Animal Crossing: New Horizons | $60 | Amazon
Animal Crossing: New Horizons may have taken the world by storm when it launched at the beginning of our collective journey into self-isolation late last month, but the Nintendo Switch’s quarantine killer app is divisive nevertheless. Even within our own figurative office, opinions are split. While some of our colleagues at Gizmodo have found its relationship to real-world politics controversial, we at The Inventory have decided to investigate whether it’s a fun game to play or a tedious distraction from reality that should have instead been called Homework: The Game.
I’m partial to the latter take, as I’d fallen so far behind my peers after just 4-5 days that no one wants to visit my island. (To be fair, my house is based on my dream bachelor pad—a largely empty room with barren cream walls, a days-old virgin piña colada, a bed with no mattress, headboard, or boxspring, and a Nintendo Switch. A lone urinal is placed in the center of the room.) Actually PLAYING Animal Crossing is a lot less amusing than the virtual rewards it yields.
Most of your time is spent harvesting iron nuggets from rocks, meticulously cross-breeding plants, and most upsetting of all, making small talk with neighbors. If you thought the unskippable cutscenes in Final Fantasy X were bad, try inadvertently asking Blathers the museum curator to explain dinosaur genealogy. No thank you!
Jordan McMahon: Right before venturing off to Arizona to be closer to family in quarantine, I had just finished up decorating my new room. I had filled it with plant friends who greeted me every morning, art that poured color all over the walls, and a place for all my books. It was great and I never wanted to leave. And sure, I loved it because it was cute and pretty and screamed every bit of my personality in a way that made it feel like home, but the real joy was in knowing that all my countless hours curating a Pinterest board of my dream room, calculating my budget in a spreadsheet to make sure I didn’t miss anything I wanted or needed, had paid off.
That’s the delight of Animal Crossing: it isn’t solely in the act of chopping down trees or handing over innocent bugs to a reluctant owl, it’s in making this world, however small, your own every time you log on. If you don’t feel like paying off your debts to Tom Nook, nobody’s going to harass you. If you’d rather spend that cash on curating a home full of odds and ends, like a stationary set and a goofy exit sign hanging over your window, nothing would make Timmy and Tommy happier. What you’ll get at the end of that is a place that’s entirely your own, not because your roommates all fled town or you’re quarantined alone in your studio, but because this is the space you’ve built to get away, and that’s worth a couple of hours catching and selling some fish, even if you manage to find no joy in the cute fish puns your character dishes out.
Ignacia, what would make the laborious parts of Animal Crossing more enjoyable for you?
Ignacia Fulcher: To put it simply—a reward for completing a task without the bland, escapist monotony that really isn’t escapist in the first place. For someone who is heavily connected in the world (out of no choice of my own), I don’t find joy in playing a session of Animal Crossing, especially when those tasks we mention firmly align with real-world problems and consequences. Yes, we’ve built an island of our own to get away from basically everything, even just for a little while, but inside the world we’ve molded for ourselves we still get stung by bees, we still owe money, and we still have to chop wood to barter for bells. Yes, it’s on our own time, but we’re still doing them and for what?
I think we all have to admit that there’s a certain privilege in having the time and space to want to do what are basically virtual chores in the first place. As a black woman there is even more weight to my statement. No matter how much time passes while I play this game, I’m still starkly reminded of what awaits once I power off—the anxiety and the utter boredom that comes from social distancing, or even the racism I would face by wearing a mask in public. So I ask you Gabe, is an hour of escapism even worth it?
Gabe Carey: No, it isn’t. Like you said better than I can, who the hell wants to do MORE chores!? I hardly have time (or energy) as it is to move my dishes from the sink to the dishwasher, and I’d argue doing so is more rewarding than buying an addition to my fake house or tending to my fake plants. However, there is something to be said for the social functionality in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and if it weren’t for Nintendo’s shoddy online service—not to mention the lack of Discord support native to the Switch—I might be inclined to continue toiling away to earn currency for my landlord as an escape.
Then again, is that really an escape? I mean, that’s mainly how I spend my time now. Apart from the whimsical art style, Animal Crossing isn’t much different from how I’m spending my time at the moment. Only there is more talking involved, and as much as I’d like to, I can’t mute my Zoom meetings with Orville the dodo. Nor can I skip the extensive sequence in which a newcomer has arrived on my island. All of these things take time which is both precious and plentiful right now depending on who you’re talking to. As for me, I’d rather make significant progress in a fantastical world with something to say than waste my limited free time working for the man.
But maybe I’m still salty because my fiancée neglected all our chores for a week to play this damn game.
Jordan McMahon: If you treat Animal Crossing as an ode to The Man, I think those points stand. And if you looked at a younger, less refined Tom Nook, it’d be easy to take it as such. In New Horizons, though, Tom isn’t so much a ruthless landlord as he is a trusting uncle with an unbelievable amount of money that he doesn’t seem to mind parting ways with from time to time. And that’s the sort of attitude that’s prevalent throughout the game, as this piece in The Atlantic points out. Animal Crossing isn’t escapism because it emulates our world exactly, but it does present a version of our world where the things that keep us on edge and the ugliness of the world, as Ignacia pointed out, aren’t problems that drag us into an ever-expanding pit of debt or despair, they’re merely challenges and hurdles to navigate.
Let’s look at Tom Nook, for example. Much has been said about his brutally capitalistic nature, and it’s true that he gives Mr. Krabs a run for his money, but I can’t name a single landlord I’ve had who I’d prefer to Tom Nook. Two weeks ago, my best friend received an eviction notice, along with all other tenants of the building, because they were predominantly service industry workers who couldn’t afford to pay rent in the middle of a pandemic. Contrast that with Tom, who will remind you that you have an outstanding debt, but he’ll never force you to pay up, get a lean on your accounts, or do effectively permanent damage to your credit score. If you’d rather live in a tiny house owned by an adorable raccoon, and spend your days catching fish and watching the sun set, nobody’s gonna stop you. I know who I’d rather be paying rent to.
It’s true that no game, no matter how cathartic or moving, can resolve my struggles in being a Latino today, nor can it grant privilege to those who have historically been robbed of it, and that even escapism can’t quell those feelings for some people. Still, games like Animal Crossing don’t exist in a vacuum, and the world New Horizons presents is one that isn’t only more plausible than it was a month ago, it’s also one most people could get behind. The beauty of New Horizons is that it isn’t a celebration of labor, it’s a meditation on what another approach to labor could do for us.
Ignacia Fulcher: Yes, the consequences from the choices you make on your island can be lightly pushed aside and seen as a nuisance which can seem delightful for some, but for me it’s even more drab on top of the constant monotonous entertainment the game provides. As a loyal fan of a not-so-similar series The Sims, you’re able to see your human grow skills, buy and renovate a new house, get ahead in their career, and even find love each and every time you log in. As a player of The Sims, you do have similar consequences, but they’re more of an exciting challenge than the low key vibe Animal Crossing players love to advocate for.
And maybe that’s my issue with New Horizons—it hasn’t changed since I fired it up back in the era of the GameCube. Sure, the gameplay is now different and better in some ways, but fundamentally, it still is the same laidback, odd time waster it was 19 years ago. I didn’t enjoy it as an 8-year-old, and as a 27-year-old it’s still a non-starter. That’s not to say I haven’t given it a chance. I created my humanoid with the newly-diverse skin tones (that could and should be better going forward), found a piece of land on my island and placed a tent in the ground within the first couple of hours. While I was doing that, I realized I could be doing almost anything else. And then I did. But maybe that’s the point Jordan is making—the power of choice and freedom—even virtually, is liberating for Animal Crossing lovers, but! I choose to entertain myself with things that eventually give me some kind of cathartic experience. I also choose to ground myself in some kind of reality because, whether we like it or not, we’re all going to have to come back to it eventually.
Ultimately, in my opinion, the gameplay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons defines itself in its hazy, somewhat flat, unchanging nature and it completely goes against my ever-evolving nature in all things, not just video games. So with that being said, it doesn’t live up to the hype, especially in the age of corona(virus).
What do you think, readers? Is Animal Crossing: New Horizons an immersive simulation that brings people together in a moment defined by economic uncertainty, unprecedented solitude, and declining mental health? Or is it yet another chore on your to-do list to start ticking items off at the outset of each day? Let us know in the comments below, and if you haven’t played enough to make up your mind, buy it here either physically or digitally depending on your preference (and urgency).