Animal Crossing’s landlord Tom Nook is a thorn in many players’ sides. When you first arrive in your new small town inhabited by animal folks, he forces you into an exorbitant loan, which you can then pay down by doing odd jobs. He’s not evil, though. He’s just the product of an evil system—capitalism—whose time has come in Animal Crossing’s world.
Animal Crossing’s Tom Nook is an exaggerated example of how capitalism sucks people (or in this case, animals) dry. When you first arrive in town, Nook leads you to a choice of four houses and tells you that you can pick one. Once you do, he saddles you with a loan so large that it seems impossible to pay off. This isn’t done out of cruelty: Capitalism is the pursuit of money over other ends, and Nook is simply seeing a chance to make some money and taking it. But he wants to make as much money as possible, and that means putting the player in a position where to get the house they need not just to survive in the game but to play it at all, they’re forced into a financial disadvantage at the very start. When you pay off the loan, Nook offers to expand your home for another exorbitant fee.
Nook is the very image of the predatory landlord, but he’s also the only character in town who seems to be motivated by money. The player can pick up odd jobs or sell items to Nook to make money. Most of the time, though, you do favors for villagers. They sometimes give you cash, but more often they give you clothing items or furniture. Many people in town exist on the barter system, trading what they need with one another.
There are cash shops in town, but they’re less profit-oriented than Nook’s real estate business. The Able Sisters sell accessories and clothing that they make themselves, but the prices are reasonable. Kicks began his career as a shoeshiner and has an enthusiasm for shoes that he wants to share with you. Sure, he’s taking your money, but profit isn’t what makes him happy—it’s shoes. K. K. Slider’s club and Blather’s museum don’t charge a cover fee, and the museum’s exhibits are all by donation. The Roost, a coffee shop, charges a modest price and functions less like a business and more as a place to talk with your fellow villagers and relax.
The one other store where you can buy furniture besides Tom Nook’s shop exists in an economic model that directly opposes Nook’s. Re-Tail, a consignment shop run by the alpacas Reese and Cyrus and introduced in the game New Leaf, allows players to buy or sell goods stocked by their fellow villagers and to set their own prices. You can also sell directly to Reese, which will gain you 100% of the item’s resale value. Selling items to Timmy and Tommy, Nook’s sons, nets you only 80% of the resale value. Re-Tail is communal, where the Nook family is focused on the individual. Reese and Cyrus run their shop honestly, while Nook obfuscates the truth to take advantage of you by only telling you the price of the house once you agree to buy it.
In a game about taking things slow, getting to know your neighbors, and learning to love life outside of a big city, Nook is an outsider. Where other villagers are content with what they have, Nook always wants more—specifically more money from you, the player, that he can hoard for himself. There are a few other characters who visit occasionally, like Gracie the fashionista giraffe, who share similar values as Nook, but they’re presented as frivolous and sometimes absurd. Nook refers to Gracie as a “free spirit,” and some villagers admire her designs, but she is still marked as an interloper to their small, slow way of life. Labelle, the estranged sister of the Able Sisters, ends up eventually quitting her job as a salesperson in Gracie’s store in City Folk to help out her family in New Leaf.
Tom Nook isn’t evil. He’s just trapped in a value system that the other villagers seem to have escaped. What he’ll never understand is that the people around him don’t actually need him. If you’re content with a humble home, you’ll never even have to pay back your loan. Sometimes, in the midst of playing Animal Crossing, I’ll realize I don’t actually have to pay this loan off at all. Sure, I won’t be able to get a bigger house if I don’t pay Nook all this money, but do I actually need a bigger house? Do I need more stuff? It’s all purely decoration. In New Leaf you can visit the homes of other players you’ve met over Street Pass, and while it’s nice to see houses decorated in the rare and expensive Mermaid set, these houses have the same sadness as McMansions to me. Tom Nook driven by money, but I don’t have to be, if I can be content with what I have.
Animal Crossing is a game about finding joy in the mundane instead of in money. Someday, maybe Nook will shutter his shop when he realizes that too.