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Animal Crossing: New Horizons – the video game where we can still be together | Games

I am scrolling idly through TikTok when I see her, drag queen Bijou Bentley performing her routine to a remix of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda. With her ponytail and green twin-set, I immediately recognise that she is not just giving the audience haute couture – this is cosplay.

Isabelle, my personal assistant from my time as mayor of a town in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. If you have played it, she was your assistant, too. She is the heart of the game, your adviser, your companion. She is a yellow dog in snappy office dress, and she is always so happy to see you. Benny Bijou Bentley sashays around the floor with her clip-board. The crowd goes wild, throwing dollars at her feet. I am thinking to myself, “Yes, Isabelle – work.”

Animal Crossing: New Horizons marks the fifth game in the franchise, that began in 2001 on the Nintendo 64. In the games, you move into a village populated by a random selection of anthropomorphic animals. You are placed in a small home, and then you just live. You explore, you fish, you grow plants, you chat – there’s no endgame, no goal. You saunter along at your own pace. There’s no rush.

There is also no conflict or tension – the game gives you a sandbox environment in which to pursue a gentler life. The environment shifts with the console’s internal clock – in winter, plants shrivel and insects disappear, only to stir alive in green pixels again come spring.

Central to much of your daily activity is one character: Tom Nook, an enterprising businessman who not only runs the village shop, but also, the local estate agents. You pay your mortgage to him in cash, in whatever instalments you please. Tom is a cute, wide-eyed raccoon, a disarming form that belies the fact that he is functionally the Godfather of Animal Crossing.



No endgame … Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Photograph: Nintendo

I’m aware that these gameplay mechanics sound somewhere between eye-wateringly mundane and vaguely threatening. In reality, Animal Crossing is neither. It is charming beyond belief.

My first step into this softer life came when I was commuting more than two hours a day to college. My Nintendo DS was a comforting escape from the juddering trains and slow buses, and the tender world of Animal Crossing was the opposite of the heightened drama of being a teenager. Breakups, betrayals, hangovers, balancing classes with jobs, working out who I wanted to be, none of that was in question here. Life in Animal Crossing was distilled into basic tasks, basic pleasures and basic connections.

Relationships with my neighbours in the game were easy in that they were transactional. Friendship, if you could call it that, progresses around the exchange of gifts. When prompted, you can enter nicknames for your pals that the algorithmically generated dialogue will then integrate in to conversation. It is predictable, but for me it gradually escalated in a way that felt comforting. I fished and gathered fruit which I sold to Tom, for the game’s currency – bells. I listened to the chippy, tuneless music and was soothed. And because there is no ending to Animal Crossing, no plot, I was never in any danger of heightened emotions of any kind. There was no chaos.

Years later, my husband and I cohabited in a town in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, where I inherited the role of mayor from an elderly tortoise. On reflection, and I say this with my hands up, I was a bad civil servant. I always assumed my assistant Isabelle was, well, working. I was less occupied with town planning than digging up artefacts. Though if I were to sell them to Tom for bells, I would have made quicker work of paying off my mortgage. Instead, I dutifully donated them to the initially barren museum, operated by a solitary owl. He was a reliably friendly face, and always seemed so grateful for my contributions to the local cultural resources.

This museum-filling lit up the synapses in my brain that respond to collecting: the same ones that are ripped apart by Pokémon. Here, we have that same catch ’em all mechanic, albeit without any victory at the end. Or any end at all. Our prize is not legacy, heroism or a trophy, but a place in a small, fictional community – a sense of a job well done. I’m part of a generation that is feeling our way in the dark: employment models have changed, security is gone, continuous email access and a growing gig economy have shifted the boundaries between work and home. It is so easy to feel as though there will always be something else to do and that every completed task simply makes way for another task. To build something that feels tangible and joyful is an antidote to this, even if it is a pixellated town, your contribution amounts to something: happier neighbours, a full museum, a house with many rooms.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons.



Basic pleasures and basic connections … Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

When I spoke to other fans of the series, they had similar tales. “The thing that I really love about the series is the pace,” says Ian Cummins, 32, who works at Facebook and is the only person I have ever met with a full Pokédex. “Picking it up after a long day of working, commuting and reading the news relaxes me. It’s meditative for me to pick my fruit, check in with my neighbours and do some fishing before bed. It also lets me live out my fantasy of abandoning the city to live on an island, while fully acknowledging that I would definitely not flourish if I did that in real life.”

There is so much to this fantasy – tasks are manageable, relationships steady, risk nonexistent. Tom Nook isn’t going to send his boys to break your kneecaps if you’re late with a payment. This is a place where progress and value isn’t contingent on ambition. Our fellow villagers are sweet and quirky – there are gorillas, cats, hedgehogs, horses, there is a musical dog called KK Slider who plays guitar, there is even a bright red duck called Ketchup. Sure, they can occasionally be oppositional, but you can usually bring them around with the gift of fruit, or by delivering letters to their homes.

“I think the Animal Crossing community served me the way that Twitter serves me now,” says Dearbháil Clarke, 22, taking their final year in animation at IADT. “It’s a pocket friendship, without any of the weirdness or commitment of real life. You just put in gifts and get out affirmation … even when you run out of new dialogue prompts, the friendships don’t feel hollow. They just take on the same rhythm of an old friend telling you the same banal story and you’ll listen and smile because it’s nice to hear and be heard.”

Clarke nails the essence of Animal Crossing: cosiness, predictability – the feeling of a home and community gradually rising to meet you. I distinctly remember dropping by the Able Sisters clothing shop every day in New Leaf: not necessarily to spend my hard-earned bells on clothing, but rather to say hello to the quiet hedgehog named Sable, sitting in the back behind a sewing machine. Initially, when I approach her she doesn’t even greet me. But day after day, she grows to recognise me. Eventually she begins to offer information about herself. Technically, the prize for winning her friendship by talking to her for 10 days in a row is a QR feature that expands clothing options, but I know that what I am really gaining are the tiny secrets of her life. There is texture in this fiction. The progress from silence to warmth. The real reward for this mini-game, completed purely by interaction and persistence, is knowing Sable, without any risk of being truly known yourself.

Animal Crossing offers the one thing in this strange landscape of 2020 that it feels a generation is sorely lacking: a sense of safety. As New Horizons is released, communities worldwide have begun social distancing or self-isolating due to the spread of Covid-19. But with this game fortuitously timed, these new islands will give us a place to escape to from the endless scroll of frightening news, when all we can do is stay indoors and hope for the best.

These safe, fictional landscapes are a balm. There is no danger lurking beyond the trees, no urgency in your loan repayments, no betrayal from selfish neighbours. When I saw Bijou Bentley performing, it made me realise that Animal Crossing has a life beyond the beyond the DS or Switch. The quiet lives we have had inside this world have connected with our reality. The quiet lives we have had inside those screens have connected with our reality: scenes from these places become more than memes, they become modes of expression.

Confined to our homes in real-life, we will compare the different fruits that grow on our trees (some will have pears, others peaches), we’ll compare our neighbours, visit each other’s islands. We will be together safe in the knowledge that every Saturday night when the internal console calendar hits the right time, a white dog named KK Slider will take his guitar and play a gig in all of our virtual towns. We will be united on the dancefloor as he sings in that strange, familiar digital voice. If I could, I would throw bells at his feet like rain.

Sarah Maria Griffin is an author from Dublin, Ireland. Her most recent novel is Other Words For Smoke. She tweets @griffski.


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