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.