Where I'm from, the night before Thanksgiving is called Valley New Year. The Valley is short for the lower Naugatuck River Valley area, a deindustrialized area of southwestern Connecticut that includes the cities of Shelton, Derby, Ansonia, and Seymour. Folks from around these areas – some who've left, some who've stayed – migrate to the bars and clubs that are dotted along downtown streets as a reminder of the faces they might have otherwise forgotten.
I started playing Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp on my trek home for Thanksgiving. The Nintendo mobile game feels like an Animal Crossing game and an extension of the franchise, but like my hometown, it's changed – and that's not always for the better.
Released on November 22nd worldwide, Pocket Camp is Nintendo's Animal Crossing mobile game. The gameplay has a similar feel to Nintendo's original Animal Crossing games, but pared down for mobile. The last Animal Crossing game I played was New Leaf when it was released in 2012 for the Nintendo 3DS. Though I loved New Leaf - and still do - it's not a game that I've returned to after obsessing over it for its first year.
I'd paid off my mortgage, decorated my house, and chatted up a ton of villagers. I played the game until I'd wrung everything out of it, and then I stopped.
I moved out of my hometown when I was 17, almost 12 years ago now. I didn't move far, but I was eager to leave behind the windowless halls of my high school. It's not that I don't like the town I grew up in or the people I met while living there, but like a game, I often felt trapped within the confines of the town and its norms. New Leaf was the opposite: I craved the walls it put up and the rules it set in place – the no-pressure pacing, the mechanical limits, the consistency. New Leaf was a world I wished I lived in, while high school was … not.
It felt good to meet K.K. Slider immediately after booting up Pocket Camp – a reassurance of the familiar faces I haven't forgotten. I remember watching him D.J. at Club LOL on Friday nights, otherwise playing acoustic guitar on Saturdays. The musically-inclined pup is the entrance into Pocket Camp, but has little relevance on the rest of the game.
He asked me a few questions to set up my campsite; instead of a town mayor, I'm now a campsite manager tasked with caring for the area. The decorations and locations are certainly different than in New Leaf, but the general aesthetic is familiar. It looks like an Animal Crossing game, and while it has some of the same mechanics, the heart of it has changed.
Plenty of New Leaf alumni have taken up residence at my Pocket Camp campsite, but our relationships are shells of what they once were. Goldie is here, with Cherry, Beau, and Moe, but the mobile game has reduced the once beloved Animal Crossing interaction mechanics to glorified fetch quests. Building friendships in Animal Crossing was always about exchanges, but the microtransaction-y nature of Pocket Camp feels unfulfilling. Everyone in the campsite wants something, whether it be peaches, butterflies, or perch. Animal won't visit my campsite unless I have the right furniture or decor; Animal Crossing always had transactions, but substance just isn't there in Pocket Camp.
Tom Nook and Slider can visit my campsite, but only if I've got their specially designed chairs. And of course, both chairs cost in-game cash to purchase – either earn it by doing a ton menial tasks (the chairs cost 250 Leaf Tickets each) or use my real-world money to buy them.
Once the chairs are purchased and set down in the campsite, one character at a time will show up and sit in the chair. Nook and Slider are now simply glorified set pieces; Nook sleeps in his chair, while Slider plays a bit of music.
I thought about Valley New Year as I waited for trees to respawn their pears and for my furniture to get built. In the 12 years since I've left my hometown, I haven't ventured out on Thanksgiving Eve to reunite with my once-beloved friends. It's the one time of year that everyone is around, but I've never been able to bring myself to go.
I still cherish the relationships I built in my hometown, despite how desperate I was to leave. But as with Animal Crossing, things have changed – though I would neither call it better or worse. My friends – Sarah, Michelle, Nicole – promised to stay friends forever, as many do. We made promises for our future, for college and beyond. But as things do, our relationships changed. I left town, just as the others. We made new friends, found differing jobs, some of us got married.
There was never any big falling out. We got what we needed from our relationships – things I still value to this day – and moved on. I've thought about reaching out, of making an attempt to rekindle those friendships, but it's fear that always stops me.
I don't want my relationships to become like those in Pocket Camp, reduced to pleasantries and artificial exchanges. The friendships I've forged in New Leaf have been reduced to dust when encountered in Pocket Camp. New Leaf is like a hug, and Pocket Camp a handshake. Even though I haven't played New Leaf in years, the game save is still there. The animals will remember me, welcoming me back from my absence. Pocket Camp feels too transactional – and I'm scared my hometown friendships have become the same, too.
When I booted up Pocket Camp, Slider asked me who I was. Of course he doesn't know who I am; Animal Crossing is a game, but still, it stung. It's Valley New Year, and I fear my hometown friends may have forgotten me, too.