Happy Home Designer (HHD) presents a new direction for the series, building upon just one concept of the previous games: decorating. While you'll plot and design the homes of potentially hundreds of animals in this new town, you won't be able to explore it freely, nor will you have a home of your own to customize and work towards paying off. In fact, despite the game being centered on working at Nook Homes, there isn't even any money to earn in this game (making Tom Nook's business practices, once again, appear very miserly). Unlike previous Animal Crossing entries, this one isn't really a "life sim" so much as a doll house--imagine "buy mode" in The Sims, and you pretty much have an idea on what this game has to offer.
But the game isn't different just in respect to what you yourself can do in it; most interesting, I think, is the difference in how people play the game with a perceived audience. Just as with the (also) very new--and very popular--Super Mario Maker, HHD is more of a passive online experience, where player content is shared--often over social media. Not far into the experience, the game interrupts the player to alert them to the screenshot sharing tools: you can take a screenshot simply by pressing the L + R buttons together, and then share it directly to Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr with the built-in photo sharing tool. You can just as easily submit screenshots to Miiverse, Nintendo's own social network of game-based communities.
What the game does really well is encourage players to share their creations--and not just screenshots. Sharing has been a big part of Animal Crossing since the last game in the series, New Leaf, which allowed players to share records of their towns (allowing other players to explore a sort of "saved state" of them freely), screenshots of their experiences in-game or even designs for clothes or paths they've created. Perhaps in noticing how players loved to share their New Leaf creations on Twitter and Tumblr, the HHD developers have one-upped New Leaf's shareability by adding the Happy Home Network feature to HHD, an ecosystem where players can freely upload, browse, search and rate the homes and facilities they design. They can also download path and clothing designs directly when visiting a Happy Home Network lot as well.
The Happy Home Network reminds me much of the original "Sims Exchange," a Maxis community where players uploaded their homes and families for others to download and play with. Just as with the Happy Home Network, the Sims Exchange was searchable and invited players to rate the lots and families they found. (Note: I'm writing about the Exchange in past-tense, although each generation of The Sims had/has their own version of this sort of community--though I only had experience with the first generation's Exchange.)
The Sims Exchange included something that, to me, was so much more compelling than gawking at lots or celebrities-turned-Sims: stories. Players would create illustrated narratives of their Sims' lives using the game's photo album feature, and the Sims Exchange thrived on this weird new medium for storytelling: where Sims were no longer seen as quirky, autonomous people acting of their own volition, but rather as actors--much like in theatre--cast in visual-based narratives. This was an interesting new way to play a game that was largely aimless and free of any built-in story, and perhaps what prompted the movie-making mode found in The Sims 2.
After spending some time with HHD, it's apparent to me that this game seems to follow a similar pattern. On the surface, HHD is about designing homes and facilities, without the life sim aspects found in previous entries. But the mode of play in your character's free time at the end of their workday is all about imagination, where it's up to you to frame the spaces you've designed as actual living, breathing environments (because the game doesn't exactly do that for you). You can simply observe the animals walk in circles around a room, but that gets boring fast. Like with stories found on the Sims Exchange, the real fun is in directing and modeling your animals within the spaces you've designed however you please, then sharing it online to, in a sense, validate it. You don't just design the spaces; by "setting the scene" by inviting animals into an environment and giving them roles or things to interact with, you're shaping their lives as well. In a way that parallels how we might selectively share and contextualize snippets of life on Instagram, players can contextualize themselves within the other characters' goings-on with a little creativity and imagination. How other players creatively situate themselves in this anonymous new town--which, by the game's design, isn't "livable" for the player in the sense that previous Animal Crossing games were--is a sophisticated creative act in and of itself, and one that seems unjustly shadowed by the game's more obvious creative feature of decorating.
Everything outside of HHD's core gameplay of designing a space is reduced to photo ops. Just like Sunday brunch with twee twenty-somethings, the real fun in HHD is in carefully composing a very specific aesthetic atmosphere, a backdrop for selfies and snapshots to share on social media. Some reviewers have criticized the game for having no grading system, how the animals will be satisfied with any way that you decorate their homes. Of course, it doesn't matter what the animals think, as they're little more than props in this game (more on that below). Instead, HHD is all about trying to express your own creativity within the small constraints suggested by the game and, if you intend to share your homes and facilities online, trying to impress other players. When decorating or taking snapshots of these spaces, the only real rubric you need is what you think others on social media would be interested in seeing. I see this attention towards the larger community as a strength of the game.
I've described the characters here as "props." In previous games, the animals you meet and befriend have quite a lot to say--but not this time around, at least in the case of my eight hours with the game. In their homes, animals will alternate between just two or three bits of dialogue every time you interact with them during that visit. In a facility, where they will take on a role or occupation--say, as a teacher when visiting the school--they will each have only one line to give, no matter how many times you talk to them. Unlike your town in New Leaf, City Folk, Wild World or Population: Growing, the town in HHD isn't really a breathing world with fleshed-out characters living in it. Instead, it's simply a collection of scenes and backdrops that you've created, with animals that function as little more than extras in a movie. The world in HHD is comparable to a doll house: nearly static characters with little more personality than whatever you project onto them, dioramas that look cute but where nothing much "happens" outside of your imagination.
And the animals themselves are like dolls: when visiting a place you've designed, you can directly pick them up, dress them however you please and place them wherever you want. You might decide to make Bob a teacher at the school. Maybe the game randomly selected Tangy as the doctor at your hospital, but you want to switch her out for Caroline. Maybe you want to place Roscoe across the dinner table from yourself, so you lift him out of his bed and plop him right there in the chair. The characters aren't really autonomous--like toys, you position them wherever you please and pretty much set a tone for the "scene" by snapping a screenshot and discussing the experience with others in the comments. You might come up with your own little narratives, just as others have done with The Sims photo albums. Some might complain that HHD doesn't offer as much as previous Animal Crossing games, but it offers a ton of freedom to basically present your life with the animals any way you please, making the experience truly your own. One might compare it to LEGO before its product lines became brick-by-brick recreations of movie sets and licensed characters: HHD gives you all the things you need to construct a world--but it's up to you, not the game, to invigorate those scenes with your own flair and personality.
Veterans of the series who haven't played HHD might be disappointed to hear that on the surface there's so little going on in town this time around. But again, this entry is just a different focus for the series: rather than integrating yourself into a community of digital animals, HHD instead presents tools with which to build a greater community online, where players can discuss and share their designs with one another all while performing their dream lives with their favorite animals. While very different than the typical Animal Crossing experience, I think that's a great and unique thing that this game does, reducing a franchise that's always encouraged simple living to its bare essential parts, which players can use to inspire one another.