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Animal Crossing’s focus on naturalism continues in its procedural representation of the town’s outdoor environment. The village is lined with trees, cliffs, rivers, waterfalls, flowerbeds, and a sandy beach. Thanks to the real-time synchronization between the game and the console clock, golden hour rises in the early evening, darkness falls at night, leaves blush and fall in autumn, and snow covers the ground in winter. The simulation of seasonal cycles creates a persistent, living world that is always in flux. On some spring days it rains and the animals don umbrellas. The townsfolk sleep at night, and the crickets chirp. The fish and insects that live in the rivers and under the rocks also change seasonally. Life is scarce in wintertime, plentiful in spring, and certain animals can only be found during two-week periods throughout the year. The living outdoor world opposes the dead indoors, where purchased products sit idle and unchanging.
As with a Japanese garden, the player has the ability to make thoughtful alterations to the landscape. He can plant trees and flowers, or cut down trees to create open spaces. Weeds appear in inverse proportion to the frequency of play; a player returning to his town after weeks or months away will spend many days gardening the town to its previous sanctity. Just as the HRA codified consumerism, Animal Crossing’s eco-pastoralist rules are codified in the game’s wishing well. Each town has an outdoor clearing with a bubbling fountain. The player can ask the wishing well about the state of the town, and it will reply with cryptic clues about the landscape—too many trees in a particular acre, not enough greenery in another, too many weeds, and so forth. Players can then perform appropriate gardening to return the village to balance. HRA provides immediate feedback, a new letter arriving each day. But the wishing well’s opinion changes much more slowly, taking weeks to alter its overall opinion of the town. After two weeks of “perfect” conditions according to the wishing well, the player is rewarded with a golden axe, an appropriate symbol of refinement through elimination rather than acquisition.
Both the HRA and the wishing well sometimes offer inscrutable advice, but each enforces a different logic of bewilderment. The HRA sends letters, suggesting human judgment by an unseen body of rational actors. Their absence speaks to the inaccessibility of the fashion calculus, and the player must measure his taste against the imposed and seemingly changing whims of fashionistas. The HRA’s letter is the Animal Crossing equivalent of Cosmopolitan or Dwell magazine, which do less to document than to create trends in fashion and interior design by delivering advertising. The wishing well’s messages arrive immediately, but their source is also concealed from the player. If the HRA represents consumer trends, the wishing well depicts spirituality. The player measures his town’s livability against a semi-transcendental other-worldliness, accessed through the mystery of the well. Ideally, the wishing well invites the player to consider the town’s outdoor environment as a communal place that affects everyone in the town, both other human player characters and the NPC animals.
The tension between wealth and community develops further in the town museum. The museum accepts donations of fish, insects, fossils, and paintings for each of its galleries. All of these items must be found or hunted by the player. To complete each exhibit, the players in the town must collaborate to donate all the items; each item can be donated only once, and a record of its donor is inscribed on a plaque near the item, just as one might find in a real museum.
Donating to the museum imposes a difficult decision on the player. Some fish, insects, and paintings are very valuable, yielding enormous profit when sold to Tom Nook. But once sold, the items disappear into Nook’s unseen market; fish, insects, and fossils can never be bought at the town store. The museum forces the player to balance personal material gain against communal gain. Although the NPC animals never appear inside the museum, the fact that game time continues when the console is switched off implies that activity continues. The animals might enjoy browsing the museum when the player logs out. This dynamic is especially useful for children, whose rich imaginations are much more capable of filling in the game’s gaps. Even if the player chooses to sell his first arapaima or giant stag beetle with the intention of donating the next one, favoring material wealth over communal benefit may cast a guilty shadow over his future fishing and insect-hunting expeditions.