Escaping Into a Virtual Life

The world may be in self-isolation but at least we have Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

I can honestly say New Horizons has been a life-saver. After parks and businesses started to close, life went kind of crazy, and even when I thought I could keep myself on track it was a lot harder to do than I expected. Something as simple as going to the grocery store is a lot more stressful. I’m just one of the thousands to spend a little time on a deserted island with lots of cute little animals when I need to check out of the real world for a bit.

But seriously, the timing is uncanny. Just as people all over the world close their doors and block themselves off from the real world, one of the most popular simulation games drops for the Nintendo Switch.

People are desperate to find something to do, and Animal Crossing is shiny and new, family-friendly with multiplayer functionality, and thus the perfect option for people looking to fill those empty, anxiety-riddled hours. So it’s not surprising that the Nintendo Switch consoles became unusually scarce in the week that followed it’s release. We’re facing a lot of fear and uncertainty, right now, and I think that’s why people are so drawn to a game like this.

I hesitate to call Animal Crossing a life simulation game, but then I don’t really know what else to call it. It’s just too adorable and wholesome to be any sort of simulation of life. But maybe that’s part of the appeal. With the rest of the world in various stages of disarray, it’s nice to have a relaxing, happy and wholesome game to sink your many free hours into.

Of course, two weeks after the release we’re definitely seeing a split between the people who are relaxed and enjoying the game for what it is, and those who are trying to exploit the game mechanics, but I’m not about to judge someone for their play style. I think that’s one of the strengths of the Animal Crossing series – it allows you to play the way you want to and to set your own goals. Or you can have no goals at all and simply wander from place to place and task to task. How you choose to embrace the game to cope with everything that is going on is up to you.

As for me, while I enjoy looking at those beautifully designed islands, I know from doing the same back in New Leaf that it is also extremely time-consuming. And with everything going on, I think I just like a more casual playstyle.

I have always used games like this as an escape. When life feels stressful and out of control, there is something intensely satisfying about playing a game where you are in control, and outcomes can be predicted. I also love playing games for their story of course, but there are some games that I play purely for the enjoyment of the mechanics, and I think those are the sorts of games people are drawn to right now.

In New Horizons, you are the recent purchaser of the Nook Getaway Package, where you head off to a deserted island to explore and build your own community of adorable critters. It has those island getaway vibes but it’s also a fresh start. It’s about new beginnings. Things are going to be hard when you first land, and you have to work constantly and diligently to make your island prosper, but I think that’s a powerful message. When complemented with the Switch’s HD graphics, you have all the ingredients for a truly immersive experience. As close as you can get right now to a real island getaway.

And in a time of self-isolation, it provides the opportunity to hang out and have fun with your friends and be social. I’ve even heard of people throwing birthday parties on their islands or going on museum dates, because meeting up with them in person just isn’t an option.

Maybe that’s why everyone is playing it. Even celebrities.

A few days after release I invited my sister over to my island and we had a silly photoshoot.

This might be slightly unrelated, but if you haven’t heard the ambient sounds in this game, you are missing out. The wind, the rustling leaves, the rippling water, and the crickets hiding in the grass add a new level of immersion to such an adorable game. The sound of a crackling fire at night or the waves on the beach is calming and you can’t help but stop and take a moment to appreciate it in the middle of the fishing and bug hunting.

Playing a game has never been as relaxing and satisfying as it has been right now, while we’re all stuck in our homes. Playing New Horizons has been such a pleasure, and not one I’m sure I would have appreciated nearly as much if there weren’t a pandemic on our hands.

A little appreciation for the sound design of this game. The ambient sounds really are spectacular.

In Animal Crossing, life is simple, and with it comes regular routine – something some of us have very little of at the moment. Now I’ve sung the praises about New Horizons for a while, but I do accept that it’s not for everyone. Thankfully, there are a lot of other games out there that can scratch that itch and give you much-needed escapism:

It’s nice to see games like New Horizons get the sort of attention they deserve, because they are amazing games, and have been a soothing balm on troubled and anxious minds. Especially given the weird state of the world we are currently experiencing. There really is a place for all sorts of games, and all sorts of playstyles.

Stay safe everyone. Stay home, and maybe play some Animal Crossing.

Let’s Chat!

Have you picked up Animal Crossing New Horizons? What has your experience been? Are you addicted to it in this time of self-isolation? Or have you been doing something else to occupy your time? Let’s chat in the comments!

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