I met my first best friend in a video game. When I was in kindergarten, I came across Animal Crossing for the Gamecube during me and my dad’s weekly trip to the now ancient ruins known as Blockbuster. Although I knew nothing about it, I was immediately charmed by the adorable animals on the cover. One in my town would quickly stand out: a sweet bear named Olive. She’s incredibly cute, decorates her house with furniture from the Lovely series, and her catchphrase is an endearing “sweet pea.” I’d write a letter to her almost every day and always buy her present for an upcoming holiday before anyone else’s.
After a year of playing Animal Crossing nonstop, I was ready to explore new pastures. When I returned after less than a month, Olive was moving out and not even begging her to stay convinced her to abandon her plans. She left no letter and held no remorse for leaving while her best friend was away. I was devastated. I’m convinced she’s played a part in my present-day trust issues and you can’t tell me otherwise.
I may be 22 years old now, but I still think of Olive quite often. I’m reminded of her through every sweet pea perfume I buy from Bath & Body Works (the scent is my favorite), the Lovely furniture I’ve decorated all my Animal Crossing houses with, and my excitement for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. For better and worse, she became important to me in a way that will never be reciprocated because, should I see her again, she won’t remember me. How can these characters can be so simple yet leave such an impact on us?
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Growing Up, Letting Go and Moving On
For writer and YouTuber Jay Petrequin, Cousteau the frog didn’t leave a strong impression at first. Petrequin preferred many villagers over the amphibian jock, but watched as they each gradually moved out throughout the summer he spent playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf. When fall came around and other games took priority, three months passed before he played it again. The day he did, he noticed Cousteau was the only original villager who remained. And so that “little swole frog and his handsome ‘stache” quickly became important to him in ways he hadn’t expected.
“I always wondered if Cousteau would mention moving out, or if I would turn the game on one day to find he already had,” says Petrequin. “But he never did. That little bugger stayed there as long as I played… I associate the summer when I started playing New Leaf with the end of a period of my life in a lot of ways, and keeping Cousteau along as a nice reminder of that was oddly comforting.”
Petrequin eventually took a break from the game and wouldn’t turn it on for another two years. When he finally came back to his virtual town, he realized Cousteau had moved out at some point. “I was actually happy about it,” says Petrequin. “My own life had changed, and I was growing more comfortable with who and where I was. And so letting that last one go felt good, like somehow it was tied to growing up.”
Daimara Suero, an avid fan of the series since childhood, didn’t grow to appreciate the angry Mr. Resetti like Petrequin did with Cousteau, or forge a friendship that ended in tragedy like I did with Olive. In fact, she initially hated him. Having prided herself as one of the best behaved kids at the age of 10, she cried out of fear when Mr. Resetti first popped up outside her house to yell at her for forgetting to save.
However, something interesting happened as she reminisced on those days to me. She looked up videos of Resetti on YouTube and was surprised to find herself feeling a great deal of respect for him. “Sometimes, when he was too harsh, he would apologize and be like ‘I know I’ve got an acid tongue. I’m sorry for being… me,’” Suero recalls. “He’s still terrifying, but he seems like he’s just doing his job. He gets paid to be nasty if you don’t save. I’m sorry, Mr. Resetti! Now I’m even more ashamed than when I was a kid.”
Now that she’s grown up, she’s realized he’s just trying to survive the hell that is living under the oppressive clutches of capitalism — and yelling at people who reset their town or irresponsibly don’t save is just how he puts food on the table.
You’d expect these kinds of personal stories from series like Mass Effect or Dragon Age — franchises containing characters with rich backstories, widely developing arcs and even romantic availability. But the villagers of Animal Crossing are simply-designed, split into four personality types according to their gender, largely static, and can disappear at any time.
And yet, considering there are Tumblr blogs and Twitter accounts dedicated to posting screenshots of memorable quotes from villagers, it’s safe to assume that a big part of why the franchise has maintained people’s affections for so long is because of the characters. It’s an amazing feat, considering they don’t have writing teams dedicated to fleshing out their backstories or voice actors hired to bring them to life with distinctive identities.
So why is it that, despite talking in nonsense, they speak to us so deeply?
Appreciating the Humanity of Fictional Animals
“While they may not have hugely detailed backstories and have a tendency to talk in clichés, it is part of what makes them comforting and familiar to us,” says Sophie Williams, who credits Celeste — the owl who works at your town’s museum — for her undying love of space, owls and astrology.
“They live an idealistic and mostly stress-free life, but will often say things to our characters that are relatable to us in real life, such as giving us advice or even simply cracking a joke. This helps to humanise them and immerses us in a world that, aside from getting stressed over a new villager ruining your newly placed path, is devoid of conflict and hassle.”
Inhabiting such an ideal world is crucial to Aron Garst, a games journalist who has written about his love of Animal Crossing. His favorite villager is Stitches the lazy bear, who would always talk to him about food and the other small joys of life after Garst would come home from a hectic day filled with school and work.
“I think people put something of themselves in the characters they lived with, talked about stuff they liked even though the animals didn’t, and couldn’t, understand,” says Garst. “There’s a stark difference between single player games and multiplayer games in how they feel, and Animal Crossing hits a nice balance in making it seem like we aren’t alone.”
That sentiment of not feeling alone is also why Suero spent her childhood playing Animal Crossing.
“They [the villagers] were sweet and lived their own lives but would always include me or give me gifts,” says Suero. “I had actual friends but they didn’t always want me around, and I wasn’t always allowed to see them because of family drama. Animal Crossing always made me happy and feel at peace.”
That these animals seemingly exist on their own like real humans and find genuine joy in spending time with you is what makes them so memorable to Petrequin. “I think there’s probably something to the fact that these animals all have human interests, and all the items and furniture in the game are very human,” says Petrequin. “When a townsperson has a request, it feels more like a friend asking you to pick something up on the way to their house than anything.”
I’ve spent a good part of the last 17 years resenting Olive. I’ve told my friends that I’m going to fight her, that I’ll do the classic elaborate prank of digging around a villager’s house to trap them, that I’ll send her letters with ugly furniture so that she puts it up in her home and sabotages the hard work she’s invested in making it pretty. But the truth is that despite all the houses I’ve paid off to Tom Nook, the haircuts I’ve gotten from Harriet, and the villagers I’ve befriended, she is one of the first things I think about when I reminisce on Animal Crossing.
I loved the bear who made me feel like it was okay to be lonely at school because I had a friend to come home to every day. I loved the sweet villager who was often up early on Sundays to do morning exercises with me and the other townsfolk. I loved the virtual friend who took a piece of me when she moved out and moved on. I’m pretty sure I still love Olive, even though she won’t know it’s me when we meet again. But that’s okay — soon enough, Animal Crossing: New Horizons might give me all the time in the world to reconnect with my old friend.