As I’ve struggled with falling asleep at night, I’ve returned to one of the games I used to soothe my anxiety during the peak of the pandemic: Animal Crossing. I bought a digital version of the game at some point last year, to ease the disruption I felt during the cold winter evenings when I was forced to leave my cocoon of blankets in order to change the cartridge in my Switch, and then wound up not playing it much more than I had previously. It turns out that even removing the one incredibly minor inconvenience preventing me from playing the game wasn’t enough to get me back into it in a dependable manner. This time, though, I swore it would be different. This time, I needed the calm music and friendly NPCs to soothe my spiraling mind.
When I booted up the game, as I clicked through the tips on the loading screen and the Isabelle’s daily announcements, I tried to remember how long it had been since I last played. If I’d been using my original Switch, I might have been able to figure it out, but I had transferred everything to the new model I was using and some bits of data had been lost along the way. I wracked my brain, trying to remember, and could not. All I knew, as the game finally finished loading, was that it had been long enough for my character’s hair to be mussed up and for a small cohort of cockroaches to have invaded my home. Even my character’s mail was no help, since I only got one notice for bank interest and home décor rating, each, since the game doesn’t want to bombard people with repetitious mail when they arrive.
As I wandered the island, digging up fossils, removing rocks, and picking weeds from between my carefully arranged flower breeding zones, I ran into my first Islander who knew exactly how long I had been gone. They greeted me with a cheer when I spoke to them and then asked if they had done something to upset me as it had been eight months since we last spoke. The conversation ended quickly, with the Islander supplying all the dialogue as my character unblinkingly swayed along to the music, and then we carried on as if nothing had changed, as if no time had passed.
It took a couple nights of work, at about half an hour a night, to clear the island of weeds, fix up the flower beds, and set everything to right. Unfortunately, since I have been playing late at night, there are still two of my islanders that I haven’t spoken to yet. Who I probably didn’t even speak to during my last spurt of playtime, either, which had ended a six month absence. As I played, frequently walking past their houses to see the light on over their front door that showed they’re sleeping, I found myself wondering what they must be thinking as they wander through their days between my late-night sessions. They can see that I’m active, as the island is cleaned every day and flowers get rearranged, but they never run into me.
I’ll admit I’m a bit scared to find out how long it has been, at this point, so I’m not trying very hard to close the distance between us. I’ve been telling myself I should play during the day or the early evening at some point, but it hasn’t happened yet. There’s other stuff to be do and all my favorite Islanders are usually still awake when I play, after all. I like one of these two enough to attempt to keep them on my island if they ever said they might move away, but not enough to change my habits now that I never seem to see them. Instead, I imagine a world in which they move and act when I’m not around and try to figure out if they can read the meaning in the way that I’ve arranged flowers around their houses.
Ultimately, this is a fairly low-stakes issue. I can always change the time on my Switch, so that I can do stuff like go shopping or visit my unseen Islanders without needing to change my habits. I could just carry on as I am and let these two move away from the island, hopefully replacing them with Islanders whose schedule more closely matches my own. I could also just stop playing the game again and kick the can another half a year or so down the line, since I’ve apparently done that twice already. Anything and everything is an acceptable solution to this issue and, after the month I’ve had, I’m glad this is the only thing actively weighing on my mind right now.