The Minimalist Hooks of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp and EAT

Games Features Minimalism
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The Minimalist Hooks of <i>Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp</i> and <i>EAT</i>

Somewhere in EAT: The Revolution is a strong message. I know it’s in there because the game keeps hinting at it, and on some level I understand that it is trying to say something about the value of consumption and the ways in which we consider food to be a luxury and also a necessity. It tells me this, of course, during the brief moments when I’m not franticly tapping on my phone screen to gnash and chew through another edible object.

EAT is a strange game. It’s developed by Berlin studio CrowsCrowsCrows, known for, among other things, producing games that interrogate and play with expectation and payoff in traditional game design. 2015’s Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist, for example, would appear to be a straightforward heist game were it not for the description of the game on its Steam page ending abruptly with a confession that the writer is joining a strike, and will no longer be available to write the game’s Steam description.

The action in EAT, compared to Dr. Langeskov, is stripped down to the bare essentials. For the mobile platform, certain changes are expected, but EAT makes an art out of its own minimalism. It’s a “clicker” game, in structure, tapping away at items on the screen until they disappear and I am told another cryptic line about eating, or about Uncle Hunger, or about gestures toward a kind of revolution. The text is stark, white on black, and edible items are bright and detailed, photorealistic.

My biggest criticism of EAT was only that it undersold its own world. Where Dr. Langeskov painted a coherent picture of the world outside of the player’s direct interaction, EAT is vague. It both thrives in this vagueness and frustrates. The repetitive structure means that story becomes a puzzle, something to be pieced together through the many allusions toward characters and factions. When it’s good, it’s a nail-biting experience, tapping and hoping for another clue. When it’s bad, it’s slow and hard to parse, stubbornly repeating the same lines over and over.

It’s far from the only game to rely on minimalist worldbuilding. Monument Valley 2, the sequel to 2014’s Monument Valley from ustwo games, also balanced on a knife-edge between mystery and exposition. But where Monument Valley 2’s minimalism lent weight to its rather simple story of parenthood and letting go, EAT feels like it is struggling under the amount of worldbuilding it must accomplish with such few direct lines to the player.

Both games are “minimalist” in some sense of the word. Monument Valley and its sequel both used a relatively simple control scheme to give space to the puzzle and environment design, where EAT staunchly refuses all but the most single-minded of design aesthetics in order to emphasize the cramped, almost-militaristic grind of the game’s process.

On a wildly different design path from EAT or Monument Valley is last month’s most talked-about mobile game, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.

Where EAT is dour, Pocket Camp is bright and comforting. Where EAT is cryptic, Pocket Camp is effusively explanatory. But both games rely on a repetitive game loop with a randomized narrative “reward” for the game loop completion.

Pocket Camp, moment-to-moment, has a number of different activities for a player to partake in, but they all boil down to resource collection and resource trading. Get enough bugs/rocks/fish for a camper and trade it in to them for a boost of XP and hopefully a new conversation line or small animation. Like EAT, Pocket Camp relies on a repetitive game loop that rewards the player with bespoke narrative content.

The difference, of course, is in the presentation. Pocket Camp, compared to EAT or Monument Valley, is practically maximalist, constantly giving the player feedback, prodding them to buy a new microtransactive purchase, or rewarding them for doing some small task. It’s a complicated mess of feel-good messages piled on top of a relatively simple game loop.

This isn’t a bad thing. It’s remarkably effective in terms of audience retention, clearly, and certainly isn’t unique to Pocket Camp, or, for that matter, EAT. Repetition with the hope of a new line or a new piece of conversation can keep players engaged. EAT plays with this relationship, often throwing the player dozens of edible items before giving them a new line of writing. The metaphor being pushed is nakedly understandable: consumption, leading to eventual addiction, in the pursuit of ever more content, is not a valueless proposition.

I didn’t like Pocket Camp for that long. I think I played about six hours before putting it down and forgetting about it. That’s okay—it’s not for me, and that’s fine. But I played through all of EAT in one sitting and, regardless of my mixed feelings on the game in total, I felt satisfied. I finished Monument Valley, as well, in a day or two of a few hours of play. Pocket Camp isn’t quite the same, given that hypothetically one could play it forever, assuming that repeated lines from campers isn’t too bothersome.

But even in EAT’s vagueness, I found it far more compelling than Pocket Camp. It’s bleak and depressing, but it never felt like it was begging me for attention in the way that Pocket Camp did. The sparse nature of the design meant that none of it felt forced or superfluous. Its minimalism made it felt like a game that valued my time, and these days that’s more important than ever.

Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.