, and every morning I’m hopeful this won’t be one of those times where she makes a passive aggressive comment about my shirt. Yes, Phoebe, that’s right, it’s a normal jumper, again. Oh, you think it’s impressive how well I can pull of basic styles? I should give you tips on how to look so basic?!

Why are Animal Crossing animals so interesting? Because they’re boring.

Boring in a very deliberate, very calculated way. Boring the way that your friends and family are, the way that all humans are boring. Villagers are written to be almost painfully normal, eschewing the standard video game writing style of packing non-player characters with as much quirky uniqueness as possible. Where the biographical information for the average NPC might be “traveled the world and searched for mysterious artifacts before returning to the search for his lost brother,” villagers tend to be summarised with something more like “enjoys lifting weights and fishing in the rain.”

The key to writing Animal Crossing villagers is keeping them mundane and, in a traditional video game sense, useless. Sometimes a villager will give you information about an upcoming event or something happening elsewhere in town, sometimes they give you gifts or ask you to do them a favour, but most of the time they will simply talk to you about their day. A cat wants you to know they don’t like the other cat villager, the local elephant got a new shirt and she thinks it’s absolutely delightful, a monkey you don’t like very much keeps talking about the way bugs whisper to him while he sleeps. None of this is actionable information, nor does it push forward the state of your village, but it makes them relatable. Crucially, it also avoids reducing the villagers to tools or markers on an objective board; without the distractions of guaranteed extrinsic reward, the intrinsic value of experiencing their personalities and interactions can take on greater importance.

Take my friend Ken, for example. Ken is a chicken who likes to wear karate gear, he enjoys crafting things at his crafting bench at weird hours and he is excited about absolutely everything, he knows a lot of foreign words but not what they mean or the language they came from. Ken told me that because I was talking to him so much that day I must have paid for “Ken Unlimited” and he assured me that it was silly to care why eggs came out of rocks because magic is just like that sometimes. Ken is a fantastic, well-rounded individual who brightens my day, and he has never contributed anything of any tangible value to the mechanical experience of playing Animal Crossing. It’s because Ken isn’t just a chicken, he’s a human chicken, with very human thoughts.

Player experience of these villagers is also impacted by the passage of time. Animal Crossing very purposely doles out animal dialogue sparingly; each chat with a villager will be a handful of lines at most, and sometimes they will just tell you it’s a nice day. Speaking to the same villager repeatedly without a break will frustrate them to the point where they refuse to interact. The only way to reliably experience more of what a given NPC has to offer in Animal Crossing is to just live in the village and chat to them regularly, the same way you might learn about a neighbour or new friend. This also lets Animal Crossing simulate some of the anxiety and disappointment of a first impression, as maybe that villager who seemed cool when you met them is actually kind of terrible in the long run and never puts away the mayonnaise even though you’ve asked several times isn’t that right, RICHARD?

The aforementioned Phoebe, whose days on my island are numbered, introduced herself as a perky and cool adventure woman, and in the coming weeks has revealed her actual personality to be more like the evil female protagonist from a high school comedy. In Animal Crossing, as in life, sometimes you have to live with your mistakes.

Animal Crossing games are built on the idea of time—night and day cycles, weather, seasonal events, store opening hours—but in a broader sense, all games operate based on timescales. The fact that it takes actual, real-world time to interact with video games and make progress inside them separates the medium from other forms of entertainment. While it takes time to read a book or watch a film, the chronological journey rarely factors in. Animal Crossing villagers present an idea that really should be carried on through other games: that the experience of interacting with an NPC doesn’t have to just be about the information they can give to a player, that it can be structured so the time spent with the character is a meaningful tool in telling their story in and of itself.

You can see this displayed in other games, in different forms. Dragon Age shoulders you with party members that slowly warm up and reveal more of themselves as the game progresses. Part of this is mechanical, allowing the player to feel rewarded for improving their relationships; but part of it is also the satisfaction of the relationship itself, a decent mirror for getting to know someone in real life. Someone who spills their whole life story on a first or second meeting hasn’t given you any reason to care about what’s spilling out. In Left 4 Dead, characters randomly chat amongst themselves, revealing bits and pieces about their backstories and personalities that only form a full picture once you’ve spent enough time with the game. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is linear and action-focused, but presents the audience with two characters whose relationship only makes sense and contains meaning because it developed over the course of everything else the player was doing.

Animal Crossing villagers endure because of their relatable mundanity. They’re nothing special, which makes them just the kind of special that works inside a video game. By keeping chats short and grounded, the game forces you to meet them as people, rather than entertainment. Any given session of Animal Crossing is peppered with moments where you seek out a villager to talk to, just to see what they might say. Knowing it won’t be important, and wanting to engage regardless.

There’s a lesson in this for game developers across any genre attempting to tell a story. We hear all the time that games should avoid trying to ape films or other entertainment mediums, without much talk about what that might mean. One way creators can seek to improve their storytelling—and, by extension, their games as a whole—is to embrace this idea that what makes an engaging character in the long term isn’t how many strange personality quirks they have, or how tragic their backstory is, or even how much they matter. It comes down to their value to the player over time, rather than their position as part of a story, and how keen a player is to invest that time.

When I switch on my copy of Animal Crossing later today, Jakey—an excitable bird—will most likely be reading books to my flowers. It doesn’t matter why, that’s just something I know about him. I hope he has a good time.