It’s tempting to say – and not excessively melodramatic to do so – that Animal Crossing: New Horizons might be the only good thing to have happened to humanity at any point in 2020 so far.
Remember when the evening news was merely endless footage of koalas burning to death? How was that horror show actually better vibes than what’s happening now? And yet it’s into this hellscape that Nintendo released its fifth Animal Crossing game – the first new title in the main series since 2012 – on March 20, 2020.
In Europe, Italy had been locked down for 11 days, since the 9th. Spain since the 15th. France the 17th, then, three days after the game was available to buy, the UK finally did the same. By April 12, all of America had shut its doors, to varying degrees. As had Japan. South Korea. Canada. Australia. New Zealand. India.
It sounds crass to say out loud, but the timing of Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ release couldn’t have been more in sync with what many in the world needed.
Consider the top Twitter trends of March 20. COVID-19 was there; I believe “plague” and “end of the world” were too. There was an uncomfortable balancing act taking place between being terrified and trying to laugh reality away. But, as players started to log into the newly released game and looked for fruit – fruit! – to pick in-game, the rest of Twitter’s trending topics sidebar read like a shopping list for the corner shop we were now only allowed to visit once a day: “oranges”, “pears”, “apples”.
For the astute gamer who’d lived with the creeping dread of what COVID-19 might mean for us, some months before our lockdowns, it was clear that we really needed something that wasn’t COVID-19. Release day felt like an explosion of joy. Remember joy?
If you’re new to the Animal Crossing series or if you haven’t picked up a game in some time – and the complete absence of any Nintendo Switch consoles for sale, for which the game is an exclusive, suggest that’s true for many people right now – you should know that the game doesn’t follow the standard video game formula in any way.
There are no boss fights. No stressful tasks to fulfil against the clock. There is no grind. No obligations placed upon you whatsoever. Sure, loosely speaking you’re supposed to build a house – entering into a mortgage agreement with anthropomorphic Japanese racoon-dogs (that would be ‘tanuki’) and shop-keeping, series-stalwart Tom Nook – and make it look really nice. And you’re given the opportunity to go fishing, pick fruit, chop wood or engage in many more activities to generate resources for you to do so. But if you don’t, that’s totally fine too. No seriously! Grab yourself a drink! No, I’ll do it, you just sit yourself down! Put your feet up, even.
The Sims is just a year older than the Animal Crossing series, having come into the world on February 4, 2000, but whereas that series embraced the drama of modern life – then sped it up and asked you to maintain order in the name of competition – Animal Crossing did anything but.
Where The Sims reached for, then accentuated the trials and tribulations of adulthood, it’s tempting to view Animal Crossing as akin to what, as children, we thought life might be like when we grew up. Not that we – and we can only speak for ourselves – were unhinged enough to think we’d grow up to live on a tropical island surrounded by anthropomorphic animals. But for most of us, if we were lucky, our childhoods were pleasant and simple, and we presumed our adulthoods would continue to be.
I’m sure there are other scenarios that video game fans have drifted into during lockdown – I’m deep into trying to tick off every side mission within 2019’s astonishing sci-fi adventure Control. I’ve been trying to get to grips with the indie survival game The Long Dark. FIFA 20 gets its usual look in. And the increased presence of my partner at home means that Mario Kart has already become a lunchtime tradition.
But it’s that pleasantness innate in Animal Crossing: New Horizons which I think has hooked players in by the droves at this juncture. In the US, sales data reveals that New Horizons’ sales haven’t just exceeded that of every other Animal Crossing game to date, but have done so for any Mario or Zelda game too. That’s the sort of media phenomenon that only exists when a release intersects with a real-world event.
For many of us, when – if – when we get through this, it’s nice to think that as well as scrambling around for information about what it means to be furloughed, waiting for the daily government briefing and having truly bizarre night terrors (if we can even sleep), then we’ll always associate these times with a miniature depiction of ourselves shaking a palm tree.
I don’t think it’s at all fanciful to think that, much like the generations who lived through World War II speak of the songs of Dame Vera Lynn being a light in the dark throughout difficult times, there’s a generation that will talk of Animal Crossing’s resident bard K.K. Slider in the same way. And yet the impact that Animal Crossing is having on locked-down players right now can be viewed in much more tangible terms.
Many people talk of COVID-19 having vacuumed control from their lives. These are unprecedented times. There’s no rule book, no real historical precedent. It’s easy to let this new hopelessness overwhelm you. Thankfully, New Horizons allows you to define your own goals within your alternative life and keep yourself grounded within your real one. You might think, “Today I will tend my lawn” or “I will dig up these turnips and sell them to Tom Nook for a tidy profit at the shop”. And you might do nothing in your real one. But that’s fine. These are times of great trauma. Live your life however you need.
As anyone who’s ever endured extreme anxiety will tell you, the trick isn’t to run from fear, to let it overwhelm you, to reinforce it by resisting, but make small, meaningful gestures that keep you present. Animal Crossing is a game built upon a bedrock of small but meaningful gestures.
Tonally, the appeal of the game at a time like right now is clear. But with the addition of an application like Discord, with which you can talk to others in-game, it means social distancing is no longer an issue. Collaboration is encouraged; different resources can be found in different locations and only in those places, so setting up trades is crucial to creating the world you want to live in.
The game is also highly customisable. You can dress how you want. You can gender yourself how you want. And if you’ve built a home you’re proud of and no longer want to keep it to yourself? Well, get your mates ’round! All of a sudden the appeal of the pub – remember them? – is somewhat diminished. Who wants to go drinking when you’ve been invited to go midnight fossil hunting by the sea!
And, are you finding the boundaries of each day drifting into one another? Thrown away your calendar or desk diary in a fit of despair? What day is it? Where is my beautiful house, etc? Well, one of the really neat things about Animal Crossing: New Horizons, like all the games in the series, is that it operates in real-time; it uses the Switch’s built-in calendar and clock. It’s a game you can pop in and out of, depending on what activity you’d like to complete at which time of the day. Again, this is grounding.
Also, different days field special holidays. ‘Bunny Day’ has just passed – it featured an egg hunt which allowed victors to craft exclusive clothes and furniture. Next month is ‘International Museum Day’, which sounds exciting. There’s something new to look forward to each day, which feels far too much like mid-February for my liking…
Last time the world shared a collective trauma, let’s say the wretched events of 9/11 – incidentally, the year the first Animal Crossing game debuted on the Nintendo 64 – the gonzo open-world violence of big hits like Grand Theft Auto 3 or the bulletstorm of Halo: Combat Evolved suggested escape was still hugely important to players.
You couldn’t say the same about ‘kindness’. We spent those uncertain times running around and shooting people in the head, not inviting digital renditions of our friends over to go sailboating with.
Perhaps the toll of this conflict has already taken more from us. It is, after all, one where the frontlines are assembling in the same towns and cities as us, not lining up on the other side of oceans. Whatever the reasons, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is certainly making the world inside our window feel a little nicer, even if the ugliness of the one outside it rages on.