In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, people are seeking different ways to not only pass the huge amounts of time many of us find ourselves with, but also cope with and escape the increasingly dark news cycle.
I’ve baked more bread in the last week alone than in the rest of my life combined. My roommates and I have developed an addiction to flavoured seltzer water — shoutout to mango La Croix. We’ve gotten really into the HBO show “Succession.” And then, of course, there’s “Tiger King,” the world’s latest WTF streaming obsession.
But one coping mechanism has risen above the rest for me and millions of others around the world: “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”
The video game, the seventh entry in the Animal Crossing series, dropped March 20 for the Nintendo Switch, a few days after social distancing began in earnest for many people. The release spurred many ill-informed line-ups at video games stores like EB Games and GameStop that were still open for some reason (they’ve since closed). But you could also order it online, which millions of people did.
The game launched to universal acclaim, and came at the perfect time for people to spend hours a day chopping wood, catching fish and paying off your debt to a pesky raccoon.
Like previous iterations of the Animal Crossing series, “New Horizons” finds the player tasked with setting up a small community filled with animal friends.
“The game launched to universal acclaim, and came at the perfect time for people to spend hours a day chopping wood, catching fish and paying off your debt to a pesky raccoon.”
That’s it — there’s no grand macguffin to be obtained or bad guys to beat. Your job in the game is to live in this virtual town and make friends with virtual animals like Dom the ram or Flora, the flamingo.
Honestly, a dream right now.
“New Horizons” includes the added spin of a tropical island setting, and an escapist “vacation” vibe. Like previous entries in the series, you must repay a series of loans to that pesky raccoon I mentioned, named Tom Nook (who’s definitely a crook) in order to set up first a tent, and later an ever-expanding house.
Eventually, other animals move to your island. “New Horizons” has a particular “DIY” crafting theme, where your character can take raw resources and build other things like furniture, gifts or landscaping for your island and its residents.
WATCH: “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is the endless virtual getaway we need. Story continues below.
It’s solitude done right, and a great way to spend the hours you’re stuck inside social distancing. Every day I log on and collect hardwood to build artisanal furniture that I resell to Timmy and Tommy, the raccoons that own the local shop. Sometimes, I dig up fossils to help Blathers the owl fill up his museum. Other days, I build a rainbow crosswalk on my island because I want my virtual world to be filled with pride.
There are some loosely defined goals built into the game — catch this many fish to fill out your collection, collect materials to build a general store — but overall the game experience is up to you.
Making music? You can do that.
Recreating horror movie scenes? Definitely.
Or maybe you just want to catch a bunch of tarantulas? You can do that too.
And while you can spend all day puttering around doing whatever your heart desires, it can also be a delightfully social experience.
My friend Marta was set to fly out to the west coast from Calgary this past weekend for her 30th birthday. Friends were going to gather in Victoria, karaoke would be sung, it was going to be a blast. However, with advisories against non-essential travel, large gatherings and more, those plans quickly collapsed.
But the party lived on in Animal Crossing. Marta opened up her island and friends popped by throughout the day to wish her well, drop off fruit, and pose for adorable pictures by the cake she had set up.
Up to eight people can visit a virtual island at once, which has led to plenty of wholesome parties.
And long-distance partners are even going on dates in the game.
There’s even been Animal Crossing weddings!
We don’t have a lot of control over the world around us right now, but in Animal Crossing, you can decide everything down to where the trees on your island grow or how you spend your day. You may not be putting on anything but sweatpants in real life, but you can pick out a different adorable outfit for your character every day in the game.
There’s something wonderfully banal about going through the motions of normal life — albeit virtual — in video games. It’s why we love life simulation games like “The Sims.” But right now in particular, it’s easy to understand the appeal of a game like Animal Crossing, which takes that simulation and removes any stress and instead covers it in a veneer of cuteness and community.
“There’s something wonderfully banal about going through the motions of normal life — albeit virtual — in video games.”
I’ve been reporting on COVID-19 since January. The daily new cycle has been exhausting, particularly in the past few weeks as this global pandemic has hit home here in Canada. Every day I read and write about more deaths, more diagnoses and more of my friends and loved ones losing their jobs. Whether you’re a reporter or not, you’re likely tapped into it too.
March has felt like the longest month that’s ever been. And according to officials, social distancing restrictions will be in place until at least the summer. Further, we won’t return to “normal” until a vaccine is developed — which will likely take more than a year.
What’s helped me get through it is, sometimes after a long day of following this endless news cycle, I’ll log off Twitter, curl up with a cup of tea and boot up the game.
There’s this little outcropping of rock on my virtual island that stretches out into the sea. I’ve set up a chair there where I can sit and watch the virtual sunset.
Sometimes I’ll sit there for half an hour, doing nothing at all and just watching the waves roll in and the sun go down.
And for a little while, things are alright.
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