My mail-order neighbor

Games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf are formed by chance encounters. So what happens when you bend the rules?

Last week I got a neighbor in the mail.

Lucky is a sleepy, snacks-loving mummy dog with glowing yellow eyes. I ended up building my house right next to his when I first installed Animal Crossing: New Leaf on my 3DS, and he became my favorite pretty much immediately. I bought all the useless junk he wanted to pawn off onto me. I saved every letter he wrote, even if they were unfocused and mainly about naps. Once or twice, I actually scheduled alarms on my phone so I could be absolutely sure I wouldn't miss our play dates.

(He would usually not show up, and then when I found him outside later he admitted it slipped his mind. I always forgave him. He is a good boy who tries his best.)

...I will pay you whatever you want. I will treasure it always.

Strictly speaking, Lucky is interchangeable with dozens of other "Lazy" type characters you can find in Animal Crossing. His likes, dislikes, and mannerisms amount to a few strings of code shared with others of his type. Everything there is to know about him can be found on a chart somewhere. It was entirely arbitrary that my very first randomly generated village would have him in it, and I'm pretty sure my life would be no worse for wear if I hadn't (sorry) lucked out.

But we humans have this odd tendency to get attached to digital creatures. I suspect it's that cognitive tendency toward "closure" which does it: these little artificial lives offer us just enough of a reasonable facsimile that our brains supply the rest. Does Lucky actually do anything when he's not an actively loaded asset in the game world? Of course not, but I'm able to take what the game has given me and extrapolate as if he were living in a persistent world. Animal Crossing: New Leaf characters are also endowed with a certain limited amount of "memory" so they will -- for instance -- remember a player who visits from another town and be able to tell you where they used to live, if they move somewhere else after being generated. So there is a certain sense in which Animal Crossing neighbors really are "ours," even if it's just bits of data on an otherwise standard template.

Either way, "my" Lucky is gone now.

See, I lost my 3DS coming home from the Game Developers Conference this past March. I couldn't tell you if I forgot it in my hotel room, lost it at the airport, or it was stolen out of my luggage. No one I called had any information, and the lost item ticket I filed with the airline was summarily closed after two weeks. The loss itself only bummed me out a little; what I really cared about were my save files. There went several years of Fire Emblem, Ace Attorney, and my DS cartridge of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, which happened to be in the card slot -- and of course, there went my Animal Crossing village and the years of work I had put into it. My mansion based on House on Haunted Hill, my nearly complete fossil collection, my groves of perfect apple trees, and Lucky. 

I-- oh no, that's too pure, I can't... I-- oh no, that's too pure, I can't...

Suppose a best case scenario where my 3DS, lost or stolen, ended up in the hands of some deserving small child who just wanted to play some games. After I called Nintendo to disassociate my ID from the device, I'm not sure my old save files would even be accessible to them -- at the very least, they could never go online with them. It's also much likelier that the 3DS would get wiped before being sold, if it wasn't just junked for components. In other words, there's a high chance "my" Lucky isn't just lost, but erased. And I know for a fact my old dream address -- which stores a static moment of your village on a Nintendo server -- is no longer functional. This means that in all probability there is nothing, not even a digital snapshot of him, left in this world. I mean, not to get melodramatic about it or anything, I just really liked that dog.

But, of course, he's only really "gone" if I want him to be. It just depended on how much effort I wanted to put in. Once I got my Nintendo ID and game files back on a replacement 3DS, I could install the game as before and keep generating new villages until I found one with Lucky in it.

It sounds a bit like some corny, sentimental sci-fi device, doesn't it? Searching through adjacent universes for the specific one with the specific person you're after. But the reality is this is a pretty tedious process, and with the sheer number of possible Animal Crossing neighbors, the likelihood of me landing on the right one even in the first 50 or 100 tries was slim.

Fortunately, there's an easier method: like all other Animal Crossing characters, Lucky now has an Amiibo Card. You can use a 3DS's sensor (or a side peripheral, if you have an older model) and tap the Amiibo Cards to load special features in your games. In Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, this unlocks a new character to interior decorate for. In Animal Crossing: Welcome Amiibo (what New Leaf was rebranded as, after this functionality was introduced), you can use it to invite any Animal Crossing character to pay a visit to your village, or even have them move in. A nice, fresh new villager, without any memories of having lived somewhere else, birthed fully formed from the head of a creepy ghost-genie thing.

And so, last week, after many months of debating with myself over whether I wanted to spend actual money on a virtual mummy dog, I paid someone on ebay $15 and got a copy of my old neighbor sent to me in the mail.

The envelope's return address was listed as 'Jesse Pinkman' too so that was a nice small heart attack. The envelope's return address was listed as 'Jesse Pinkman' too so that was a nice small heart attack.

There's an episode of Black Mirror where a grieving widow signs up for a "therapeutic" service which reconstructs the personalities of dead loved ones. She supplies the service with emails and video of her deceased husband and, though she's horrified at first, ends up growing dependent on the artificial intelligence simulating his voice. Eventually, she buys the parts to clone him in her bathtub, granting the artificial personality a body. It emerges from the tub, larger than life and naked as a Terminator, and watches her intently as she weighs how far onto which side of the uncanny valley this falls, and if she should have sex with it. (She does.)

As others have pointed out, most Black Mirror episodes can be summed up as some variation of "what if phones but too much??" Here, the woman's obsession with recreating her dead husband starts with simulating him through emails and voice calls. By the time the AI's upsold her to brewing a human body in her bathtub, she's already a loyal customer who's sunk untold amounts of cash into this service. If the server her android husband's personality is stored on were to ever go permanently offline, she'll be left alone with a hollow shell for all that investment. But the reality is somehow even worse: she finds she can't stand around to be the thing, because it's too different from her husband to successfully replicate him, but it's too similar for her to bear to destroy it. So she locks it away in her attic, like an old toy or a game she can't bring herself to beat.

I trust this dog's advice. I trust this dog.

Obviously (or maybe not so obviously, this being the internet), I don't want to marry my zombie dog neighbor. But that episode's been replaying in my mind since I bought Lucky's Amiibo Card. If I use it, I know I will have a Lucky in my town again, but not the one I knew. If I'm serious about reconstructing my old village, I'll need to spend time teaching Lucky how I'd like him to address me again. Would I feel disappointed, realizing how much of his offbeat personality was just stock phrases everyone in his character type uses? Would it startle me if he sent me letters that were different than before? What if I messed up and -- by way of the game's emergent elements -- ended up creating some nuance that wasn't there before, and changed our relationship?

And even if none of that were a factor, doesn't it suck all the joy out of the experience, bringing any part of it about deliberately?

This isn't really how Nintendo intended people to play its game. The Welcome Amiibo update was designed to let players have greater control over the makeup of their village, sure, but I don't think "adult human paying a second-hand seller for a specific card out of what should've been a blind bag set to revive their dead dog mummy neighbor" was the desired angle there. In some ways it feels like cheating.

But the system is also not in any way set up to discourage what I'm doing, and that strikes me as significant. Animal Crossing has always been about cultivating a personal plot of heaven. Is buying your way any more or less soulless than creating and destroying worlds again and again until you find the one with the right person in it?

As of this writing, I still haven't booted up my 3DS or used my Lucky card with the game yet. I'm still on the fence about whether I even should, actually. Maybe his card will be compatible with the next Animal Crossing, whenever Nintendo gets around to announcing one. In which case, I can always add him there. Start a new life with an old fave: that's kind of a nice thought, isn't it? Or maybe just having the card is enough -- just the promise that I could add him into my game again someday, if I wanted.

Is this too much attachment for a virtual dog? Probably, yeah. But I'm also that person who has three Isabelle figures at their desk and a wall full of Squid Sisters keychains. Nintendo may not've anticipated the extent to which I'd go to get my favorite fictional neighbor back, but these characters were designed to be loved. If anything speaks to the longevity of Animal Crossing: New Leaf, it's overinvestment like that.