What Pocket Camp gets totally wrong about Animal Crossing

Nintendo's latest mobile game is all busywork, no heart.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp was, the way people tell it, inevitable. Think back to all the browser and social games that had you raise farms and crush candies; that had you pester your every acquaintance on Facebook back when you actually used Facebook. Think of not just the obvious social aspects of such games, but also of the daily login incentives, the progress gated by waiting in real-time. Those conventions map so neatly onto the type of mobile/social games we've grown accustomed to, and Animal Crossing had been doing them for years.

The U.S. marketing campaign for the first Animal Crossing even used those real-time elements for its tagline: "The life game that's happening every second of every day, whether you're playing or not." It leaned into the idea that Animal Crossing games tick by with the same minutes as the clock in your bedroom, representing the seasons and hours of the day outside your window. The tagline seems to gloss over less-marketable bits like how "every second of every day" means the shops have particular hours or the animals will be asleep if it's past their bedtime, but look closely and they're still there, hidden in the "life" part. You can power through to the end of most videogames without enough dedication and caffeine; in life, you wait. In Animal Crossing, you wait for the store to rotate stock, for the buried fossils to repopulate, and for Saturday night to roll around -- because Saturday night is the only time that hipster dog will play his guitar and ask you to check out his mixtape.

The wait in Pocket Camp, on the other hand, is optional. If you don't want to wait on the fruit, sprinkle some fertilizer to make those oranges pop right back into existence. Animals have three jobs for you to do before they rotate to another location in a few hours, and if you've done all three? Cash in a request ticket and they'll think up three more on the spot. Furniture purchases are now limited not by daily stock but by how many resources you have to craft them. This takes time, especially for more elaborate pieces, but a few leaf tickets can finish one immediately or purchase more space to craft multiple pieces at once. The leisurely pace of Animal Crossing you knew is gone, transformed into an obstacle that players may bypass if they're willing to grind enough or put up the cash. Numbers appear onscreen to emphasize the wait and remind you that there's always a way to make it go away. Pocket Camp embraces what the series has ducked until now: the modern videogame treadmill of crafting, loot, and level-ups.

Free-to-play games often make these sort of concessions, and they arguably play into the materialistic slant Animal Crossing's life simulation already structures itself around. The goal is always to just exist as a person, hang out, and work in order to accumulate the stuff that will, hopefully, make you happy. But the thing that made this work in the console and handheld games, the thing that prevented it from being the crass, consumer-driven loot treadmill that it could be and might still appear to be on the outside, was its wholehearted embrace of that myth about cozy country life, Out here in the country, the games told us, things move slowly and everybody knows everybody else. The games ran on personal attachments to spaces and silly animal neighbors, and they fostered those attachments by rigidly enforcing the wait, the leisurely pace that's still as true-to-life as videogames have been able to muster.

Animal Crossing (Gamecube, 2002) Animal Crossing (Gamecube, 2002)

Sure, you could change the internal clock to hop back and forth through time, though you'd risk weeds descending upon the town like locusts or a favorite neighbor packing up their things and boarding the train, never to return. Resetting triggered a visit from an angry mole who punished you with the sheer length of his extensive, unskippable scolding (and if you'd reset in hopes that a purple penguin named Puck who left somewhere during your time-travels would somehow return, he wouldn't). Animal Crossing, as it was intended to be played, forced players to take their time. There were no microtransactions to sidestep the fact that the fruit didn't grow back until tomorrow, and this balanced out the potential grind. Even if you farmed a small fortune's worth of rare fish on a rainy day, the shops still had a limited inventory, and any home renovations or public works projects you paid off wouldn't finish until the next day (or let you continue to invest in others).

That's not to say Animal Crossing entirely discouraged a grind. You ironed out a daily routine of digging for fossils, checking the dump, and searching for the money rock, but its limitations forced players to engage with the other activities: planting trees and flowers, creating and displaying bad textile designs, talking to animals. Animal Crossing got players to inhabit its world, learn the layout by heart, and develop a sense that this place was uniquely theirs. And those animal neighbors were the charismatic centerpiece to the game's life simulation, prone to occasional repetition but otherwise bursting with clever lines, silly puns, and peculiar outlooks on the world that they'd share with just a few button presses. They sent you letters. For as elaborate of a system as Nintendo built for this weird little series, where there were holidays and extensive furniture catalogs and (in the first game, anyway) hidden NES games, so much of it was dedicated to simply communicating with neighbors and subsequently growing attached to them, begging them to stick around if they wanted to move, or feeling a little guilty if they remarked that you haven't played for over a year.

This approach can be distilled to one small tweak: the first Animal Crossing featured a dedicated "give me a job" dialogue option, where players could run a favor and get a small reward for their trouble. Subsequent games removed that option. Animals would still ask for favors, but they'd only do so at random when you engaged them in regular conversation. You didn't grind out favors; you just talked. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp restores the job prompt because in eliminating the wait and prioritizing the grind, it de-emphasizes the personal attachments that made the series work. In their place is the treadmill, the feverish accumulation of experience points and stuff that necessitates a dedicated job option because jobs reward you with the materials to craft more stuff.

You don't talk to characters in Pocket Camp for the simple pleasure of their charming dialogue; you talk to the animals because it adds points to their overall friendship level, which rewards you with crafting materials. Completing a job or increasing their friendship level contributes to an overall level in the top-left corner of the screen, which dispenses more crafting options and more animal friends the further up it goes. The game helpfully highlights the "talk" option in red when it'll get you friendship points so you'll never have to speak to an animal if the conversation isn't worth anything. There's no reason to even ask them which items they want, because the various menus already detail the current requests of each available animal + the rewards they're offering + the character-specific rewards for reaching friendship level milestones. Walk over to someone and a thought bubble appears above their head showing that they need three pears before they'll cough up some wood and cotton.

In other Animal Crossing games, catching a fish or a bug means a terrible pun accompanies your character's celebratory, Zelda-esque exhibition. No such thing exists in Pocket Camp because the game has no illusions about what these objects are: resources. Instead of inhabiting a world of your own, you only pump it for resources, and reading a pun when you catch a red snapper isn't efficient for gathering resources. There are items to purchase for catching multiple critters at once. The animals have become resource dispensers, complete with dedicated reward screens that detail all the loot you've earned for bringing them a monarch butterfly. Even the "talk" option frequently results in a gift; animals give you these gifts by hand as they used to in previous games, and they are always incredibly small, as if to underscore how useless talking is compared to the errands you could be running, the reward screens you could be seeing, the resources you could be earning.

Pocket Camp drags the series into modern game design trends, from its platform of choice to its emphasis on leveling up, and in this regard, the game is instructive. Progress bars, crafting systems, loot drops, and other so-called "RPG elements" have crept into all manner of videogames in the years since the first Animal Crossing, and it's easy to see why: as visible indicators of incremental (often, very incremental) progress, they catalyze the rush of seeing The Numbers Go Up. The accumulation of stuff; the feeling of moving forward because a progress bar says so. These things feel good. But Animal Crossing used to be able to provide such feelings without them, and it did so through the player's attachment to its world. You didn't need the ever-present experience bar because you felt like you were moving forward by simply contributing to a space that was yours, one that you'd gotten invested in because you had to inhabit and interact with it, instead of just grinding resources. Pocket Camp caves to loot screens and progress bars and reveals them to be, in the wrong hands, no more than a crutch; a shortcut for emotional investment.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp encourages the grind because doing so encourages the teasing option to bypass the grind. However, it still recognizes the benefit of emotional attachment. Like wearing somebody's skin, the game preserves the soothing music and the soft, pudgy art style while reducing its life simulation down to a façade used to drive microtransactions. There are sporadic cutaways that show you painting with the animal you just brought a beetle, or receiving a shell necklace from the animal you just delivered some coral, but they're not much of a substitute; even their very nature as cutaways seems to reflect how removed they feel from a game like this, how alien. Some of the complexity was always going to go out of Animal Crossing in the shift to mobile, but with Pocket Camp, the heart did, too.