Relishing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, An Anti-Anxiety Oasis

Photo: Courtesy of Nintendo

New York City on lockdown feels like the sticks. There’s not much open and not a whole lot to do. You make up your own fun at home. Eventually, you run out of ideas, go to bed, and start again in the morning. This is a peculiar time in every quadrant of the entertainment industry because everyone’s isolated and scared shitless, and until the government’s package of provisions to keep people afloat goes into effect, it’s going to continue to feel like the sky is falling.

But in the interim, the precautionary safety measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 this month have created a massive captive audience eagerly consuming television, music, and whatever else passes the time. It’s not a silver lining, but for the lucky few, it’s an opportunity. The Weeknd’s sultry, retro After Hours album is projected to reap one of the better first-week returns in a year that’s seen big releases by Lil Wayne, Eminem, Justin Bieber, and BTS. With movie theaters indefinitely shuttered across the country, films like Birds of Prey and The Invisible Man hit video on demand early, to our and presumably their benefit. But the dark-horse candidate for most satisfying quarantine-month(s?) distraction so far is Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch.

Animal Crossing is a weird little game, half a life simulator (not unlike The Sims in that you spend a lot of time cultivating relationships with cutesy neighbors as the newest resident in an idyllic rural settlement) and half a methodical town management exercise. You blow into the neighborhood and set about making connects and growing the local culture and economy. You help the shopkeep beef up business and assist the bookish museum curator literally named Blathers by gifting items to exhibit.

This all seemed drab to me for many years. I play a lot of fighting games, action/adventure joints, and role-players, IP’s about whooping a lot of ass in order to gain the ability to whoop yet more ass. My 2019 favorites include Mortal Kombat 11, the spiritual Castlevania successor Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and The Outer Worlds, a smart and timely RPG/shooter about rescuing the world from heartless corporatocracy. This year I’m all about Dragon Ball: Kakarot and the anime fighter GranBlue Fantasy Versus. Animal Crossing’s “making friends with anthropomorphic mammals” bit is not my scene. But since the release of New Horizons last Friday, I’m about 15 hours in, the most time I ever spent on Animal Crossing. What gives?

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is vital quarantine art because it runs refreshingly against the rising tide of bad, dark news spilling out of every phone, television, and computer screen on the planet. You’re on an island passing time by doing right by all the locals. My settlement — called Uptown, of course — is a pocket universe where nobody disagrees, fights, or dies. Everyone serves a purpose in the grand scheme of things. (Though some of these little animals seem to think the way to get shit done is simply to ask me to do it, but that’s fine. The weeds won’t uproot themselves, and the local wildlife needs someone to do all the cataloguing.) You’re encouraged to spend your day outside. Nature is unpredictable but rarely chaotic, as long as you don’t test spiders and wasps. There’s something to do at every hour of the day, whether it’s scrounging for resources for a building project, flipping fish and seashells for quick cash, or decorating the inside of your house and the grounds outside. The characters are memorably quirky, as is the swag. I met a seagull named Gulliver (he travels!) who gave me a pyramid for finding pieces of his broken communicator and a ghost who gifted me bunk beds. The touchless toilet in my house came from a gift-wrapped box some unseen benefactor sailed over to the island on a balloon. This happens a lot.

I’m playing Animal Crossing voraciously this month partly because it’s one thing I can micromanage in a world moving in directions I don’t want it to. It’s also constant busywork, and that’s the mechanism that works best for me when anxiety ramps up. I plunge into random projects and put distance between my brain and what upsets me. Animal Crossing is essentially an endless series of such projects. (My museum and revamped shop should be ready. I really put in work this weekend.)

More importantly, Uptown doesn’t fall into chaos when I look away. Maybe I’ll come back to a few more weeds later. Otherwise, from the gorgeous flugelhorn and ukulele theme that plays when you turn the game on to the jingle you hear when you save and quit, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is all control, comfort, and stasis. That makes it the most eerily prescient game release of the month (in the same way the quirky premises of Netflix’s The Circle and Love Is Blind, reality shows about dating around and sparking friendships in an environment where you can’t really touch the other person, stumbled sloppily onto the zeitgeist). I’m off the fence now. I love it. These little animals are improving my quality of life. (Just as I’m improving theirs.)

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Is My Anti-Anxiety Oasis