Gaming Editor Sam Nason documents the reception of the latest instalment in the Animal Crossing franchise in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak
There’s nothing like a daily routine. You wake up. Go outside. Check your post-box. Make your way into town. Sell some grasshoppers, peaches and dinosaur bones to two little raccoon children. Wait. This is Animal Crossing, a set of social simulation games created by Nintendo in 2001. The series sees you live alongside an assortment of anthropomorphised animals in a customisable village, earning a living by fishing, catching bugs, excavating fossils and more. The world progresses in real-time, meaning the seasons, holidays and events mirror those of reality. The latest instalment, New Horizons, was released on March 20th to uproarious critic reviews; and with anxieties and stress engulfing the world from the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, it really could not have arrived at a better time.
By nature, Animal Crossing’s gameplay is mostly open-ended, free from arbitrary quests or explicit objectives. Players progress at their own pace, with New Horizons introducing new elements day by day to encourage exploration, or further development of your island. It is, by and large, a player-driven game, with personal objectives being central to any play session. Switching the game on for an hour you can earn more money, expand your fish or bug collection, talk to your villagers, decorate a section of the island – or alternatively you could do none of these things and walk around aimlessly, getting lost in the charming visuals and sound.
From my own experience, these tasks begin to form somewhat of a routine reminiscent of what one may expect from reality. Once the game is booted up I tend to talk to each villager, complete jobs they may ask of me, water my flowers, visit the local shop and assess what more I want to do that day. Sometimes it is a great deal, planning how I’m going to structure large parts of my island and beginning to lay down the groundworks. Sometimes I feel fatigued or overwhelmed and don’t want to play for much longer. Both are equally okay.
Animal Crossing emulates a version of life that you as a player have a greater degree of control over and presents this in a comforting and calming fashion. One may argue this has the danger of becoming all-encompassing – but the game subverts this by ensuring certain large-scale projects, like moving houses or building bridges, are not completed until the next day in real-time. This moderates one’s exposure to the game and – in my experience – has kept Animal Crossing as a relaxing and healthy form of escapism.
These small comforts are important in such uncertain times. For many, the deconstruction of routine by way of the lockdown is difficult to overcome and can be detrimental to mental health. Animal Crossing emerges as a way to somewhat reconcile this, providing a virtual neighbourhood which offers as many goals as one wishes to achieve. By being proactive on my island – by finding fossils, planting trees and earning money – my Animal Crossing routine brought me the satisfaction I can no longer obtain (for now) due to having to stay inside. Attempting to maintain some form of consistency is, to me, important to my mental health; Animal Crossing acts as a supplement for this at a time when real life cannot.
The release of New Horizons has been widely documented on Twitter and Reddit by those admiring the tranquil nature of the game in the face of a domestic lockdown that carries no expiration date. In environments many may find suffocating or draining, Animal Crossing acts as an alleviating getaway that encourages both productivity and leisure. Its therapeutic and easy-going nature is a relief to those who may need it in such an uncertain time – and while living in the world of New Horizons is certainly no replacement for real life, it is a source of comfort while the latter is on pause.
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