Everyone’s playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons right now. It’s gaming’s panacea for coronavirus-induced boredom. A recent CNN article suggested that the reason behind the extreme success of Nintendo’s latest Switch title is that it offers players a sense of normalcy in an incredibly abnormal time.
But is normalcy Animal Crossing’s defining trait? Sure, it’s obvious our normal lives aren’t defined by our interactions with anthropomorphic animals, and most of us aren’t in the position of managing the development of a previously-desolate island, but even beyond that, as much as I love this game, I don’t think anything in it is a substitute for my normal lifestyle.
Instead, I think what Animal Crossing: New Horizons offers is consistency. We are all acutely aware that our situation is not normal. There is no normalcy to be had right now, and a video game won’t trick us into thinking otherwise.
But that’s okay. Animal Crossing doesn’t want to be a simulation of our normal lives. It’s a distraction, and it fills that role beautifully. The difference between New Horizons and any other video game contender for our socially-distanced attention is that it’s a daily distraction with much-needed structure built in. It’s something to look forward to. Each day brings novelty and simple responsibility: I should check Nook’s Cranny for furniture and wallpaper, the Able Sisters for new clothing, and the island at large for new fossils otherwise missed. I need to make sure I don’t miss an announcement from Isabelle or slumlord-turned-island developer Tom Nook. And, of course, it’d be in my own best wishes if I planted a money tree or extracted a few thousand bells from a local rock.
None of these activities are normal, but they’ve become normal, at least for now (and the foreseeable future). They’re consistent, fun little chores that don’t mimic our normal schedules, but instead give us a tempo to live by. As workflows rise and fall, binge-worthy television comes and goes, and video chats fade in and out, there’s always the daily allure of New Horizons. It’s not a demanding game. Half an hour is enough to accomplish your daily to-dos. Any more is a bonus.
Of course, this is all ignoring the multiplayer component of New Horizons. You’ve given me quite a bit of leeway in allowing my cute transgressions against a CNN article that is, at worst, a piece of positive journalism in a time of need. Indeed, if there is normalcy to be found in New Horizons, it’s in the excuse it provides to bring friends together. My own experiences with jetting off toward a friend’s island or opening the airport gates to invite them to mine are limited, but the journeys I have partaken in have been enjoyable. For folks to whom an online game night over Discord is already a normal practice, joining a friend’s island is nothing out of the ordinary. But for more inexperienced online gamers, these once-deserted islands can be a reason to get together, a shared experience that transcends the limited space of a Zoom call or group chat. Maybe there’s some normalcy to be had after all.
Animal Crossing isn’t a miracle cure for the homebound. If the idea of being stuck at home with nothing but video games to secure your sense of sanity terrifies you, New Horizons won’t help. But if you’ve managed to stumble upon this article, I’d imagine you’re a different breed. New Horizons is fun, and it would have been if it had launched a year ago or a year from now (assuming we haven’t fallen into a post-apocalyptic scenario wherein humans are nearly wiped out and forced to act as villagers on deserted islands populated by anthropomorphized animals), but a launch date coinciding with the beginning of lockdowns and quarantines as the world attempts to deal with the worst pandemic in a century? I’d be tempted to take to my own deserted island if plane travel wasn’t inadvisable. Nothing’s normal right now, but until it is, Animal Crossing helps soften the blow.