The Animal Crossing villagers have self-esteem issues, and here's why: A qualitative investigation

Compared with the GameCube version I enjoyed so much growing up, the New Horizons villagers seem less ‘genuine’. How does that balance affect your relationship with the characters? To find out, I completed some qualitative analysis.

The Animal Crossing villagers have self-esteem issues, and here's why: A qualitative investigation

Like so many others, I spent the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic in a haze, building my perfect island on Animal Crossing: New Horizons to help me forget the rest of the world. Past the initial craze, though, I didn’t pick up the game for eighteen months. I knew this because, upon logging back in, all my animal neighbours told me how long I had abandoned them. They were worried about me, they said! But I wasn’t so convinced.

Compared with the GameCube version I enjoyed so much growing up, the New Horizons villagers seem less ‘genuine’. They have limited conversational topics, and cause no real conflict. They’ve definitely gotten nicer over the years – by contrast, in the GameCube version, they’d wish you got “stung by a thousand bees” if you didn’t buy the random item they were selling. Perhaps this was a by-product of the English localisation, which was marketed as though it were a drama-filled reality show.

But I was curious about the more subtle shifts. There’s a balancing act when writing dialogue that addresses both the player and the character they’re playing. How does that balance affect your relationship with the characters? Across five games, how have the dynamics changed between the player and the animal villager?

To find out, I completed some qualitative analysis. I gathered dialogue scripts - as many as I could - for each instalment in the series, helpfully transcribed and extracted by fans. Some villager personality types had more available transcripts than others, so I made those my focus, eventually narrowing down to the ‘Cranky’ and ‘Lazy’ types, both male. (Each villager can have one of eight personality types - four per gender - which determines their dialogue patterns.)

The ‘Cranky’ villagers were originally curmudgeonly and rude, but have softened up over the years. Here’s one of my Cranky neighbours from New Horizons:

The ‘lazy’ villagers are a useful control because they haven’t changed as dramatically. They’ve been hungry and sleepy for twenty years, with their head in the clouds. Very relatable at the start of lockdown.

Using Quirkos, I imported dialogue transcripts from the Cranky and Lazy villagers from Animal Crossing (GC, GameCube, 2001), Wild World (WW, DS, 2005), New Leaf (NL, 3DS, 2012) and New Horizons (NH, Nintendo Switch, 2020) and got to work doing some thematic coding. (No transcripts were available for Let’s Go To The City, the less well-received 2008 instalment for the Wii.)

I decided to code for three features:

  • The purpose of the dialogue - e.g. giving gameplay advice, expressing a particular emotion towards the player, or making a request of the player. These can be found on the left side of my Quirkos canvas, with more 'negative' purposes at the top and more 'positive' ones at the bottom.
  • The topic of the dialogue - e.g. the villager, the player, the weather, the time of day, the location. You can see these on the right side.
  • The relationship between the villager and the player, such as ‘friend’ or ‘neighbour’. These are the small circles at the upper right.

After coding a sample from each of my transcripts, I pulled up some queries to compare the dialogue across games.

Breaking the fourth wall

The earlier games were more likely to reference the game as, well, being a game. Villagers in Wild World and the GameCube version would speak directly to the player, asking them to use the “A Button” or “Touch Screen” to perform specific functions. But by New Leaf and New Horizons, this kind of dialogue dropped off, with advice more geared towards game mechanics that could be described in-universe without referencing the controls:

Image description: Screenshot from Quirkos. Illustrative text: 'If you want to put this in your lpace, tap yourself on the Touch Screen' - quote from Lazy villager in Wild World. 'You've heard about shaking trees to get fruit to fall, right? If you do the same thing to a tree without any fruit on it... Sometimes money or furniture will fall out of the branches! I know, crazy!' - Cranky villager from New Leaf.

The later games are more protective of the fourth wall. They’re also more self-conscious about being games, hence why the villagers will point out the oddities and “craziness” of the game world, rather than them being seen as a given. This inadvertently points out the artifice of the world, the barrier between our real world and theirs, where it's easy enough to hide a grand piano in a tree. I'd say that this paradoxically reduces the 'life simulation' aspect of the game, because this self-consciousness creates more of a 'screen' between the player and the fictional world, reducing the capacity for you to suspend disbelief.

By contrast, the fourth-wall breaking in the earlier games was pretty infamous, and offered a more memorable player experience because it blurred between the game world and real world, between the player character and player. Mr. Resetti, who is reduced to background character by New Horizons, would pop up and chastise you if you turned off your console without saving the game (or attempted to reset your save file to a particular point to achieve a specific outcome). It's a subtle shift, but because the villagers in the earlier games can explicitly reference console controls and address you, the player directly, this contributes to a more intimate atmosphere with a looser attention to preserving the fourth wall.

This makes the earlier games not so much an escape from the world as they are an extension of it. It points towards them serving a different purpose at the time, where it was more of a novelty to have video games interfacing so directly with contexts beyond the game world, like your local time, location (in Animal Crossing's case, your hemisphere will direct the seasons). These days real-time elements in games – especially casual games – are commonplace, but at the time Animal Crossing was stretching the technological limits – especially in the original N64 version of the first game, only released in Japan, which, prior to the GameCube having a system clock, had to include a clock inside the game cartridge to get the real-time element to work properly.

Making a connection

Prior to New Horizons, it was more challenging to forge connections with your villagers - so, naturally, more of the dialogue from those games includes things like them asking to deepen that connection in some shape or form, or acknowledging how their first impression of you developed. As a player, this dialogue makes it feel like more of an accomplishment, more like a linear development. Get in the good books of the GameCube version’s Cranky villager and he will ask you to write him letters, saying “I guess I was wrong for thinking you were such a big dweeb”. How sweet! In New Leaf, the Cranky villager warms to you as more of a mature parental figure, checking up on you to make sure you’re taking care of yourself.

Meanwhile the Lazy villager is easier to befriend, but in Wild World and the GameCube version he still starts as a stranger who wants to get to know you better: “Having someone visit your house is proof that they’re your friend, huh? I’d sure like to see your place too.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t much relationship progression in New Horizons – at least none that gives the villagers much agency. The Lazy villager might tell you he wants to be “awesome adventure friends” with you, but you won’t have to do anything to make it happen. Regardless of whether you hit him with your tools or send him nice letters, he'll unfailingly be your friend. Even though the villagers are more embedded in their own world, unable to break that fourth wall, they have never felt less 'real'.

Ultimately, the centre of New Horizons isn't about interpersonal relationships, but instead how you and your villagers relate to your surroundings. The only set 'goal' in the game is to build shops and amenities on your island town, and to make it beautiful enough to attract new residents and be rated five stars by the inhabitants. The relationship progression, then, isn't really between you and the villagers, but them and the island, as they grow to love it, regardless of – or perhaps because of – how many Godzilla statues you lovingly place.

Finally found all 4 colors of the Godzilla statue from ac_newhorizons

Diminishing returns

Another thing that kind of shocked me in the analysis was the reduced confidence of the later games' villagers. They don't treat themselves with much respect at all! And admittedly they were giving you very little respect in the first few games, but that makes the shift even more pronounced.

The Cranky villager in the GameCube version could be brutal, but usually followed it up with an apology. “What exactly are you doing? Are you blabbing at me? Is this a poor attempt at communication? Oh… Sorry. I’m a little off. I must be eating the wrong foods or something. Anyways, nice to meet you!” By New Leaf and New Horizons, he’s not apologising for being unfriendly, but instead for being too happy/excited, which seems, to me, much less serious an offence. “Sorry ‘bout that outburst, kiddo, but I’m downright giddy!”

While the villagers apologise for taking up space, the player can get away with worse behaviour with each game – that is, the dialogue does not especially punish the player. In the early games, do wrong by the Cranky villager and he’ll threaten you with physical violence: “You picking a fight?! … You keep this up, and you’ll be cruisin’ for a bruisin’!” But by New Horizons your villagers will act nice even if you’re whacking them with a net or shoving them around. The Cranky villager will say something like “I know that was just a love tap, but next time you can just say hello!”. Or if you shove the Lazy villager, he'll say “If shoving is your idea of playing, well, it’s too rough for me.” The villagers will set boundaries, but still assume you had better intentions than to purposely harm them – that you were a nicer person than that. It's a different player experience, to be assumed 'nice', and perhaps the softer approach encourages the player to exemplify that niceness. On another level, the earlier games encouraged you to treat your villagers badly, just to see what dialogue would come up - whereas here, the dialogue is plain enough that perhaps that in itself works as a deterrent.

In a lot of cases, the villagers have softened but they have turned their negativity inward, towards themselves. The Cranky villager in New Horizons might mention his “clumsy ol’ reflexes” or that he’s been struggling with catching an insect for an “embarrassing” amount of time, and ask you to help him out. Quite a contrast to the first game:

Similarly, the Lazy villager might say he “oughta do a better job of not spending ALL my Bells on snacks, huh”. Considerably gentler than the insults of the GameCube era, or even in Wild World where a Lazy villager could tell you your house looks like “a dump”, but New Horizons is notable for the fact the villagers’ negativity is almost never directed at the player. Instead they seem perpetually dissatisfied with where they're at in life, so you can step in and be their saviour, at least till the next problem comes up in twenty-four hours or so.

The villagers in the newer games are nicer, but it's clear that they’ve picked up some self-esteem problems along the way, minimising their previously big personalities – to the point villager interactions feel less like talking to actual people and more like collecting favourite Beanie Babies. Maybe the villagers have learned to cope with their negativity in a healthier way, instead of projecting it onto the player character… or possibly they’re working with different power differentials. In New Horizons, you get to terraform your entire island. The villagers might be more hesitant to slight someone who can build cliffs around their house and trap them in.

The gradually increasing power of the player character reflects in both the villager dialogue and the broader gameplay. Later games phased out unpopular features that reduced your sense of control, like villagers painting your roof a new colour without asking, which cost money to revert, or forcibly buying a random item in your inventory from you. In many ways this also made them feel more 'real': they were on the same level as you and could have such a direct impact on your game 'life' in ways you could not anticipate. Inadvertently, these changes made New Horizons perfect for a different purpose than the earlier games: what better way to cope with a worldwide crisis than to have total control over a minute world of your own?

New Horizons is a very good world-building game, but I wonder if it could have had more sticking power if it paid greater attention to social simulation – and, especially, that real social conflict, which could bridge the gap between player and player character and create more emotional investment. For now, though, as Nintendo has announced the end of updates for New Horizons, it seems that more interesting villager dialogue has been lost to time.