Welcome to the Character Column! Each week, I’ll be taking a look at a different character from Nintendo’s long and esteemed history, and I’ll analyze what makes them interesting, nuanced, or just plain memorable. Whether they’re heroes, villains or NPCs, I’ll explain why they deserve respect or love from the fanbase and a place in video game history.
Last week, I covered Ganondorf, the King of Evil, who I thought was a pretty menacing guy. But the Nintendo multiverse holds even more sinister sorts – and today, we may be talking about the most devious and crooked individual of all: Tom Nook.
Okay, in all seriousness, why does Tom Nook get such a bad rep? Whenever I see people talk about him either in person or online, they seem to think he’s the most wicked and twisted individual that has ever graced a television screen. I usually think of these things as a joke, and share the sentiment a little bit – but we have to ask why people view poor Mr. Nook in such a fashion. And so, I began my search.
Now, I must confess something: I’m not the biggest Animal Crossing fan. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played all the games to some extent, and I absolutely adored the original GameCube title back when I was seven or eight. But I haven’t sunk hundreds upon hundreds of hours into it, and thus I found myself unfamiliar with some of Tom’s more intricate character qualities. But upon doing some research, I’ve found some interesting findings, ones that will hopefully shine a light upon the tanuki’s true nature.
But first, let’s examine why so many people view him with such ill contempt.
New life, new times
Every Animal Crossing game (with the exception of New Leaf, which changes up the initial narrative a bit) starts with a young, fresh-faced, occasionally horn-helmeted villager moving to a new town… only to have some raccoon shopkeeper in an apron immediately saddle him/her with massive debt. Tom Nook may not be the first villager you see, or even interact with, but he’s the one with the most immediate impact – selling you a house and forcing you into slavery – er, unpaid part-time work at his shop. And even when you finish your labors, you’re thousands of bells in debt! Not to mention, the whole time, he’s giving you that flippant attitude, regarding you as just another cog in the industrial machine! What a jerk!
In a game without any real conflict or struggle, Tom Nook provides the only real antagonistic force; namely, the inevitable and crushing weight of debt upon one’s wallet. Picture yourself in the villager’s situation: moving to a new place, unsure of who or what you’ll encounter… only to be stricken with a massive mortgage without even the chance to say no. While an unlikely situation in real life, it’s remarkable how… adult the issue of Nook’s loan is. Financial worries are a very real world issue, and it’s something that kids aren’t familiar with, necessarily. As a result, many booting up their copies of AC for the first time understand something very basic – “This guy is taking my money. But it’s mine! I fished ten sea bass and heard stupid puns and sold them to him, and now he’s just taking it right back!” Adults, in turn, make the familiarity a part of their resentment. They would instead view Nook as their landlord, or loan shark, that one source of financial stress in their lives. Not to mention, whenever you do pay off your loan, Mr. Nook forcefully upgrades your house and charges you more! Well, except in New Leaf, where he’s a bit kinder… but that hardly makes up for three games of cunning. Thus, Nook’s shrewd business practices are seen as villainous to both younger and older generations.
I’ve seen Tom Nook described in various unkind terms over the years. A money sucker, a demagogue, a corporate fat cat (which is quite silly – he’s a tanuki). And under such a lens, it’s easy to see why. But let’s consider it from another perspective: namely, where would you be without him?
Tom Nook is giving you – a child, with no work or world experience – a home. Disregarding whatever reasons the villager has to move to town in the first place, he’s providing you shelter and a place to stay. True, he’s charging you money for it, but that’s the way the world works. Houses cost money, plain and simple. And Nook doesn’t have deadlines for payments or anything like that – you could theoretically live the rest of your village life without worrying about paying off the debt. That’s incredibly nice! He’s taking a big risk with that loan – and also in giving work to an unproven kid. (Is child labor legal in the Animal Crossing world?) Not a single person in the real world would let you do that – that’s why interest exists. But Nook doesn’t do that. If his attitude towards the player were a bit kinder, then perhaps people would like and understand him more as a character, hm?
But even taking that into account, Nook is a pretty cheeky fellow. He’s a bit of a softie on the inside (as seen in New Leaf, where he’s occasionally buying drinks for townsfolk at The Roost), but he’s still clearly focused on making money and expanding his business, especially since the player seems to be the only monetary force besides him in the capitalist economy. While it’s a bit natural to distrust those with a lot of money and power, especially one as occasionally callous as Nook, we have to ask: What made him this way?
When I set about writing this article, I didn’t realize there was an answer.
The tanuki’s past
Sometimes, in Animal Crossing: Wild World, Tom Nook will tell you a story when you talk to him. The tale is transcribed below:
“…Well, actually, I was just thinking about the good old days, hm?
I know it seems that the world is my oyster, what with my fine shop…
But in my childhood, I lived the kind of life you couldn’t even imagine!
Yes, yes, but this was all some time ago, before I moved to this town, hm?
Of course, I was born in our lovely [Town], but I moved away for a time…
Yes, yes, the city years, I like to call them. I was a raccoon of action, hm?
The big city certainly had its charms…but it had its pitfalls, as well.
Indeed, I had to endure certain hardships that I’ve never spoken of, hm?
…Hard to believe, yes?
You’re probably asking yourself, what the heck is Nook talking about, hm?
For now, [Villager], maybe it’s best that we forget we ever talked about this.”
As with last week, a great deal of backstory is revealed in one single monologue: vague details, for sure, but let’s put up the magnifying lens. Nook was born in the player’s town, and at one point in his life moved to the big city. There, he encountered hardships of some sort that seem to still be taking a toll on him to this day. But we don’t know the specifics; it’s hard to make out exactly what changed in his life, how he was before and after his escapades away from the village. But where can we find the answers?
The answers lie with the village’s most reticent individual: Sable, of the Able Sisters. Initially chilly, she warms up to you the more you talk to her, eventually opening up about her childhood and past. While certain parts of her backstory are legitimately sorrowful, most of it doesn’t concern our raccoon-dog businessman. Talk to her in the month of January, however, and she’ll spin her own story. Forgive its long windedness, for it’s a roller coaster:
“Well, the first letter I got from him arrived at just around this time of year… The other day, before bed, I pulled that letter out… and just looked at it. Tee hee! It was adorable! Sure, the handwriting was a little messy, but… You could hear his determination in every word of that letter… Sweet, young Tom Nook… His call to arms, his ethos, was ‘Dreams before money!’ He was so pure that people wondered if he’d survive this crazy old world. I did too. Every night before falling asleep, I would wish him… ‘Please keep Tom Nook’s pure spirit protected,” I’d whisper in the darkness. “Keep him safe from the apathy that breeds in the alleys of the big city…’
I don’t know why I’ve told you so much about Tom Nook and I… All those memories of our shared youth must bore you. Please forgive me.”
The player can then ask her to tell more:
“…Ohh, OK, if you insist!
The Tom Nook that left for the big city… He sent me letters quite frequently, actually. One day, I received a wooden box, not a letter. When I opened it, I was quite astonished!”
Player: [A ring?!]
“Oh goodness, no! Are you kidding?! [Player], I think you’ve been watching too many made-for-TV movies! …Ohh, I’m so sorry. Heh, I didn’t mean to snap. That just took me off guard.
No, inside the box, there was a pair of fancy, burnt-orange colored… scissors. Incredibly strong and sharp scissors! The finest scissors I’d ever laid eyes on. The enclosed letter said, “Happy birthday, Sable!” So… sweet… At the time, I was so busy that I’d even forgotten it was my birthday. To think Tom Nook had remembered it… I’m sure life was hard for Tom Nook in the city during that time… I know his job paid poorly, so for him to buy those scissors for me… When I think about it, it makes me so happy that I cry!”
Talking to her again:
“Oh really, [Player]… You want to hear my memories again? I’m warning you, not all my memories are fond ones you know…”
“Well, we shared a lot of good times, Tom Nook and I. Before there was an observatory in dear old [Town]… We used to climb up the roof when we wanted to look at the stars… Ohh, yes! We even made constellations together, I remember! I made one called the “Star Shirt.” Tom Nook’s looked like one of those old-time markets. He called it… ‘The Farmer’s Market Bargain Bin Constellation.’ Ohh that takes me back…”
Player: [Nice story]
“Yes, it is… Shortly after that, Tom Nook moved to the big city… Yes, he left to chase his dreams… When he returned to [Town], he came back a totally different soul… I still believe that… if he had just clung to those sweet memories like I do… he would have shaken off the heartsickness of those city years… Memories can be sad, but they can also save you…”
The first time I read this transcript, I was left speechless.
Tom Nook, the same cruel, maligned, greedy individual we had all come to regard as a villain, was once a person. One with ideals, dreams – love. And something happened to him – unspeakable, unknowable – that turned him into the glib and jaded tanuki we know him as today. And even now, he’s not completely a villain. Animal Crossing games may not be narrative heavy, but this bit of backstory is immensely revealing. It’s hard to attribute exact qualities and arcs to the characters, but I want to believe – somewhere, deep down, Tom Nook is still trying to do what he thinks is right. Not just for him, but for the town, and for you.
And in the end, you don’t always need to have a bad guy in a story.
And with that…
I’d like to thank you for reading this week’s edition of the Character Column! Tune in next week, where we’ll be talking about the one, the only, the legendary Captain Douglas Jay Falcon, bounty hunter and racer extraordinaire. Until then!