There are micro-spoilers throughout this piece, just so you know.
Metal Gear Solid 5 has a significant portion of the world in its steely, bionic grip right now, its perilously deep take on stealth-action making rote activities endlessly playable. Ive run the same soldier-kidnapping side op around five times, experimenting with increasingly outlandish techniques to stick a balloon to a mans abdomen, like Im the antagonist in this Soviet conscripts recurring nightmare.
A major element of that keenness to replay doesnt come from the fact that Im able to do it in different ways, however - its the accompanying reward that comes with it. That poor, haunted soldier is brought back to Mother Base, the neon pink paradise Im building in the Seychelles, which has become a key factor in my obsession. And that reminds me of a certain something...
My home is nothing less than an isolated soldier town over which I have control, but which evolves at very much its own pace. Its filled with a variety of colourful characters who love, rely on and, occasionally, betray me - and I, in my way, both adore and abuse them back. Its filled with treasure hidden by god-knows-who, speckled with my own designs and, occasionally, filled with song, picked by yours truly.
Simply replace the word soldier with chimeric fauna-sapien biped in that last paragraph, and you also have a fitting description of any Animal Crossing game, Nintendos gentle, idiosyncratic life sim series. ACs influence, improbably, is all over The Phantom Pain (and not just in Mother Base) - and becomes a huge part of what makes it both so charming and brain-strangling. Here come the wheres and the whys.
Animal Crossing games are part-canvas by design, built on your ability to imprint a piece of yourself on them. Creating a town flag, designing clothes and decorating your house are key parts of how the game makes itself feel like youve had a hand in creating it. The Phantom Pain learns from this well.
Just because the game tells you that your mercenary company/army/nation is called Diamond Dogs doesnt mean you cant design an emblem that seems to suggest its called FAT HORSE instead. Almost every tiny detail of the game can be modified, down to whether Snake wears a scarf while out and about. Some of these things can make minute differences to the game, and you could also argue that their real function is to give you a sense of easy control in a game that often seeks to take it away during missions. But really its because youre more likely to keep playing if you can keep making tweaks - if youre never fully satisfied, you probably wont stop.
People collect rocks in real life. Thats a real thing people do. Not because theyve found one rock thats better at hurling into a sheeps eye to provide dinner, but because rocks, for some reason, make them feel a bit more complete. Most games understand the lure of collection, of course, but few go to the lengths that Animal Crossing or MGS 5 do to replicate that feeling of completion - because earning something doesnt necessarily mean you feel like you own it.
Animal Crossing contains any number of collections, all earned in different ways. The town museum's stocked by interacting with the world, while priceless art is earned by outwitting a fox once a week. That they also become useful or curious after collecting them is the point - you want to finish the job for more reasons than weird lizard-brain possessive desire.
There are some obvious parallels in The Phantom Pain - stolen animals are eventually made part of a zoo on Mother Base, and cassettes (heard in the wild and nabbed, like K.K. Sliders songs), can be played by you or your helicopter. But it goes further - developed weapons can become part of your Combat Units arsenal, for example, and enemies themselves are an infinite collectible, the Fulton Balloon essentially an incredibly efficient version of Animal Crossings villager-wooing campsite. Everything has a use after you're finished with it.
Decoration and collection both give you a measure of conscious decision-making over the world, but AC and MGS distinguish themselves by making your influence on the world something you cant necessarily control. There comes a beautiful moment in every Animal Crossing where the silent algorithm in the sky decides that one of your custom designs will be the new village trend, and suddenly everyones walking around wearing a pattern you originally made to be a carpet tile.
Playing Metal Gear, I eavesdropped on two soldiers having a whispered discussion about a deadly sniper in the area, with some colour thrown in about how everyone had started wearing helmets to protect themselves. It only occurred to me a day later - after some ricocheted would-be headshots - that they were talking about me. Just by being there, and playing the way that felt most natural, I had changed how the world worked around me. Both situations adopt your style of play and then adapt it. In MGS, I had to start using new weaponry. In Animal Crossing, I immediately made a shirt that said Satan. Different responses, granted, but they come from the same place. It offers a sense of pleasure and curiosity - you could disrupt the world by doing anything, and it will disrupt you back.
Key to both games is that youre not /quite/ in control of everything - mostly shown in how youre made to wait for the things you really want. Animal Crossing pushes this to occasionally absurd lengths, making you wait full weeks for tiny additions (tip: QR code-reading machines are not worth talking to hedgehogs for), presumably in the hope that youll not only keep coming back, but throw yourself into different parts of the game when you do.
Building Mother Base piece-by-piece provides a similar (shorter) feeling. If you need more space for R&D, you might pass the time by collecting personnel to fill the second research platform youre building, or go further afield and try and nab that bear youve been after for the zoo. Youre ping-ponged between systems, giving you a more comprehensive view of the game simply because you cant have it all at once. Its arguable that by making this passage of time only available while actually playing the game, MGS actually does it better than Animal Crossing, which you can simply turn off - but thats not to say that there arent effects over full days, too.
Play Every Day
The passage of time is hugely important to Animal Crossing, a game that actively encourages you to play over the course of a calendar - there are weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly events, and the sheer size of the game holds up to playing in between those special occasions. The Phantom Pain (probably) wont live up to quite the same timescale - not least because it actually has a storyline - but it replicates some of that approach. Daily rewards are the simplest means of tempting you back, but the very fact that the game gives you a meaningless, delightful cutscene for playing on your birthday paves the way for more unseen surprises.
Both games offer more esoteric rewards for coming back repeatedly, too. Villagers and mercenaries alike simply like seeing you, offering intangible bonuses when they do so. And it cuts both ways - dont play for long enough, and your Animal Crossing character will look like shit when they emerge from their Standby mode hibernation, while Big Boss will look like sand-crusted Carrie if he doesnt head back to Mother Base for showers in between bloodbaths.
Of course, part of the pleasure of customisation is in seeing how other people have taken the same base template and altered it. Animal Crossing has always intimated that youre part of some bizarre world of villages, allowing you to head to friends towns to see their work. Continued server trouble might mean that few have seen Metal Gears Mother Base invasions, but the idea remains consistent - you might be heading there for some reward, but its always going to be a pleasure to poke around and see how you could be doing things a little better.
You might argue that MGS gleeful suggestion that you sabotage someone elses work goes against Animal Crossings hand-holdy, sing-songy internal message, but I once found OXM editor Matthew Castle digging the word JERK in potholes across a forgotten corner of my particular leafy paradise and Ive never forgiven him.
Detail you cant understand
Key to the beginning of any Animal Crossing is that youve entered a world you can comprehend, but might never quite fathom. The entire genesis of the series comes from Katsuya Eguchis feelings of isolation when he moved to a new city, and thats given a weird reflection in stuff like freaking out about finding unconscious quizmaster gulls on the beach. Metal Gear is a similarly personal proposition, the digital confluence of Kojimas hobbies, beliefs and quirks and, as such, never seems quite to belong to the player. Youre roaming about in a mans head, with all the depth of obscure detail that entails.
Both games make that a facet of how you play - events you cant comprehend become fascinating, leading to experimentation and, finally, just telling stories to your friends. You might not realise that playing a certain recording can send people to sleep, or that a sapling planted in shadow will grow at a different rate to one in full sunlight. That which of those two things come from which game might not be immediately clear is sort of the point - both of them are such tiny, weird parts of such enormous projects as to seem almost insignificant. Which makes the fact that theyre in there all the more satisfying to those that find them.
All the ephemeral bits that Ive missed because, frankly, Ive put a lot of thought into this and Ive got a bit of a headache at this point
The Phantom Pain contains enough hybrid DNA to be classified as one of Animal Crossing's creepy residents - they work to the same goals, partly to keep you entertained but also to worm their way into your brain, leaving you not only convinced that there's more to do, but that there's more to each game than you can possibly understand.
In fact, there is so much to compare between The Phantom Pain and Animal Crossing that Ive had to leave many of the less categorisable ideas out. Here are some extra similarities between the two:
- Animals with human names/humans with animal names
- The cruel realities of a lack of fiscal responsibility
- Soundtrack music becomes part of the fabric of the world
- Changes to the world are persistent
- You can attack friendly NPCs non-lethally, and they ultimately still love you, making you feel like a cruel deity
- You can dress up horses and dogs