By Max Smith
Before I purchased “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” I knew only two things of Nintendo’s iconic series. First, the game was cute. Second, Tom Nook was a capitalist tanuki hell-bent on keeping me in debt for the remainder of my years. As it turns out, only one of those thoughts was true — contrary to what I’d thought, the game was incredibly cute.
For those who have yet to travel with Dodo Airlines and begin a new life on an island of their own, allow me to explain the basic premises behind “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” The player wins a “Deserted Island Getaway Package” from Nook Inc., a corporation run by the infamous raccoon-dog Tom Nook. The player is immediately whisked away to a randomly generated island alongside two “villagers,” or the animal-people that populate the island. On arrival, the player names the island, crafts some basic supplies, and with some help from Tom Nook (read: substantial loans), they begin to build up the island’s community. For example, I named my island Litehollow, a reference to a city I’d created in a recent “Dungeons and Dragons” campaign. I was joined on my island by Antonio and Fuchsia— a gym-obsessed anteater and a pink deer, respectively. Perhaps the most surprising feature for a new player is the real-time game clock. There exists no “skip-the-night” ability like sleeping in a bed in “Minecraft” — the time in the real world is the time on your island. At first, I found this feature to be annoying (especially when it was late in the night and I had several items to sell at Nook’s Cranny) but I came to appreciate the slow pace at which it forced me to play.
Eventually, more shops open, other villagers come to the island, and a travelling Jack Russell terrier who plays bubblegum pop on his guitar throws a concert. (Yes, really.) Otherwise, there is not much else to the game. There’s no endgame boss, no final trophy to win, no bigger islands and no new worlds. It’s the player, the villagers, and the eternally cheerful Tom Nook. As there wasn’t a clear progression system, the game was a way to escape from whatever I was doing in the real world. When I wanted to procrastinate reading for class, I could instead catch fish for Blathers, the old owl who curates the island museum.
There is a desirable illusion of productivity the game provides. Due to the lack of combat, open-world exploration, or meaningful storyline, the game relies on mechanics that harken back to games such as “Minecraft” or “Terraria,” wherein the player must find materials in order to craft items for their dwelling. There are five types of fruit to harvest, dozens of flowers to collect and crossbreed, over 100 types of bugs, fish and fossils to discover, and a nearly infinite number of ways to customize available items. Because of the sheer quantity of collectibles, I always felt like I was doing something meaningful, whether it be finding a new fish or making a hybrid flower.
The economy of the game is fairly simple — nearly anything I find, I can sell in Nook’s Cranny to Timmy and Tommy Nook (a pair of twin tanukis) in exchange for Bells, the currency in “Animal Crossing.” I could then use those Bells to acquire new items, invest in infrastructure for the town, or pay back my loans to Tom Nook, which had somehow reached into the hundreds of thousands within only a few days. There is even a quasi-stock market in the game, affectionately deemed the “stalk market.” On Sundays, you can buy turnips at a random price from Daisy Mae in the town square, and sell them to Timmy and Tommy during the week. Every day, the pair changes their price for the turnips, allowing players to earn hundreds upon thousands of Bells if they play their cards right — but caveat emptor, because the turnips will rot after one week, so you only have six days to make your move.
Between the stalk market and the quests for flowers and fish, the game offered itself as a world where I could have fun and feel productive at the same time. I would log on early in the morning and play throughout the day, checking in with my villagers or picking weeds on my island to make it seem a little nicer. The escapism was my favorite part of the game.
However, the more I played through, the more I felt this strange sense of extant solitude. I was never actually alone in Litehollow, but the colorful populous and occasional unconscious seagull-sailor washing up on my shore didn’t quite fulfill a sense of real community. In a time defined by social distancing and the importance of isolation, the solitary nature of the game clashed with my desire for an escape. There’s an online play feature available, but with the lack of any real “game,” playing online consists mostly of visiting and viewing each other’s islands. Many of my friends and much of the online community purchased the game in an effort to find some reprieve from their daily stresses and distract from the COVID-19 pandemic. At first, I fully bought into this mindset — planting fruit trees and making flower crowns seemed to be the perfect way to relax. Yet, no matter how many activities I did to destress, I was still alone when I did them. The solitude began to wear on my experience. What was I supposed to do? Continue to try and fill my island with colorful flowers? Shake trees and catch bugs until my net inevitably breaks? Quest long and hard for the one perfect villager that has yet to make an appearance in my campsite? (Sherb, if you’re out there…) The other villagers didn’t help out on the island other than randomly watering flowers; anything that happened in Litehollow happened only because I acted as the catalyst. The inaction of the villagers augmented that lonely solitude. Eventually, the initial feeling of escapist productivity faded into a dull sense of monotonous obligation.
The game felt futile. I had owned it for a little over two weeks, and felt that sense of solitude stronger than ever. One day, I reluctantly logged on to obtain my daily Nook MilesTM bonus, and begrudgingly decided to catch some rare fish off the pier to bring down my debt with Tom Nook quickly. Upon my arrival, I saw Henry (one of my villagers: a small, smug and well-dressed frog) huffing and puffing angrily on the shore. I interacted with Henry as often as I could, but never really thought about him too much; he was just another villager in Litehollow. I stowed away my fishing rod and went to talk with him.
Henry confided in me that he was thinking about leaving Litehollow, and my jaw dropped to the floor.
I frantically pressed the dialogue option requesting that he reconsider and stay. Thankfully, he agreed. As he cheerfully wandered off, I was left standing on the shores both shocked and confused. The longer I stood there, the more surprised I became. I was surprised not at Henry’s desire to leave Litehollow, but at my own dismay that he might. I didn’t realize how attached I had become to that snooty frog, and furthermore, how I had become attached to all of my island residents. I realized I would deeply miss Antonio’s comments on his gym routine or Wendy’s strict fashion advice if either of them left. I realized the solitude I felt was not because the activities were repetitive or that the villagers were inactive. Rather, I had failed to buy into the basic premise of the game.
My mindset was all wrong, and it had been wrong since I first downloaded the game. I missed the whole point of the real-time feature, the whole point of the hundreds of items and villagers, and even the whole point of the immense debt: the opportunity to just be. The game is not meant to be sped through, and there are no grand storylines or insanely thrilling moments. I wasn’t supposed to feel productive when I picked fruits or sold my turnips. I wasn’t supposed to fill up my museum as fast as possible or upgrade my house as quickly as I could. The game wasn’t about doing — it was about being.
My conversation with Henry opened my eyes to what I really enjoyed about the game. The world was filled with little details and tiny moments that could only be noticed if one stops and just exists. After it rains, there are miniscule drops of water that come off the edge of flowers. The two dodo birds that fly players to other islands are named Wilbur and Orville, after the Wright brothers who championed the first modern aircraft. Antonio and the other jocks will sip coffee in the town square in the morning, while Fuchsia and Rhonda might wander the museum together. Fish will dart back into the water if one runs too quickly next to them. When a friend visits another’s island, the plane leaves a small trail in the sky that is visible if the player looks up. On their own, these details along with hundreds of others create an entire universe that exists at your fingertips, and none of it requires that you actually do anything. I needed to believe that I was on my island, not to achieve some inevitable end, but to create a fun community with my fellow islanders. Whether creating that sense of community was through planting beautiful flowers or installing new buildings, I was doing things for the simple reason that I would be there to enjoy them. Even though I might still be alone on the island, I was able to make peace with the isolation through appreciating the actively passive universe. In the words of Thoreau, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
I would like to wrap up this reflection by talking about the museum. The museum is noticeably different from the rest of the island. It is a multitude of rooms that house all the fish, bugs, and fossils that the player has donated, all of which are beautifully displayed in intricate cases and enclosures. The fish swim around in huge tanks, and the butterflies float in a warm, sun-lit atrium around a gushing fountain. The fossils are located downstairs in a series of darkened rooms that emphasize the grandeur of the creatures. All the while, a quiet, steady and noticeably academic-sounding tune drifts gently in the background, much slower and softer than the normal music of the game. The museum is unique to other establishments in “New Horizons.” The player can’t purchase anything or receive special rewards. There aren’t any trees to chop or fruits to pick, no drunken seagulls to collect cell phone parts for, no tanukis forcing anyone into debt, no rivers to cross, no cliffs to climb, no items to craft or weeds to pick. There’s nothing to do, because it’s only a place to be — and it’s the best damn part of the entire game.
Contact Max Smith at maxsmith ‘at’ stanford.edu.