Animal Crossing is a dystopian hellscape – The Verge

One of Nintendo’s greatest, weirdest strengths has always been its ability to create something that absolutely no one asked for — and make us want it anyway. Animal Crossing, its long-running video game franchise about a human player living, working, and camping in various forests populated by anthropomorphic animals, is perhaps the quintessential expression of this off-beat creative mission. The game’s objectives, insofar as they exist, are to wander around in the woods, make friends, and decorate your domicile in whatever manner you see fit. This has led, inevitably, to some unsettling creations, but by and large, Animal Crossing is an all-ages community simulator designed to feel gentle, playful, and kind.

But does something darker lie beneath its cheerful exterior? Animal Crossing has always been a game that is as strange as it is cute, full of odd tics and design choices that raise probing questions about what, exactly, is going on in the larger world of this woodland hamlet. Some might suggest that Animal Crossing is its own answer, an adorable, absurdist experience that exists purely to delight. If you prefer this reading, feel free to exit now.

But for those willing to go down the rabbit hole, a closer examination of the series — and, particularly, the recent Pocket Camp mobile game — reveals something much more unsettling: a dark mirror that inadvertently reflects some of the most ruthless and dehumanizing elements of modern society, and how they can degrade our social and ethical bonds.

So here’s what we know — or at least, what we can infer from a careful examination of the universe of Animal Crossing.

Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

If you think about anthropomorphic worlds for any sustained length of time, chances are, things are going to get weird. That’s because animals occupy a fraught and complex space in real-life human culture where they can be categorized, sometimes interchangeably, as both friends and food. Intelligent and sensitive animals like pigs are alternately treated as beloved pets and delicious snacks, doted on with parental affection by some and slaughtered by the millions in factory farms by others. A world that imagines animals as beings who walk, talk, and form complex interpersonal relationships inevitably brings this dichotomy to the fore, either by addressing it directly or ignoring it entirely.

As an explicitly family-friendly game, Animal Crossing chooses to do the latter — and the moral consequences are considerable.

For starters, there’s the question of food itself. While many of the villagers, like the cat and wolf characters, are traditional predators, we see them living harmoniously with prey animals like birds and rabbits. But all of the animal characters in Animal Crossing do eat certain animals, including shrimp and a wide variety of fish, which are depicted as smaller — and mercifully, not anthropomorphized.

One might assume that these creatures are considered fair game for consumption because of their low intelligence, but this theory doesn’t hold up for long: Squid, which in the real world are cognitively sophisticated enough to use tools and commit acts of deception, are routinely caught, sold, and eaten in Animal Crossing; cows, pigs, and chickens routinely host gleeful barbecues where skewers of meat roast over the flames. Angus, a bull character, is happy to sip coffee and recline on a cowskin rug, with no apparent inner turmoil about the fact that it was flayed from the body of a fellow cow.

And then there’s Goose, who is inexplicably not a goose at all but rather a large chicken. Like all of the characters, he won’t come visit your campsite until you possess a certain series of items that he desires. Usually, this means crafting decorations or pieces of furniture in line with their preferred aesthetics. But Goose has something darker in mind, a request that he characterizes as a “little favor.” Here is what’s on his shopping list:

To be clear, Goose is not only asking you to put a hit out on a fellow bird, but to prepare the corpse for a sumptuous repast. Is the turkey in question a hated foe, or is this just some cannibalistic fetish he likes to indulge? As his killer-for-hire, it would appear it is not your place to ask.

Despite the wide variety of avian characters in the game, including penguins, chickens, ducks, and owls, you can also own a bird that lives inside a cage — an item that the game specifically says inspires “no reaction” from the other characters. How can characters like Jay and Goose be so nonchalant about the imprisonment and enslavement of a fellow bird? Either they lack empathy to a degree that borders on sociopathy, or they do not see themselves when they look inside the cage, but rather a sub-human creature undeserving of liberty and free will.

Similarly, a cat character named Punchy will eventually ask you to craft a cat tower, which is classified in the game’s catalogue as a “pet item.” Since Punchy and the other cat campers are clearly not pets, that means this particular piece of furniture is intended for a cat who is — and that a cat can own another cat, a revelation with some Goofy and Pluto-esque moral implications.

There are, then, two classes of animals in this world: those who are regarded as people, and those who are treated the way human beings typically treat animals, as commodities to be bought and sold. By mapping animals into human society while maintaining its conflicted and contradictory relationship with animals, Animal Crossing essentially codifies that dichotomy into an animal caste system that allows socially superior members to freely enslave and consume their own kind without any sort of internal conflict. This is, needless to say, pretty grim and an unintentionally scathing critique of humanity’s inconsistent attitudes toward animals, particularly when viewed through the cheerful, breezy lens of an all-ages game.

We need to talk about Stitches

Several characters in Animal Crossing pose disturbing existential questions by their mere presence, particularly Hopkins, who appears to be an inflatable toy rabbit. There have been numerous debates among Animal Crossing fans about whether or not Hopkins, who has a blow-up nozzle on the back of his head, is “real.” It would seem that the fleshier animals in the game have similar concerns — and an innate, borderline prejudiced distrust of counterfeit animals. Although he is seemingly afforded the same rights to life and liberty as the others, the character profile for Hopkins includes a sinister warning: “Just a heads-up: Hopkins is not to be trusted. He’s always full of hot air.”

But most disturbing of all is Stitches, a teddy bear whose body has been Frankensteined together from seemingly haphazard scraps of fabric — or, possibly, the bodies of other bears. This alarming animal Pinocchio has Xs instead of eyes, and seems to be a spirit of some kind, trapped in the body of a nightmare doll that looks like it’s about to pull out a knife and demand that you play with him… forever. He also reflexively refers to you as “stuffin,’” which sounds like a threat in a way that I do not wish to investigate.

As with Hopkins, it is uncomfortable to contemplate precisely when his consciousness came into being. Was it summoned into his tiny cloth body through some arcane ritual, or did it emerge gradually as his ersatz-bearness took form in the hands of some Geppetto-like craftsperson? Does he experience pain? Could he feel his own anatomy being stitched together by the needles of the thread-god who gave him life?

Whatever else they are, Hopkins and Stitches are inescapably tragic creatures, constructed in the image of animals they will never fully become, whose very bodies aspire toward a state of existence that their fundamental nature will always betray. This then forces us to ask: who created them, and why were they conjured into the world? As experiments, as substitute children, or as toys to be played with by other animals? If these thoughts haunt them, they give no sign, but the question of their second-class citizenship — and the very nature of their souls —perpetually hangs in the air.

Some Dogs Go to Heaven

So what are we to make of the notion of the soul in the Animal Crossing universe, or at least how the characters regard it? One clue lies within the seasonal holidays in the game, which include religious celebrations like Christmas. We can assume, then, that God exists in this world — or at least, that many animals acknowledge a higher being and practice some form of Christianity. Whether Jesus and his disciples were human in this alternate universe, or a colorful assortment of woodland creatures, I will leave to the imagination of the reader. But one can reasonably assume that this iteration of Christian faith regards anthropomorphic animals as fully fledged members of humanity with souls and access to the afterlife, and that the lesser animals of Animal Crossing are necessarily excluded from spiritual personhood and the promise of eternal life.

But wait! The rabbit hole goes even deeper!

Most Animal Crossing games include dancing clay figurines called gyroids, which appear to be sentient but are classified as “furniture items.” The exception to this is Lloid, the only gyroid who speaks and has a name. Lloid appears variously as a gardening assistant, a construction foreman, and the proprietor of an auction house, where you can buy and sell other gyroids. Whether this makes Lloid a traitor to his kind is unclear.

Gyroids are inspired by Japanese funereal objects called haniwa, which can be shaped as both people and animals, and are sometimes thought to be containers for souls. Lloid speaks in an antiquated, formal dialect that suggests he lived in an earlier era, and thus is the spirit of a long-dead person or person-animal residing in a figurine. Other gyroids, which instinctively dance and ululate but cannot communicate, are more likely empty vessels waiting to receive souls, or perhaps once contained a spirit that left a trace of its humanity behind.

This means that the characters of Animal Crossing could be functionally immortal, as their consciousness can be transferred into gyroids after death — and, in a Black Mirror twist, into life-sized toys like Stitches and possibly even sofas. Given that this is a world where nearly everything can be bought and sold, it’s also likely immortality is granted solely to those who can pay for it, a dystopian notion that raises profound moral concerns. This could also explain why Stitches is so poorly constructed: it’s the only body he could afford.

Friendship is just another in-app purchase

This brings us to the financial system of Animal Crossing, the fundamental mechanism that shapes the experience of the game. It has long been observed that Animal Crossing is something of a capitalist fantasy, a world where everyone — even poor people and avocado toast-eating millennials — can become homeowners through sheer diligence and hard work.

The moment you arrive in town, a tanuki robber baron named Tom Nook informs you that you’ve just taken out an enormous loan from him to buy your home, and it’s now your job to pay it off. (In some games, you’re conscripted into a form of indentured servitude at Nook’s company store). Pocket Camp flips the script on this conceit, turning your character into a transient who lives out of a van in the woods, a grim vision of what awaits less affluent renters in gentrifying neighborhoods. OK Motors takes on the lender role here, as you repeatedly go into debt with the repair shop to spruce up your vehicle.

You have no home in Pocket Camp, per se, nor any consistent community; the animal characters who set up camp only stick around for a few hours at a time before they are rotated out. It’s possible to get them to camp with you on a more permanent basis — but of course, this comes with a price. Your animal “friends” will adamantly refuse to come stay with you unless you decorate your camp with furniture they consider stylish (and/or commit bird murder for them). You must live, henceforth, with the knowledge that all of your relationships are conditional and based on status and money, rather than true affection and respect.

Your interactions with everyone you meet are fundamentally transactional; your friendship level with a given animal in Pocket Camp only increases when you bring them whatever gifts they demand, items that can only be attained through physical labor. In return, they give you money and resources, a relationship that more closely resembles a boss and an employee than two mutually caring pals. At times, your “friends” will literally hand you sacks of money to express their appreciation — a friendship “bonus,” if you will. By design, this is what friendship boils down in Animal Crossing: the regular exchange of money and goods. Like the lesser animals consigned to their cages, your relationship is just another commodity to be bought and sold.

If that isn’t depressing enough, Pocket Camp breaks the fourth wall of its virtual capitalism with in-app purchases, allowing you to purchase the friends and status you desire with real money via “leaf tickets”, rather than just the in-game currency of “bells.” Technically, you don’t have to buy leaf tickets — it’s possible to earn them in the game — but things go a lot faster and easier if you just shell out the cash. Leaf tickets give you access to special items and also accelerate the crafting process, allowing you install your luxurious new pool instantly, rather than waiting 72 hours like a plebe.

Naturally, Tom Nook is running the microtransactions. And in Pocket Camp, his commitment to capitalism is so extreme that even he can be bought, for a price. If you’re willing to pay the rather exorbitant fee of 250 leaf tickets — which you purchase in an online store that literally has a picture of Tom Nook reclining in a bathtub of money — you can craft a chair that will impels him to visit your camp like a paid celebrity showing up at a kid’s birthday party, so that rabble like you can touch the hem of his terrible sweater vest.

All of this makes Pocket Camp feel less like a capitalist fantasy and more like a capitalist reality, where people with money can jump the line and instantly buy their way to a better and more convenient (virtual) life, while everyone else has to grind out a living in Shovelstrike Quarry.

So yes, Animal Crossing is a charming and delightful game about making friends — one that happens to take place in a world where social inequality, murder, and cannibalism are a normal part of the social order, where the rich can buy and sell those they consider sub-human on a whim, and even spend their way into eternal life, making wealth a power akin to religious salvation.

All of which is to say that you should absolutely play Pocket Camp. It is not only a highly entertaining game, but one that inadvertently doubles as a candy-colored indictment of some of the deepest flaws of modern society. And again, it’s free to play — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to cost you.

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