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There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between estate agent-sim Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer and working at VideoGamer, the main one being that both involve working in an office full of idiots.
I’m kidding, of course. In Animal Crossing-world, you’re introduced to your new colleagues with a delightful round of applause, as well as a confidence-boosting recital of how great you are, despite the fact you’ve not met these anthropomorphic animals before. This welcoming feeling underlines the whole game, along with a reassuring sense of trust in an unfamiliar workplace.
Each character is over-enthusiastic and happy, but never to the point of irritation. When combined with the excellent writing that injects strong personality through endearing foibles and innocent humour, this made me genuinely like my colleagues; I was chuckling at the instantly obvious love triangle between three new friends within minutes.
Day-to-day life at Nook’s Homes – yes, you’re working for notorious loan shark-racoon Tom Nook – initially consists of designing bedrooms for the town’s inhabitants. Each customer has their own taste – as an example, one client requested a ‘stylish’ room – that you have to bear in mind when decorating their new home. You then go about choosing the most suitable items to place around the room: which bed, which tables, which photos, which wallpaper; even which other characters you want to come and visit. Deciding which items to pick is fun for a while, mainly due to the smug feeling of self-importance that comes from your clients’ and workmates’ congratulations. But the illusion, and therefore your enjoyment (to a certain extent), falters when you realise your furniture selections have no bearing on your clients’ satisfaction. Even deliberately providing the worst-matched items for their chosen theme results in a hearty ‘well done’ and a pat on the back.
The reason for this is obvious: you can’t exactly tell a child how terribly they’ve done. But it does make your efforts up to that point feel futile, and the applause feel a little empty. This did lessen the delight of future verbal rewards somewhat, but think of it like your mum telling you you’re handsome: you know she’s duty-bound to say that, but it reassures you nonetheless.
Before long, you’re trusted with the title of Project Leader of Town Development, a huge step in your burgeoning career. Except, in practice, underneath the encouraging facade, the leap is miniscule. Constructing whole buildings for the public and for the town council (represented by series favourite Isabelle) feels little different to making a single room look nice: you just get to plant a tree or two outside as well. This is where the game is exposed for what it is: an expansion of a mini-game, and can feel as if it lacks the depth to justify a full-price, retail release.
When a development is finished, you’re given a nice tour of your handiwork, and the opportunity to take a photo of you and your new mate. (In Animal Crossing, unlike real life, estate agents are required to be actual nice people, and as such have to pose for photos and offer free aftercare to their customers.)
Save for the pleasant house-smiths, the similarities to working life are obvious, and satisfying. After seeing to your various administrative duties, you end each day by writing a report. Much like ticking tasks off a to-do list, the feeling of accomplishment is pleasing, and along with the subsequent passing of the night offers a welcome moment of respite and decompression, akin to flopping down on the sofa after a hard but productive day at work.
Much like the mainline Animal Crossing games, the enjoyment comes from the routine, the supremely relaxing soundtrack, and the warm, comfortable repetitiveness. But due to the wealth of decorative options available, the greater room for creativity means the repetitiveness doesn’t become boring as quickly as it easily could. New decorations open up with every assignment, usually suited to whichever commission you accept – for example, a contract for a nightclub might unlock a mixing deck and a disco ball for you to use in future projects. However, because you’re simply handed these items when you need them, and there’s no way to discover or buy new items outside of this, there’s no collectibility to them; if treated differently, there could have been a thrill in completing categories of items.
It’s important to note that no money changes hands in Happy Home Designer. While it may endorse the benefits of working life, it does not offer any judgement on capitalism as a whole. Residents can have whatever house they want, wherever they want, with no budget to speak of, and you get no reward for providing your services, other than the post-DIY niceties. While that may seem a sensible and obvious move – and it is – it seems odd when the mainline Animal Crossing games place such an emphasis on money and earning; this is the game in which you take out mortgages from someone who’d clearly break your legs if you didn’t keep up with the repayments.
But this is nitpicking. Through simulating the good of adult life and the comfort of routine, without complicating things with the pressures of money, Animal Crossing: Happy Home designer is a relaxing, repetitive toe-dip into the working world. The facade of progress and achievement falters over time, but while it lasts it’s a lovely facade indeed.