People had been telling me my entire life that being an adult is hard.
I brushed off these warnings. I assumed I'd be okay, despite studying something basically useless in the job market. I thought I'd be lucky, despite not knowing how to cook for myself, or what I wanted to do or where to even begin finding a job. I would get my diploma, exit school, and walk into the world's open arms.
Are you laughing at my naivete? Okay. Good.
I finished college last May, and didn't leave my bed until June. I had no money, no friends, no plans and, seemingly, no future. I'd always been the kind of person who woke up because she had to — because she had something due, or to do. I was driven by assignments and projects and deadlines. Life doesn't actively provide these things. It was like walking into a fist, and my response was to shut down.
That's where Neko Atsume comes in.
Virtual cats gave me something to care about
Neko Atsume is a popular free-to-play mobile game by Japanese developer Hit-Point. Its objective is simple: put out food in your virtual yard for stray cats. When they arrive you can take pictures of them for your virtual album of cat pictures.
The more they visit, the more you bond with them. The cats reward you for taking care of them with presents of gold or silver fish, which act as currencies that can be traded in for toys and better food that will attract more — or perhaps rare — cats.
It's a simple game, but an affecting one. The art style is adorable and, though it offers microtransactions, it's just as easy to play without ever spending a dime. There's no conflict anyway; you can fill up your cat book with pictures of each of the 48 types of cats, but the real reward is loading up the game to see which cat decided to pay you a visit. The goals are arbitrary; most people play just to have an excuse to look at cute cats doing fun things throughout the day.
Neko Atsume was the first step
I discovered Neko Atsume early on in my post-graduate career. This was before the game's English localization update, when people had to be a bit more enthusiastic about acquiring and making sense of the app.
Neko Atsume is easy to understand, even in Japanese, and just as easy to play. Blind tapping unearthed the gameplay mechanics, coupled with some help from translation guides online.
What started out as mindless interaction with an app suddenly grew into dedicated play. One of the things I'd resolved to do after getting out of college was play more video games, now that I had time for it — but since I could barely make it out of bed to change my clothes, there wasn't much of that happening.
Neko Atsume was a gentle first step into the 21-year-old life I'd envisoned for myself. It was accessible on my phone, which I was staring blankly at most of the time anyway. It was well-designed, charming, and required minimal effort and zero dollars of investment, unlikely many other free-to-play games I tried and abandoned.
For all intents and purposes, it was perfect.
Neko Atsume was my livelihood before I'd convinced someone to give me a job. I had no interest in caring for myself, but those impossibly cute nekos needed me. So I cared for them.
I landed a part-time job in my hometown six weeks after graduation, and I was extremely grateful. But my boss sold it to me as a dead-end position, and I made less money than I did with my work-study gig back in school. I worked a minimum amount of hours as a receptionist, standing up all day in a freezing building, dealing with customers who were neither appreciative of my help nor terribly receptive to it.
It was terrible, and everyone I worked with and for knew it. The turnover was high for that reason: nobody wanted to be there, making little money and earning no thanks. But there were positives.
The low-energy requirement of the work meant that there was plenty of downtime for me to pull out my phone and check on Neko Atsume. Those cats and I bonded the most while I stood behind a desk, hoping that the phone wouldn't ring or that my boss wouldn't leave her office. The majority of my Neko Atsume accomplishments were earned behind that desk.
You can't let your nekos down
Even at the thing that was supposed to be my salvation — employment, albeit neither meaningful nor gainful — Neko Atsume took precedence.
It's not the kind of game that should become such an easy obsession. There are no real achievements, nor any sense of danger. There's neither a failstate nor an ending. Even other, similar games like Animal Crossing or The Sims have some sense of reward: You can pay off your house in Animal Crossing. You successfully carry a family of Sims to the natural end of their lifespans.
In Neko Atsume, all that you're asked to do is feed the cats. And the game doesn't punish or even compel you to do that. Cats only show up after you put out food; if you forget to open the game for days or weeks at a time, there's no reason to feel guilty about leaving behind a starved group of kittens. They just don't show up, and are likely off having fun someplace else. You can't let down your cats in Neko Atsume; you can only make them happier.
That's how it differs from something like Nintendogs, a game I dreaded returning to after even two days away. There are no sad puppy eyes in Neko Atsume.
I appreciated a game that required no real world currency to speak of, because I had no real world currency. The game never made me feel bad about this fact.
I ultimately willed my scheduled 10 hours a week into 30. I once worked 14 days in a row without a break. I was thankful to have something to which I could devote my energy.
When you no longer need the life boat
I was given more responsibilities beyond those of a simple clerk, and I began to take the job more seriously. Neko time would have to come after hours, but those "after hours" diminished as my work schedule grew more intense.
I lasted the entire summer at that small-town gig. Eventually, I developed the determination to start applying for other jobs, ones that would offer me a full-time salary. This ate away at even more of my free time; I used my phone to search job postings, not for constant Neko Atsume check-ins.
Weeks of applications led to a handful of interviews and, in a few notable cases, second interviews. I had places to be again — places that I wanted to be. I would visit with my cats while anxiously waiting to be called in for meetings with potential employers, but even that playtime was briefer than before.
Job hunting is not something I'd ever recommend. I don't take rejection well, and I'm even less a fan of silence. I'd cross my fingers with one hand in the hopes that I'd hear back from someone or somewhere, and dote on my nekos with the other. The cats became a sort of invisible security blanket.
Eventually, though, my streak of denial ended. The job hunt came to an end, much quicker than I anticipated, most gratefully. I met my self-appointed deadline of Sept. 1 as my figurative "do or die" date, starting my job here at Polygon that day.
For a job that literally requires that I devote 40-plus hours a week to video games in some capacity, I found I had even less time to play them off the clock. For a mobile title that asks so little of you, being forced to check in at least twice in order to actually see a cat was too much. The game and I have mostly broken up, but it's amicable.
I continue to not know much else about adulthood. I struggle to make my own food. I don't have many bills since I still live with a parent. But I'm working things out. Sometimes I pop into the app to visit my cats, but now it's a pleasant but minor distraction. But for a long time it was a small point of light in a life that was often dark, devoid of such a thing. When I was struggling, it was enough. It acted as a bridge to my new life, and I'm profoundly grateful now that I'm on the other side.
Neko Atsume still brings me joy. It also still reminds me of those dog days of loneliness and unshakable thoughts of doubt. I'll continue to carry that weight with me for awhile, and I'm still not close to being free of my depression. Neither the cats nor this job cured me, but they both helped me to work harder in my own treatment.
So I'll hold onto Neko Atsume for when those same feelings bubble back up, to bring me back to "okay" again. The nekos don't need me, and that's their power. But maybe I need them.