A notification sets my phone screen light as I brush my teeth, having just gotten home after a (legally permissible) night out. A wave of panic brushes over me. The cause for concern isn’t the notification, or my molars, but the time. It’s 11:56 p.m. Panic turns to somber resignation.
“Damn, Daniel,” I tell myself. “You forgot to water the plants.”
Not actual plants, virtual plants. In my Animal Crossing island. I’m trying to get my island star rating up, and spent hours earlier in the week organizing miscellaneous monuments, lining beaches with tropical coconut trees, and decorating the highlands with shrubbery and flowers.
The shrubbery and trees are easy. Give them enough space and they’ll grow just fine. But the flowers? It’s the flowers that get you. You’ll need to water those bad boys every day if you want them to grow. Think you’re getting even a 4-star island without populating it with dozens of floral friends? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Even if you don’t play Animal Crossing, you’ve probably heard a lot about it. The Switch game sold over 13 million copies in just six weeks, making it more popular than even Pokemon Let’s Go Pikachu and Eevee. It’s a cartoonish life simulator that puts you on a deserted island and tasks you with turning it into a paradise.
The joys of this process are hard to describe to someone who hasn’t played an Animal Crossing game before. Much of the gameplay revolves around fishing, chopping wood, mining stone and crafting. It’s relaxing, but goal-oriented enough to be stimulating. Its March 20 release coincided with much of the world entering coronavirus lockdown and it was the perfect game to help calm that chaos. There’s no confronting story or complex mechanics. New Horizons is a timesink, but it’s also simple, low-commitment fun.
At least, at first it’s low-commitment fun. But now, two months in, it’s becoming a problem.
A quest for perfection
If you’re the type of person who likes to commit to one single game for long periods of time, New Horizons is a dream. If you like to play multiple games at once or, God forbid, juggle gaming time with reading or binge watching, it’s a waking nightmare.
A colorful, cheerful waking nightmare, which substitutes a grotesque Freddy Kruger monster for an enterprising racoon named Tom Nook. But a nightmare nonetheless.
Animal Crossing doesn’t really have an end. At a certain point, you’re given an island rating (1 star) and tasked with improving it to attract more villagers. So you can get a 5-star island, the highest rating on the scale, but does that mean you won Animal Crossing? I don’t know.
In some ways, it’s not actually a game, more like an exercise in sculpting. Animal Crossing gives you a ton of clay, sometimes literally, and a set of tools. Then it lets you do whatever you want.
Tom Nook, the aforementioned nightmare raccoon in the guise of a thrifty real estate agent, gives you various tasks, many of which revolve around Bells, the other type of island money. Each day you’ll also be given a set of tasks to complete, like collect 10 pieces of wood or 20 clumps of weed, in exchange for Nook Miles, one of two types of in-game currency. All of this is fun but, since the game is more about creativity than completing objectives, they’re essentially tutorials.
I’d sometimes find myself going about my daily chores, collecting all manor of natural resources, and stopping to wonder exactly why. I’d dig up fossils to sell for big bucks, which I could then use to add a new room to my house. But I’d already added so many rooms to my house, only to be talked into more expansions — and debt — by Tom Nook. Why.
I had seen people on online posting videos from their incredible islands. Islands that looked like they were designed by Animal Crossing’s actual development team. Islands that replicated games like Pokemon, The Legend of Zelda and even Pac-Man. Islands that most likely took hundreds of hours to put together.
I respect the hustle, but I don’t have that in me. I’m not a completionist, I like to enjoy the meat of a game and move on to the next. I spent dozens and dozens of hours with Animal Crossing, and I was ready to wind down. But, with no logical end point, when?
I eventually got my island up to a 3-star rating, a pathetic achievement considering the amount of time sunk into the game. Tom Nook congratulated me, and exclaims that K.K. Slider, a guitar strumming Jack Russell Terrier who he’d been trying to catch the ear of, would be visiting the island. The screen fades to black.
Next thing I know, K.K. is on my island. He’s singing a tune. The villagers are loving it. And as they sway to his musical stylings, credits roll down the right side of the screen. Yes! I had done it.
As I restart the game, Nook informs me that I’ve now unlocked the Island Designer app on my phone. This gives me the ability to lay down pavement, build rivers, shape cliffs and more. Essentially, he’s telling me that now the game really begins.
Too good to be true
Animal Crossing: New Horizons really is a masterclass in keeping you hooked.
Each time I begin to ask why, a new feature is unlocked, or a mysterious new villager arrives to inform me of some new thing I can do. Changes in seasons bring new fishing and bug-catching opportunities, and new events are announced every other week. June is all about photography, apparently.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t make you question your life choices at 11:56 p.m. on a Saturday night.