So you’re sitting at home all socially isolated because you’re a good citizen who listens to scientific and medical directives. You’ve already binged plenty of TV, caught up on all the Oscar winners, and read that book that’s been sitting on your shelf for the last couple years. What next?
Animal Crossing: New Horizons. That’s what.
In these uncertain times, when Twitter is filled with unsettlingly dark trending topics like #BoomerRemover and even the finest among us (Tom Hanks) has been proven not to be immune to disease, Nintendo’s adorable life simulator is, if not a cure, at least a means to relieve some of the symptoms we’re all feeling. It’s a little slice of life-as-usual, where we can go about a virtual daily routine in which we work, play, explore, and chat with friends and neighbours, never worrying about anything more stressful than a bug bite or a bit of rain.
It begins with your cute little cartoon character — customized however you see fit — being plopped onto an uninhabited island with a couple of other settlers. If you’re lucky enough to have other gamers in the house they can set up their own characters and join your island community, creating a welcome social vibe.
Of course, there’s also franchise regular Tom Nook, a sentient racoon businessman eager to capitalize on your venture to set up a home and community on the island. You’ll start with naught but a simple tent, but with Tom’s help you’ll soon learn how to begin making improvements and constructing an actual house. You’ll obtain crafting recipes for axes, fishing rods, shovels, and nets that will allow you to begin harvesting resources including wood, iron, fruit, and various creatures.
This will let you improve and expand your dwelling and complete an enormous variety of do-it-yourself projects at the workbench, from tables and chairs to ocarinas and umbrellas. Eventually you’ll begin helping others with their projects as well, which will lead to such things as an improved island shop and a surprisingly large and authentic museum to show off all of the fossils, bugs, and fish you find.
The game is set in real time, so it follows the same day/night cycle wherever you happen to live in the real world. This means you’ll want to play at different times of the day so that you can do things like observe shooting stars in the evening and catch diurnal creatures while the sun is up. However, it also introduces some artificial limitations that can sometimes prove a little frustrating. The store, for example, shutters at 10 p.m., limiting your business-related ventures.
More stuff to do comes available naturally each day as you complete tasks. I visited other islands, where I met more AI characters whom I invited to come settle on my little atoll. I began playing the turnip “stalk” market to make a little more money. I met a laid back professional photographer who provided his studio to me free of charge so that I could set up photo shoots with a variety of models and props.
Admittedly, some parts of the experience won’t be for everyone. My daughter is obsessed with creating the perfect home, decorating walls, displaying various items she’s crafted and collected, and rearranging furniture just so. I don’t really see the point in this. My home is much more utilitarian — kind of a box in which to store stuff until I need it. I’d be a little more interested in collecting and arranging items if more of them were interactive, but I don’t understand why I should want to buy and display a vacuum cleaner or plastic gas can. It feels like a symptom of consumer culture.
That said, the game does open the doors to some timely topics of discussion.
For example, I often find myself heading out to other islands simply to rob them of resources. I’ll strip mine the rocks, clear cut the forests, and pick every single flower, leaving the islet completely barren, just so that I can use these resources to further develop my own island. It’s just a game, of course, but I can’t ignore the real-world parallels and do feel some Lorax-esque guilt as I greedily chop down an island’s last standing tree just so I can build that simple wooden bed I’ve been meaning to make.
And while Tom is undeniably helpful, he’s also a bit of a cold-blooded capitalist. He’s not helping us set up our communities out of the goodness of his heart. Indeed, he has repeatedly sold me on upgrades that have left me hundreds of thousands of Bells (the island’s currency) in debt, failing to let me know beforehand just how big my loan will be.
Viewed in the right light, however, I see these as discussion starters. My kid and I have had unexpectedly meaty conversations about the lessons that might be learned from some of the stuff we’ve gotten up to in the game.
But the main takeaway here isn’t that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a jumping off point for serious discussions about our culture. It’s actually kind of the opposite. It’s a blissfully lighthearted and colourful game filled with charm, humour — I giggled aloud the first time I caught a black bass, described in-game as “the most metal of all fish” — and a much needed sense of normalcy that comes at a time when we could all use a little pick-me-up.
And if our current social isolation should stretch from days into weeks and months, I’m pretty sure there’ll still be plenty to do each day on my little friend-filled island.