When I was younger, space had very little meaning to me.
I was often in my own worlds, or playing in others through the conduit of my Gameboy, paying very little attention to the world passing by outside of the car window. Although I understood that my hometown, school, and home had definite points in space, they didn’t seem important in how they related to one another. I would simply climb into the back of a car, get lost as spacetime traveled around me. These places had, and still have, connecting points. Multiple paths to connect these places together.
As a child, however, I was never acutely aware of these, nor did I think them terribly important. For my purposes, there was simply a car or bus ride that occurred between these two points. The space in-between, regardless of how much or in which directions, were simply spaces that could be conquered by the magic of an enclosed vehicle. They were the appropriate tool for that travel, other methods need not apply.
In a sense, my life was dominated by loading screens. Areas in which something would happen beyond my control or knowledge, and after a period of waiting, I would arrive in the space I intended to go. In my mind, where was no map between where I was originally and where I was going, it was just a part of a process that changed the space around me.
Which made the moment I discovered that space in Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer also had very little meaning feel oddly familiar.
In Happy Home Designer, unlike any other title in the Animal Crossing series, the world has a loose sense of spatial reality. Unlike the existing space that the previous games in the series occupied, the play area of Happy Home Designer revolves around the office of Nook’s Homes, a single and heavily isolated space in a very incomplete community, unnamed and largely unpopulated. Outside of the walls of the Nook’s Homes offices, there is a small plaza populated exclusively by dilapidated and disused buildings. There is, at least by foot, nothing at the edges of the courtyard or beyond. There is just an unseen barrier preventing further exploration.
Once the player progresses far enough in-game, they gain the ability to find and take on clients from the plaza. Once chosen, the clients will confer with the designer in the lobby of Nook’s Homes, where the player is shown a map of the land available around the unnamed community. From this map, players can pick out lots for their clients, which correspond to various pre-generated lot shapes and types. Once a certain section of the map is picked, the player and client hop into the car and loading screen their way over to the lot in question so the player can begin designing the customer’s new home.
However, once the design is done, and the player returns to their post at Nook’s Homes to go pick a new client, the very same map will appear, and the very same lot can be selected for a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and nth time, with that cell of the map producing an infinite number of lots for the player’s consumption. Although the map has finite landmarks and topography, there are infinite number of lots that can be produced from it. Each lot is functionally a small pocket dimension with significant ties to the certain space of the game map, or any map, and can be simply willed into and out of a fixed existence with a brief car trip.
Much like my childhood understanding of space, the actual points aren’t really relevant. The places of value themselves are important, the road leading there isn’t. It’s a design ethos that focuses importance on the enclosed spaces, the areas where there are things of interest, rather than opening the world up to the spaces that have nothing of value.
However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve steadily increased my appreciation for the spaces in-between. In part because I transitioned from the one being driven to the one doing the driving, but also because I realize that there isn’t an inherent value in one space over another. Although objects are fixed in space, their importance isn’t likewise fixed. A store-front that I pass a hundred times on my daily commute might actually turn out to be one of my favorite restaurants. A quiet neighborhood nestled between main thoroughfares might be hiding a park full of the sorts of spaces I could settle into with a sketchbook for quiet afternoons. The shopping center adjacent to the superstore might have a coffeeshop with the best atmosphere in town. These are spaces that in practice aren’t important, but in theory aren’t important yet. They have more value than how I view them. Every inch of space represents infinite potential.
This is something the Animal Crossing games have steadily improved on over the years, with New Leaf giving the player the opportunity to choose the location of their home, various city works projects, and even avenues of travel like bridges. It means that every inch of space in the village is potential: potential to plant trees, potential for growing a flower garden, potential to house a café, or potential to build a police department.
Everything, from the distance between the player’s home and the shop to the location of town hall relative to the village’s entrance, affects the way a player finds value in these spaces. Convenient locations and nearby points of interest become more valuable, whereas distant villagers and far-placed fruit trees are less so. They’re still as financially useful as their closer counterparts, but they’re more difficult to reach and less efficient, so the space they’re in determines a part of the value they have.
In missing that element of fixed space, Happy Home Designer becomes something else, something eerie. As if the infinite space emanates vacant emptiness. That sense of value in design makes each home a rote part of the exercise, voiding the significance. It becomes a question of which lot is the most favorable, rather than which is the most meaningful. It makes the space valueless.
Had Happy Home Designer not tied these spaces to a map – a symbol of fixed, definite space – it would feel less like a misunderstanding of what makes the space inherently valuable to begin with. Maps put a limit on something, they define boundaries, and illustrate the limits on how space can be occupied. Without those limits, with an infinite space, the map becomes a strange symbol of theoretical space, a way to define something that is indefinite. A strange, uncertain assemblage of concepts that doesn’t actually relate in the way it illustrates.
Instead, it results in something altogether bizarre. Like it doesn’t understand the meaning of the map it uses, and waives away the potential of something that should be meaningful, but can’t be anymore.
Written for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table under the "Maps" theme. If this is up your alley, go give the other pieces a read.
Taylor Hidalgo is a bad cartographer, who is better at drawing doodles than driveways.