Animal Crossing: New Horizons has some amount of ‘New’ but can it be both not enough and too much?

Opinion, Video Games

Day 8 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D., quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.

By: William Chandler

I, like many, was extremely excited for a new Animal Crossing game to release. I’ve given the Animal Crossing franchise many dutiful years of service from a young age, beginning with the Gamecube game simply titled Animal Crossing. It released in the United States on September 16th, 2002, a full year and a half after the Japanese version’s debut as Dōbutsu no Mori on the N64 and about 9 months after the Japanese Gamecube port. This game still represents the franchise at its most pure. The mechanics were simple, the art style unique, and the charm endless. I played Animal Crossing for a year, from the age of 8 to 9, nearly every day. I would return to it periodically for years afterward. There truly was nothing like it.

Fast forward to 2020 and I am 25 years old. Time has seen to the release of three more main entries in the Animal Crossing series, Wild World for the Nintendo DS in 2005, City Folk for the Wii in 2008, and New Leaf for the 3DS in 2012. This is to say nothing about the several spin-off games released between 2012 and now. New Leaf seemed to ignite a passion in the greater world that needed, nay, demanded more Animal Crossing. Something that I, as a small boy crouched on the floor in front of a TV in 2002, could have never imagined. Animal Crossing was… weird. Hell, still is weird if you forget just how used to it you are. A talking, capitalistic Tanuki places you in debt as the first order of business in this new and foreign world and then repeatedly preys on your inability to pay. A tunneling mole yells at you if you neglect to save your game. A dog, the only animal in all of the world of Animal Crossing who wears absolutely nothing in the form of clothing, is the foremost musician and his super-stardom inspires a fanbase so rabid that it would make the K-Pop industry red with envy. How could a game so strange develop a similarly rabid fanbase?

The answer probably has equal parts to do with just how comforting the game is to play and its irresistible cuteness. These two things combine into a sinister product that is fun and addictive. It is designed to keep you coming back day after day and that’s okay. In terms of addictions, this has to be the least predatory of all time. “Ah, I need to check on my flower bed every day,” ranks low on the list of cries for help. And originally this was about as complex as the games were. In the first Animal Crossing, you could count the number of mechanics on two hands. Talk to villagers, shop at the store, donate to the museum, upgrade and decorate your house, just to name a few. The genius of the game lies in just how easily these few and simple mechanics spiral out into a much grander vision of a living, breathing town full of likable, goofball characters. A town that you slowly begin to call your own as you exert your influence over it with every passing day. I never played any of the Seaman games but I feel there is a kinship between the two series in that they both give this feeling, although one more successfully than the other.

And, after 7 long years of waiting, our collective prayers were answered. Animal Crossing: New Horizons released on March 20th, 2020 to immediate success and became the best selling game in the franchise in only six weeks. I imagine we’ve all changed a lot in 7 years and it seems as though I’ve changed into a person who no longer enjoys Animal Crossing. Or perhaps it is Animal Crossing that has changed for the worse. The doldrums of the day-in day-out style of play began to wear on me within the first month. Why, I wonder, is it that a game so much like the one I love can be lesser in my eyes? It could be that they are too similar and I’ve simply grown tired of the formula after five entries in the series. After all, all of the mechanics that I listed as being in the first game are still present and accounted for nearly twenty years later. Or is it the ways that the franchise has changed that makes it less lovable? The additions of the crafting system, Nook phone, Nook miles, and mystery islands only work to complicate something that was once purely about interacting with your villagers and your town. More likely, it is both of these things and more.

A small complaint I had early on, but one that bothered me far beyond reason, is just how frequently I noticed villagers repeating themselves, sometimes as soon as the very next day. Penelope, a villager I really dislike, said her ‘Moon Mouse’ line to me maybe 20 times in 60 days. Perhaps it is rose tinted nostalgia, but I don’t recall this happening as often in older entries. Speaking of disliking villagers, the villager tier lists out there represent a new and sort of dark version of Animal Crossing in which people min/max the game’s mechanics in order to achieve the perfect island. A utopia of sorts, populated by only the exact villagers deemed “good enough” to be allowed there. This is, in my eyes, against the spirit of the game which is, to some extent, learning to love thy neighbor even if you don’t especially like them. You can’t always pick the people in your life. That said, players should enjoy the game the way that they want and I, by no means, am judging anyone for enjoying playing this way. However, for me, seeing the game enter the public consciousness primarily in this way has been off putting. Why is it that the buying and selling of turnips for maximum profit has been discussed so in depth over the last two months despite its relatively minor focus in the game itself?

Likely, I am just sad that I’m no longer a part of the club I helped found. All of the charm of Animal Crossing is present and perhaps better than ever in New Horizons. The writing is more clever and oh, God, the music. The music continues to be a highlight for every entry in the franchise and their ability to iterate on some of the same themes while still having a unique style for each game is to be commended. I would never insinuate that New Horizons is a bad game but I do feel as though some bit of Animal Crossing’s soul is lost with each new release.


Replay: Mass Effect

Opinion, Video Games

By: William Chandler

232274-944902_99714_frontI’ve been meaning to replay the original Mass Effect for quite some time now. It stands as not only my favorite of the first two Mass Effect games but rounds out the holy trinity of Bioware games that is also comprised of KOTOR and Jade Empire. If I took the time to make a concrete top ten list of my favorite games, it would likely hold a pretty high spot. My love for the Mass Effect series is also tinged with regret. I’ve never actually even played Mass Effect 3 due to a lost save file that I carried through the first two games and a lack of motivation to start anew thanks to the quite controversial reception of the third game. After a nasty relapse and subsequent rage quit of my horrible addiction to ranked League of Legends, I decided to begin a full series play through in order to finally wrap things up for both Commander Shepard and myself.

Frankly, just thinking about how long it has been since the first Mass Effect came out makes me physically ill. It was nearly nine years ago and I was twelve years old. I did at least two full play throughs of the game in the week after its release, one renegade and one paragon, and I would later take my paragon file into Mass Effect 2. After which I wouldn’t ever play a Mass Effect game again. Well, until now that is.

For some reason the first things I thought of while installing Mass Effect onto my PC were the damned elevators. The ones on the ice planet of Noveria to be precise. I remembered their strange mosaic-like frosted glass windows that made them feel like they doubled as tacky bathrooms. I also remembered just how hated the elevators actually were at the time of the game’s release in 2007. The elevators served as some fairly lengthy and far too frequent loading screen cover ups which, if player reaction was anything to go by, was almost a worse idea than just having some long as shit loading bars. Back then I didn’t really mind them. Boy, was I tolerant. In the year of our Lord 2016, those things are actually the devil. They kill pacing and the frequent comrade conversations that I remembered from before actually are not all that frequent. I think I heard Garrus and Wrex (because those are the only two companions I ever use in ME1) bicker one time in my full 25-ish hours with the game.

Upon reaching the menu screen I felt some deep nostalgia from the music. I remembered it being great but, man, is it actually incredible. Honestly, the entire soundtrack is just aces. It’s one of the things from Mass Effect 1 that has held up the best. It’s highly electronic, of course, but it is sparse and tasteful enough that it never overstays its welcome and the incredible orchestral accompaniments are saved for some of the most memorable sections of the game. Outside of the soundtrack, however, the audio is surprisingly lackluster. Ambient audio is either barely acceptable or entirely not there and just about anything other than the bass filled gunshots are pretty bare. I think of my frequent MAKO drives along the surface of the empty side-planets and can really only call to mind the faint whirring of the MAKOs engines, another decidedly passable effect. At some point I just wound up turning on a podcast to fill in the silence.


The Witcher 3 and open world storytelling

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

(Light spoilers from the first ~4 hours ahead)

Throughout my nearly 100 hour playthrough of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I couldn’t help but constantly recognize ways in which the game continued to make the story of the main quest feel compelling. A surefire way to break the immersion, sure, but it felt like something truly worthy of recognition. After all, often my least favorite parts of open world RPGs are the main story, yet The Witcher 3 manages to make its main questline feel important and consistently interesting despite the dozens of hours of other content also vying for the attention of the player. This is, of course, a natural extension of the game being all around really damned good, but there’s definitely more to it than this.

It certainly helps that the main objective at any point in the game can be boiled down to a single line without feeling meaningless. It starts off as “Find Yennefer.” It’s pretty clear from the game’s opening moments that Yennefer is a person of great importance to Geralt and that their relationship extends beyond one of mere intimacy, especially since his dream initially depicts a fairly simple and relatively mundane version of their lives together. A lazy and beautiful morning at Kaer Morhen with some of the people Geralt cares for most. Geralt the character clearly feels compelled to find Yennefer but why would the player controlling Geralt feel the same?

The dream continues on to depict his relationship with Ciri, a young girl who takes the role of his protégé but perhaps somewhat of a daughter figure as well considering their apparent closeness. Everything then goes quickly into nightmare territory with Kaer Morhen coming under siege by a force of overwhelming power and Ciri being attacked directly.

While those with knowledge of the past games, or perhaps even the books, will recognize all of the shit that Geralt and Yennefer have actually gone through together, these details are unnecessary thanks to the game’s presentation of the dream and Geralt’s brief discussion with Vesemir afterwards, should the player choose to let Geralt open up about it. Geralt even states that he dreamt of he and Yen together at Kaer Morhen despite the fact that she had never even actually been there, making the beginning clearly idealized. In this conversation it also becomes readily apparent that Geralt is worried by the dream although fails to go into much detail about why. One thing is certain though. It seems as though Yennefer is in danger and that danger may extend to Ciri as well.

Far Cry 4 celebrates 1 day in the public eye, has already pissed off a bunch of internet people

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

This thread on Neogaf came to my attention sometime last night and really got something going in me that I haven’t felt since the Hotline Miami 2 “rape” fiasco. The thread is entitled “Far Cry 4’s art is racist and the antagonist is (potentially) gay”. A quote from the post:

A few months after the Far Cry 3 writer said “we won’t see gay protagonist in AAA game for a while over sales fears” comes the announcement of Far Cry 4. 

The moment I saw the picture below, I felt my heart sank. An evil character, wearing all purple, having an edgy stylish modelesque haircut, hand resting on a guys head…I instantly thought they could be making a gay antagonist. 

Okay, for a game that really only exists to us in box art form thus far, this is quite an assumption to make. I mean, perhaps he’s just an intriguing fellow who appreciates grooming and personal style. To the author’s credit though, he does say “could be making a gay antagonist”, and I agree on that front. They certainly could be. But why would it matter?

While there is nothing inherently wrong with a gay antagonist, it worries me that it might not be done right. Also if the only time we have gay characters in games as main characters that are bad guys, what message does that send to people? All gay people are bad, or it will just fuel their hatred they already have towards gay people. I can see it now, people thinking “Finally, I can call a character in a game a faggot and he will actually be one.”

This is where he really loses me. Gay people have been portrayed in games numerous times already, albeit in a way that was not flamboyant, meaning that rather than being gay characters, many of them were regular ol’ characters who just happened to be gay. To me, that is more realistic in many contexts as the fact that a character is gay would not be of the highest importance to the plot in most games, making it just another aspect of the character of a person. Bioware games were great at proving that just about any “type” of personality could also be gay. And the type of person that already harbors ill will towards gay people would not be swayed even with the presence of a gay protagonist, or a ‘properly done’ gay antagonist.

Frankly, I don’t see why this matters at all even if the protagonist were overtly homosexual. It is merely the way that character is written and in no way is expected to be representative of an entire culture or group of persons. You see, I wasn’t aware it was the responsibility of the games industry to create the picture perfect ideal of every single human being or human collective on the face of the planet, just in case someone might get the wrong impression otherwise. Artistic interpretation is, by the way, a thing that exists. A body of work in an artistic medium should be respected as such, rather than some sort of hidden anti-(insert sensitive thing here) agenda.

But, the worst aspect of this post is the part near the bottom where a bunch of people on twitter call the box art racist because a relatively light skinned man is treating another human poorly. One guy even tweeted it directly at Ubi and and the FarCryGame twitter account. I mean, I may be subconsciously submitting to the patriarchy here, but the stylishly dressed man looks like a light skinned asian fellow with bleached hair to me. And would that fact make it more okay? I don’t get how violence against other humans is okey dokey as long as a potentially gay, white man isn’t inflicting it upon the innocent, dark skinned natives because that makes gay people look bad and furthers the white agenda somehow.

The blowback from the aforementioned Hotline Miami 2 scandal was so immense that it forced relatively small time company Devolver Digital to make some changes to the scene in question, altering their original artistic vision in an admittedly small way just to make concessions to some internet bullies. A fact that bothers me to this day. I doubt a major publisher like Ubisoft will need to do the same, though, which pleases me greatly. To be honest, I doubt they ever even needed to, because all of these claims are baseless presumptions.

But even if the worst fears of the SJW community come to bare in Far Cry 4, they could always simply abide by an ancient consumer proverb.

If you don’t like it, don’t fucking buy it.


Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Were I required to make some weird and creepy human personification regarding video game storytelling (which I obviously am), I would say that storytelling in games is akin to a young teenager still in the throes of awkwardness and enamored with the idea of who they want to be. Developers are unsure of just how to communicate exactly what they need for the plot, so they sprinkle collectible notes throughout the environments that the player then has to pick up and read for lore, or they insert cutscenes between bouts of interactivity for a brief bit of movie like exposition. But that’s the cool part about games as a medium; they can blatantly rip off styles of storytelling from books and movies without anyone batting an eye because they’re young and developing. Hell, often times they rip off multiple styles at the exact same time. And while this can work, and indeed has, for a great number of games, it often causes you to forget exactly why games are unique.

More like cut-movie am I right? *laugh track*

I mean, audio logs were cool as fuck when you heard them in System Shock 2, Doom 3, or the original Bioshock, because they were a relatively fresh concept for delivering background information that was not immediately necessary for the plot at hand. For Doom 3, all you really needed to know was that demons from hell were invading your shit on Mars and that it was a decidedly necessary venture for you to stop them from doing that. And you could certainly get all of that just by playing the game. However, if you really wanted to know why this was happening and what exactly was going on prior to your unfortunate arrival to the space station, you could pick up the numerous audio logs spread around the base that might clue you in on such things. They were pretty much an optional addition to the story and they didn’t require taking control away from the player like cutscenes, and that is precisely what made them interesting at the time.

The inherent popularity of them in the original Bioshock is really what did in audio logs for me, though. After Bioshock’s release, you would often see the arbitrary inclusion of audio logs in games that, frankly, did not need them. Who honestly cares about the motivations of the Jackal in Far Cry 2? Neither the plot of the game nor his character within it were interesting enough to even warrant me finishing it, much less giving a remote shit about finding 17 collectible audio logs in a game world so massive that it was unlikely you’d ever locate them all without some form of guide.

Thanks a lot Frank Fontaine

Honestly, the biggest problem with audio logs, as well as the aforementioned notes and cutscenes exposition methods, is that they are all counter productive to the entire purpose of video games, which is to be interactive. Cutscenes literally rip control away from the player and force them to stare at the screen for a few moments (or an hour if it’s a Kojima product), notes take time to read once you collect them, and audio logs force you to stand in one spot for a moment if you’d actually like to hear whatever it has to say without being interrupted by pesky gameplay.

Stop for a sec and read this note in the middle of this haunted asylum

This is not to say that these methods are wrong. But after years of playing games that repeatedly recycle these same methods which tell you everything directly, it is really easy to notice when games get it right. And boy does the Souls series get it right. Being forced to infer much of the plot and lore of the game from the environments, enemies, items, and characters within the gameplay is not only a refreshing change, but it also enhances the feelings of accomplishment you get from completing a particularly difficult area. Not being told everything directly up front through top heavy exposition makes the player feel intelligent and is more natural to boot. After all, when was the last time someone in real life explained every bit of his or her honest motivations behind an action at the slightest prod? Rather, you often get bits and pieces and are then forced to fill in the rest on your own based on knowledge of their character, environment, past, etc. The STALKER franchise is great at this as well, although their writing quality and story structure are admittedly considerably weaker.

Keep on wheelin’ and dealin’, Souls games

Gamers should encourage more developers to focus on perfecting the type of story delivery that complements the interactivity in games rather than perfunctory attempts at overly complicated, mature, and self serious plots (THE MULTIVERSE BOOKER) or pointless twists that only harm the game in the end (YOUR WIFE WAS THE BIONIC ARM THE WHOLE TIME).

Perhaps then storytelling in games can enter the young adult phase where it loses all motivation to improve and instead prefers to watch reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air all day.