On March 19, the first U.S. state issued a stay-at-home order in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. The next day, Animal Crossing: New Horizons came to the Nintendo Switch, and by the day after that, it was already being proclaimed the game of the pandemic. For months, Animal Crossers new and old found comfort in exerting control over their islands’ virtual terrain as the world outside grew more and more chaotic, arranging virtual rendezvous with friends at a distance of inches and not feet. The game’s record-breaking popularity eventually waned, and the hours spent diving for sea creatures and wishing on stars dwindled to brief check-ins, but with the game’s first anniversary approaching, three Slate staffers gathered on their islands to talk about the allure of virtual escape, their favorite K.K. Slider songs, and how (or if) they’re still playing.
Sam Adams: Hello there, everyone! We’re here to talk about Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which is fast approaching its first anniversary as the Official Game of the COVID-19 pandemic. But first, did anyone catch that comedian on TV last night?
Karen Han: I know Isabelle’s messages all just repeat after a while, but that doesn’t make them any less cute …
Adams: I feel her inability to stick to a point so acutely.
Allegra Frank: She’s so innocently earnest!
Han: I also feel the desire to talk about nonwork things while being at work. Sometimes a girl needs a break! She’s in that office 24/7, let her live!
Adams: So! How did you all start playing ACNH? Were you ready to download on Day One, or did you come to it after the 9,000th think piece about how everyone was playing Animal Crossing?
Han: I had the game preloaded and ready for its release. I’d played the original GameCube game when it came out and had nothing but fond memories of it, and the new Switch version seemed like the perfect thing at the perfect time. As we’ve discussed on Slate before, it was really the Game of at least the early pandemic.
Allegra Frank: Same—I even preordered the limited-edition Animal Crossing–themed Switch to replace my original console, such was my excitement. I’ve played every Animal Crossing game out there for hundreds of hours; I’d even scheduled time off around the game to devote myself to it.
And then the pandemic hit a week before launch and it became less a thing to look forward to and more a lifeline, even from Day One.
Adams: I am, as my daughter is fond of reminding me, a noob. I hadn’t even owned a console for years, but we bought one the first weekend of lockdown, once it was clear she would be spending an indefinite chunk of fifth grade at home. The Switch was mostly for her at first, although that changed once she discovered Roblox, but New Horizons seemed like it was something we could play together, even though it eventually turned out that co-op play is more frustrating than it is fun.
For the Animal Crossing veterans in the chat, did it feel different to reenter that world under radically different and (knocks wood) unique circumstances?
Han: I think the main thing that was strange about playing it as a pandemic escape was the compulsion to DO THINGS. I would say that the world of Animal Crossing is a generally serene and sedate one, but when New Horizons came out, I feel like a lot of what people were trying to do was accomplish as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and trying to “level up” in a way that’s sort of antithetical to the game’s very “take life as it hits ya” ethos.
That said, in terms of strict game mechanics, it all felt like revisiting an old friend. Video games have come a long, long way since 2001, so New Horizons looks a lot slicker than the first GameCube game, and boasts many more features, but the underlying game is still a very comforting one.
Frank: It did strike me how the pervasive anxiety we had about what was happening to our offline reality manifested itself into New Horizons. As Karen said, it became very much an activity meant to fill these sudden social, productive gaps in our lives with something routine. Which is a sensibility Animal Crossing has certainly always lent itself to; there’s definitely a sense of a “checklist” and the ability to set little goals for yourself. But with everyone participating at once, it felt more competitive and like people were bypassing the traditional benchmarks way faster than normal. I’d always been fine playing at my own pace, but then I’d go visit someone else’s island and instantly feel ashamed when theirs was way better than mine.
Han: Yeah, I thought my island was nice until I saw … everyone else’s.
Frank: Yours was one of the super nice ones that made me all in my feelings about mine, Karen!!
I also think that the earlier games were buzzy, but they didn’t launch at such an obviously chaotic time. I didn’t have this sense of insecurity when playing the older games like I did with this one!
Han: The new ability to visit other people’s islands is maybe the biggest change, both in terms of gameplay and in terms of possible sources of anxiety. But also, I was going to say I also think a contributing factor to New Horizons’ boom is the fact that major Nintendo titles do not really come along all that often.
Adams: I think I had a similar “oh, crap” reaction to Karen’s island, although in my defense most of mine was built by a tween with a strong but eccentric sense of design. Looking over friends’ islands and the many images of strangers’ posted online gave me the kind of feeling you get when a meme really takes off, where you just kind of marvel at how much creativity there is in the world
ACNH was a hugely successful game right off the bat, selling a record-breaking 5 million copies in its first month alone, and is now closing in on Mario Kart 8 as the bestselling Nintendo Switch game of all time. Did it feel like when the New York Times writes a rave about your favorite neighborhood bar and it’s suddenly full of strange people who don’t quite get the vibe?
Han: For me, at least, it didn’t feel that way because, even with multiplayer connectivity, Animal Crossing isn’t an MMORPG in the same way that, say, Fortnite is—your experience is still going to be fairly insular and tailored to you, rather than something invaded by hordes of other players. It was just funny to see something so relatively silly getting so much coverage. Also, it did mean that I got to visit the New York Times’ Kyle Buchanan’s island, which had a section devoted to Bong Joon-ho.
Adams: That was amazing.
Frank: I’m going to be That Guy and say: I think I was equal parts delighted and annoyed by how much attention it got, to be honest. I’ve always felt this special kinship with Animal Crossing players, who similarly appreciated how serene it was, how funny its characters could be, how meaningful it was that the game recognizes real time and act accordingly. So when people who don’t know the difference between a Nintendo and a PlayStation started asking me about it, I felt like they were just there for the ride—not the commitment. Which is stupid! It’s a video game, and it’s meant to be fun! And I primarily play alone, which is crucial; to Karen’s point, you’re not forced to interact with those people who are just dropping in to stay on top of the zeitgeist. But I was let down many times by seeing someone post on Instagram about how they just got a Switch and the game and were stoked to play, only to reach out to them and find that they lost interest fairly quickly.
Han: Ultimately I feel like this is true of every video game; being excited for it will not guarantee that you will want to play it for more than half an hour.
Adams: Certainly in the early going I found myself just losing time to it—like I’d sit down to play in the evenings and then just spend two hours catching virtual fish. With so many of the usual distractions and escape valves taken away by the pandemic it felt kind of … balancing? … to just devote time to something for its own sake.
Han: It has a lot of the same appeal as a Tamagotchi, or Harvest Moon/Stardew Valley—you’re taking care of a little thing, and seeing it thrive is its own reward.
Adams: When you cultivate a blue rose or catch a golden trout, it’s a good day.
Frank: That said, though, I’m personally curious as to if and when you guys fell off that initial obsessive spell with that game. Like, I recently got a Tamagotchi (seriously) and it is as dead as dead can be. How are your islands looking lately?
Han: At first I was playing for hours at a time, which then dwindled to an hour every morning, and I think I stopped logging on every day close to the holidays, around November or so. However, I do still log on now and then just to see how things are going and to check out the seasonal updates. Also, I bought my mother a Switch as a gift early on in the pandemic so she could also play Animal Crossing, which we played together on the GameCube when I was a kid, and she sends me things now and then, so I log on to check that. And visiting each other’s islands has been the closest thing to actually visiting that we’ve had.
Adams: What’s that been like, Karen? You’re the third person I know of just at Slate who bought their mom a Switch so they could play ACNH (although I think the only one who is actually playing along with them).
Han: Honestly, really nice! Again, it’s a virtual way of visiting each other, but on top of that, when we played the GameCube game, she used to send me bells, but this time around, because I played the Stalk Market, I got to be the one sending bells! She also will send me clothing items in the game that she thinks would be cute on me, which is a very sweet and comfortingly mom thing to do.
Frank: That is SO CUTE. I could cry. I love mothers and daughters gaming together!
It sounds like having family involved is a great way to stay committed, even if it’s to a different degree of commitment nowadays. My best friend mocks me for not playing nearly as much on occasion; he’s still more involved than many people I know. But for the most part, I think everyone I know who was hardcore obsessed has moved onto something else (like Hades; they all love Hades). I think I burned myself out on it after all those marathon sessions, but Animal Crossing always finds little ways to lure me back in, with events and whatnot.
Adams: To answer your question, Allegra, my involvement has definitely waned, and then waxed again, which has a lot to do with my daughter’s involvement. She started watching Animal Crossing YouTubers and got very into figuring out the mechanics of the game—although I drew the line at trying time travel—which led to some awfully long afternoons hunting for the perfect villagers. (Judy continues to elude us.) She drifted into Roblox over the summer and fall, and while I kept playing to hit various achievements, I eventually caught all the fish and bugs and would just check in for a few minutes a day to shake some trees and check in with Tuatara’s residents. But she’s now got a text chain going with some friends from school, and so we’re back in it now, although not to the same extent.
Speaking of achievements, what is the thing in the game you’re proudest of.
Han: I have Sherb and Raymond, which I feel like is a brag-worthy achievement.
Frank: My biggest achievement was getting Broffina off my island. I don’t eat chickens; I don’t look at chickens; I don’t live with chickens. That girl had got to go.
Adams: Sherb is my kid’s BFF.
Han: He’s so cute!
Adams: My proudest achievement is getting copies of all 95 K.K. Slider songs and hanging them on the walls in my basement. That involved a stupid amount of list-making and account swapping, but I remain very pleased with myself.
Han: Oh, nice!!!
Frank: Fave K.K. song??? Mine is “K.K. Parade,” the live version. I’m a freak like that.
Han: “Only Me.”
Adams: I am a big fan of “K.K. Rock,” although mostly the unplugged version
Han: Sam, that, along with your Animal Crossing achievement, is the most dad answer ever.
Adams: I am well-aware. I am leaning in.
It’s part of the life cycle of a game like this that you invest a tremendous amount of time in it and then you drift slowly away, coming back every once in a while to squish some roaches. Does that feel, I don’t know, melancholy? I feel like ACNH is particularly linked to a particular time and place in my life, and it’s one that, island life notwithstanding, I will be very glad to see end.
Han: I’ve had kind of the opposite thought about it—I logged back in today to make sure I was wearing a nice outfit for our group photo, and seeing the island covered in snow made me think it might be time for me to really get back into it. I gave up on doing a lot of terraforming initially, but maybe now I’ll redo my whole island and make it perfect. So I guess, for me, it’s less melancholy and more cyclic.
Frank: Nintendo advertised the original game as “the game that’s still playing even when you’re not.” I’ve always thought of it that way; Animal Crossing is something you come back to when you remember, or when you’re missing it. It’s a forever experience, ideally. I’m excited to see what it’s like when we hit March again, for example, now that I can enjoy it with a lot more bells and cute clothes and new villagers around. There’s always something a little bit different to check out, even if briefly.