SOME PEOPLE call it boring while others describe it as the best game of the century. Animal Crossing has earned a huge number of fans since its launch in 2001. The hype was especially excessive for this year’s release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the newly developed Nintendo Switch version. For the people who are adhering to the #StayHome directives amid the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened social distancing guidelines, the game has provided a so-called “healing effect” to its players. In order to understand the Animal Crossing fandom, one should take a look at how the series has evolved; the reason why fans love the game so much, however, hasn’t changed much since their first encounter with the game.
Exploring the “Wild World”
A taxi traverses the rainy streets and drops off the player in an unknown village. Pelly the pelican proceeds to register you as a new resident at the town hall. Not long into the game, your racoon landlord Tom Nook tells you to pay mortgage for the tiny house you begin to settle in (because nothing comes for free). Fishing, bug-catching, fossil-digging, and fruit-picking are a must for the game to progress. Some players go full on hunter-gatherer mode to collect and sell all the goods. Tom Nook expands your house and adds new rooms every time you pay off the loans. Players often brag about how they hoarded money and expensive furniture within a few days into the game. Yet, it isn’t just the competitive drive that makes people keep playing Animal Crossing; in fact, players are often blamed for taking the game too seriously.
A sense of sanctuary is the essence of Animal Crossing. Different seasons and hours of the day are reflected through beautiful graphics. You can pick up your Nintendo any time and enjoy different activities amidst a calming environment. Then you might ask what has changed since the Nintendo DS edition in 2005 and why people are so excited for the game’s latest comeback. Sam Sharma, a veteran game producer at Electronic Arts, comments that Animal Crossing: New Horizons couldn’t have come out at a better time and notes that the “comfort of doing daily tasks” makes the gaming experience a “relaxing escape*.” Daily tasks in the game like gardening are things that we do not really get to do often in the modern era. However, as our lives become less hectic during the global pandemic, we start to appreciate even the most mundane tasks. You cannot blame players for being “escapist”; if people are playing video games during quarantine, they are contributing to the prevention of the infectious disease from spreading further. There are even cases where users celebrate their birthdays on the game by inviting their friends over to their island—a perfect example of social distancing.
Meeting neighbors and socializing
People create intimate ties through Animal Crossing. Users greet and chat with different animals to become their close friends. You listen to the villagers’ stories and carry out their requests from time to time. Furry friends even send you letters to your mailbox along with wrapped gifts. Some people use Animal Crossing as a means of connecting with others in the most genuine ways that we don’t really see often nowadays. Little things like picking what clothes the animal should wear and deciding on greetings all become memories you build with your buddy. Likewise, people appreciate the socializing element of the game that encourages people to stay loyal to the game to do the best they can for their fellow villagers.
Expanding and collecting
For the Wii and Nintendo 3DS releases, Nintendo added new maps to keep the players entertained for a longer period of time. Such additions to the game allowed people to visit more shops, meet new animal villagers, and catch more exotic fish and bugs. From unfamiliar creatures like the “living fossil” fish coelacanth and world’s largest butterfly Queen Alexandra's birdwing to tarantulas and sharks, Animal Crossing serves as a visual encyclopedia for users. It is an educational experience to catch different fish and bugs that people have only seen in books before, and this particular aspect sparks curiosity in people’s minds.
The Critterpedia** is thus an undeniable factor that led players to form online fan communities where they can hold discussions on where and when they can get their hands on rare creatures. In an interview with The Next Web, Dennis van den Broek, senior designer at Guerrilla Games, explains that the “hook” of the game is the “feeling of accomplishment and euphoria” when completing tasks and collecting items that are difficult to find in real life. Recently, many lifestyle gurus have been encouraging people to “learn a new skill” during quarantine. Achievements of the Animal Crossing character leave the player feeling satisfied, and this sensation is very addictive. Since there are no time limitations in Animal Crossing, players can continuously carry out efforts to complete their inventory without much pressure.
Looking towards “New Horizons”
In Animal Crossing, there is no true “ending.” This attribute of the game was regarded as a double-edged sword; some players appreciated the fact that they did not have to attack others or go through difficult quests, while others questioned the need to play the game consistently. The solution to win back the hearts of users who disapproved of the game was simple: updates on functions and events. In the 2020 release, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players are finally able to craft their own items (furniture, tools, installations…) and freely cross rivers with a brand-new tool: a vaulting pole. For the mobile and Switch releases, Nintendo holds various seasonal events that follow one after another. From early to mid-April, it was the “Sakura” season where players could participate in activities to earn cherry blossom-themed goods. The “Bunny Day” season followed shortly after to celebrate Easter. Limited-edition collectibles provide a definite reason for players to make daily visits. Players find delight in getting small rewards from participating in these events.
With nothing much to do at home during the self-isolation period, people have shown growing interest towards Animal Crossing. The therapeutic game lets people fight against their COVID-19 blues by bringing comfort to the body and mind. Enhanced graphics are pleasing to the eye and new soundtracks have been added in addition to the tunes we remember from our childhood. Nostalgia kicks in and takes us back to the days when the Nintendo DS was the best gift that a kid could ever receive. At a time of growing uncertainty and fear, people tend to recall happy memories of the past. People go on Animal Crossing because unlike their current, frustrating reality, the virtual world of Animal Crossing is always filled with puns (made by the animals themselves) and funs.
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The love and attention towards Animal Crossing: New Horizons wasn’t a sudden blow-up; the fandom gradually developed since the beginning of the Animal Crossing series, although it is fair to acknowledge that the COVID-19 outbreak was a catalyst for the explosive demand for the game. Like always, animals are willing to become friends with you and bugs and fish are waiting to be captured in the game. Cancel your spring picnics and let’s Animal Crossing and chill at home.
*The Next Web
**Critterpedia: a record of all the fish and bugs that the player has caught on Animal Crossing