Chaos. Fear of disease, a virulent and deadly virus the likes of which America hasn’t seen in a century. A political system running on tilt, our response seemingly held together by a single doctor who seems like he could be fired any minute. The powerful and rich, openly leering at an ailing stock market and tapping their feet, wondering when we can “Get Back to Work” so they can generate more money to throw in their bank vault. Cultural institutions living in fear of what time off will do to them, people getting laid off—temporarily or otherwise—left and right. The world sucks right now, and the only thing you can really do about that is not leave the house unless you need groceries.
But what if there was a place where none of this was happening? An island getaway where you live in a tent, pick fruit, catch bugs, take pictures, go fishing. No death, no disease, no imminent threats, where the only thing standing in the way of pure happiness is weeds that cropped up overnight and a pesky raccoon?
Through an act of cosmic coincidence, the blessed Nintendo Corporation, inventors and shepherds of Mario, Zelda and other venerable gaming icons, have delivered that exact thing to their smash-hit Nintendo Switch system right at the point when people would be in desperate need of a liberatory, pain-free, highly-expressive experience. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the long-awaited new entry in the company’s popular Animal Crossing series of games, was released for the Nintendo Switch at midnight on March 20th, several days into the ongoing novel coronavirus quarantine many of us have found ourselves in. “I actually went to GameStop, I was gonna get it,” says Tommy Fagin, a longtime fan of the series. “I wanted a physical copy. Then, I went into the GameStop, and it’s New York City, and I thought, like, ‘Am I willing to die for this game?’ [So] I just downloaded it.”
What is Animal Crossing, exactly? It’s… a little hard to describe, at least in a way that will make the uninitiated think it sounds all that compelling.
“It’s something of a life simulator,” says Micha Gottlieb, a graduate student and film programmer currently living in Southern California. “There’s all these different kinds of activities that you can decide to engage with or not. Whether or not it’s paying off your loan, increasing the size of your house, talking to your neighbors, planting flowers, trees, things like that.”
“The whole idea is that you are a human being and you live among animals but they can talk and they can teach you and they can give you things,” adds librarian Bridget Sievers, a longtime fan of the series. “You are trying to build a new life.”
Just walking around, fishing, catching bugs, growing fruit, and making friends with animals is… well, it’s a very esoteric idea for a game. It resembles a mashup of Stardew Valley, SimCity, and other life simulator or farming games, but Nintendo’s take on the genre more bare bones, gentler. With Stardew Valley, for instance, you can really put a lot of time into the game, locked in a pretty upsetting never-ending grind, playing day after day.
Animal Crossing doesn’t quite encourage that level of addictive gaming. It utilizes an internal clock that makes it so all this stuff happens a little more slowly. “Everything just kind of progresses, grows, and changes on a day-to-day-basis,” says Alyssa Dalangin, a graphic designer from Southern California. You can get just as much enjoyment out of playing for 20 minutes as you can for playing three hours straight.
What makes the game isn’t the idea so much as the tone. “You’re just kind of meant to relax and enjoy it for what it is or make it into whatever you want it to be,” says Dalangin.
“It’s supposed to, you know, make you feel good when you pick things up and sell them,” offers Andrea DuFour, a dentist living in Texas. “It takes you away from the evils of the world.”
Considering this is a game where you can’t die, and the worst thing that can happen is a spider bite that makes you faint for a few seconds, those accomplishments seem kind of small. These players have caught fish, donated to the museum (the museum’s manager is an owl), made their houses a little bigger. (One couple took things a step further, tying the knot in the game.) Gamer Seth Johnston, for one, built a fish tank and put a sturgeon in it:
“My wife is immunocompromised and so we’ve both been just in the house, pretty much,” says Johnston. “It’s been a weird mixture of kind of like…anxiety that you can’t see, because it’s not really anything that’s at your door or anything. But also, enjoyable, because all the pressure to go do things has vanished. So it’s been a good mix of anxiety and incredible pleasure.”
“I’ve been in more or less total solitude. I live in New York City, so… yeah,” Tommy explains. “My girlfriend has been in Nashville, and she just got back yesterday. She was down there for the memorial for her father so she was kind of dealing with [that] in addition to the stress and confusion of coronavirus. I was alone and both of us played together last night. I think both of us felt this [was a] fantasy to be really kind of reliving. It’s a world in which there is no coronavirus. I don’t think there will ever be a pandemic in Animal Crossing.”
Gottlieb, a film curator, has even put some of his anxiety into the game, painting a picture of Paul Walter Hauser’s portrayal of Richard Jewell from last year’s biopic onto a digital canvas and displaying it in his Animal Crossing home:
“I do think that image of him, looking into the distance, realizing that a bomb is about to go off, I think that sort of is how I feel about the state of the United States, right now. And maybe the world at large,” says Gottlieb.
Dalangin found and purchased something very uncanny in the game: a medical mask and a bidet.
“I set up the bidet and I put on the mask and I thought, well, I guess my character’s quarantined, too. I think everyone, to some degree, copes with the stress of this by joking about it,” she says.
When I asked her if Animal Crossing was providing a respite from the global stresses of COVID-19, Dalangin replied, “I would be surprised if anyone said no! All my friends I’ve talked to are like, ‘Animal Crossing is the only thing giving me emotional structure in my life right now.’”