One year ago, my job at school was figuring out how they were going to handle the logistics of students, employees, and the rising threat of a global pandemic. My co-workers and I were coping with the stress very differently to say the least, and some of us chose to whittle away the final weeks of winter and ignore the international threat by investing our time in our own private islands in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The latest installment of the long-running Nintendo social sim came out at the most opportune time that any game has ever released at. The moment businesses were beginning to close and people were forced to stay at home, many of whom had only a pet to converse with, Animal Crossing offered some respite from the increasing isolation.
I had mixed feelings about the franchise but given the circumstances, I initially fell in love with the new game. I spent hours walking around my island meeting everyone who decided to call my island their home. I had dreams that I was going to invest all my money into bridges and other public services but New Horizons allowed me to reconnect with several friends I hadn’t touched based with in years. They showed me around their own islands and their home set ups and it made me want to do the same. I made themed rooms like a gothic study and a Japanese bath house. I felt like an interior designer on HGTV as I sprinkled little details in my house that only me and my select friends would ever see.
Though the online portion of Animal Crossing never offered much besides the ability to share our islands and the occasional text message or emote, it was nice to reconnect and virtually travel to one another’s homes. It was the pandemic equivalent of meeting up at a coffee shop to discuss the latest gossip in our lives. As the weeks wore on, more people began to lean into other games to take their minds off all the canceled concerts and outings with friends.
I was almost ready to move on but my one friend who had by eclipsed me in total time played invited me to their island which she had begun to design the geography for. Her island made me remember that there was an island designer that allowed you top completely rip up your island into any design you wanted. I set to work right away to please my land lord Tom Nook so he would give me a new app that gave me permission to dig a moat around Chester’s home. As soon as I unlocked the designer, I set to work digging up my island and the majority of my total time played is probably spent mindlessly creating or destroying terrain. I moved homes, built bridges, created waterfalls, and designed parks. Everything was beginning to look great.
And then I stopped.
In the real world, the weather had become warm and there were plenty of open spaces outside I could walk or hike in to enjoy my day. I visited my Animal Crossing island less and less as it began to feel more and more like unpaid virtual labor. The people that I had once bonded over Animal Crossing with had moved on and my villagers’ speech had become predictable. The era of New Horizons was over.
Until I decided to boot it up this past week to see how the game has evolved over time and truth be told it hasn’t all that much. There have been seasonal updates and a big Mario update but these things just add items to the game. They don’t change the gameplay experience or streamline mechanics that have clunky systems.
When my character stepped out of his home, he had some serious bed head and a mailbox overflowing with letters. Inside the home wasn’t much better as roaches scurried along my once impeccable home. If this was the state of my own home, I wasn’t looking forward to the rest of the island’s appearance.
I wandered around my island reminiscing about the projects half-finished. I feel kind of bad because some villagers have been stranded due to the incomplete community projects like Derwin who’s been stuck on a cliff for months now. I picked weeds as I came across them and removed flowers that had begun to encroach on the path in the park. The island was messy from the passage of time but it was also messy from a lack of commitment on my part. The park could only be accessed by me because I never made the bridges that my villagers so desperately needed to experience the park’s fountain for themselves. And don’t get me started on the camping and recreational spot in the mountains. That area is more secluded than Derwin’s home.
For a moment, I was enjoying the serenity of being back on the island until I came across my favorite villager Raymond. I ran up to him all excited to chat and the moment I open my mouth he screams at me. Apparently being gone for 9 months without dropping a line is frowned upon. The other villagers weren’t nearly as upset as Raymond was but that made it hurt even more. I walked a little further and realized that the game that was left to be experienced was too much work and too artificial to enjoy. If I wanted to garden and fix up my home, I would do that in real life, which I am. I don’t want to take a break from fixing up my life to fix my virtual one.
Animal Crossing is a game designed to be experienced in consistent bursts rather than binged like many of us tend to do. I may have ruined my own experience with the game because I used it to cope with the cold first months of the pandemic and for that I will forever be grateful. There is a sense of sadness though visiting this game. It mostly reminds me of a different time, though it was only a year ago. I think I have developed an aversion to the gameplay in New Horizons and I don’t think that is a fault of the game itself. The fault lies with me and my own circumstances. The game will forever hold a place in my heart for what it did for me last March but for me it’s time to move on and seek new horizons.