In the summer of 2016, Abdullah Naser, a 17-year-old student in Ontario, Canada, was suffering from what he later recognized as an episode of crippling depression.
“My mood was constantly down,” Naser, who posts YouTube videos about games and gaming, told me recently. “I didn’t want to go outside or interact with people, and the smallest inconveniences or setbacks during the day would send me spiraling with negative thoughts. I completely lacked the motivation or drive to set a daily routine for myself.”
Confining himself largely to his bedroom, he spent the only energy he could summon playing his Nintendo 3DS. It didn’t make him feel any less miserable, but it filled the hours.
And then he picked up Animal Crossing: New Leaf. The game—a “life sim” that casts you as the mayor of a small town full of animals—provided him with a sense of the routine he was lacking and the constant promise of new things to look forward to. He was moved, he says, to be more like the version of himself he saw in the game—positive, proactive, productive. And he was encouraged to get back on his feet by what he perceived as the game’s implicit “I think I can” philosophy of life: “The game throws you into an unfamiliar world where you have no money, no friends, and have no idea how anything works. But the more you play the game, the uncertainty of that goes away. It’s a version of life in which everything works out.”
Animal Crossing has recently gone what, in a less awful time, we might have called viral.
Released on Friday, March 20, after weeks of fans clamoring unsuccessfully for an early release, Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold a record-shattering 1.88 million physical copies in Japan in its opening weekend, the biggest-ever launch for a title on the Nintendo Switch console. Stateside, it has become a genuine crossover phenomenon: social media-clogging fan art and memes, headlines in The New York Times and CNN, big-name fans that include Lil Nas X and Brie Larson (“K.K. Slider is a mega star for me,” Larson told Elle.com, referring to the series’ guitar-toting Jack Russell), and everyone from the Museum of English Rural Life and Wendy’s joining the fun.
Two weeks in and the game is continuing to generate a torrent of rolling coverage (latest headline at the time of writing: “Animal Crossing: New Horizon Fans Say There Is a Table Shortage”), a feel-good unfolding news event in stark contrast to that other unfolding news event.
If you ever desperately needed to escape into a videogame, it would be now. In the midst of a devastating global pandemic, gaming is a responsible way to self-isolate and observe social distancing guidelines while offering an anxiety-alleviating retreat from reality.
And certainly there are plenty of games other than Animal Crossing that would provide blissful, engrossing distraction. In a pleasing odd-couple union, the game shared a release date with the first-person shooter Doom Eternal, which has you hurtling through a fiery hellscape at cannonball speeds blasting baddies in the face. Who would have guessed that Doom Eternal’s primal scream would be drowned out by Animal Crossing’s tender lullaby? As many have realized, the specificity of the experience offered by Animal Crossing is uniquely and uncannily suited to the current crisis.
“Animal Crossing was already going to be a welcome relief from what's happening in the real world, but the timing for New Horizons is incredible,” says David Thair, host of just one of a bountiful crop of Animal Crossing podcasts. When we spoke, on the Sunday after the game’s release, Thair had just returned from a raucous in-game “festival”—he and his partner and friends had gathered on “Fyre Island,” attended an opening ceremony, traded items, taken part in a treasure hunt, jammed on ocarinas and tambourines, and generally run amok.
“I couldn't think of a better game to see us through.”
Animal Crossing was first released in North America in 2002. Initially, it was to be just one part of a sprawling multiplayer RPG. A village filled with chatty critters, it would have been the break room of the game proper, a space to regroup and take a breather before heading back into the fray.
The game was planned for the 64DD, a new disk-drive add-on for the Nintendo 64. But when the 64DD failed to take off, the dev team had to drastically scale back their would-be RPG to run on a less powerful machine. At this point, you might think, any sensible dev team would zero in on the heroic central quest. Instead, they did the opposite. They ditched the adventure, scrapped the stakes, and decided to keep the bit where the players just sort of hang out. There would be no combat or game-over screen. It was a bit like throwing out the baby but keeping the bathwater.
Released the same year as tent-pole entries in the Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, and Smash Bros. series, the resulting game defied easy categorization or description—it was decidedly not about being super or legendary or smashing things: An early title was “That Day-to-Day Life.” Could you even call it a game? Or was it, as Nintendo guru Shigeru Miyamoto described it, more of a venue for doing “game-type things”?
“Those of us working on it had thought it was interesting,” said Hisashi Nogami, director of the first three Animal Crossing games and producer of New Horizons, in a 2008 interview with then-Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, “but we were still at a point where we weren’t really sure about whether anyone would want to play a game that wasn't quite a game.”
The main entries in the series have mostly adhered to the template established nearly two decades ago. As Animal Crossing begins, you are a wide-eyed wayfarer embarking on a new life, deposited in a picturesque, randomly generated locale that feels equal parts small country town and fairytale forest. So far, so familiar; it could be the opening of a heroic quest. But then you meet a raccoon in a sweater vest, and find yourself—where most games would entrust you with a mission—with a mortgage.
And then … you do what you want. You might renovate your home, buy a bunch of stuff you don’t really need. You might pick fruit, plant flowers, go fishing. (The game has been cited as an inspirational touchstone for “cottagecore,” a movement dedicated to rustic mundanity.) You might dig for fossils, monitor turnip prices (the in-game equivalent of the stock market), contribute to public works projects or compose the town jingle. And you might mingle with the anthropomorphic animal denizens of the land, the sole human in a never-ending Aesop's fable.
And you might well ask, how is any of this fun? It’s a question that even the most ardent fans of Animal Crossing have pondered (and dedicated podcast episodes to). A reasonable question for a player to ask while puttering around or plucking another acre’s worth of weeds, the only real danger being the potential for overexposure to adorable animals. (“I am so far somewhat perplexed by the POINT of it all,” Stephen Fry tweeted over the weekend. “Is it, in this sense, a metaphor for life itself?”)
Without doubt, part of the pleasure is precisely that sense of womblike coziness and security—an effect you might attribute, in recent years, to a stronger female presence behind the scenes. New Leaf and New Horizons director Aya Kyogoku, who has worked at Nintendo since 2003, went from frequently being the sole woman in the room to being the first female game director in Nintendo’s main development division, heading up a gender-balanced team. (She now manages Nintendo’s main development division.) Diversity of all kinds, she has said, is essential, a broader message implied in the game’s multicolored and zoologically diverse cast. “[Diversity] can open you up to hearing a greater variety of ideas and sharing a greater diversity of ideas,” she told WIRED in 2014.
Let’s be clear: There’s lots to do in the game, including launching headlong into an epic entomological-ichthyological collect-a-thon. Plus, plenty of ways for players to beautify the place and self-express, from customizing their clothes and home interiors to urban design. That aspect, that maternal sense of nurturing and caring for a living, growing thing, might be connected to more female influence behind the scenes too, as well as accounting for some of the game’s massive appeal to female gamers.
Crucially, however, you don’t have to do anything. You might simply leave Animal Crossing on in the background, perhaps deriving the kind of pleasures Brian Eno had in mind when designing Ambient 1: Music for Airports to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” You might, as New Leaf art director Ryuji Kobayashi hoped you might, savor the hues of the sky over the course of the day.
Which brings us to the truly inspired innovation central to much of Animal Crossing’s poetry and magic: the way the game syncs to your console’s calendar and clock. Pay a visit in the daytime—and Animal Crossing does feel like a game that you visit, like your local Zen garden—and villagers are out catching rays. Check in late at night, and the game seems to channel some of the feeling of the world outside your window, including the actual phase of the moon. Seasons and holidays come and go in the in-game world as in the real one; just this last Wednesday morning, cherry blossoms bloomed all over New Horizons players’ personal paradises.
At one point, the team also considered letting real-world weather conditions seep into Animal Crossing before they realized that no player living where it rains all the time wants to play a game where it rains all the time. Still, even without sharing weather systems, there’s a strong sense that the worlds inside and outside the game interrelate. Animal Crossing gives the profound impression of a place that carries on existing beyond the looking glass of your television screen even when your console is off. The lingering effect runs both ways: “After they finish playing,” Nogami said in an interview with Nintendo of Europe, “I would like that something remains in them from the game.”
At a time when games were setting out to torture the thumbs of more and more skillful players, creator and codirector Katsuya Eguchi—who had cut his teeth designing levels for Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World—wanted everyone to pick up a controller and have a go. Ultimately, the game that hit shelves in 2002, and the installments that followed, had less in common with those games than the serene centerlessness of Monet’s “Water Lilies.” It was a thing to commune with rather than try to beat, inviting you, in sotto voce tones, to devote a little bit of every day to it.
More than any other game at the time, it signaled the casual-gamer-courting future of Nintendo. Even more than that, Animal Crossing anticipated the far-more overtly experimental, impressionistic “art” games of the 2010s. Many years before the rise of walking-paced exploration games like Dear Esther and Gone Home, Animal Crossing captured the lovely melancholy of pointless perambulation. (Working on the first game, sound designer Taro Bando incorporated the actual sounds of more than 100 different kinds of footsteps—the sound of walking on floorboards, on stone, on marble, through grass and water.) Aesthetically, one can discern the influence of Animal Crossing on the becalming colors and mellow design of the Escheresque puzzler Monument Valley—lead designer Ken Wong has called it as an important reference point for all makers of nonviolent games—which caresses the senses even as it tickles the mind.
Animal Crossing was also an inspiration cited by Jenova Chen, founder of Thatgamecompany and creator of Journey, the 2012 desert-wandering adventure game that exploded ideas of what was artistically possible in the medium. Though ostensibly very different, both games emphasized atmosphere, a state of mind, and cooperative gameplay. “Both are game-environment-focused, designed around nonviolent cooperative moments,” says Thatgamecompany narrative writer Jennie Kong. They’re games in which “you forge your own path and the emotional journey that comes with it.”
More recently, Thatgamecompany released Sky—another game about connection and community. (One of the key actions players can perform in the game, so touching in this time of social distancing, is exchanging hugs.) Again, says Kong, Animal Crossing was a “pivotal” influence. “I feel like the goal of Animal Crossing is building a community where friendship and harmony is at the heart.”
One of the more obvious draws of Animal Crossing right now: It throws friends at you the way Doom Eternal assaults you with demons. Strange as it is to say it about a game populated by furry and feathery things, it revolves around the value of human contact. It was a feature of the game, Eguchi has explained, inspired by his experience moving away from his friends and family when he first started working for Nintendo. Could a videogame, he wondered, be an antidote to isolation—instilling the fuzzy comforts of being surrounded by loved ones?
In New Horizons, four players can play simultaneously on the same console; in the game’s online mode, you can visit a friend’s island or invite a friend to yours, with each island supporting up to eight players simultaneously. The game becomes a wide-open virtual playground for you and your pals; the gallery grid of a Zoom hangout feels claustrophobically imprisoning and impersonal in comparison. But even when you’re not meeting up with real-life friends in the game, it’s oddly satisfying to buddy around and bond with the game’s nonhuman characters. They mightn’t have the most complex, multifaceted personalities in the world—Scoot, my island’s resident waterfowl, is really into fitness. That’s it—but they are highly agreeable, enlivening company, and they are almost ludicrously lovely to you, lavishing you with the kind of euphoric affection typically associated with certain chemical inducements. It turns out that, just as a videogame can impart a sense of fear and tension, one in which everyone is really, really nice to you can’t help but feel nourishing and delightful.
Beyond the charm of these in-game friendships, part of the intention of the game was to facilitate and encourage communication between different Animal Crossing players. One of the initial ideas was that different family members could play “together” even when they were apart: Perhaps Dad, coming home late, could track down the specific fish that had eluded Junior during the day. Friends could also swap memory cards to visit each other’s villages, a feat that seemed miraculous in the days before Nintendo went online. No surprise, then, that the franchise has produced a fan community as noisy and bustling as a village square, trading fruit and flowers, tips and tricks.
As Kong points out, ensconced as most of us are in our social-isolation cocoons, the joy of the social element of Animal Crossing feels newly powerful. “I’ve been so excited to run errands for friends, see a friend’s face, gift them something that I think that they would like,” she says (speaking, to be clear, about the game). “Particularly in the games industry, it’s been a mainstay for a lot of people. It’s definitely come at the right time.”
It would be a delectable irony if the reality behind the scenes of Animal Crossing was bitchy and horrible, with the simmering antipathies and resentments of any workplace. Disappointingly, it’s quite the opposite: The life-affirming magic of Animal Crossing, it turns out, works on the makers of the game themselves.
According to Kyogoku, compared to other Nintendo dev teams, the Animal Crossing team is happier, friendlier, less tense, and generally having a better time. Like their characters, they’re more inclined to celebrate special events, holidays, and each other’s birthdays. Even the play-testing—the laborious process of scouring the game for bugs and glitches during the torturous final stage of game development—felt authentically playful. “While we were test-playing [New Leaf],” Kyogoku told an industry audience at the 2014 Game Developers Conference, “we would ask around for turnip prices, visit the town with the highest turnip price, and leave a present for a thank-you gift, or contribute to the town’s public works project. Though we were testing the game, it really felt like we were playing with the final product—and it was a lot of fun.”
On a recent Friday night, I departed New York for New Horizons. I christened my island, chose a spot by the beach to pitch a tent, did some weeding and a spot of fishing, walked around wearing no pants, took a tarantula as a pet, posted a note on the bulletin board, and strolled the beach. And I enjoyed the company of some lovely new friends: a blue-eyed horse named Raneigh and a duck named Scoot.
In the space of a couple of hours, in what felt like a meaningful sense, I was more satisfyingly productive than I’d been in a week of self-imposed quarantine—more mobile, more social, more sensorially stimulated.
Normally, one thinks of videogames as the ultimate escapist art form, rendering you blissfully oblivious to reality with a press of the Start button. And certainly that’s part of the appeal of this game right now. But, in the sort of ruminative mood that Animal Crossing permits, you might realize that, in the current state of the world, the particular escapism the game provides is more like an escape back into normalcy. It’s a place where you can enjoy some of life’s recently taken-for-granted pleasures, previously everyday-seeming activities like going shopping, traveling, visiting a natural history museum, checking in on friends, simply going outside to experience the unfurling of a springtime day. There’s something poignant about the fact that the world of Animal Crossing more closely resembles normal life as we used to know it than what we’re living through right now.
It’s the kind of thought that might get you down, if you weren’t playing Animal Crossing, that is—a game that does everything it can to reassure you, in the manner of a considerate and attentive friend: Everything is going to be OK.