Retreading Familiar Ground in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The first and only Animal Crossing game I’ve ever played longer than a day (I borrowed one in college but didn’t have the time to do more than make a character) was the original one on the GameCube. That isn’t a result of a lack of willingness on my part so much as a result of my disconnect from buying new games during college (I think the only new game I got while I was in college was Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword) and my lack of free time as a post-college adult. I’ve always had something come up that make a time-intensive and daily play game like Animal Crossing prohibitive.

That, obviously, has changed recently since I’m limited to no overtime at work right now, don’t have anywhere to go, and have a much better grasp of my personal priorities and time management than ever before. Now, I will literally force myself to do something fun and calming for at least an hour a day. When my friends started posting about their excitement about Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I was reminded that the daily play the game requires is about an hour. Thanks to a few coincidental YouTube recommendations, I was reminded that the music in the games is incredibly relaxing. A few of the hour-long playlists I’ve added to my “environmental music” playlists for use while working or writing took me back to my teenage years, playing Animal Crossing in the basement.

With all that going on and a decent amount of personal spending money accumulated from my good habits reward system, I decided to buy the game. The pandemic currently unfolding made it a little difficult to obtain physically, but I managed to find a place that would sell me a copy without breaking social distancing while I was out buying groceries. Once I got home, finished, work, and booted up the game, it was like being brought back to a simpler time.

The graphics of the game have much improved since the early days. Playing an Animal Crossing game on the Switch makes it look just as good as my imagination made the game look in the past. Now, the fish and bugs look incredibly realistic, though without breaking the cartoon-y vibe of the Animal Crossing series. Tom Nook, the capitalist tanuki/raccoon, is still there, though his nephews seem to have taken over running the local shop while he concerns himself with running a business geared around installing people on desert islands via a charter service. The familiar “Welcome to your new home, by the way that’ll be way more money than you have on you so looks like you’re in debt to me” interaction was still there, though it seems much less dire and manipulative than it did in the GameCube game.

That being said, I don’t think it was ever as greedy as I felt it was back then. After all, he’s not reposing your home or even charging you interest. If you never pay him back, content to live in your small place as you go about the business of living life in whatever game you’re playing, he never once comes around for your hard-earned money. In this game, as you go to upgrade from living in a tent to living in a small home, he even comments that an interest free loan is quite generous. He seems way more comfortable and natural now, less a cartoonish business mogul and more of a grandfatherly supporter of your shared endeavor.

In this game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, that shared endeavor is moving to a deserted island and establishing a new town. Nook and his nephews handle the logistics, provide you with the tools you need to succeed, and you handle the day-to-day business of actually being a town. You provide materials to the Nook family to build a better business, turn your tent into a proper home, convince new people to come live on your island, and act as town representative, helping out strangers who need assistance and working to fill the island with interesting features, like a fully stocked museum and all the fruit anyone could want (which is where the real money is made in this game. Get non-native fruit early and get all of it if you can).

While this game hits all of the nostalgic moments I hoped it would, reminding me of the comfort I once took in a game about living life on your terms and making friends with the cute critters who passed through your town, it also brought me new comfort in a time when so much of life is in chaos. There’s a pandemic sweeping the world and as many interpretations of the data as there are opinions. Businesses are closing and the unemployment rate is already rising faster and further than anyone expected. Even my job, something I considered safe and secure is not so secure, dependent the willingness of coworkers I’ve never met to practice proper social distancing and stay home if they’re sick. All it takes is one person to mess up and the company will be forced to shut down until the worst of the pandemic has passed.

This game makes life seem so simple. It gives you easily obtainable goals, asks you to do as much as you’re willing to in a day, and rewards you for the work you put in. It is idyllic, if only because your input into the game equals your output. There’s no cruel fate to throw a wrench into all your carefully laid plans. No sudden pandemics that mean paying off your credit card is suddenly a bad idea because having that money around to pay bills if you are out of work is suddenly a priority. No massive debt that carries into your life simply because you were told you needed a college degree in order to make a living. No skyrocketing rent reflecting the shift of wealth from the people of the US to the “chosen few” who squirrel it away for… who knows what at the cost of the health of our society and the planet itself.

The worst thing you have to worry about in Animal Crossing: New Horizons is being stung by hornets or being bitten (or maybe just spooked? I had it happen to me, but I couldn’t see what happened thanks to being behind a tree at the time) by a tarantula.  Even those are mild inconveniences, fixed quickly by a rest or a bit of easily purchasable medicine (it costs the same amount as an apple and the store has an unlimited supply). There are no medical bills and no one needs to worry about insurance. It is truly an escapist fantasy.

You could argue that it is foolish to spend time living a virtual life instead of a real one, but the distinction between the two grows hazier every day. Most relationships now carry marker of whether or not they’re “Facebook Official” and half the people we interact with only exist to us in an online space. If it actually makes you happy instead of the shitty morass that is Facebook or the negative, toxic miasma that is Twitter at large, I’d say it’s a much better thing to have than a “real life.”

Definitely don’t stop taking showers, eating food, and talking to your Primary World friends, though. Just like you need to weed and care for your little town in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you also need to care for yourself. Keep yourself clean and make yourself interesting and inviting to other people. Turns out it’s a pretty good metaphor for taking care of yourself.

Anyway, this review got a lot more reflective and contemplative than I meant it to be, but that pretty much fits with the laid-back nature of the Animal Crossing series, so take this whole thing as a ringing endorsement. It’s just simple fun and you don’t need to play more than a little bit a day to keep up. Even if you miss a couple days, it isn’t a big deal. Just go have fun. Everyone knows we could all use a little bit more fun these days.

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