You can’t help but giggle at first. A super-deformed dog called K.K. Slider introduces you to the world of Animal Crossing by muttering navel-gazing nonsense about freedom and getting out into the world. Slap a guitar in his hands and you’ve got a recipe for an obnoxious musician spouting platitudes. Your eyes glaze over because what he’s saying is linked to an unattainable dream: the life of a carefree artist who only lives to create. If you look a little deeper though, K.K. Slider is really talking about the Japanese spatial concept of Ma.
In Japanese, Ma roughly translates to “pause”. Ma suggests interval. The rough approximation of Ma in English is Negative Space, a restrictive term typically used in painting and photography. Ma refers to an awareness of space dependent on the human imagination, it’s about the gaps in between where form and non-form come together as a unifying whole. It’s why Japanese animation is distinguished by such a rhythmic pop: the classic image of a samurai sheathing his sword behind a momentarily paused opponent before they topple to the ground. Or the “pillow sequences” of filmmaker Mamoru Oshii who intersperses moments of intense, violent action with slow-paced sequences of breathtaking beauty where nothing of significance happens. The concept of Ma comes so naturally to the Japanese (and other Eastern cultures, too) because they have a word for it in their language. We don’t.
At the beginning of Animal Crossing, K.K. Slider is asking you to put aside your concept of goals and objectives and to embrace the inconsequential things in life. In Animal Crossing, you are free from dictatorship of action.
But not straight away, of course. Like a newborn baby, players must acclimate themselves to a game where goals are seemingly minor. As soon as you hop off the train, the local merchant, Tom Nook, gives you a new home with the knowledge you’ll pay him back someday. In fact, you can start to pay it off right now by working at his shop! Even the most freeform games in the world need a little bit of handholding at the beginning.
The difference here is that your job with Tom Nook is just that: a list of frivolous chores you do day in and day. It feels weird at first because games are about the things you do outside of your job. You persist, regardless, and the strangest thing happens. You realise that you don’t need to wear the uniform Tom Nook gives you, you realise you can plant flowers wherever you like in the village and not just in front of Nook’s shop, and you realise that while you have to send a letter to a villager, what you choose to write to them is entirely up to you.
By establishing such a restrictive concept like an in-game job, the moment you realise you can ignore it or play outside of the rules feels important. Writing a dumb letter filled with in-jokes feels as significant as besting a game’s end boss. The insignificant little details are important because you’re putting so much of yourself in them.
The insignificant details are important because you’re finally noticing them.
Animal Crossing is a celebration of the mundane, the minutia of everyday life rendered with charming animation and intermittent action. Planting a tree is a three day process where you witness each stage of its growth cycle before it finally bears fruit. A letter sent to a friend is stuck at the post office until the postman delivers it. The town Dump is emptied every Monday and Thursday at 6AM, and K.K. Slider will play his guitar at the Train Station every Saturday night.
Whether it’s rainy or not, you can pull out an umbrella and walk around town. You can press the A button and watch as your little figure spins the handle around in their palms to brush off droplets of water. You’ll sometimes stumble upon a soccer ball and kick it around the village until it inevitably tumbles into the nearby river and floats away out into the ocean. You can make snowmen during winter time, get stung by a bee and watch in horror as your entire face puffs up, and you can fall into holes and struggle to get out. Animal Crossing: Wild World on the Nintendo DS even added the ability to trip over while running because, you know, accidents happen. Video games are excellent at repeating actions that make you feel good but rarely do they ritualize minor events. The unpredictable mingles with the predictable to create wonderful surprises. I still remember how shocked I was to hit a rock with my shovel and find money pop out of it.
Animal Crossing romanticizes inaction by building mechanics focused on communication. You remember the rainy day in October when your feet squelched in the mud and Poncho told you how he tired he was because he worked out all night, rather than the time you spent looking for the stupid bear because he had wandered off into a nearby orchard. You remember counting down the seconds before New Year and watching the fireworks explode in the reflection of the town pond as your neighbours ran around excitedly, and not the literal hours you spent waiting for the New Year to even draw near. By approximating reality and shifting focus away from the specifics, the mechanics of video games dissolve and all that’s left are the memories you prescribe meaning to. Rather than celebrate how you wiped out the swarm of Locusts that barreled towards you in Gears of War, Animal Crossing asks you to find meaning in the unpredictable interactions that happen around you.
By designing around the beauty of nothing, Animal Crossing invariably draws attention to the minor things in life that enrich and contribute to your day to day life. And maybe in the busy grown up world, video games are the only way we can stop and contemplate these moments. Divorced from life’s responsibilities, Animal Crossing invites you to engage with the inconsequential and admire all the spaces in between.
Animal Crossing wants you to notice the moment just before, the moment just after.
Illustration by Jake Lawrence. You can find more of his lovely art on his Tumblr.
After Pressing Start is a series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those introductory stories influence the arcs of video games. This guest entry of After Pressing Start was written by Alois Wittwer. Check out some of the other APS articles: After Pressing Start