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Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp fails to turn work into a vacation

No one wants to escape into more drudgery

animal crossing pocket camp artwork DeNA/Nintendo

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp was supposed to be the ultimate distraction, a pocket oasis used to momentarily step away from the stresses of our lives.

Smaller games that offer quick and easy morsels of escape have become a meaningful part of our cultural diet as big-budget narrative games have become more demanding of our time and energy. Pocket Camp looked like a mobile game that could slot comfortably into players’ schedules, providing them with the time and space necessary to decompress and relax.

However, there’s an overarching flaw that poisons the whole Pocket Camp experience: the absence of loveliness, surprise or delight. Pocket Camp never lets you escape because it just ends up feeling like more work.

The joy of maintenance games

Waypoint’s Austin Walker coined the term “maintenance games” in a podcast, and it’s a good way to describe the genre. He defined maintenance games as games that provoke a “quiet self-care enabled by the clean repetition of enjoyable motions.”

That’s close to a perfect definition, but I’d like to offer an addendum that accounts for how the word “maintenance” pulls double duty.

Many contemporary games have systems that are explicitly built around enjoyable repetition. These games employ timers, countdowns or scheduled challenges that refresh on an hourly, daily or weekly basis. The trend extends across genres, as these systems may have been popularized by mobile free-to-play games, but they can now be found in farming simulation games such as Stardew Valley and even first-person shooters such as Destiny.

“Maintenance” can refer not just to the personal time for maintenance that one is afforded when they play, but also to what’s happening in the game. You tend to digital crops that yield fresh fruit every few hours, or ensure that your character gets a weekly reward by showing up and playing certain content by a certain deadline. We’re tending to the game’s world as well as ourselves as we play.

Maintenance games create a routine that rewards players with a sense of accomplishment and in-game progress. It’s like an enjoyable appointment that you know will always yield some form of reward, even if that reward is an out-of-game feeling of relaxation. But the game’s progression system itself is usually geared toward slow, steady progress.

weeds in animal crossing: pocket camp Nintendo via Polygon

Pocket Camp bills itself as a maintenance game. It presents players with the narrative of escape, right from the start. “Let’s say you’re on vacation starting tomorrow,” it asks as the game begins. “What would you do? The world is yours…”

The rest of the game presents the opportunity to frolic through orchards, beaches and lake beds, to pick fruit and catch butterflies for your animal friends.

This kind of escape from labor is — in America at least — baked into the national psyche. Finding solace away from the rigidity of “normal” life has been a foundational myth in the canon of American storytelling for at least the past century. You learned about it from George and Lennie’s dreams of ranch life in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and you heard it from Bruce Springsteen’s entreaties that we “get out while we're young” in “Born to Run.”

When everything gets to be a bit too much, you can pack your bags, get off the grid, and go out West. And do what? Who knows.

Living the dream

Maintenance games allow you to act out that fantasy. You can escape into a world that demands very little of you, where responsibilities come with a sense of accomplishment and emotional satisfaction.

That’s where Pocket Camp falls apart. Pocket Camp never actually feels like escape. The game is pure drudgery, more a sequence of menus than a place to explore.

Want to talk to a character? Of course you do, as that’s the only way to obtain in-game currency. But conversations themselves require you to navigate through a swamp of menus and unskippable animations. The conversations themselves are purely utilitarian, a sociopathic reflection of office small talk.

To add to the frustration, you’ll have to talk to each character four times to complete all of their requests and receive the corresponding prizes. It’s not fun, nor satisfying. Why run from work toward more work?

The grind really sets in by the time you reach higher levels, when the number of characters requiring your interaction grows into the double digits. Going through the trouble of clicking through these interactions starts to take on the feeling of an assembly line.

While the game fleshes out its world with some cute characterization via smartly-written animal monologues, that gets subsumed by the rush to get through yet another sequence of menus. I stopped actually reading the text just to save time, and I still feel bad about it. The loving characterization the game sometimes offers is deeply at odds with the core gameplay loop, which means that one of the few joyful parts of the game will often be skipped by the player.

Maintenance games allow you to mentally clock out for the most part, and Pocket Camp succeeds on that front. But other games in this category have succeeded because they introduce some deviation — something lovely, or surprising or delightful — into the mix.

One could open a spreadsheet and start moving numbers from cell to cell if all that was required for self-care was a narcotic stupor. But we need something more for these games to deliver relief, and Pocket Camp is never able to deliver it.

I get a kick out of taking a circuitous route on the way home because of an open spot in a Pokémon Go gym a few blocks out of the way. In Destiny, every encounter is somewhat different despite the same underlying gameplay loop, which makes every victory, to some extent, an unexpected delight. The variable rewards given by loot drops can also be satisfying.

The confines of what you can achieve in Pocket Camp are so narrow that any sense of joy is stamped out. There comes a point at which repetition in game becomes indistinguishable from repetition in life, and Pocket Camp reaches that point much too quickly.

Looking at Twitter, it seems as though the single best thing to come out of Pocket Camp is the shocking, memetic stuff that pushes back against Nintendo’s expectations. When people manipulate the system to arrange their campers in surprising ways — by locking them in makeshift jail cells, or assembling lamp-worshipping cults — that resonates and feels fun and meaningful.

But that kind of careful configuration and boundary-pushing creativity directly contradicts Pocket Camp’s maintenance game ambitions. It’s anarchy found in a style of game that’s meant to invoke order and the steady march of the timer. It’s funny because of the dissonance, but that’s the extent of the game’s success.

Trending toward tedium

A recent industry pivot toward “games as a service” hints at a healthy future for maintenance games, but delivering on the promise of these games isn’t easy.

“Going forward, Destiny 2’s post-launch game systems, features and updates are being designed specifically to focus on and support players who want Destiny to be their hobby — the game they return to,” Destiny 2’s dev team stated in a recent blog post. “We want Destiny to be a game that fits into your life, providing you with reasons to log in and play...”

Games as a service and maintenance games aren’t exactly the same thing. The former is a business model; the latter is a soft categorization that describes a type of game and its relationship to the player.

But the general idea of games as a service — a method of hooking players through a slow drip of consistent content — is broadly similar to how maintenance games work. Games as services often promise the regularity that makes maintenance games habitual activities for certain players.

The problem here is that in many contemporary implementations of games as a service rely on the exploitation of certain players. Some encourage players to buy premium items by giving advantages to paying players. Others simply rely on exploiting “whales,” an unflattering and revealing term for those players who turn over huge sums of money on account of addiction or the satisfaction of receiving premium rewards.

Pocket Camp points to a potential convergence of maintenance games and the worst qualities of games as a service. Pocket Camp is not explicitly predatory, but it’s still a grift: a micro-transaction engine disguised as something more carefree and escapist. It’s just not good enough to provide the escape it promises.

Maintenance games can turn day-to-day drudgery on its ear by offering an experience that’s regular, scheduled and yet fulfilling in a way our normal lives often fail to be. It’s a form of creating playful meaning through repetition, to turn doing things like planting virtual crops into meditative practice.

But Pocket Camp fails to deliver on that sense of relief. Instead, it does something potentially more insidious: The game promises freedom, only to deliver an experience only aesthetically different from what you hoped to escape. It’s not a relief from tedium as much as it’s tedium with a decorative bow.

Mikhail Klimentov is a journalist based in Washington D.C. He is not a columnist at this fine publication, but if he was, his column would be titled Mike Olumn.