We are in an age fraught with dysfunctional politics, pessimism about climate change, and an overall increasing sense of cynicism about our futures. It’s easy to feel fatigued by it all.
This desire to escape reality is perhaps why we’ve seen a rise in life simulation content. I’m talking about video games like pandemic-era sweetheart Animal Crossing: New Horizons that have you maintaining farms, decorating your home, completing tasks for your neighbors, and even paying off loans. Similarly, in the last decade, shows like Terrace House, Rilakkuma and Kaoru, and most recently, Pokémon Concierge have taken off. All this content centers around the slowest, most mundane tasks of our lives, and yet, it is so much fun to consume.
Japan has long embraced this aesthetic with cutesy sim games like the once-viral mobile game Neko Atsume or the original farm simulation game Harvest Moon, and arguably in their classical culture as well, with Zen poets like Basho and Issa writing haiku of pleasant and transient moments.
But lately, it seems the entire world is onboard with quiet life sim content. Stardew Valley, with its laid-back atmosphere and farm-based gameplay, has sold more than 20 million copies. In fact, the video game distributor Steam recently had a sale called the “Capitalism and Economy Fest” with games featuring winemaking, running taverns, and building transportation infrastructure.
So why are we so happy to consume content about work…after work?
To answer that question, just look at the life sim genre’s most recent addition: Pokémon Concierge. In Pokémon Concierge, Haru, an exhausted office worker, has been broken up with by her longtime boyfriend through text, failed at several work assignments, and worst of all, has had her work bestie quit the company. Saddled with all these misfortunes, Haru takes on a job as the concierge of the Pokémon resort, where she eventually learns what it means to really enjoy herself.
While this show could simply be written off as nostalgia bait for Millennials, there’s something in Pokémon Concierge that speaks to the contemporary psyche. See, life sims transport us to a world deeply similar to ours, but with one important caveat: everything in life sims feels consistent, safe, and fair. In this dumpster fire of a world, bombarded by news of things we can't control, we crave any semblance of normalcy. We hope that, if we just do the things we can, like our routines and our jobs, the world will respond in kind. Obviously in reality, life can be endlessly frustrating.
But in life sim content, good things are practically guaranteed to happen. Unpredictability is kept to a minimum and always results in happy little accidents. The daily minutiae we consider a drag, like washing dishes or doing laundry, instead imbue us with a sense of progress. (In Stardew Valley, if you keep giving the same gift to somebody over and over again, they fall in love with you without question. If only it was that easy.) Life sim content massages our primordial lizard brains: if I do good thing, good thing happen. Repeat until feel safe.
You can call life sim content escapism, but I would argue it’s the opposite. Life sims help us live out the sanest fantasy out there: what would our regular lives be like if the world wasn’t on fire? If the news didn’t feel so catastrophic and harrowing? Or on a smaller scale, what if we didn’t have to deal with workplace politics? Unnecessary hierarchies? Rent, gas, electricity, and all the overhead costs that allow us the bare minimum of existing?
These are big questions, and these are the ways Pokemon Concierge earnestly attempts to answer them:
1. The Animation
When you first start watching, it’s difficult not to notice how everything in the show looks just like the toys you played with as a child. Human characters like Haru and her colleagues Alisa and Tyler are made of plastic and clay, complete with plastic joints. Felty, wooly Furrets freely roam the resort. Magikarps made of creased foam, like stress balls, swim gingerly in resin-like water.
To have Pokémon appear in the same form as our childhood toys brings us a sense of deep comfort, transporting us back to a world of boundless imagination and safety. Pokémon Concierge gives you the feeling you had creating dioramas for elementary school projects: anything could happen, yet you know nothing bad ever would. The Pokémon resort just feels safe in a way reality doesn’t.
2. The Community
Life sim content also helps you reimagine your communities, especially the ones at work. If you’re a Millennial drained by work politics, you’ll find the tight-knit and familial vibe of the resort’s community refreshing. Notions of promotion, pay, or hierarchy don’t exist here. Haru, in a moment of self-consciousness, tells Alisa, “You outrank me,” to which Alisa responds nonchalantly, “That doesn’t matter.” Everyone is happy to be on equal footing.
As for work, forget the presentations, KPIs, scrums, and development cycles. In its place? Simple tasks like cleaning, cooking, and helping the resort guests solve problems, none of which appear menial to the staff. Haru enjoys her work, like helping her lonely Psyduck control its psychic powers, because her job is to help everyone be happy, plain and simple.
That’s not to say there aren’t conflicts in the show. In the second episode, Alisa spends an afternoon painstakingly painting the side of a tent, only to have a Pidgeot fly into the tent and completely destroy it. If my work for the afternoon was destroyed in a matter of seconds by a reckless Pokémon, you bet we’d be eating roasted Pidgeot that night. Instead of fury, however, Alisa responds with a simple c’est la vie attitude and asks that Pidgeot play somewhere else with more space. Conflicts are settled by gentle rebuke and a hug, because the resort recognizes that mistakes are less about poor moral character and more about the inherent imperfection of life—in part because no mistake is ever severe in the first place.
In life sims, we’re still solving problems like we do in reality. Yet the stakes are low, the rewards are plentiful, and one finds themselves accepted, mistakes and all.
3. The Protagonist
It takes Haru some time, however, to fully buy into her new life. Like many of us, Haru is stuck in her old corporate ways—she thinks Ms. Watanabe, the resort’s manager, is testing her when asked to enjoy the resort as a guest for her first official task. The next morning, she apologizes profusely to Ms. Watanabe for being too relaxed. Clearly, she’s a person more concerned about “shoulds” than “wants.”
In the real world, this is acceptable, sometimes even appropriate behavior. We do what we should and pick up the pace when needed. But sometimes, the required disconnect between ourselves and our work can take such an emotional toll that we need to recalibrate and ask, as Haru does, “What is the point of my life?”
By the end, Haru just might have an answer. In the final episode, after failing to solve a particularly tricky problem for Nao, a visitor at the resort, Haru tells him about her experience as a concierge, believing she had to act perfectly as an adult at all times. “But when you think like that, it’s just so easy to get stuck,” she admits. This idea is what makes life sims so pleasant and rewarding. You experience the same daily tasks of life maintenance but purely as yourself. Suddenly, these tasks don’t seem difficult anymore, even when we mess up, because we’ve remembered that when it’s not done for survival, we actually like to work for ourselves.
Ultimately, life sims restore a sense of normalcy and safety to us. We get to indulge in a Bob Ross-ified version of our lives, completing tasks that assuage the anxieties and complications of adulthood, living out a life as safe as a child’s playset. Life sims are deeply unrealistic—and that’s okay. In a sometimes insane world filled with never-ending catastrophes, indulging in a show like Pokémon Concierge might be all you need.
Published on January 25, 2024
Words by Kelvin Mak
K.K. Mai is a writer and high school English teacher residing in California's Bay Area. When he's not furiously planning for the next day's lessons, he often finds himself stuck in Wikipedia rabbit holes, wandering around his neighborhood at night, and neurotically cycling through his memories before he sleeps. Sometimes he writes, too. Follow him on Substack or on Twitter at @radishgalaxy.