For the last two months, Animal Crossing’s gentle version of agrarian economics has taken over our gaming consoles, and the internet at large. Sam Brooks looks back at the game that became a lockdown sensation.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out for the Nintendo Switch on March 20. In the two months since, I’ve never heard the word turnips so much. It feels like a new phenomenon, but in fact the Animal Crossing series has been around for nearly 20 years playing on variations of the same basic idea: You build a village, you make it better, and let anthropomorphic animals live on it. There’s no end to Animal Crossing, just consistent maintenance and improvement.
New Horizons takes the formula and perfects it; there’s more customisation, there are more villagers, and there’s now even terraforming, so you can play a wrathful architectural god in your own domain – albeit a god whose success is tied to his ability to pay off loans to a tanuki oligarch, via selling objects both useless and valuable to his two spoiled sons. Look, the lore of Animal Crossing is as storied and dense as The Luminaries, with far less pay off for investing in it. All you need to know is you need to/get to (as applicable, depending on how you feel about farm work) run your own island.
When I first started playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I wasn’t a fan. We were heading into a future where the only certainty was the overuse of the word “uncertain”, and I wanted something safe, something a bit mindless, to immerse myself in while the country drowned in crisis news. But Animal Crossing seemed to resist my preferred style of video game play: to play as much as possible, for as little time as possible. I’d rather play a game for 100 hours over five days than play those same 100 hours over a series of months. I like to treat my gaming experiences like one good meal: enjoyed as soon as it’s on the table and wolfed down, so I can begin the chats afterwards.
Animal Crossing instead demands to be played on a daily basis. You check in with your island, and your villagers, you clean up a weed here, break a rock there, and do your daily maintenance. It is, in fact, a little bit like living in a flat. You do your dishes every day, you make your bed every day. You know, adult things. It’s not that there isn’t a goal in sight or an overarching narrative. There is: to get a five star rating for your island so the popstar KK Slider (a dog with a guitar) will come and play. To translate into non-Animal Crossing terms, it’s as if the people of Hokitika tasked their mayor with making the town good enough so that Lorde would do a concert there. Also, if gold were turnips.
The pleasure of Animal Crossing is that it’s impossible to fail. No matter how badly you design your island, or how little effort you put into it, the people of the Animal Crossing universe will remain cheerful. Tom Nook gives no deadline for when his ever-increasing mortgages must be paid. Isabella, the Crosbie Wells to Nook’s Lydia Wells (I will keep this Luminaries analogy going as long as I can, promise), will continue to welcome you warmly to the island. No matter how shitty the world is outside, your village trundles along. In a world where going outside and socialising is fraught with danger, it’s tremendously calming to spend time in one where there’s no chance of messing up everything forever. For me, that’s the main appeal of Animal Crossing.
In fact, one of the most lauded elements of the game is the one that I’ve experimented with the least: visiting other players’ islands and letting them visit mine. I’ve done this exactly once, last week. I’m hesitant to let people visit my island in the same way that I’m hesitant to let people into my bedrooms. That’s where I do my sleeping! It’s not for you. Likewise, my island is where I decompress from the real world. It’s not for other people. But my dear friend Tom, who has not only been in my actual bedroom but helped me moved multiple bedrooms, invited me to his island. I had no reason to say no.
His island was immaculate; he had even set up a game show for us to play through. In my mind, Tom was winning at Animal Crossing, a game which has no win state. My island looked exactly as good as you’d expect given the scattered hour here or there I’d spent on it. His island looked like you had set Michelangelo upon a Nintendo Switch rather than the roof of the Sistine Chapel. There’s no lose state in the game, and technically no win state either, but if there was: Tom had achieved it. I had island envy.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons will be associated forevermore with Covid-19. For many people, it will act as a gateway to gaming – it’s sold over 13 million copies to date, which makes it one of the best-selling games of this generation. For others, it’s been a way to feign productivity and to create a stand-in for real-life social interaction. As one of the game’s localisation writers, Rob Heiret – he of the famous sea bass/C+ line – put it: “In the time of Covid-19, we don’t need to be gods, we just need agency. We need a comfortable bed where we can arrange the blankets JUST how we like them.”
Heiret’s tweet made realise that while Animal Crossing isn’t a game you can win, it’s a game where winning is what you need it to be. For me, it’s a game to play for an hour or so a day, to pick up some trash and clean up generally, and maybe add one new island-improving thing – a ramp here, a house there. One day, KK Slider will come to my island, but it won’t be any time soon.
For others, Animal Crossing gives players some semblance of control in a world that has taken away agency, control and freedom with terrifying ease. For all of us, it’s been a way to keep at bay the parts of the world we want to keep out, while holding onto the parts that keep us sane. That is, if you measure sanity by how much you get for turnips.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.