Starting in the year 2031, you will be unable to play the original Animal Crossing on the Nintendo GameCube. Not literally — at least, I hope not — but you will no longer be able to play the game as it was intended: with a clock that reflects the progression of time in the real world.
Animal Crossing is a game about an idyllic virtual existence lived in harmony with your actual life. As I’m writing this, it’s a Tuesday on July 11th at 10 AM in the year 2023, which means that, somewhere, any number of my Animal Crossing games will reflect the exact same season and time if I load them up. This concept, popularized in the years since by everything from mobile games to MMOs, is the core of the entire franchise, allowing you to build a life through days and weeks and months of incremental labor.
It works perfectly, until it doesn’t.
For the original Animal Crossing, released in 2001, the game’s proverbial Y2K will occur shortly after the 2030 in-game New Year’s celebration passes seemingly without incident. The coming year will be properly forecast, and the game will not dramatically crash when it actually comes. Villagers will celebrate the event appropriately, discussing how excited they are to see what the coming year brings. What the game doesn’t know is that 2031 in Animal Crossing lasts for exactly six hours — closing the game before then or simply waiting for the time to pass naturally will cause something weird to happen: unable to continue to the current year, Animal Crossing loops you back to January 1st in 2030. It will do this forever, never acknowledging 2031 or anything after it.
This might seem like nothing more than a fun bit of trivia, but for some, this will be surprisingly impactful. There are diehards who still play the original Animal Crossing every day, whether on an emulator or the game’s original hardware; for some, it’s the same town with the same villagers they’ve had for decades. For these people, who live in villages where nothing new has happened since the aughts, full of inhabitants who haven’t said a particularly new sentence since the release of the Wii, this change will represent the game’s final unmooring from reality — poor Apollo the Eagle, who moved into your town in 2008, won’t even remember what year it is.
Every release of Animal Crossing, as with basically any game that tracks the current year, has a version of this: City Folk on the Wii will suffer the same fate in 2036, as will New Leaf on the 3DS in 2051. Even New Horizons, released on the Switch only three years ago, will eventually stop working entirely in 2061, with an in-game message asking the player to roll the clock back to continue playing. Hilariously, and for reasons I truly don’t understand, Wild World on the original DS will outlast them all, only ceasing to reflect the current year in 2100. If you’re still trying to shoot down those UFOs to get every one of Gulliver’s items, you’ve probably got time.
Of course, people who are still actively playing the original Animal Crossing won’t be deterred by as simple an error as that. Players have known about this eventuality for over a decade (the Y2K parallels are funny) and have already drafted up a number of possible solutions, the most simple of which is to set the game’s time to 2003, a year with the exact same calendar structure as 2031. From there, 2004 has the same structure as 2032, 2005 as 2033, etc. It’s an obviously hacky fix, but though the year will always be wrong, the days themselves should remain congruent.
For those still playing later entries in the decades after, and the ascended pillars of pure salt playing Wild World in the 22nd century, similar workarounds will undoubtedly be used. Animal Crossing will still be a game about checking in every day to catch bugs and fish or to celebrate Christmas or a birthday, but it will be about catching decades-old bugs and celebrating Christmases of the distant past while your eternal villagers paradoxically grow younger without having grown at all, like if Harlan Ellison’s Jeffy Is Five was happening to a pig or a mouse.
I mentioned earlier that I could load up any number of my own Animal Crossing games if I wanted to. My own relationship with the franchise is far more casual than anything we’ve discussed. I was invested for a few years when New Leaf came out, and that was about the peak of my involvement. Naturally, the original game was before my time; 2003, the year many Animal Crossing players will exist in when I’m 28, is actually the year I was born. But I still had a town, and it even represented a few years of work. What would I find if I returned?
I would emerge in a world of weeds and overgrown flowers and messy hair in a house infested by cockroaches, and the villagers I once considered my friends — abandoned like so many other childhood toys — would tell me how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other. I know they would do this with a wry smile or a kind of sardonic annoyance; they would not, for instance, scream and scream and scream, as an actual person would if they were trapped in a decaying village for close to a decade.
But they don’t have to, because I know my return would be neither a kind nor triumphant one. I already said goodbye, and coming back even for a moment would feel cruel. The cockroaches and the weeds and the messy hair are all reversible consequences, but they’re still the voiceless sound of a world screeching its own dirge.
A few months ago, I walked by the neighborhood I grew up in for the first time in years. I strolled by my old house and visited the park near it. They had done a few renovations to the house, and the park had even gotten a few new pieces of equipment. It was the good kind of change; happy, even though it had happened without me.
But when I swung by the old fort my friends and I used to play in, still hidden by a layer of bushes and trees, I felt compelled to leave as quickly as possible. Flies buzzed, beer bottles littered the ground, and the fort itself was in shambles, having collapsed under a pile of rotted wood in our absence. This was a change as natural as any other, but it was not a happy one. It felt at once sad and disorientating, like discovering a corpse. I got out of there as quickly as I could. Some places are content to be abandoned, but enraged to be found.
The same goes for my New Leaf town. All those cockroaches and weeds and haplessly confused childhood buddies only exist if I load the game; better to leave it in a box deep under, even if “deep under” is just a few old Wii games haphazardly piled in a crate somewhere. The dead should rest.
That’s my experience with it, but what about those Animal Crossing worlds that will continue to be visited and preserved until their sole benefactors either lose interest or lose the ability to visit them entirely? What about those worlds that aren’t abandoned?
Physically unable to embrace the future, Animal Crossing will resemble a diseased brain, only capable of comprehending a rapidly deteriorating past. Those poor villagers left will only grow more and more confused, but will ultimately only grow to become more like themselves — what else are they supposed to do with their time, complain? Those still playing will continue to, well, play Animal Crossing. They will catch bugs and fish for a full museum that nobody visits or sell them for money in a world where they have nothing left to buy. They will continue to speak to neighbors they’ve known for decades — relationships which will never deepen past a second or third meeting — to hear those neighbors spouting the same canned phrases and jokes they’ve been saying since 2002.
For those remaining diehards, Animal Crossing will live a kind of stranger undeath, like a Tamagotchi pet that’s been alive since the 90s. Like a dying brain, the game will continue to show the most fundamental signs of life: its heart will still beat, however slowly, and its mouth will still breathe a kind of shallow life-giving breath. This is only life in the most academic sense of the word, though. In reality, the Animal Crossing we knew died when the museum filled up and the debt on your house was paid and all the holidays were celebrated a half-dozen times. What’s left is a kind of emaciated husk. Deprived of its essential newness, all that remains is a routine. All the exhausted world has left to give is the same thing, forever.
In Ray Bradbury’s short story There Will Come Soft Rains, an automated house sits alone in a ruined, radioactive city. It follows the same set of instructions every day: it makes food that is never eaten, it cleans a living room that people are no longer present to dirty, and at night, it reads out poetry to a family that long since died in atomic fire. At the end of the story, set ablaze by a falling tree, the house is almost entirely destroyed. A single wall remains: one with just enough surviving circuitry to continue reading out the year and date from now until its remaining infrastructure inevitably collapses.
Dawn showed faintly in the east. Among the ruins, one wall stood alone. Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam:
“Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…”
One day, a group of players will start their copy of Animal Crossing and be told that it is January 1st, 2030. It will be the beginning of an end that was forecast a long time ago, and which came much earlier still: when the world moved on and its inhabitants did not.