Where to even start with a game like Animal Crossing? I mean, it’s Animal Crossing. It’s one of the highest selling games of 2020. And it dropped when life came too close to reenacting a poorly made doomsday thriller. New Horizons gave so many people the respite and break they needed from the reality of a world that seemed to collapse in on itself.
A break that was very much needed at the time—well, it’s always needed, but more so at the time than usual. The entire purpose of the game is to relax, leisurely explore, do mundane chores, and chat with animal friends. There’s nothing to worry about, no enemies to defeat. It’s as close to simulating what I imagine life in the Shire is like.
New Horizons is a break from the high octane, high energy, gameplay of the competitive war the boys and I bunker down in the trenches to endure. Animal Crossing is the time between the plot points of a story, when the action settles and the characters contemplate their circumstances. It’s where characters heated in the hearths of conflict are cooled and shaped into their more complete selves. Traits are molded and set within the moments between the fiery infernos of narrative action. While intense action can teach an audience much about a character, the actions a character takes when the narrative settles in for a rest are just as important.
The moments when characters travel to the next plot point aren’t skippable boring sections of a story. There are some who skip through the in-between to catch all their fish, build their museums, and complete their collections, but those same people miss out on the joys of sitting awhile to smell the flowers, to take in the sights, to enjoy the story for what it is, rather than how it ends.
There is no end to Animal Crossing. It’s a delightful world that continues on perpetually, waiting for the player to drop in and manage their tiny island home, isolated from the worries of reality. It’s here where one can simply forget their troubles and let themselves be, as they are, with nothing to inhibit them. When characters are pushed into circumstances in which the stakes are high, it forces them to decide to change in one way to overcome their conflict or change in another and give into their conflict. They cannot be as they are, for the actions they take alter the character’s traits. Actions define characters.
In the breaks between plot points, an audience gets to reminisce with their favorite characters, learn about them, and discover how they have changed. In the opening moments of a story, characters are introduced often in such ways; through meetings, phone calls, bustling through life, talking with friends, enjoying a drink, or any other mundane non-important thing a character can do.
It’s in these moments we learn who a character is and what they want. In the breaks following the introduction we learn how a character has changed, who they’ve become, and how much farther they need to go in order to complete their journey. A story with nonstop action and never ending conflict provides characters with no room to breathe. The audience never has time to learn who the character is, much less who they can become. Change happens so fast and so often that a character never settles into a recognizable person and will blend with the rest, and at the worst, become forgettable.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a movie that never lets up. It starts at 100%, cranks it up to 150% and then never lets go, much like Doom Eternal (except Doom let’s go at the end of each level). The movie is loud, thrilling, and spectacular. However, the character development is almost nonexistent. It’s difficult to tell exactly what is happening and what the characters are trying to do. The movie plays more like a series of intense wartime films than a movie with a true plot.
That’s not necessarily a criticism of the film, however, as I think that’s the point of the movie. It’s not about the characters, it’s about the event. It’s purposefully created to point a spotlight on the historical event of the Battle of Dunkirk, and it works for that purpose. To tell a story, however, the movie falls short. Stories ebb and flow through cycles of action and rest.
It gives characters room to grow, settle into their growth, and then to grow again. All the while the audience has time to recognize a character’s traits, recognize the growth they’ve attained, and recognize where the character still needs to go. Without narrative breaks, a character’s arc can flatten and lose relatability. Even Doom takes a break from demon slaying to provide precious seconds of exposition. With that slight break, the player has time to relax and take a breath and appreciate the fine-tuned craft of beating demons to pieces.
Take a cue from Animal Crossing and recognize the value in a leisurely stroll to the beach to go for a swim. Let your characters sit back, toss a line in the water, and fish for a few hours before getting back to their dilemmas. Let conversations between friends last a little longer. We all could use a bit of a break from the action, and your characters are no different.