I remember, I was sitting on the floor of my friend's bedroom, staring up at his tiny silver box of a TV. It was 2003, and I was in the second grade. He was playing a game — piloting a cute little character through a bubbly, dreamy cartoon town filled with randomly selected animal villagers, flowers and fruit trees (that occasionally yielded money bags). That was my first encounter with Nintendo's Animal Crossing. I went home and begged my parents for the game.
It might seem like a strange time to be talking about video games. But right now, a lot of us are stuck indoors, scared and uncertain about the future. A lot of our normal coping mechanisms are cut off — but video games can bring us joy, escape, and connection.
So this is the beginning of a new, biweekly column called Join the Game, where I will talk about (can you guess?) video games and gaming culture from the perspective of a lifelong gamer and former gaming YouTuber. I'll post reviews for both big AAA releases and indie games, showcase interesting people in the gaming industry, and dig into the ways we play.
And very few games are as well-equipped for joy, escape and connection as Animal Crossing — the latest edition of which, New Horizons, is out this month. Like every AC game, it starts you off as the sole human in a community of extremely cute animals.
You have no money or possessions, only a tent and some camping supplies that you get from the game's eternal entrepreneur Tom Nook — along with a debt to pay off. The main goal of the game, if there is one, is to fully upgrade your house and pay off your debt for each upgrade — but how you get there is up to you. You can catch fish and bugs to sell, dig fossils, make friends with the local animals, unlock new characters and features — or just wander around enjoying the scenery.
That part of Animal Crossing has never changed. Back in second grade, I spent endless hours playing; my little town was a way to calm down and escape to another reality, a place to go when I felt alone and needed a mood boost.
And that still applies today, no matter how dark reality gets. I'm in the at-risk group for COVID-19 because of my bad asthma. As a precaution, I haven't been going outside my apartment at all. But playing New Horizons this weekend was the first time in months that I didn't think about the coronavirus.
After a particularly tough day in the land of self isolation, I opened the game for the first time. The stress immediately melted away from my chest as I was greeted by Tom Nook's twin nephews, the big eyed Timmy and Tommy, perched behind a travel counter. They were there to help me jet off to a new life on Nook's dime, and part of my goal on top of paying my debt was to develop a deserted island into a thriving community.
After I landed on the island, I was happily kept busy by all the small, simple tasks the Nooks assigned me: Finding the perfect spot for everybody's tents, gathering twigs and rocks to make a fishing rod, net, and axe, and harvesting fruit for an island-warming bonfire party.
As I hunted for materials, there were soothing sounds coming from all around. I heard the sand crunching under my feet on the beach, shifting to a pattering sound as I stepped onto the grass. The sound of the wind and the waves going back and forth were constantly present, and every action made a satisfying bloop, click, or whistle. Whimsical jazz music played in the background, with a lot of soft piano and acoustic guitar.
The game runs in real time — 6pm in the real world is 6pm on your island — so there's a slow progression day by day as your town grows. And that slow, day to day life is part of the reason Animal Crossing is so beloved; the repetitive, satisfying tasks of digging a hole, chopping down wood, and fishing, against the amazing sonic backdrop. And everybody on your island is just so nice to you. Letters and gifts from neighbors are constantly flooding your home's mailbox.
I went around talking to the villagers on my island in my cute new sweatshirt dress and matching boots. Mira, my rabbit villager, said she had a great hat to go with my outfit. It matched perfectly! Yes, she's a cartoon rabbit on a tiny screen, but I was legitimately touched.
There are some negatives. Animal Crossing: New Horizons only gives players one island per console. It's one island even if there are two accounts and two separate copies of the game. A family shouldn't buy the game expecting to use one console and get their own island. And for now, at least, you can't transfer your island from one console to another.
Also, while multiplayer allows up to eight people, it's a bit tedious to get set up for large groups at first. Everybody has to join the island one by one or the connection will fail.
But that multiplayer aspect lets me and my boyfriend hang out with our friends in the game, and still maintain proper social distance. I've spoken to friends that I haven't heard from in years because they wanted to visit my island — and when you're cooped up in your apartment, hanging out on an island and taking pictures together wearing funny outfits is a relief.
I'm going to be coming back to this game a lot over the next few months to bring myself some peace and joy. It's a great way to stay connected with others. I highly recommend picking up a copy (digitally!) and disappearing into it for the weekend.
Kaity Kline is a columnist for NPR's Join the Game and a producer on 1A. She is a native of New Jersey, a lifelong gamer, and a former gaming YouTuber. She tweets at @kaitykline.
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