Before I ever played Animal Crossing myself, I heard the horror stories from people who let their towns lie fallow for weeks. There’s a great Brawl in the Family comic about the consequences of disappearing for a significant amount of time, and while it’s funny to look at as an outsider, once I started playing New Leaf resignation began to sit in. “I have to play this every day,” I thought to myself, “or my town is going to crumble around me.” After playing for around two weeks now I’ve been able to experience most of the mechanisms that relate directly to the passage of time, and my feelings towards the idea are mixed.
For those with no Animal Crossing experience at all, allow me to take a moment to explain. Animal Crossing titles run in real time using the internal clock of the console you’re playing on. When you load the game after turning it off, it takes account of how much time has passed and makes adjustments to your town accordingly. While the game is on, time passes at the pace of real time. If you play for twenty minutes, it will be twenty minutes later in the game.
Taken by itself, this doesn’t exactly sound like a startling revelation in game design. However, when you start to combine the time mechanism with other aspects of the game, that’s when you start to encounter some interesting ideas. In New Leaf, you are the mayor of a small community that you just moved to. You don’t even have a home to live in when you start out, and to purchase one you need to pay a down payment of 10,000 bells. In my case, I was able to raise that money pretty easily on my first day, but that didn’t get me a house any faster. I still had to wait “til tomorrow” to get my house, and unlike games such as Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley, that literally meant I had to wait until the next day in real life.
This wait til tomorrow mechanic has come up many times in my two weeks of play. Every home upgrade takes until the next day to process. Any town ordinances – laws you pass as mayor which change how things in town operate – don’t kick in until the next day. And you can’t even pass town ordinances until you earn a 100% approval rating and wait for the paperwork to process. In my case, this took only one day, but Isabelle stated that it could have been more than that. In this way, Animal Crossing paces your progress in the game because you can’t get three upgrades to your home or sponsor four public works projects all in one day.
This is the aspect of the real-time gameplay that I enjoy. By asking you to be patient, the game is always giving you something to look forward to. I’m excited to come to my town after paying off a home upgrade because I’ll have a bigger house with room to put things. It feels good to wait for the payoff – when you finish paying for something you want, it makes it more exciting to start the game the next day. It’s also a normal occurrence for the game to tease something you can look forward to the next day, such as the arrival of a new villager or the opening of a new shop in town.
Now the shops are where I start having some issues with the way real time gameplay affects my Animal Crossing experience. The various businesses in your community are key pieces of your day-to-day activities in Animal Crossing. Tom Nook’s store allows you to upgrade your home; his children sell important tools and furniture; Re-Tail is your primary source of income; and the gardening shop that opens later helps you add greenery to the city to keep the citizens happy. Being able to regularly visit and interact with these establishments is how the New Leaf economy keeps moving.
The problem with the stores is that, like most stores in real life, they have hours of operation. Each one has a set time that they open and close each day, which means that if you want to be able to frequent a particular business, you have to play the game during the hours that the store is open. This isn’t necessarily difficult for, say, Re-Tail, which is open til 11 PM under normal circumstances. But some shops close significantly earlier than that, such as the gardening store and Nook’s homes both closing at 8 PM. My son goes to sleep at 7:30 each night, so getting on my 3DS before 8 PM is a pretty rare occurrence. This means I have to somehow shoehorn a visit to those shops in while I’m busy with other things, like cooking dinner or playing with my son.
Now this is where the town ordinances come in. There are four different ordinances you can pass into law for your town, and two of them lengthen the hours of operation for the various businesses in town. With the Early Bird ordinance you can tack three hours onto the opening time of the store. Conversely, the Night Owl ordinance adds three hours onto the closing time. Causing the store to open earlier or close later increases your options when it comes to business hours and allows you to adjust the town to your schedule. In this case, I can use the Night Owl ordinance to make sure all of the stores are open well past the time when my son goes to bed and I start playing the game.
“So what’s the problem?” you might ask. “The Night Owl ordinance fixes the game for you, right?” Well, it does, but there are two other ordinances I haven’t spoken about yet: Beautiful Town and Wealthy Town. These ordinances don’t affect store hours like the other two. Instead, they add other strategic options to your game. Wealthy Town (the first ordinance I started with) increases your income by 20%. It also increases store prices too, but I simply started spending less money at shops so I could focus solely on reaping the rewards from the ordinance. Beautiful Town protects your flowers and negates the penalties that come with not playing the game for a few days. This would be a very helpful ordinance for me, as I often accidentally crush the flowers, and there have been a multiple times already in my two weeks of play where I was simply too busy with other things to visit my town and take care of it. Since only one ordinance can be active at a time, this means I can’t both enjoy the increased wealth and have the stores open at a time I can actually visit them. Or I have to choose between keeping the stores open and reducing the penalties for all of those days where I haven’t been able to get on and play.
This brings us to another frustration of the real-time system. Anytime you go an entire day without playing, it begins to have negative effects on your game. These effects stack the more consecutive days that you don’t play the game. Weeds grow, plants die, roaches get into your house, and townspeople get frustrated and even leave. Now in my experience so far I’ve missed two consecutive days, played one day, and missed another one after that. The impact has been minimal on the beauty of my town, but even after just two days quite a few of my townspeople made a point of complaining about it. One guy in particular (who I guess I hadn’t talked to often even when I was playing) whined about how it seemed like I’d been gone an entire week, and wondered what was more important than my mayoral duties.
To say that I don’t particular enjoy getting guilt-tripped into playing a video game is an understatement. I have a family to spend time with and other hobbies to engage in during my free time. Recently I’ve been working on a lot of tabletop projects, and wrapping up a community collaboration here on Adventure Rules. It’s not practical for a game to assume that I can add it into my schedule every day, and to punish or lessen my game experience in some way because of it is aggravating to me. And honestly, I think it counteracts some of the other goals that Animal Crossing appears to have.
New Leaf is a game about bug collecting and fishing. You engage in small talk with other villagers and you dig for fossils. You go swimming, grow flowers, and decorate your house with Nintendo memorabilia. Everything activity you engage in is all about relaxation. The real-time mechanisms which ask you to wait and be patient for house upgrades or town improvement projects tell you that there’s no rush on anything you do. This is further reinforced by the interest-free, no deadline loans from Tom Nook. Even the way that flowers crunch or fish and bugs retreat from you when you dare to actually press the run button works to send a message: “Slow down. Relax. Enjoy the game.” Yet it is very distinctly un-relaxing to have to play every single day or suffer consequences. It creates a pressure to participate, a veiled threat – relax, or else.
Now there’s one more mechanic related to how time works in Animal Crossing that could potentially be a solution to all of the issues I’m having. The inability to visit shops while they are open, the frustration at choosing ordinances to adjust hours instead of increasing wealth, feeling pressured to play every day or suffer the wrath of the villagers – all of these problems could just go away with a little bit of time travel. Remember how I described that the game uses the internal clock of your gaming device? Set that clock to a different time, and you can easily work around any of these issues. If you miss a day, just go back a day on your 3DS. If you only play at late hours of the night, set the clock three hours backward and you get the Night Owl benefits completely for free. Time travel conveniently addresses all of the problems that come with the real time mechanisms – but even that isn’t without its repercussions.
The game lets you know pretty quickly that messing with the time stream is going to cause you problems. Some activities, such as the turnip profit minigame, will punish you for messing with time in order to maximize your profits from them. Apparently it can also ruin your grass, kill your flowers, and bring in cockroaches similarly to when you fail to play the game for a long time. Now these penalties are still protected by the Beautiful Town ordinance, but once again you run into the issue of having to use a specific ordinance in order to make the game playable on your schedule. And some penalties – like angry villagers – are simply unavoidable.
In my case, I haven’t used time travel yet to try and address my problems. On top of having some of the same negative effects as simply not playing the game, it also kind of feels like cheating. Obviously it isn’t because the mechanism is built into the game. The fact that villagers recognize that it’s happening and talk to you about it even if you’ve never done it before shows that the developers prepared for people to do this and built the game to adjust with it. But in my view, simply changing the time to what you want it to be defeats the whole purpose of the game being in real time in the first place.
Overall, I think the decision to run Animal Crossing on real time is a bold design choice. In some ways, it reinforces the focus on relaxation in the game. In others, it makes it more difficult for me to relax. I appreciate that the game gives me options to help lessen the impact of a busy schedule on my ability to play the game, but the fact that not all of the options work at once and that I lose out on other benefits as a result makes it seem like I’m not getting the optimal New Leaf experience simply because of my real life obligations. Perhaps after more time with the game, I will fall decisively one way or the other where the time mechanics are concerned. In all likelihood, though, I imagine that my final verdict will remain here in the middle: both fascinated and frustrated with how this design choice impacts my experience with the game.