When a cutie-bunny-hedgehog-kitty game comes out alongside Doom Eternal and Doom 64, it’s a test of self-confidence for a grown man to take it to the shop counter. Failing that test despicably, I invented the weak and unnecessary excuse that I could play Animal Crossing: New Horizons with my little boy. Working at home during the UK's Coronavirus lockdown, I saw a great chance to make him collect weeds and sticks while I was in meetings, to take the edge off that early-game grind for me – oh, and to bond with him, I suppose.
The first part of that plan didn’t exactly come off: his stilted bumping around and forgetting controls was painful to watch and he couldn’t harvest for toffee. Sure, there were some cute moments in there – he called our character “Moo” and modelled him on his baby brother – but there was a lot of frustration, like when he named our island “Water”, condemning me to an eternity of being asked “What’s a water airport? What’s a water museum?” and so on.
But as I tried to teach him the grammar of gaming, his “Why? Why? Why?” forced me to challenge the dusty assumptions of a gamer who accidentally became a retro gamer. Here are the six lessons he ended up teaching me.
1: Voice acting is not necessarily better
Of course, we all love the delightful Animalese, but you still have to read – and to read out loud if you’re with a small child. This was like our storybooks and my little sidekick loved it. Helpfully, we cohabited our island with an elephant called Axel, who shouted WHONK! At the end of every sentence. Usually, I’m mashing A with all my heart, but now we took our time together on all the dialogue.
Having played games since before talkies were possible, I still associate written text in games with technical or practical limitations that have now been surmounted. How misguided! Storybooks aren’t written down as a compromise when audio would be preferred. Text does work that spoken words can’t do, communicating specifically while leaving room for your imagination.
Seeing my small associate’s glee, I took away a revived appreciation for text in games.
2: The divide between gameplay and narrative is a fiction
For me, the story of New Horizons is one that unfolds over days and weeks. It’s the linking together of all the significant events on your island over time. Critically, those significant events are ceremoniously set out in cut-away dialogue, set-pieces and cutscenes – as in so many games since the dawn of time. So I considered our first day of play to be the start of a long, sweeping narrative about community, friendship and aspiration, which hadn’t really got started.
However, when I tried to elicit a retelling of what had happened on day one – prompting for where we went (island), how we got there (plane) and where we put the tent (beach). All I got back was the story of Moo running around: he ran on the grass then he ran on the sand then he ran on the rocks…
This sounds like a stupid story – and it would be in a film or a novel – but that’s how videogames tell stories. Yes, it can be incredibly dull to watch but that shouldn’t be a criticism. Just as a musician can love playing a piece they’re sick of hearing or someone recounting a thrilling dream will bore you, the direct experience of doing it is almost endlessly engaging, even if the surface is the opposite.
For this one, he taught me not to wait for the story to happen but instead to tell it for myself.
3: A real-time clock beats saving and loading
The real-time element of Animal Crossing was a groundbreaking concept for the N64, as was the idea of making persistent changes to the gameworld. This is robustly realised on Switch but back when I first met the idea, it was confusing to a '90s gamer: What if I don’t play every day? How do I pause? Can’t I force a respawn by leaving the screen? I still have to consciously recalibrate my expectations to play in those mechanics.
My short second-in-command, on the other hand, for a precious rare moment, had no reason to ask “Why?” To my concern about Moo’s wasp-stung eye, he answered “Maybe it will be better tomorrow”. It’s so obvious! And it’s free from the second-guessing of the game mechanics and technical limitations that I can’t help but run through in the back of my mind.
Conversely, imagine explaining save and load! If you would like to tutor my “pride” and “joy” on the metaphysical concepts of alternate temporal realities and branching hypothetical timelines then I will wish you well and pray for your sanity.
Moo’s eye was indeed better tomorrow. My lesson: stop overthinking the mechanics – modern games will look after you.
4: Push up to go up is a skill
As much as I appreciate there’s a grammar of gaming to be learnt, and some specific skills associated especially with action games – like managing two thumbsticks for an FPS – the absolute basics of movement I had taken as a given. Certainly, if you can’t comprehend the fundamental press-that-way-go-that-way then there’s nothing further I could teach you. Either you’ve got it or you haven’t.
My dad, for example, whom I have never managed to get to play a game, saw this kind of skill development as a chore – and one with meagre reward at that. “Oh. Great. Now I can walk towards a stick at will.” My compact wingman says the same thing but without any trace of sarcasm.
So I learnt that there are really, really basic gaming skills that I take for granted, but also that those can be learnt. They’re even fun to learn in the right environment.
5: The little tricks actually work
When you’re transported to the fantasy world of a game, there’s always the little merry dance of ignoring the gamey paraphernalia. For our part as players, we politely let menu screens and save game management go by without bothering our suspension of disbelief. We erase from history the times the hero ran into a wall or stood blankly while we took a phone call. Game designers, meanwhile, help out by dressing their menus up in thematic imagery, having player characters tap feet or snooze if we don’t move them, building save mechanics into the game world through computer terminals or stone sofas, and so on.
But Animal Crossing: New Horizons pulled off two gameworld magic tricks that delighted the innocent mind of my diminutive accomplice. First, it presented its inventory screen as a thought bubble floating from Moo’s head. I didn’t even notice until my tiny mentee told me “He’s thinking about a pear and an apple”. For him, there was no break in the gameplay – thinking about pockets is as much a part of it as running clumsily in circles for 10 minutes.
Second, when the islanders all have a vote on the best island name suggestion and pick yours – a little gimmick to paper over the oddity that you should be calling the shots and not one of the other package-tourists – my miniature sidekick was squealing with pride. Even though naming the island “Water” was utterly stupid.
I learnt not to be so dismissive of the ingenious sleight of hand developers come up with: it really is magic to the unjaded.
6: Games are fun
Now, I love videogames, but I loved them when it really wasn’t – how should I put this? – socially normal for a late teen to be playing Game Boy. As a result, I now realise I’ve been on the defensive about games for all my adult life. Again, I think of the patient but immovable confusion on my dad’s face as I would try to demonstrate the joy of them.
The direct thrill of the movement, sounds and animations were always up against old-media expectations of narrative development, passive consumption and authorial control. But they shouldn’t be! Games are fun. Never mind grand visions and epic stories and clever mechanics and awesome worlds: Moo picks a flower and it goes pop. I’ve learnt to see the essential fun of that again.
Old dog, new tricks?
All this has changed my perspective for the better. I suppose it’s obvious when you spell it out – so obvious a 3-year-old could see it – but I needed to finally drop my last-century-gamer baggage. Now, I have all my old favourites lined up so that he can teach me to enjoy them like a kid again. Maybe I’ll hold off on Doom 64 for the moment, then.