‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ Will Make You Feel Normal Again

'Animal Crossing' scratches our productivity itch while also undercutting it, providing nothing but a few hours whittled away. It's come at the perfect time.

Animal Crossing New Horizons is perfectly mindless for our times

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In the past few days, an odd mix of people — high school friends, one night stands, ex-colleagues — have slid into my DMs to ask the same questions: “should I get Animal Crossing? What even is it?”. While I’d normally tailor my response, one size fits all, here:  “Yes, absolutely, I love it. It’s kind of boring, which is why it’s perfect”.

For the uninitiated, the game’s popped up from nowhere, though fans have been impatiently waiting for years, as the last proper Animal Crossing arrived back in 2013. And since New Horizons was released last Friday on the Nintendo Switch, we’ve learned of a lot of secret fans.

Social media’s been swarmed with screenshots of the game’s wholesome island life, owls who run museums and impressive designs homages for their favourite albums and films.

On Twitter, it’s a palate cleanser from the feed’s COVID-19 cocktail of fear and fury, as the colourful, cartoonish world is about as far removed as could be from an apocalyptic air.

In New Horizons, you play as a human moving to a deserted island, in a start a new package set up by venture capitalist and raccoon Tom Nook, who has decided to desecrate an untouched piece of land for money. Sounds about right.

On the island, you simply live, which more or less involves what living on an idyllic island looks (looked?) like. You pay off your moving and housing debts; make nice with your anthropomorphic animal neighbours, such as a gym-junkie mouse or a stubborn penguin; build up civic attractions; create designs for clothing, canvases and floor/wallpaper; fish and catch bugs, donating them to the museum; plant and water flowers; and sell anything you find, from weeds to freshly pulled fruit.

And yes, you buy things, everything from haircuts, model trains and holidays to another tropical island. As a first for Animal Crossing, you can craft things too, making furniture and fishing rods alike by taking an axe to trees or mining rocks.

There’s a lot to do, but also no reason to do any of it. While the game runs in real-time á la The Sims, Animal Crossing is a world outside of penalty or life maintenance, with few discernible goals or end-point in sight.

Sure, there’s always the promise of house expansions, earning ‘Nook points’ or fulfilling the museum’s fossil exhibition, but there’s no expectation or need to do so. Tom Nook may be a proto-coloniser, but he doesn’t even charge interest on home loans.

This lack of pressure makes Animal Crossing‘s appeal hard to translate for those not already hooked. Hours pass picking fruit from trees or selling sea shells hand-picked from the shore, only to do it all again the very next day, save for the odd calendar event or surprise guest.

Without risk, you’d think there’s no reward. But Animal Crossing‘s charm has always been the way it stays the same.

Daily chores like watering flowers become their own reward in time, even if logging after literal years away (as I’ve done intermittently with 2013’s New Leaf) won’t see the town barren or abandoned. Your flowers may wilt, but wild roses and pansies sprout up elsewhere; animals move in and out whether or not you’ve been an absent neighbour. Even as the protagonist, your actions only matter so much.

With a lack of consequence or drama, Animal Crossing is essentially endless busy-work that asks you to take pride in the act itself. It’s a very different kind of overwhelming from the endless tasks and self-betterment we usually find ourselves pelted with, and still do, even during a pandemic.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been endlessly reminded via social media influencers and content creators that there’s no ‘excuse’ for a lack of productivity. If Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague, you can work on that side-hustle.

And this societal lockdown? That’s a chance to ‘catch up’ on essential TV, exercise regularly, master abandoned skills, books or languages, cook like Ottolenghi and finally write your screenplay.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons doesn’t just offer dream-island escapism at a time when we’re all locked inside. It’s also mindless fulfilment, scratching our productivity itch while also undercutting it, providing nothing but a few hours whittled away.

Scale of enjoyment shifts: suddenly using a toilet, catching a tarantula or breeding hybrid flowers become a source of pride.

Even the online play is limited. You’re allowed to visit friend’s islands with up to eight people at once, though with no voice chat, things are restricted to sending messages via a laborious joypad-controlled keyboard (or downloading an iOS app). When friends have visited, we’ve barely said much, frustrated by how slow it is to type.

Instead, we wander around, showing each other our home decor and the fish we’ve caught, like toddlers seeking wordless approval.

While Zoom or Facebook calls are an easy work-around, the stripped-back communication is comforting of itself: spending time together to do nothing but be together, doing nothing.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is now available on Nintendo Switch (you can download it via the Switch eShop, rather than leave home).

Jared Richards is Junkee’s Night Editor and a freelance writer from Berlin. He will be Tweeting and playing Animal Crossing a lot for the foreseeable future.

This article is part of TAKE TIME, a Junkee column about culture.