Here’s a broad philosophical question for you: What’s the difference between a game and a toy? It seems obvious at first, the sort of question most people have an answer for even if they’ve never really thought about it. A toy is an object used to facilitate creative play, and a game is a system with rules and a goal to accomplish—usually “winning.” But it’s not that clear cut. There are meditative, experience-driven video games like Proteus that can’t be won or lost, and there are toys with game-like rules and goals, like Rubik’s Cubes. The line between the two is already blurry, and no major games publisher is more committed to further blurring it than Nintendo. Between its collectible Amiibo figures and the toy-box-like Super Mario Maker, Nintendo releases increasingly have a foot in both camps.
Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, the latest entry in Nintendo’s series about milling around town doing nothing in particular, blurs the line between toys and games into nonexistence. Animal Crossing has always had low stakes, prioritizing passing the time with odd jobs more than overcoming challenges. With Happy Home Designer, though, the series’ few clear-cut goals have been cut loose in favor of pure self-expression and creativity. It more closely resembles an infinite number of dollhouses, and it’s better for that lack of structure and challenge.
As in previous Animal Crossings, you play as the only human in a town populated by talking animals. Unlike 2013’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf, in which you were appointed mayor immediately upon setting foot in town, you take on the more manageable job of resident interior decorator. You’re the only person in town who can do their job with any competence, so after you cut your teeth designing a few of the locals’ homes, you’re soon being trusted with public works projects like schools and hospitals, and eventually, just about every business in town will have your fingerprints on it in some way.
There’s always a crowd of citizens outside your office who want their pads redecorated. Townsfolk usually have design suggestions—“modern” or “monochrome” or “like a spaceship”—but will otherwise leave the responsibility of selecting their decor entirely up to you. The degree to which you can customize clients’ homes seems way above your pay grade. You don’t just select wallpaper and furniture for them. You place cups of coffee on their tables and homework on students’ desks. You can even give them pets. At times, it’s more like being a set decorator than an interior designer. And there’s no system for judging the quality of designs. You aren’t awarded a grade, and you can’t fail. Your clients will always be thrilled, regardless of how beautiful or hideous your vision is.
The local yokels’ lobotomized satisfaction with whatever passes before their eyes is unnerving at first. In order to test whether it was even possible to produce something one of them would reject, I began putting toilets right next to clients’ beds, but they were never less than deliriously happy with my work. Bedroom toilets became something of a design signature. At first this seemed vaguely patronizing, as if the game was giving me a pat on the head and saying “Great job with that toilet placement, buddy!” Eventually, though, I realized I was being met half way, that Animal Crossing respected my avant-garde vision of indoor plumbing. There’s no wrong way to play with Happy Home Designer, and that cheery everybody-gets-a-prize attitude is infectious.
The large-scale projects, like small businesses and schools, are where the game’s toolkit shines. They tend to offer bigger workspaces and fewer client-specific restrictions, so they’re where you’re free to get the most creative. When designing the village’s first cafe, the only stipulations are that it must contain two tables, four chairs, and a cash register. I could have filled it with toilets if I’d wanted to. Instead, I put my heart into it, and when I was finished, I had created a cozy little coffee shop that I was proud of. Happy Home Designer has a robust infrastructure for sharing finished projects with other people when those feelings of pride begin to well up. It’s a testament to the game’s impressive, deep collection of tools that interpretations of clients’ wants and needs can be varied enough to warrant such a system.
Given Animal Crossing’s sickeningly cutesy look and feel, it’s tempting to play tricks on it, to fool its adorably simple-minded denizens into living in squalor and liking it. But the game is just too sincere to prank, the way that toys can’t feel embarrassed of how they’re played with. Your G.I. Joes won’t mind if you dress them up like Barbies if that’s how you want to play with them, and you won’t lose points if you populate your dollhouse with Spider-Man action figures instead of Bratz dolls. Happy Home Designer’s greatest success is translating that judgement-free anarchy of unstructured play. Its toolkit is deep enough that it can be taken completely seriously, but it can also be a great outlet for childlike, dadaist self-expression. Receive enough positive reinforcement from your clients and you may even begin to think they’re on to something. Maybe bedroom toilets aren’t such a bad idea.