Corporate Takeover: An Animal Crossing / Kingdom Hearts joint

Animal Crossing
Format: GameCube | Published by: Nintendo | Based on: Unscrupulous opportunism

Genre: Nothing Sim | Media: DVD-ROM | Date: 17 September 2002

Kingdom Hearts

Format: PlayStation 2 | Published by: Square EA | Based on: Marketing savvy

Genre: Beat-Em-Up/RPG | Media: DVD-ROM | Date: 18 September 2002

A few years ago, as I was out doing my midnight shopping for windshield wiper blades at the local Super Wal-Mart, I chanced to meet a man who was a member of the Republic of Texas. This was before the secessionist group went nuts and partook in an armed standoff with Texas' state troopers. It was a strange encounter: he followed me throughout the store for nearly an hour, regaling me with bizarre theories about how Texas never formally rejoined the Union after the Civil War and therefore is still its own independent nation - the usual sort of nonsensical declamations that freakish, delusional paranoids use as a safety valve to keep themselves from going over the edge and into doomed activism. Or armed standoffs. For several days afterwards, he called me at work (I was editor of a university newspaper at the time) to try and convince me to run a giant feature article on how Texas should declare its independence, before he finally realized that I was entirely too sane to bother with (or, from his perspective, too deeply within the control of The Man).

Of all the things he told me, one item in particular stuck in my mind. According to Mr. Texas, America is run by a government which is actually a corporation - the United States of America, Inc. And "we the people" are merely products, owned and controlled wholly by the company which leads us. Sadly, he didn't get into any Orb-like rants about barcode tattoos, but it was clear nevertheless that he had fallen off the turnip truck a few blocks back. Still, as I get older and learn more about the way the world works, I can't help but wonder if he realizes [1] just how close to the truth his rambling diatribes really were. While I'm not quite ready to believe that the US government is a giant, faceless corporation prepping its people to be churned into Soylent Green [2], it's still no secret that the course of the United States - both culturally and legistatively - is steered primarily by the interests of giant corporations. From the Enron thing to Disney's infamous (and successful) push to extend copyright protection from 75 to 90+ years, the most powerful and pervasive entities in the US - and perhaps the world - are corporations, creatures which exist to grow and become ever more profitable. Governments ultimately reach a point of equilibrium due to their finite interests, but corporations exist wholly through growth. The ultimate evolution of a corporation is of course a single world-spanning interest that owns everything and everyone (at which point they start marketing to animals and compiling demographic data for extraterrestrials), though to date market forces and the government's periodic infusion of Democrats have stunted the growth of the most frightening companies and kept the free market moderately vital.

But corporations are trying harder. They're working smarter. And they're getting closer to taking over the world than anyone has ever come since Ma Bell or even Octopus Oil. Do you think it's cool that greets you with a big friendly salutation and automatically generates a list of things you might want to buy? You shouldn't. You should find it creepy and disturbing, because it means they're tracking you, keeping tabs on you, learning about you. So far most companies have little more ambition than to make a lot of money by marketing to you more effectively, but when you watch movies like Blade Runner and Minority Report it's difficult not to let your mind fill in the gaps between "Welcome back, Jeremy! We think you might be interested in Akira vol. 2 by Katsuhiro Otomo" and staring down the barrel of a rat cage as an insistent voice teaches you alternative forms of addition. You can sing all you want about oranges and lemons, but that doesn't change the fact that every time you visit that porn site you secretly have bookmarked, someone out there may well be taking notes.

So when two of the biggest games for the holiday season this year turned out to be insidious devices designed to make gamers ever more beholden to the behemoths responsible for their creation, few should have been surprised. Video games are a particularly dangerous form of media, because they involve the player more than any other type of entertainment outside, say, sports. Television is a passive experience, but gaming requires involvement, making the end user more susceptible to suggestion, more vulnerable to manipulation. Surely few companies could be more manipulative than Disney and Nintendo (and, to a lesser extent, Square) - commercial enterprises which know better than perhaps any other how to worm their way into the hearts of the customers.

Kingdom Hearts

A more blatantly merchandise-driven game could hardly be imagined. The world's biggest name in animation teamed up with the world's biggest name in role-playing games and created a video game steeped in 75 years of animated history. While the merger of Final Fantasy and Mickey Mouse initially seemed an unlikely amalgam of concepts, early media revealed KH as one of the most beautiful games ever designed. The game incorporates a hundred or so characters culled from Disney's lengthy history of creating blockbuster cartoons [3] all joined stylistically by the fine efforts of Final Fantasy illustrator Tetsuya Nomura. Further cohesion is created by the manner in which these varied sources are connected by plot - working from a surprisingly somber premise (the stars have begun to to disappear, King Mickey vanishes on a self-determined quest to learn why, and shadow wraiths are stealing the hearts of innocent children at the behest of Disney's most diabolical villains), KH leads gamers through a dozen worlds patterned with a sort of faithful creativity after Disney movies. Some are dull (Aladdin's Agrabah and Tarzan's Deep Jungle), several brilliant (Nightmare Before Halloween's Halloween Town comes immediately to mind), and one or two are genuine stinkers (here we place Alice's Wonderland in the crosshairs), but all make fantastic use of the works of Disney studios. More impressively, the game captures the look and animation (and frequently, the actual voice) of every one of the Disney characters it depicts, with mind-boggling fidelity. The idea of games as "interactive cartoons" is nothing new, but never before has the cartoon impersonation been so spot-on. With such storied, popular material to live up to, the designers could easily have dropped the ball; but instead, KH surpasses any reasonable expectation and presents gamers with the most amazing cartoon simulator this side of Disneyworld.

Yet therein lies the most unsettling part of the game. It's hard not to see Kingdom Hearts as a gigantic commercial for DVDs, videos and the countless armies of plush toys on sale at your local Disney Store; while Square created KH, their involvement seems almost peripheral. Sure, they developed and programmed the game, but the Final Fantasy characters are all ghettoed in the Disney-free hubworld called Traverse Town, main character Sora is always outnumbered two-to-one by his Magical Kingdom cohorts, and the copyright in the work belongs entirely to Disney. Sometimes it's hard to see the line between fanservice and blatant commercialism... Kingdom Hearts not only toes that line but frequently scuffs it into obscurity and redraws it several feet to the left.

Unfortunately, the game itself isn't quite strong enough to lift itself free of this critical mass of Disney-ness. While not at all a bad game, it also falls rather short of excellence as well. Much has been said about the game's terrible camera system, and every word of it is correct - the game camera spins and pans violently, making the active 3D combat dizzying and difficult to follow. The camera perspective is close to Sora's youthful butt, which makes seeing the full battlefield impossible and results in countless cheap hits by close enemies which are nevertheless obscured by the angle of vision. The jumpy camera also makes navigating towns and dungeons a chore, as it's easy to lose your sense of perspective in the frequently repetitive environments. The jumping controls - which factor far more heavily into the game than one might expect - are sometimes loose and frequently unforgiving.

But these problems pale beside the main issue at hand: the game is just too stinking monotonous. The effort here clearly went into maintaining fidelity with the Disney source material, because not enough time was spent coming up with creative challenges and activities. The bulk of the game consists of running around, fighting nearly infinitely-respawning foes of about a dozen different sizes and shapes, and repeating this indefinitely. For a game that begs thorough exploration, to be impeded at every turn by swarms of the same three endlessly regenerating bad guys is terribly frustrating. Much as the overworld exploration aspect of Skies of Arcadia was made a chore by the overactive enemy encounter rate, the joy of discovery in KH is often bogged down as the gameplay reduces to a button-mash-a-thon. Square can do better that this - the three-man action RPG party begged to be given a Secret of Mana treatment, but comes off more as Legend of Mana: simplistic and ineffectual. Which is still better than The Bouncer, yet disappointing nevertheless. And whoever decided it would be a good idea to give an action RPG menus which require active navigation while running around a battlefield is a prize idiot who needs to be dragged by his ankles over a few miles of rough country road. At the very least, a streamlined system like that in Super Mario RPG would have been vastly preferable to the KH system, which requires you to divert your eyes from combat and your hands from the action controls to do anything outside attacking or using a few limited magic spells. It's distressing to see Square fail to live up to its previous achievements, although that does seem to be their design philosophy for PlayStation 2: "Make it look better and play worse." We're all still stumped about how FFX turned out so well. In the end, the most compelling portion of the game isn't the sheer joy of gameplay as is the case in, say, Mario Sunshine (which is a shame, because KH game actually has a lot in common with Mario's latest); rather, what will keep gamers going is the desire to see what's next. Specifically, which Disney-owned world or character or plot twist will come next. That's pretty much par for the course in your standard RPG, but for a game which demands a more active involvement from the player it leaves the overall package feeling somewhat empty.

As a result of this, Kingdom Hearts often comes off as a "greatest hits" compilation that condenses a dozen different games based on separate movies into a single streamlined experience. So in that sense, it's actually good, as it saves everyone the expense of buying the Aladdin videogame and Hercules and The Little Mermaid and Belle's Big Night on the Town, or whatever. And despite Disney's best attempts to quash the Square aspect of the game, the developer's distinct style still permeates the story and atmosphere, for better and for worse. All things considered, Kingdom Hearts is a harmless diversion and is unlikely to change the status quo. Disney haters will still dislike Disney, people who despise Square will go right on expressing their hatred of the company to the Internet at large with varying levels of literacy, and a few action figures will be sold. You'll be hard-pressed to find anything KH-related at a Disney store amidst mountains of Monsters, Inc. and Lilo & Stich goods, though, which means this is ultimately a tiny little blip on the corporate demigod's "take over the world" radar. Now, if the plans for a KH Disneyland ride and a KH movie pan out, things will be much different. But for now, Kingdom Hearts is downright innocuous compared to...

Animal Crossing

Nintendo is no stranger to world domination. Thanks to the 95% market-share domination of the NES in the late '80s, they were the most pervasive Japanese corporation in America at a time when America seemed to be hopelessly pinned under Japan's thumb anyway. Unpopular business decisions and a bit of complacency allowed Nintendo's competitors Sega and Sony to gain the upper hand in the videogame world, however, and they're a far cry from the world-smashing giant they once were. But Nintendo has its way, making selective choices and focused (often selfish) business decisions that allow the company to remain one of the most profitable companies on the planet, even when its market share seems a tiny fraction of its competitors.

If anything, Nintendo is a strange mirror image of Apple Computer, which also went from mighty powerhouse to deeply troubled venture to focused, inexplicably successful niche business. The two companies share an unexpected kinship in terms of corporate philosophy - and in other ways, as well. Even their hardware is similar [4]. However, the most significant element both companies share in common is their philosphy of "we make the whole widget." Apple is the only computer company to design its systems from the hardware to the OS to the basic applications; likewise, Nintendo is the only software giant that still creates its own hardware. Sony and Microsoft have their little collections of subservient second parties, but Nintendo creates most of the best software that runs on their systems. Just as this approach allows Apple to create software specially suited to their hardware configurations and make changes to their users' habits more or less at will, it allows Nintendo to create games that take full advantage of their consoles. Mario 64 was one of the greatest games ever, and this was in part because the N64 was designed specifically to make playing Mario 64 the most comfortable experience possible. Neither company makes the most powerful equipment on the market; rather, they sell machines that offer a specific feature set to maximum the effectiveness of their software. It's draconian, but unless you're an especially psychopathic Slashdot open-source zealot, it's also a pretty good setup.

And Animal Crossing reveals another facet of the Nintendo/Apple similie: the concept of the fully-integrated proprietary digital hub. Yes, Nintendo has superficially turned its nose up at the Sony/MS philosophy of the gaming console as a protean entertainment flagship, but don't be fooled - it's certainly not afraid to put its own spin on the idea. However, rather than simply give gamers the ability to use their hardware to duplicate the purpose of entertainment hardware everyone already owns anyway, Nintendo has created its own little world of interdependent doodads. And in AC, the killer app to sell them. Apple wants to sell you an iMac, and an iBook for when you go portable, and an iPod to attach to it all. Nintendo wants to sell you a GameCube, and a GameBoy Advance for when you go mobile, and a eReader to attach to it all. Different names, different trendy instances of irregular upper- and lower-casing, same basic relationship.

Animal Crossing is the glue that holds it all together. Despite being about nothing whatsoever, it is nevertheless the opening salvo in Nintendo's bid to create a fully-integrated gaming environment. It is also Nintendo's statement of intent: it knows how to take your money, and it intends to do so with maximum efficiency.

The concepts of capitalism and, more importantly, possession are at the very core of Animal Crossing. Nintendo calls it a "communication game," but they're stretching the truth in much that same fashion that Roger Ebert stretches a boy's size-S T-shirt by trying to wear it. Yes, communication - or at least the semblance of such - plays a role in the game. It's fun for a while to talk to your neighbors and send them letters filled with varying degrees of passive aggression, but after a while you realize that there's no real communication happening - you're simply activating preset dialogues and reactions within the copious game script, and your villagers lack any real memory of your former interactions beyond the occasional cherished letter or two. There's no ability on behalf of the computer to interpret the meaning of the letters you write to them. The much-vaunted "communication" aspect of AC is, in the end, little more than a pretty face for a Pokémon-like promotion of rampant materialism. Writing a letter to a villager is simply means to the end of getting more virtual stuff. Running errands for them is, likewise, simply a way in which you get more swag for your home. Visiting other towns and swapping codes with friends? These, too, allow you to earn more imaginary material possessions. Fishing and bug catching allow you to fulfill your requisite catch 'em all fixation... and then sell 'em all when you catch duplicates, to help pay off your house.

The house, in fact, provides your primary impetus in the game. You enter your town with nothing, fall immediately into debt by buying a cottage, and spend the next few (days, weeks, months, whichever suits your play style) paying off the loan. Whenever you clear your debt, the lien holder - a "raccoon" by the name of Tom Nook - encourages you to go further into debt, because everyone wants more! Once you upgrade your home to become as decadent as possible, the remainder of the game is spent tormenting neighbors, completing your collections, and - of course - buying better possessions with which to impress the Happy Room Academy, which judges your value as a person based upon the size of your home and the quality of the properties you place within.

Some of the game's best items can only be found by visiting Animal Island, which is accomplished by hooking a GameBoy Advance to your GameCube. If you want, you can also hook an eReader to your GBA (which you then hook to your GC) and scan cards which will add characters, music and, naturally, more items to the game. Of course, the cards don't come free. They're sold in packs of five for $3 apiece - packed randomly, of course, to ensure you can't get a complete set without sweating it out. The drive to buy/trade/possess which pervades the gameplay also surrounds the actual game, extending beyond the physical boundaries of the GameCube and landing with a solid thwack amidst your fleshy existence. The overwhelming subtext is that AC is incomplete unless you get everything - and that includes not only items within the game, but accessories and peripherals to enhance the game as well.

You thought Pokémon was scary in its super-charged marketing mania, and so it was; but if franchises were super soliders, Pokémon was Rambo, brazenly striding forth and noisily laying waste to all around. Animal Crossing, on the other hand, is Solid Snake, slipping quietly in, snapping necks and securing objectives with no one else the wiser until suddenly they have a gun to their heads. AC slips beneath that parental radar which typically alerts them to obsessive-compulsive money sinks targeting their children; Nintendo isn't selling the game with a blatant line like "Gotta Buy 'Em All!" There are no action figures. No afternoon cartoon. No Animal Crossing plushies. Yet AC will likely be the most expensive game I've ever owned. How can this be, you ask? Because Nintendo knows the art of the sale, and the science of fostering materialism.

  • $50 for the game and memory card;
  • $20 for a Memory Card 251 to create a town for my girlfriend;
  • $15 for a GC-to-GBA link cable;
  • $45 for an eReader;

and then there are three waves of eReader cards forthcoming, each with sixty cards selling for 60˘ apiece. In the improbable event I could somehow procure the randomly-distributed cards with no duplicates, this would amount to an additional $118 for all 180.

The total cost? $248. And that's assuming I already owned a GameBoy Advance, which is a necessary tool to unlock many of the game's secrets... and make use of the eReader.

And unfortunately, Nintendo will get away with this diabolical scheme. That's because as savvy as the company is when it comes to marketing, it's also devastatingly skilled at creating wonderful games. Nintendo remains the only software company with its own hardware because it is quite possibly the only company with sufficient breadth, depth and quality of content to entice gamers to buy an extra system. And AC upholds this trend of excellence. It's a difficult game to quantify; while it has a definite aroma of Sims and Harvest Moon about it, the flavor is distinctly Nintendo. The presentation is, in fact, a pretty good example of what the Zelda series would be like if Miyamoto hadn't decided to move the camera behind Link's shoulder (and the sounds effects are classic Nintendo, too, from the 1-Up sound when you score bonus cash to the startup screen music which could pass as the more casual twin brother of the main Yoshi's Island theme). But unlike Zelda, you don't go around killing things and solving puzzles in AC; you walk around, catching bugs and digging up buried treasure and replanting trees and fetching items for people. There is no goal outside acquisition, no aim beyond pretending to communicate. The game does not end until you decide to stop playing it. It is, in a word, extraordinarily addictive. It's so addictive that a single word doesn't suffice.

If anything, Animal Crossing is a game consisting entirely of Zelda-esque fetch quests. While fetch quests and minigames normally irritate the living bejeebers out of me, here I'm quite alright with them. I think this is because in a normal video game, all the stupid side jobs and extra diversions interrupt the pace and flow of the main quest, and typically are far less involving than the meat of the game anyway. I refuse to believe that anyone was delighted to spend three hours racing chocobos at the end of Final Fantasy VII; here, however, such nonsense is perfectly at home and belongs.

Animal Crossing is a game that glorifies acquisition of material goods. It utilizes Nintendo's special knack for quality gameplay to encourage gamers to buy, buy, buy. And it's painfully fun. If the communication aspect actually worked, it would be even better. If there were more to do once you complete your home than watch the seasons change and seek ultimate feng shui, it would be better still. And if AC were online in order to allow free exchange of items and effortless visitation of friends' towns, it would be impossible to topple for sheer addictive quality.

Of course, if AC were online, Nintendo could cement its nefarious evil by hovering Big Brother-like over every transaction and exchange and correspondence. So perhaps it's best we remain fettered by outdated technology.

I wish I knew the name of that strange, delusional Republic of Texas man so I could find him again. I'd sit down with him and let him play through Kingdom Hearts, and perhaps buy him a copy of Animal Crossing. And then I'd laugh myself to bed at night by imagining him sitting sleepless in his squalid hovel, wearing a hat of tinfoil and wrapped in a Texas flag, as he stares at the insidious mind control device Nintendo implanted on their tiny DVD. It's cruel, yes, but if it could prevent another lunatic zealout from engaging in a useless armed standoff, it would ultimately work to everyone's benefit. Which makes me a far more benevolent and trustworthy human being than anyone involved in the creation of these games.

Kingdom Hearts - EVIL Rating: 3 out of 5

Animal Crossing - EVIL Rating: 5 out of 5

[1] In that rational part of his mind that surely peers out at him when he looks in the mirror every morning and screams, "What in hell's name are you doing with your life, idiot!?" [Return]

[2] That's more how the Japanese government works, really. [Return]

[3] Twice that if you count each of the dalmations as a different character, but let's not split hairs. [Return]

[4] Apple popularized multi-colored computers and designed a PPC G4-powered Cube; Nintendo currently sells multi-colored PPC G4-powered cubes. Coincidence? Well, maybe, but it's human nature to look for patterns in the gestalt of life. Or something like that. [Return]