Zombie games: some are great, some suck, but regardless of their quality, a lot of people are getting sick of them. Personally, I'm growing closer and closer to feeling that way. Becoming numb to zombies is a serious bummer, as there was a time when I couldn't get enough of them. Back then, I bought each and every zombie game to hit the market.
This led to countless hours of contemplation of the perfect zombie game. I knew it would involve a large, uncontrolled area (unlike Resident Evil), a need to escape zombies more often then fighting them (unlike Left 4 Dead) and that special feeling you get when you see characters that you have grown to know and love, turn into cold, bloodthirsty monsters (unlike just about every zombie game ever made). It needed to be game that took the time to set up a world where everything is safe and normal, only to see all that destroyed by a relentless, unstoppable zombie horde.
I have yet to play the game that truly captures all that, but the one that comes closest is Animal Crossing. Yes, Animal Crossing; the game about buying furniture and writing letters to talking alligators. On one day each year, this serene world goes to hell. That day is today: Halloween.
Hit the jump to find out how one of the cutest games ever can scare the sh*t out of you.
As you probably know, Animal Crossing is a game that encourages you to play it 365 days a year. Stuff is always happening in the Animal Crossing world. New items go on sale everyday, fish and bugs come and go depending on the time of day/year, neighbors move in and move out, and special events such as holidays and contests are all regular occurrences. What initially feels like a game about nothing turns into a game about everything that real people do; completing projects, forming relationships, acquiring cool stuff, and mastering your surroundings.
It's that second thing, forming relationships, that really comes into play here. I don't care how cold-hearted and "hardcore" you are, if you play Animal Crossing for more than a few weeks, you will start to grow attached to some of your neighbors. Part of this is because of the game's writing; at its best, it's unpredictable, smart, and genuinely charming. Idle chit-chat about meaningless stuff like entering "The Little Miss Eggplant-face" competition and "eating bean burritos 'till you feel like a burrito shaped demon" may seem worthless at first, but over time it works to really make you care about this world.
It is also worth noting that the worst things about real life social interactions; namely conflict and power struggles, are completely absent from Animal Crossing. I've said before in the Dtoid review of Animal Crossing: City Folk, the Animal Crossing world is a place where nothing bad every happens, and everything is fun and silly. The fact that everyone in the game feels comfortable enough to babble any and all of the nonsense that they have floating around in their heads really evokes a sense of belonging. Remember the beginning of Super Bad when Jonah Hill and Micheal Cera are talking about porn like it's nothing shocking, or just all of the meaningless banter in the movie Clerks? That's the kind of stuff that close friends talk about, and that what just about every conversation in Animal Crossing is like.
OK, so maybe that's not a universally applicable statement. I'm sure a lot of people don't talk to their friends about anything that irreverent (though for your sake, I hope you do). What is universally true about Animal Crossing is that when playing the game, you are always in control. You go where ever you want, do whatever you want, and no one can stop you. The closest Animal Crossing has to "enemies" are the bees that sometimes fall from the trees, and in later games, the tarantulas and scorpions that show up in the summer. Their attacks don't really do anything though, getting "hit" by them just ruins the chance to catch said bugs. You main not gain anything, but nothing is lost.
No, in Animal Crossing you never have to worry about losing, hurting, or suffering any form of dis-empowerment. It's a big part of what makes the game's world so appealing. Everything and everyone exists for fun and profit.
You couldn't ask for a more perfect world. That's what makes what happens next so disturbing.
Shock and horror
One last thing you should know is that during the entire month of October, candy goes on sale in the Animal Crossing store. If you weren't already excited to see what would happen in the game on Halloween, this will only work to greater build the suspense. All you know at this point is that candy is needed for something that's going to happen at the end of the month.
After booting the game up on the 31st, you'll notice that the music is different. The spooky, Danny Elfman-lite tune that plays signals to the player that something awesome is afoot. Now in other Animal Crossing holidays like Thanksgiving and Easter, you have a limited amount of time to run around the town and do favors/tasks for a special holiday themed neighbor in order to score some exclusive furniture. With that in mind, the first thing most Animal Crossing players will do on Halloween is run out and look for the first holiday-looking creature they can find.
It wont be long before you'll see someone with a pumpkin on their head, or a pumpkin-for-a-head (in this game, you can never be too sure). Naturally, you run towards them and chat them up, with full confidence that you'll get something in return. Chances are that they'll run towards you as well, but more on that later.
You'll do a double take when you find that the pumpkin-headed thing actually instigates with you. It's they who starts the conversation, and you can't stop them from talking to you even if you wanted to. This is the first and only time this occurs in the game. It's a social attack, fitting for a game that's often billed as a "social RPG", and it's results can be devastating.
You'll see in the text bubble that the pumpkin-headed thing is actually one of your animal friends, likely someone who in the past has given you gifts, written you letters, told you that you're awesome, and otherwise taken the submissive role in the relationship. You'll rightfully expect that they'll do the same thing now. But this isn't the same "Roald" or "Allie" that you think you know. This is monster; a monster that will steal your stuff, destroy your clothes, pumpkin your head, and leave you feeling thoroughly abused.
I don't mean to be redundant, but it really can't be overstated how big of a deal it is to have your otherwise friendly neighbors suddenly kick your ass and take your stuff. Animal Crossing is a game centered around collecting new belongings; to have some of them stolen or destroyed is a much bigger deal in this context than death or damage in a"normal" game would be, especially if you happen to be wearing a 1,000,000 bell crown on your head or a kick-ass Kappa hat. To have these valuables pilfered and replaced with a humiliating pumpkin-mask feels like a violation of the highest order.
Thus we have established the new rules of the Animal Crossing apocalypse. What was once a peaceful, carefree world is now a place of constant danger. What were once your friends are now faceless, soulless monsters that want only to cannibalize your lifeblood (meaning; your stuff). You have no defenses, you have no aid, you have only the ability to prepare, to stay quick on your feet, and the will to "live".
Scared? Well, the villagers in the game sure are. While about half the town will be out and about, ready to mug you and anyone else that gets in their way, the other half will be at home with their doors shut, scared as f*ck. Who could blame them? After my first time playing Animal Crossing on Halloween, I felt the same way. Instead of facing the night, I ran into my house and just sat there, unsure if I even had the guts to go on.
The path to survival
So if Animal Crossing's Halloween is such a nightmare, why bother playing? Well, as with every other day of the year, the main reason to keep playing Animal Crossing on Halloween is to meet unique characters and get more stuff. Knowing that Halloween is the only day you can score the special "spooky" furniture set will be enough for the brave of heart to put their minds and skills to the test, step out that door, and face the horror.
There are ways to reduce your risk. If you empty out your inventory, fill every letter you have with candy, and take off all your clothes, you'll have a lot less to lose. Doing so feels a bit like armoring up for a run through a zombie filled city, but instead of stacking stuff on, you strip yourself down.
From there, you have to watch yourself and your surroundings carefully, make sure not to get out numbered, stay clear of difficult to navigate forests, bridges, and paths, and be ready for anything. Just like with "real" zombies, it's not hard to outrun the pumpkin-faced ghouls that haunt your town, but run too fast from one and you may smack headlong into another one. Caution, preparation, and an eagle eye are the keys to survival.
The furniture you want is in the hands of Jack, a special villager who looks exactly like the things that are after you. The only way to tell him apart from the rest is that he wont chase you. If you approach him slowly and he doesn't come after you, you'll know he's safe to talk to. Engage him in conversation, give him some candy, and he'll hand over a piece of the spooky set, and disappear with a Guile-style flip kick. Of course, you'll need to go into your inventory first in order to pull out the candy, and you can't move while in your inventory screen. I was attacked more than once while in this situation, which feels a bit like being bitten by a zombie while trying to reload your gun.
From there you have to return home in order for Jack to show up again, which means another trek back through the infested town. Continuing this process is the only way keep yourself safe and score the special stuff. Of course you can try to engage in regular Animal Crossing activities like fishing and bug hunting, but there is no way to do any of that safely. Life as you knew it is essentially over (at least for the day).
There is more to Halloween in Animal Crossing than that, but as far as the "zombie" flavored aspects of the event, that's pretty much it. I know that on paper, it probably doesn't seen that scary, and honestly, even the biggest Animal Crossing diehard isn't going to get nightmares from it. The thing is, zombies stories really aren't about horror, at least not to me. I see them as the validation of the deep seeded belief that that deep down inside, we're all monsters, and that the line between a peaceful society and a dangerous, lawless world is paper-thin at best.
This is what Animal Crossing on Halloween provides better than any other game I've played. The "zombies" here are characters that you may have known and cared for for years. Overnight, that all melts away. The rules no longer apply. What was once a place of safety is now a zombie hell. That's something that other zombie games, which throw you into the action right away, just can't provide.
I'd love for a game to come along someday that initially plays like GTA, about a regular guy (maybe a cop or something, to provide the player with some action) who has a wife, kids, and a generally normal life. For the first hour, there would be no zombies, but slowly, you'd witness the city fall apart. By the end of the game, everyone you knew would be dead or undead, and it would be you against the world.
I'm sure that kind of game will come along someday, but until then, I'll always have Halloween in Animal Crossing.