My mom loved video games. She was absolutely terrible at them, but that didn’t stop her from playing or encouraging me to have a lifelong interest in them. Not many people can brag about playing drunk Mario Kart with their mothers, but she loved it. One of her favorite things to do was keep an eye out for games she could buy me, and she had killer taste (Earthbound, Star Ocean: The Second Story, Morrowind). For Christmas 2008, there was a game-shaped box under the tree. It was Animal Crossing: City Folk.
My mom bought me ACCF because I had moved to Chicago that year and she told me that she loved the idea of a game about a kid moving to the city to make a life for themselves. After the holiday festivities died down, I popped the game in and began my city life. I also quickly discovered I hated it. I found it absolutely tedious and unrewarding, but I didn’t tell my mom this. And I quickly resold it at GameStop for who-knows-what.
Fast-forward a couple years to Animal Crossing: New Leaf. From the moment it was announced almost all my friends were in a tizzy of delight. I didn’t make my feelings known (mainly because I was a vocal naysayer of the series) I was surprised to find myself interested in it. Whether it was my friend's enthusiasm or something else that I can’t describe, I’m not sure. When it launched, I ended up downloading it and playing in secret for a couple weeks, before spilling the beans to Tony and eventually the rest of my friends, who were overjoyed that I saw the light. There was just no way I could keep my love for the game, the pride I felt for my town “Obscurum,” which is Latin for darkness (I was going to be an evil mayor), or my love for Genji a secret any longer. And I happily joined my friends in their towns or invited them to mine to catch bugs, go dancing at Club LOL and watch fireworks all summer. For several months, we collectively clocked hundreds of hours,
but as summer waned, one-by-one we put the game down and moved on.
A couple years later, for my 30th birthday I went to Japan and South Korea. I wasn’t playing anything on my 3DS at the time except endless replays of Fire Emblem: Awakening and to switch it up, I decided to take a trip back to Obscurum. Isabelle was shocked to see me. Genji was supremely upset at my years-long absence, but thought enough of me to stay. Luckily, I’d previously put in a beauty ordinance and my town was overrun with flowers. The game served as a perfect distraction for those long plane trips.
Then, just three days after the trip ended, my mom died.
She was my best friend and losing her has been beyond understanding. She was enormously caring and gaming was one of the most precious gifts she gave me. And I take great solace in the happiness she felt knowing gaming had such an impact on me. She was an avid collector, and when I caught the amiibo bug she was more than thrilled to stand in line for hours to help me collect them all. So much so that when I sifted through her luggage (she was visiting Chicago when she died), I found a Dark Pit amiibo waiting for me in it.
After the chaos of cremation, the endless phone calls and completely giving up on trying to understand what had happened, I crawled into bed, reached for my 3DS and opened it to see the ACNL start screen. I pressed A and Isabelle said hello, made a remark that it’s been a couple days and asked me if I needed anything. I told her, after some time thinking about it, that I wanted to recreate the town. She ultimately did as she was told and said to me,
“it’s done. i hope we meet again someday...somewhere!”
I cried so hard. It was the exact sentiment I had hoped against hope could be true for my mom. But life is not a video game. There are no extra guys and no resets. Life doesn’t recreate itself at the touch of a button.
When I was able to put myself back together I started a new game. I met Rover on the train and I told him my name “Quintus” (that’s the name I use in every game) and we picked out “Umbreon” (my favorite Pokemon) on a map. Then I arrived.
I played because I was just looking for something to do. I couldn’t work, I had no energy and I felt like total shit every moment. I was looking for a distraction until I could bear to think about what happened. So I played. I set up my house and realized that I basically hated all my neighbors, so I bought a net for… bug catching (certainly not for bludgeoning.)
After a couple days, the neighbors gave me my permit and I put in the beautiful town ordinance. I knew that one of the first things I wanted to do was to make a little shrine to my mom made from yellow roses (they were her favorite) and I couldn’t bear the idea of the flowers dying if I didn’t check in enough. Little by little, the town grew and became more beautiful with fountains, clocks, benches, street lamps and a lovely cobblestone path.
There was one particular day that I felt horrifically sad. My grief was overwhelming. I had joined a support group, but hadn’t yet started therapy. I was alone. My friends didn’t know what to do with me and I didn’t know how to talk to them. I held resentment for the way people looked at me when they knew what had happened. I felt completely out of control. My thoughts turned to suicide. I held my 3DS. It was 7 p.m. (because the song was playing). I thought about killing myself.
Suicide in the first month felt like a present and immediate option for me. It felt legitimate and I was terrified. I didn’t want to tell anyone, because I didn’t want the option taken away from me. There was a period of time taking the train scared me, because I didn’t trust myself not to jump.
I was crying in bed, thinking about how to do it, and aimlessly wandering around this town that became a little shrine to my mother and I wondered if someone would do this for me. I ended up destroying some of my path and cutting down trees so I could make a shrine to myself, just in case. And I walked over to Isabelle, who was outside looking for firework designs. I told her about a custom design I had and she asked me to show her. I selected the QR-coded image of my mom. She told me it was beautiful and I cried.
I cried in bed for a very long time. I must have slept a little too, because when I was aware of the game again, the firework show was going on. Sure enough, my mom’s face was lighting up the night sky and every time my custom design would go off all the villagers would applaud and sing the town tune. They were so happy and I made them happy. I realized then, watching them watch her, that these lovely animals saved my life. This single moment made my suicidal thoughts of the last several hours disappear.
It no longer became something to do. It became my job to take care of these animals and this town. I even had a boyfriend (at least in my head). One of the first villagers to move in was a smug bird named Jacques who instantly took a liking to me and was sort of a French Canadian lumberjack. He always would ask if I wanted to come over or if he could come over and he’d always flirt with me. Hearts above his head and all. It made me feel good and was one of the few moments in that first month that I smiled and was genuinely happy.
When I would travel to the island I used to skip Kapp’n’s songs. But after the fireworks I hated upsetting him, so I began to listen to them and opened myself up to beautiful, heart-wrenching moments with him. His songs would make me cry every time I heard them; not because they made me sad, the opposite in fact. His little songs to me made my heart feel so full. That somehow, someday it’ll be alright. That’s it’s okay to cry and to hurt like hell. It made me feel like if I took his boat, he’d just let me cry and he’d sing something and I’d feel better and cry harder and we’d just talk about sadness and the sea.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf buoyed me through the hardest month of my life because it’s a game (like much of Nintendo’s work) that just wants you to be happy.
It’s a game that has joy at its core.
I used to think that Animal Crossing was about taking care of needy animals, but now I know that I was the one these lovely creatures were taking care of. Jacques watering my mom’s yellow roses, Kapp’n’s songs, Isabelle’s daily check-in.
Most importantly, it also made me realize that I needed help. That I couldn’t do it alone. That it helped me knock suicide away once, but that it wasn’t enough. I started talking to my friends. I started seeing a therapist. I joined a support and loss group for queer men.
It still hurts seven months later. Unbelievably so. It still brings me to tears to think about my new leaf. But I do know that without this game I would not be here to tell this story. So thank you villagers and Nintendo for saving me.
Suicide is never to be taken lightly, if you believe someone is at risk or you yourself are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.