On Wednesday, September 11th, 2002, I didn’t feel like watching television. I had just finished my latest novel, and was ready for a vacation. The day felt like a day off school -- except I wasn’t in school anymore. Nevertheless, it was sunny outside, and the weather was pleasant. It wasn’t hot, it wasn’t cold. I felt somehow compelled to spend this day like I’d spent so many days off school in the past -- by renting a videogame, sitting down, and playing it all day. When I got to Blockbuster Video and saw that Nintendo’s Animal Crossing for Gamecube was available to rent, my mind was suddenly made up: I am going to rent Animal Crossing, and see if I want to buy it. So I rented it, took it home without grumbling about the missing instruction manual, and fired it up. I spent a week playing Animal Crossing off and on. Not even an hour into the game, a notion hit me: Animal Crossing is not a normal videogame. Therefore, it cannot be reviewed by normal means. (Note: The “review” appears in Monday’s segment)
Billy, of Naptown: Tim Rogers spends a week in Animal Crossing
I’m heating up a vegan burrito in the microwave when I hear the animal voice for the first time. It’s a high voice, and it sounds almost like a whistle:
I jump around the corner, and look into the living room. There, in the middle of my big-screen TV, is a red Nintendo logo. When it fades, the Animal Crossing title screen comes up. Behind the logo is a train station surrounded by trees with falling pink leaves. An animal-like person with dog ears in an outfit with red and white horizontal stripes is carrying a black-and-white umbrella, and headed south, past a monkey in a porter’s outfit. South of the train station, there are two houses. Outside one of the houses stands -- what’s this? -- a gorilla. Outside the other house stands a rhino. No one told me they had gorillas and rhinos in this game!
And that music. It’s a light kind of piano-jazz that reminds me of Earthbound so hard it almost knocks the wind out of me. Then the microwave beeps, and I run out to grab my burrito. As I’m dropping it onto a paper plate and grabbing my tiny bottle of green Tabasco, I hear that voice again:
The voice is different this time. It’s deep, the pitch of a tuba. I arrive back in the living room in time to see the Nintendo logo fade, and the image of a snow-covered town surface. This time, the hero is dressed in yellow, and he’s carrying a fishing rod. He’s headed south, again, past a kangaroo, and . . . I pick up my Wavebird from the coffee table, hit the start button, and sit back.
There, before my very eyes, is that guitar-playing dog. I remember this dog from the little postcard insert that came with my copy of Super Mario Sunshine. That game happens to be lying on my coffee table, so I pick it up, and flip it open. Beneath the words “Get your own place! Live by your own rules!” the dog is looking right at me, and there’s a word balloon:
“Animal Crossing is the place to BE, man! We got all kinds of cool cats livin’ here, not to mention cool dogs, cool kangaroos . . .”
His videogame counterpart is saying something much less friendly, and in a much spookier voice:
“There isn’t enough room on the memory card in slot A.”
I almost drop my controller, like, “Holy shit! He’s talking!” It doesn’t even matter what he’s saying. His voice sounds like one of those computerized speech programs set on super fast-forward. Or like voice caller ID. What a rude awakening that is, when you’re talking to someone on the phone, and that computerized voice cuts in. It’s kind of funny when your friend -- whose last name is Qiu -- calls, and the voice says: “cue-eye-you.” Technology can’t do everything. I wonder . . .
The dog gives me three choices. I can either play the game without saving, take a look at my memory card data, or quit. I choose to take a look at my memory card data.
I need 57 free blocks. A Gamecube memory card has a total of 59 blocks. My Super Mario Sunshine data is seven blocks, and there’s no way I’m deleting that.
In other words, I’m screwed. Had I PURCHASED the game, Gamestop.com will tell me two days later, a free memory card would have been thrown in with the deal. I shake my head, let the game boot back up, and eat my burrito as the dog stares at me, asking me what I want to do. When I’m finished eating, I tell him: I’ll play the game without saving. In the back of my mind, I think I’ll drive down to Funcoland later, and pick up one of those 251-block memory cards.
It’s a little after one o’clock, and I’m on the sofa, twenty feet from the TV, with my Wavebird, when the phone rings. We’ll get to the phone ringing part in a second.
I’ve just gotten into my little town. On the train ride here, some ambiguous animal was asking me all kinds of questions. My name, where I was going. I told him my name was Billy, and that I was going to Naptown. It seemed reasonable enough. He asked me if I had a place to stay, and I told him I didn’t know. He was surprised, and he called his friend -- the shopkeeper in Naptown -- to arrange a house for me. When I departed the train at Naptown Station, I was able to see my body for the first time. Smiling and long-eared and dressed in a yellow paw-print shirt. Waiting for me at the station was Tom Nook, an inconspicuous-looking raccoon who would soon turn out to be my bastard landlord.
Tom Nook guided me to the residential area I’d be living in -- one screen with four houses. I picked a house with wooden walls and metal floors. Tom then told me that he would upgrade my house if I paid off a loan of 20,000 Bells. Bells are the currency of Animal Crossing. Tom asked me to come by the shop, and I did. There, he gave me an ugly blue work uniform and sent me off on fetch quests.
First, to teach me how to manage items, he makes me plant trees and flowers outside his shop. Then, to teach me how to write notes and memos, he made me write an advertisement for his store on the town’s ad board. He made me write a letter to a customer, and send it off at the post office. He made me hand-deliver a package.
What all of these quests did was get me acquainted with the controls of Animal Crossing, not to mention the layout of my sleepy little town.
The controls are simple enough: the A button talks to people (this being a “Communication Game,” you’re going to be doing that a lot); the B button cancels and/or picks up objects (this game is all about collection -- and rearranging stuff; you’re going to be picking up a lot of objects); the Y button opens your menu; the X button displays the map. The control stick moves your character; the D-pad, as usual, does nothing -- except function as a spacebar shortcut when you’re writing letters. The controls are simple, and intuitive -- not that control needs to be intuitive in a game with no action.
Finally, Tom let me off work, and told me to meet all the neighbors -- a male dog named Biskit, a female cat named Tangy, a female duck named Mallary, a female squirrel named Hazel, a male pig named Curly, and a male wolf named Lobo.
Lobo instantly became my hero. Lobo is very negative, and his “voice” is low and Satanic-sounding. He asked me, when I talked to him four times in a row, “What are you, some kind of psycho or something?” So I asked him: “You need any help?” And he instantly asked me if I can go pick up his Pokémon Pikachu from Hazel. I visited Hazel; I retrieved the Pikachu; I gave it back to Lobo; he gave me a shirt with a 2-ball design on it. I put it on, and asked him if he needed anything else.
Lobo sent me to get his “videotape” (what’s on it, I don’t know) from Curly. Curly had loaned it to Mallary. Mallary claimed she saw Biskit “sneaking out in the middle of the night with something.” Biskit coughed up the tape, after calling me “Dawg” four times. I gave the tape back to Lobo, who rewarded my persistence with a Cabana dresser, which I then put in my house, looked at, and thought, “This doesn’t match my metal floor.”
On my way back to Lobo’s, I grabbed an apple tree, and shook it. Three apples fell. I shook another tree, for another three apples. I took them to Tom’s, and sold them for 100 Bells each. Tom was now selling a shovel for 500 Bells. I bought the shovel, and dug a patch of shining dirt. Buried there was 1,000 Bells. I took the money, and went to Curly’s place. He asked me to get his Gameboy back from Tangy. After the deed was done, I was a whole traffic cone richer. I took the traffic cone, and put it in my house. The place was starting to fill up. I needed more room. I needed to pay off the loan.
Repeat for an hour. I now have a room full of stationery. The townspeople want me to write them letters. Every job I complete earns more stationery: cherry blossom stationery, deep-sea stationery, lumberjack stationery. I write Lobo a letter: “You are cool. Here is a present.” I attach the traffic cone. I head down the beach to collect seashells, worth anywhere from 100 Bells to 450 Bells each.
I’m standing down by the beach, looking out at the sea, with my Wavebird in my lap. The phone rings. Because I’ve been expecting someone to call, I have the phone on the sofa, next to my latest vegan burrito. I pick up the phone.
“Hello, is Tim Rogers here?”
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s me.” It is me, it is.
“I’m calling from Direct Loan.”
“Oh,” I say.
“Your payment is 180 days delinquent.”
I look at Billy, standing on Naptown Beach.
“Is it?” I ask.
“Yes,” the girl says. She can’t be any older than . . . me. “We’re calling to warn you.”
“Didn’t I put in, uh, what was it, a request for . . .” I trail off. I switch off my Wavebird, and Billy doesn’t seem to notice, all the way from twenty feet away.
“Forbearance?” the girl asks.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“We sent you a letter; you never returned it.”
“I did,” I say, kind of unenthusiastically.
“Well, shall we send another?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Alright,” the girl says, like she’s checking off something. “Now, may I ask you a few questions?”
“Sure, sure,” I say. I gently touch my vegan burrito. I suddenly want to eat it.
“Are you working now, Tim?”
I look at the fake beach, and narrow my eyes. The sun sure is shining brightly outside my real window.
“Kind of,” I say.
“Are you paying taxes?”
I shake my head. “No, no. Not, uh, not that I know of.”
“I see,” the girl says. “So you’re . . . unemployed?”
I pick up the Wavebird, hold the stick in the six o’clock position, and switch it on.
“Yeah,” I say, and put the controller on the coffee table. I lean forward, elbows on my knees, phone at my ear, as this girl keeps asking me questions. My Wavebird is purposely miscalibrated. Billy is slowly marching north on his own, away from the sea.
“Are you expecting to get a job any time soon?” the girl asks me.
I’m standing up by now. Billy is a whole acre north of the beach, and passing the wishing well, where the turtle mayor hangs out all day, every day.
“Maybe,” I say. “It depends on what I find.”
I take a twenty-foot walk up to the TV as Billy approaches Tangy’s house from the south. I hit the “power” button, and turn off the TV.
“So, are you doing . . . anything?” the girl asks me.
I shake my head again. “Nope,” I say.
“Nothing at all?”
I shrug. “Just a little writing.”
“I see,” the girl says, like she really is seeing something.
There’s a bit of a silence, then, as I look down at the glowing orange light on my Gamecube on my living room floor.
“I’m in a writing class right now,” she says.
“In college,” she says.
She pauses. “No,” she says. “An-analytical writing.”
“Oh,” I say.
“It’s hard,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Well,” she says.
“Well, keep writing,” I say.
“We’ll send out the forbearance request again,” she says.
“Sure thing,” I say.
She hangs up without saying goodbye. I look out across my lawn. The sun is bright. I close the blinds, and it becomes dark. I suddenly feel like going back to Funcoland, to spend twenty dollars I don’t have on a 251-block memory card I’ll only need for six days.
All the way back from Funcoland, I’m thinking about Billy. What’s he doing now, behind the turned-off television? Is he still marching north, walking in place against the train tracks at Naptown’s northern border? Does he want to go . . . somewhere else?
When I get home, and turn the TV on, I discover the horrible truth:
Billy is marching against a tree one acre north of Tangy’s house. He’d gotten stuck, seconds after I hung up the phone.
And I’d left my Wavebird on, all that time!
I felt suddenly like I’d just wasted my -- and someone else’s -- time. I grab the controller, recalibrate it, and head back to my house. I tell my little robotic assistant I want to save my game. When I head into my house, the guitar-playing dog asks me if I want to quit. I tell him I do, and it’s goodnight for Animal Crossing for a few hours.
[Next: Day 2; Put Lobo in the Hole(s)]