The start menu flashed up, jolting me into action. Now it was time to rise from my two month slumber. For eight entire weeks I was in bed, smiling sweetly despite being dastardly uncertain of whether my controller would decide to play with me again. I thought I would never wake up.
You see, we share a name, and I even have the same pastel pink hair as her, but I am nothing but a puppet to Rachel. Things may be all fun and games to her, but to me it’s a drudgery, doing the same things day in and day out… Fishing at 3pm, oh, and catching another one of those monarch butterflies at 4pm. But luckily for her, she doesn’t see what I see, hear what I hear, and feel what I feel inside this small dual-screened box. Rachel stabs at the four buttons with the speed of an Olympic sprinter — or that of a teenage girl breaking up with her boyfriend over text messages — and I can feel her stylus scraping my person on the screen. And I smile. I always smile. I can never do anything but smile and comply like a sweet little marionette.
Through the layers of pixels and glass I could see the look of uneasy surprise on Rachel’s little face. She hadn’t been playing for a while now, being all preoccupied with school and boys. I could sense the rational thoughts rushing through her brain like a stream. Why is this? What’s going on…? I— I haven’t played for a while now, so I must have forgotten what it was like… But even this—
After being cheerfully greeted by the starting menu, she was subjected to emptiness. The whole town was completely and utterly empty. Usually she would see little animals roaming happily about Midori, going about their daily lives, simple and endearing as they are. The camera would follow the adorable beasts in their pursuits; stalking beetles with nets, prancing to and fro with fishing rods, watering colourful flowers until they glistened (or drowned), or just generally frolicking about. But not today.
It was very early morning, 4am, and a heavy rain was beginning to fall. Dove grey clouds gathered overhead in omen, droplets pitter-pattering down in a steady monotone pattern. She yawned, complacent, and continued.
A thin whispering was emitting from her games console, so she slid her fingers over the volume control and fiddled with the sound until she could hear the music loud and clear. Her eyes widened. Four AM! Haunting, quick notes encircled her like hornets filled with despair. The feeling of being chased through a thick forest was put into her head by the melody. And her mouth turned down at the corners as her heart throbbed, the lament reminding her of the day her younger brother died… The way life continued through unbearable silence and melancholy, dragging along, repetitive, until one day he was forgotten like a dusty Barbie doll in the toy box.
As soon as I stepped out of our tiny red-roofed house, the change was obvious. Never, never had she encountered this before in all of the Animal Crossing games. Around her house, surrounding front, back, left and right, were flat tombstones embedded in the polka-dot earth. Though made of pixels, everything was so painstakingly familiar. Vivid almost; like the most lucid dream she had ever had. Tiny skulls were printed on each one, cute but eerie. And little names of teeny tiny animals leaped out at her like flames.
‘Alfonso, Elmer, Mallary, Lucy, Dora, Hazel, Daisy, Kurt,’ she read aloud, mouth forming the words with horror.
These were all previous villagers of Midori. Some of her favourites… And they had moved on, packed up and left in the middle of the night or on days she couldn’t get round to playing. So why were they buried here in Midori?
Shaking her head, thinking it all must be some disturbing glitch, she forced my twig legs to run around in one quick circle and rampage my way around the village. It was completely and utterly empty; a ghost town. Nobody showed up. Running around town a couple of times, she realised that she had been deserted. Heart sinking, she pressed on.
As the sweet rain, without any coldness or wetness, bounced off the soil and rebounded off my head, within two minutes we had found somebody. Marina.
‘Ah!’ Rachel cried, ‘somebody is here.’
She dragged me, slamming into the octopus wildly, like star-crossed lovers seeing each other after a year had passed. Stabbing at the “a” button with trembling fingers, we were forced into what’s loosely called a conversation.
Up popped the bubble that should have read “Marina”. Instead, a series of numbers and letters replaced her name, and Rachel was so surprised that she read it aloud:
‘#3f7836ah75…?’ she read aloud, ‘there’s a serious glitch in this game, alright.’
Again, she pressed the “a” button.
‘…’ said Marina blankly, and nothing more. Nothing in her expression moved; no emoticons, no blinking eyelids — nothing. She was immortally chipper and cheerful. Just like a doll with no choices of its own.
Like magic, after speaking with Marina, all the other residents of Midori seemed to turn up. Each one had a similar dopey expression, and unmoving, unseeing eyes. All names had been exchanged with code numbers for the pixels, serial numbers for the game card to read and reload. Pathetically, every animal in town were mute. They ambled around aimlessly without even a bug net or a fishing rod, sometimes facing walls for minutes at a time, or bashing relentlessly into other neighbours’ houses, although expecting that they could break through the pixel-cement for warmth and safety.
After stumbling around the town fearfully like a human among zombies, she decided for me to enter one of the villagers’ homes. Knocking twice in quick succession, we let ourselves into the shack although it were a sweet shop instead of a dilapidated ruin that could only loosely be called a building.
Inside, silence enveloped us from all corners. The only source of light came from the two tiny quadrilateral windows, and even that was limited in the downpour of rain. It took a while for the screen to adjust to the darkness inside the frog’s home. But when it did, Rachel was shocked to find that there was nobody inside at all; typically, in all her 233 hours of Animal Crossing experience, there had to be an occupant of the little room for the player to be allowed inside. She was expecting Frobert. But he had been gone for two months now…
Dust had settled on everything that it possibly could, broken and tangled cobwebs were strewn from one wall to another like party streamers, and cockroaches the size of my palm roamed the room as confident as street rats. And yet everything was in perfect order, although Frobert had not been expecting to leave, and if he did, only for a short while. Indeed, apart from the dirt and dusty, mustiness which was perfectly normal, every item in this room was spotless. When Rachel had clicked on literally all the items in Frobert’s room, rummaged through his chest of drawers, and even scoured through the bin, she decided to let me back outside.
Upon exiting, we came face-to-face with Marina again. Her tentacles were wrapped around the cherry tree’s trunk, and she faced the tree with an absent-minded glaze in her black eyes. However, she gave the poor tree such a fierce, frantic shake that all the cherries came crashing down, and the leaves eventually followed suit. And when it was practically bare, she continued. It was non-stop… and somewhat disturbing, although there was a certain sorrow in the way she grasped the tree. If she had hands instead of tentacles, the knuckles would have been standing out of her skin like blood in snow.
Rachel jumped slightly as something small and tinny came warbling out of the speakers. Through the soft piano notes of the 4am theme tune, a little voice spoke:
‘Frobert…’ it whispered, or at least something sounding like Frobert; the girl could never be certain with the way those animals spoke. To her, it all sounded like garbled garbage anyway.
We ran up to her and demanded conversation with the “a” button. Yet again and again, she could only come up with a downhearted “…” for our chat. Again we pressed. And again. And again. Once more… and she finally spoke:
‘On mornings like these I just want to settle down with a good book, don’t you, blurp? NO MORE.’
Both of us flinched at this outburst.
No more? What was this?
We moved away, disturbed, and yet Marina still remained smiling sweetly in her innocent, docile manner. It was although she hadn’t the emotions to match her words of despair. Eerie, it was. Completely unnerving.
All of a sudden, Ed jumped out of nowhere from behind Marina’s house. Previously he had been slamming himself into the cliff wall. Marks of surprise shot out from his little teal head, his eyes widened, and his mouth hung open as soon as he spotted us.
Clicking on him, he said: ‘Rachel, so glad to see you, greenhorn! May I be as bold as to say you’re looking as cool as a fair number of cucumbers, greenhorn? Anyway, I was wondering if you could please do me a massive favour.’
My player could have easily said no, but I could tell that she was intensely pondering where this would go. Besides, the conversations in Animal Crossing are very one-sided.
‘Deliver this to Frobert, he left it behind the last time I saw him, and now I’m too nervous to give it back to him in case he’s mad… Just make sure it’s done before the end of the day, greenhorn.’
There was something sad about the way he said it; the sprite may be minuscule on the screen, but even so we could see that his eyes were turned down slightly and his head was bowed. Despite it all, he gave us a cheery wave at the end of his sentence, and then went back to being melancholy.
Mustering up all of our courage, we knocked bravely on Frobert’s door and let ourselves in. Lightening flashed in the windows as the door slammed shut behind us, illuminating the changed room. Frobert’s curtains were torn, hanging off the windows in tatters; the carpet was ripped up although with a pair of very powerful claws, exposing the bare floorboards below, which were crumbling in places. A huge black hole gaped in the middle of the floor, so we could hear things scurrying around inside.
As we approached the open window to close it, preventing further rotting of the furniture, something popped up into our field of vision. A shadowy figure put up its paws and pressed its face against the gauzy, hazy glass. Even through the glass that was more opaque than transparent, we could feel the fierce intensity with which the mystery shadow fixed on us. Rachel pressed the “x” button accidentally in her panic, causing the inventory screen to come popping up. And when she closed the inventory, it had vanished…
I found myself at the door before I could even think about it, the door was flung open wildly, and we were feet away from the damned place in less than a few seconds. Regardless of our terror, I could express nothing but dumb happiness.
‘What on earth happened to Frobert?’ Rachel muttered, drumming her fingers against the console. ‘And what was that shadow?’ She gave a raucous laugh and continued, shaking her head miserably.
Upon stampeding our way to the home we came across Rosie; she had her back to us and held a golden shovel in her tiny paws. Adjusting ourselves, it seemed that she was digging many holes into the earth surrounding our house. A part of me wanted to yell, but I can only do what Rachel wants me to do when she’s in control.
Bumping into her and stabbing the “a” button although it would save her life, Rachel’s heart appeared to sink as we heard her speak.
‘Good morning, Rachel!’ she said beaming. But nothing more would come out of her…
Rosie went back to her digging. It was almost mechanical, the way she did it. I repressed the urge to shudder.
Instead of making a fuss of it as I expected, it seems Rachel was used to the eeriness of Midori at 4am by now. She decided to go inside her house, which was swarming with cockroaches from the two months she was missing from the village. After chasing and killing the little monsters, she examined everything in her home. Cabana furniture, golden bug-catching trophy, pots of minuscule pansies, K.K. rag-time. Nothing out of the ordinary. Yet when she forced me up the flight of stairs, something in her changed.
It was the image of her eternally sleeping brother that did it. The way the sprite’s chest rose and fell softly, that contented smile… She knew that far below the earth her little brother would be doing no such thing. He was gone forever, and that Animal Crossing account hadn’t been touched or tampered with for years… She just couldn’t bring herself to delete it.
So she snapped. Bursting into furious tears, and wondering if she was going absolutely mad with grief, Rachel made me explode through the front door and splash through the puddles until we were surrounded by graves. Bearing the silver shovel although it were a knight’s sword, she manipulated me into tearing into the earth as if it were kid’s play sand with buried treasure beneath. In a gruesome moment of fascination, I had no qualms about discovering the horrors under the ground.
I proudly unearthed a screaming-howloid gyroid and held it up for Rosie to see, who clapped enthusiastically. Then I dug up a mega-dingloid, a tall-droploid, a tall-echoid, a poltergoid, a mini-freakoid, a gargloid, and a lamentoid; all from separate graves. Placing them a little cautiously inside our home, they all screamed together like alley cats in an intense row, some howling, some sighing, and one gargling. Wincing at the noise, Rachel decided to head back outside.
It was here that she ended the game. Switched it off without a second thought.
Rachel may have deserted her villagers, but I know what’s really going on in Midori… I am the one who was born through a series of jumbled letters and numbers, programmed to know everything that happens in this horrific nightmare town. Like a virus, the sneaky little ghost raccoon can float through files, codes, and serial numbers, corrupting them beyond normal repair. And I have to stand by and watch helplessly…
For his own gain — and seemingly for the remaining innocent animals, too — he damages us all. Thinking that he is doing them all a favour, one by one, a much-loved neighbour drops off the face of the earth and is never seen again. Those that remain should count themselves lucky they’re still alive another week. But it certainly doesn’t help that old Rachel was a renowned “time-traveller”.
We had all loved Frobert dearly. But funnily enough, he had disappeared a whole year before my player, Rachel, had come across this game, second hand in the video store. She had never been his mayor, but that didn’t distract the rest of the town from grieving his loss. With us pretending to be happy, she didn’t suspect a thing, despite how false everything and everyone was. Even his little house stood still against time, and not a thing was out of place inside his miniature room. Nothing was touched. And Rachel still had no clue at all…
None of the animals spoke of 4 am, nor did they so much as breathe a word of Frobert, but every single day and night it was the only thing on their minds. Pixel tears may run down their faces, yet to Rachel they were far too tiny to notice amongst the bright and cheery colours of the game. Their howls shortly before 4 am were too quiet for the speakers to pick up… But tonight I had shown her the terrors she did nothing to protect us from!
Every year a selection of villagers are sacrificed to please a sacred deity inside the heart of the ancient animal forest we live in, in order for the peace, happiness, and free lives of the remaining villagers to carry on as normal. All this, in order for aimless pottering and idle chatter to take place… Naturally, Tom Nook is the ringleader of the blood-red festival taking place at 4 am.
Frobert died exactly 347 days ago but his ghost has been in Midori ever since. He would reappear always at 4:42am, always warning us of impending death, always seeming to know who would be next… No matter how many times he would beg the sacrificial animals to leave town, it was too late; Cooper and Booker had closed off all access to the outside world, and Rachel’s internet connection had been down since the day her brother died. We had no hope.
Tormiter, as wonderful a mayor as he was, could do nothing for us. Secretly we believed him to be fuzzy in the head, incapable of making any decisions or taking the law into his own hands — and others had made the conspiracy that he was the reason for all the gyroids underground. We knew nothing, and neither did he. But in our hidden meetings at 3am, we all came to the same conclusion — he did nothing to prevent the rituals from occurring.
Although with the intention of tormenting the poor old tortoise, all of the graves were located just outside of his favourite cottage, the one that Rachel lives in presently. Needless to say, he moved away and withdrew into his shell, spending all of his remaining time dozing fitfully behind his desk and behind the protective wing of his helpful pelican. We all believe that Nook planted those graves in that area, thinking that the old tortoise would get the mortgage payed faster in order to leave the house from Hell and move to a place more fitting for an elderly animal, some place less disturbing. Nobody really knows Nook’s true intentions…
As the rain pelts down the windows and the wind roars despairingly throughout the decaying trees, one by one, the animals step tentatively from their warm, safe havens. Smiling unfalteringly as their doors chimed cheerfully closed — to them, it may well have been a death rattle, but their dopey expressions would never say otherwise — they stood to dull attention, heads bobbing, paws swinging, hooves tapping and eyes blinking.
After five full minutes of stone-dead silence, the raccoon would slip out of his hiding place and slither to the centre of town, where even the old tortoise mayor was saluting his very presence. He stole his way through the sombrely-lit village easily, as if he had been disguised into a twin of the pitch black night. As if he were born to darkness. In fact, many animals were under the secret impression that Tom Nook was actually a human man wearing the skin of a butchered raccoon, all for his evildoings; and they weren’t far from the truth…
Putting a megaphone to his furry, spittle-clotted lips, he bubbled with unintelligible joy as he asked, in his squeaky, garbling, blood-thirsty, hurried voice, for the pre-selected villagers to step forward. These, he had chosen last night, over the champagne and caviar he could afford from the many players he had hounded day after day for mortgages.
Thus, they shuffled closer into the intimate circle formed around the town’s camphor tree. They knew what was happening. They knew it from the second the clock struck 3:59 am. But there was nothing anybody could do. Even the ancient mayor was utterly powerless against the will of a sadistic creature!
Marched to the patches of earth indicated by Nook, through the trees, past the museum, and by a small cottage surrounded by an orchard, they were stopped suddenly. A minute of silence passed; a prayer for the damned, a prayer for the lucky, and ultimately, a prayer for the forest god… And when those sixty seconds had passed a whistle was blown and a stop watch button pressed into action.
Shovels were taken out of the three animals’ pockets — they knew what to do, for they had seen it a dozen times before now; seen their friends pass in and out of life like useless leaves — and they tore into the earth, digging their own graves. Puffing and panting, the sweat running down their paling faces, the three critters closed their eyes as they plunged into the great gaping holes. Thankfully, one of them was unconscious due to their skull connecting heavily with the hard ground. She didn’t have to watch as the pellets of soil came raining down on her broken body… Slowly, slowly… But the other two weren’t so lucky. By 4:42 they were all as dead as dodos. Of course, this only occurs at 4am… At no other time could such insanity ensue.