Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Produced by Hisashi Nogami
Developed by Nintendo for the Nintendo Switch system
March 20, 2020
Welcome to Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game where, as esteemed writer Saladin Ahmed tweeted, “you can do fantastical things like visit friends and afford housing” (bit.ly/3cIo2cL). Over weeks unfolding in pandemic-scarred March and April, a wide swathe of homebound folk turned to Twitter to share their progress in the candy-hued life simulator game. In between grim reports of rising death counts and economic collapse, social media was inundated with brightly-colored captures of players’ cartoon avatars, contentedly building an idyllic life on an island populated with talking animals—decorating homes, planting elaborate gardens, fishing, and catching bugs. Despite the childlike nature of the game, the soft and hopeful aesthetic found broad appeal in times of hardship. AC:NH broke sales records, selling close to two million copies at launch in Japan alone; it has been the most commercially successful instalment of the nearly two-decade-old Animal Crossing franchise to date.
The game opens with you buying an island getaway package. Upon arrival on a beautiful but deserted island with two other new residents, you receive a tent, a plot of land, and sizable debt from its apparent owner, a raccoon-dog named Tom Nook. As the game plays out in real time over the following weeks, you slowly turn the island into a little town, expanding from a tent to a house, to a house with more rooms and then multiple floors, while building shops and amenities and inviting more talking-animal residents to live with you. Your island schedule fills quickly with chores: chopping wood, harvesting fruit, crafting tools and furniture. There’s enough to occupy hours at a pop, and the gorgeous environment makes it easy. Grass crunches underfoot depending on what shoes you’re wearing, and the ocean’s transparency changes according to the time of the day. The island’s museum—a combined insectarium, aquarium, and natural history museum—is a meditative, almost transcendental experience. There is an abundance of charm in the clever details of the clothes you can wear and the furniture you can build or buy.
Much has been said of AC:NH’s online gameplay. With the right Internet connection, players can visit one anothers’ islands in real time to admire their setup and wardrobe, shop at their stores, and trade resources native to each island. It was easily the best part of the game for me. When I was building a writing den, for example, I visited friends to find the right kind of desks and wallpaper, and sent another friend raw material to build me a bookshelf, which they had the recipe for. It was much-needed social bonding at a time where people were kept apart by pandemic.
And yet, for all its chill ethos and cute aesthetic, the core of Animal Crossing’s gameplay is transactional. Every item you put in your pockets, from iron nuggets to trash to live fish to furniture, can be sold for a price at the island’s shop. And while many of the basic in-game items can be crafted, many more, especially the fancier furniture and much of the game’s wardrobe, cannot. They have to be bought or gifted. Moving in new villagers costs money, building new bridges and ramps costs money. There’s the ever-present mortgage: The game pushes you towards increasingly exorbitant expansions to your home, which you will of course accept, because you need more space for the stuff you have accumulated. Your home and (to a certain extent) your island are ranked on the number of items you have placed in and on them, respectively, so the more things you acquire and put on display, the better a score the game gives you.
All this means you are heavily driven to accumulate capital to progress in the game. To do so, you are obliged to harvest natural resources from the land around you: fruit, fish, bugs, wood, stones, iron ore. Soon you start measuring everything you pick up by their monetary value: Why waste time catching low-value bugs which take up inventory space, when the right kind of butterfly will net you four times as much for the same effort? Then, you are strongly encouraged to take trips to procedurally generated nearby islands simply full of things free to catch, dig up, or shake out of trees. These Mystery Island Tours are often greatly profitable; some of them spawn valuable species of fish and bugs that are hard to find back home. As I carved holes into the wild landscape of one such island, I caught myself thinking: “There’s no need to fill this up, I’m never coming back here.” It’s the wet dream of the colonialist: endless pristine land belonging to no-one which you can turn to handsome profit.
Unlike in the real world, however, there are no drawbacks to this colonialist, capitalist enterprise you run. The island remains perfect-hued and unsullied, the soundtrack stays warm and happy, the sun sets beautifully at seven. Nobody judges you; no animals were harmed in this crossing. The biggest fantasy in Animal Crossing, then, is not the abundance of cheap airfare or the relative affordability of a mortgage, but the idea that conspicuous and ever-expanding consumption comes at no cost to anyone. The waters are full of fish whose stocks are never depleted, the islands you plunder from are miraculously uninhabited, and this land—your land, which you have settled upon—is free for you to denude, shape and urbanize as you fancy. It is the dream pushed upon us by late-stage neo-imperialist capitalism, made flesh. The whimsy invoked in Ahmed’s tweet is a cotton-candy cloak around the insidious set of base assumptions we have been taught. Buy, frack, dig, sell. Make. Upscale. Bigger is better, more is the dream.
In the excellent NBC series The Good Place, the major argument that develops in later seasons is the impossibility of making morally good choices in a universe with corruption and exploitation baked into its bones—the system by which we judge humanity is broken, because society is broken. There is, after all, no ethical consumption under capitalism. Animal Crossing strips away that dilemma by presenting us a jingly, upbeat world in which we are allowed to fulfil all our desires to buy and own with no ill effects. Perhaps the game is alluring precisely because it offers an idealized mirror of the broken society we have little choice but to work within and around. It is a capitalist Narnia, glimpsed through a looking glass, full of gentle landscapes and bucolic pleasures, bolstered by the ethics of hard work and productivity. It may not be what we need in these times, but it’s clearly what we want.
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