People like doing nothing. That’s why we retire. It gives us a point in our life, past the 4-year-old stage, where we’re expected to do nothing. Even Cosmo Kramer, who leads a perfectly pointless life to begin with, spends one episode of Seinfeld ensconced in Del Boca Vista (Phase III), the retirement community where Jerry Seinfeld’s parents live. Kramer finds comfort in a structured life of nothingness, cha-chaing little old ladies to their graves, before political strife drives him away. Animal Crossing: New Leaf thrusts its players into Kramer’s situation. You’re the new kid in what is essentially a retirement community, with just enough enjoyable busywork—gardening, swimming, bug collecting—to make it worth sticking around for a while. New Leaf even has the political intrigue angle covered. This time, you’re not just a resident of Animal Crossing’s idyllic world; you’re the mayor of your town. You are, essentially, in charge of making sure nothing gets done.
You start the game by moving to an idyllic village populated by sassy anthropomorphic critters. The town is small but vibrant, and in any case, it’s yours. The villagers don’t do much but gossip and fish. Each town is randomly generated, including the cast of villagers, but there are certain essentials. Every player gets Tom Nook’s convenience store, a town hall, and a little slice of ocean where you can catch worthless sea bass.
In keeping with Animal Crossing tradition, your town progresses in real time, and there’s only so much to do in a single day. Unlike previous games in the series, though, your town starts out sparsely populated, with a handful of neighbors and only a few shops open on the main drag. It took me about a week before Kodneria felt “lived in,” and a month later, I’m still seeing new shops and attractions open up. There is no darker side to the story. It’s simply an idealized life of rest, relaxation, and the endless search for matching furniture.
The biggest change to the series comes from your unlikely position as town mayor. While Kramer’s bid for Del Boca Vista greatness failed, your success is guaranteed and actually kicks off the game. Upon arrival, you are immediately dubbed New Town Mayor, and as a reward, you’re given a dinky tent to sleep in. (Gracie Mansion it is not.) Your mayoralty seems like a figurehead position at first, but as the days go by, your powers creep into play, which lets you mold your town to your liking.
Eventually, you’re able to issue town ordinances and fund public projects. For instance, you can build a new bridge to make it easier to get around town faster. You could finance the construction of a giant torch. (I figured if Kodneria ever found reason to form an angry mob, they’d have a torch ready, and that would be the first thing they could thank me for.)
As mayor, I personally made no effort to beautify our town—I had no interest in planting flowers when I knew I’d never water them—but I could legislate. Imagine my delight when my assistant informed me I could issue the Beauty Ordinance, a decree to make my villagers beautify the town for me. The trouble is, you can only institute one ordinance at a time. I also was tempted by the Night Owl Ordinance, which would make the villagers talk to me at 3 a.m. instead of going to sleep. I opted for a town of insomniacs rather than a town of gardeners.
One of Animal Crossing’s strongest qualities has been its funny characters, and New Leaf doesn’t disappoint on that front. The best part about enacting the Night Owl ordinance was how the witty townsfolk responded: They were annoyed and unafraid to show it. For three days, I had to suffer zingy complaints and accusations of tyranny that manifested in the funniest way possible.
Even with smart writing, though, Animal Crossing tends to flirt with boredom: It’s easy to run out of things to do each day. There are typically a handful of time-specific events, like a monthly bug-catching contest, but day-to-day interactions got repetitive when the script ran out. New Leaf addresses this problem with a tropical island retreat, a home away for home that hasn’t been seen since the original Animal Crossing on the Nintendo GameCube. For a trifling fee, you travel to a land where you can spend hours whiling your time away. There’s a never-ending supply of rare bugs to catch and sharks to wrangle. The spoils from one trip will easily pay off your first mortgage. Visiting the island is a quiet experience that throws almost all character interaction out the window, boiling Animal Crossing down to its essence.
If you get lonely on the island, playing online in another enticing option in New Leaf. Inviting friends into your town is a relatively painless operation—I was able to easily coordinate a few sessions with other critics on Twitter—and you can even throw together impromptu fishing competitions. There are a few other options for interacting with other towns, like a passive feature that gives you access to the houses of strangers you might cross paths with in public, as long as you keep your 3DS in your pocket. There’s also the Dream Suite, with which you run wild in an alternate version of a friend’s town with no consequences to your frolicking.
It’s easy to lose hours, and even days, of your life playing this game. New Leaf kindly encourages its players to take a break after they’ve been playing for an extended session. Nintendo knows how blissful it is to play this game, and for your own sake, the developers don’t want you to lose yourself. Too much idle bliss can be numbing. That’s why Kramer gave the retired life the boot as quickly as he did. There’s only so much nothing you can do in one day.