Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, the new sequel of Nintendo’s cute neighborhood series for cellphones, is Animal Crossing but a bit more stressful. I love it and hate it at the same time.
Pocket Camp takes elements from a few different Animal Crossing games and shoves them into a mobile app that’s surprisingly robust. It has interior decorating elements that are similar to Happy Home Designer, a quest system from the most recent update to New Leaf, and it does its best to recreate the sprawling, randomly generated towns and villagers from every other game in the franchise. The goal for the player is more or less the same, too. You want to befriend villagers by giving them the items they ask for and decorate your campground—instead of a house, this time—using the bells you earn from that.
When I first started playing about a week ago, I was impressed by how much this felt like a full sized Animal Crossing game. You can’t roam freely around the world and the game’s designers limited how many collectibles there are, but you can still switch from fishing to hunting for bugs to picking fruit for my nice animal friends. I logged in every day and tried to make my camp the best camp ever.
I was immediately suspicious of the game’s attempts to get money from me. Nintendo lets you download Pocket Camp for free, but there are frequent pop ups letting you know you can buy things. You can get a starter pack of items, the game keeps telling me when I open it up. That ranges from $4 for a sampler of items or $21 for even more stuff. You can also buy Leaf Tickets, a currency you can use in the game to get fruit to regrow faster, or speed up how long it takes to buy furniture. This constant nagging feeling that you’re being manipulated to spend money hurts the game. It’s not just an issue of how the game wants you to spend your money but also how it wants you to spend your time.
I discovered Animal Crossing games with the GameCube release in 2002. I was 12 when I played my first. I barely understood how to play it, but it was enchanting to write and mail a letter to a nice cat in the game and have her write back. I’ve played almost all of the games since then. They’re just a pleasant place to exist for a little while every day. Even if you’ve been away for a long time, everyone’s happy to see you when you get back. After just over a week of playing Pocket Camp, however, the game’s cuteness has faded and it certainly doesn’t feel relaxing. Even when I talk to my favorite villagers, like Beau and Goldie, I feel like I’m being manipulated and that the game wants an inordinate amount of my time.
Animal Crossing has always been about waiting for things, and that’s still true of Pocket Camp. In both games you’ll shake trees and have to wait for fruit to regrow, or expand your house in some way and have to wait for construction for completed. In the other games, most of these things take about a day. You really just have to come back every day or so, say hi to all the villagers for maybe an hour, do some favors, and then you can just leave. The game wants you to come back once a day, but not much more than that. In Pocket Camp, the amount of time you have to wait is always at the forefront, and those times are much shorter. Every three hours you’ll get more quests from villagers, and if you open the map that time will be highlighted in red, contrasting harshly with the pastels that the rest of the game is painted in. Every time you open the map you will know how much time is counting down, and it begins to feel like a challenge. You could wait… or you could use an item so that you don’t have to.
Even if waiting is still the main element of Pocket Camp—waiting for new quests, for your furniture to finish, or for buildings to be constructed—it’s no longer required. You won’t have to reach a moment when you realize you can just close the game and walk away. If you’re out of quests you can use a Request Card. If the villager you want isn’t around, you can use a Calling Card rather than wait three hours. If you don’t want to wait for the fruit to regrow, you can use fertilizer. Most these items can be earned by completing villager requests, or finishing some daily quests. They can also be bought using Leaf Tickets, which you can buy with real money.
The money stuff makes an impact. haven’t bought any Leaf Tickets, but the pressure to use them is always there. The game would just go by faster if I threw some money at it, and it’s impossible not to have this pop in your mind constantly while you’re playing. Sure, in past Animal Crossing games you might always be thinking about how you just needed a few more Bells, but to be stressing about real US dollars while playing an Animal Crossing? It makes me a little sad.
I get my Leaf Tickets for free by leveling up, which will get you 10 tickets, and through completing goals. I’ve managed to save up quite a few just by trying not to spend any, ever. I have my moments of weakness though. Sometimes I’ll log into the game, see that I still have another hour or two on the piece of furniture I want, and pay the Leaf Tickets instead of waiting. The more I spend time with it, these timers gnaw at my patience. Rather than being a respite from modern life, hidden away in the country, Pocket Camp feels like it’s also making demands of you. Do you want the cute bunny you just met to visit your camp? It’s too bad that one piece of furniture she wants takes eight hours to complete, huh? You know, if you used some Leaf TIckets, it wouldn’t have to.
I do keep logging into Pocket Camp. Even if there’s so much that I find stressful about the game, it’s still Animal Crossing. There are still quirky animals that I want to make happy, there’s still a place to decorate and make my own, and there’s still clothing to collect and turn into outfits. I can’t make myself ignore all the notification, timers and ads for Leaf Tickets all the time. There are moments when I do forget about them, and those moments make me love the game. Sometimes when you finish a quest, Pocket Camp will show you a quick animation of you and that villager doing something with the item you gave them. You could be making a seashell necklace with Apollo, a grouchy eagle. Or you could be having a fish fry with Rosie, a cute cat. Beau, a fashionable deer, could set up some easels for the two of you to do still lifes. I feel a real affection for these animals. Every time I get one of these animations, I take a screenshot.
Pocket Camp doesn’t feel like it’s about those quiet, simple moments. It’s about my time and my money, and the way the game keeps asking me to spend more of each. It’s manipulation and materialism. I’m being drawn into this just to accumulate stuff, and to optimize the ways I can earn in-game money to pay for more stuff. Maybe at it’s heart, Animal Crossing was always about that, and in this stripped down state I’m seeing it clearly for the first time. I liked pretending that it wasn’t.