I remember when my friend Will got “Animal Crossing” for Gamecube. It looked cool the first night, it looked cool a week later, but I got yelled at when I asked to make a character and cut down a bunch of trees, because Will had to listen to Mr. Resetti gripe about Will rolling back my changes the fast way. It seemed cute, but I wasn’t at Will’s enough to find any fulfillment from his copy, and I wasn’t planning on buying a Gamecube.

For like eighteen years after that I’d hear about Animal Crossing occasionally, see one of their characters throw down against a generic anime swordhaver in Smash Bros., but I didn’t really have any interest in a Nintendo DS or Wii.

When I lived with Will, and he got “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” (BOTW) for Wii U, I watched him play a bunch and lucked into getting a Switch for that game (which is perfect, wish I could play it for the first time again). Another benefit of living with Will was getting to use his gaming PC to play “Doom” (the 2016 version that I refer to as “Doom 4”), which is also perfect.

From 2017 through 2019, on Switch, I ended up with “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” (good, dreading the day I have to destroy a nephew or niece in it), “Splatoon 2” (keep reading!), “Golf Story” (it’s alright, the golfing got too hard for my patience), and a few other games in 2017. Through 2018 and 2019 I played a lot of Splatoon 2, and quite a few single-player games, often while traveling. I deleted a trans-Atlantic trip with “Dead Cells,” and trans-Pacific flights with “Celeste,” “Night in the Woods,” and “Shovel Knight.” I tried the “Dark Souls” port and hated it. I played through “Super Mario Odyssey” over the course of a few weekends and found it brilliant. Once you beat the big boss and get the credits roll, the set of new goals that was hinted at throughout unlock and the real game begins.

A lot of people I chat with online were lamenting the simultaneous announcements (at the end of a fiscal quarter, thinking emoji) that “Doom Eternal” and “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” (“New Horizons” or “ACNH”) would be pushed back to 2020, and I was a bit sad but it’s not like I was going to bother with a gaming PC or an Animal Crossing game so whatever.

But “New Horizons” kept coming up in conversation. Outside a film screening in February 2020, I got in a conversation about if this new virus would make it to the US, but another person changed the topic to if Tom Nook (the racoon bureaucrat) is a villain for immediately and repeatedly putting you into debt, or benign for giving you a home with no strict obligation to pay for the privilege.

I went on a business trip March 9, 2020. Through the course of the week, the news got pretty grim pretty quickly. First, the Starbucks near the destination banned personal cups. Then, my coworkers decided they needed to rush home while they still could. The meeting ended with a dire warning to tell the project owners if we did get symptoms in the coming weeks.

Finally, while I was waiting for my bag back in Miami, the TV news was saying that the (completely dog shit) mayor got COVID from Bolsonaro’s visit.

The week after that was weird. I first made a mask out of a T-shirt, bought some masks, did some woodworking, was very paranoid while shopping, and finished “Kentucky Route Zero.” (KRZ) Kentucky Route Zero is superb; after I completed it, I saw it described as a game that’s less about how you interact with the magically realistic Kentucky, but about how you feel about the predicaments imposed on the varied and well-written characters. It’s not at all a difficult game, but it is absolutely brilliant.

Through this first week of lockdown, the pre-release reviews for New Horizons went out of control; the promise of being able to virutally visit your friends’ “homes” and interact with characters in a relaxed non-threatening cartoon was really appealing in a world without “dining out” or “bars.” Obviously, I had to give “Warframe” a shot.

I didn’t dislike Warframe while I played it, but the ramp from the tutorial missions into the opening of the game and the funnel into paying for stuff kind of wigged me out since I was playing pretty late on March 19, 2020 and knew I shouldn’t be buying a bunch of content for a game I was mostly playing on a whim in the remaining hours before New Horizons. It might’ve been an enjoyable experience to get into the flow and rhythm of it, but that didn’t happen.

Actually Getting Into Animal Crossing: New Horizons

I waited until after work on launch day to actually get in to ACNH. It’s been a year, so I don’t actually remember it super well, but I do remember enjoying it, but at the same time, the first-day content runs out after a few hours, leaving you without much to do except shake trees. As your first week progresses, new stuff becomes an option each day.

An experience I thoroughly enjoyed was the shared experience of starting the game at the same time as everyone, and kind of learning bits and pieces about the game organically. I remember visiting an acquaintance’s island, and he gave me the ladder and vaulting pole because I hadn’t realized you’d have to buy stuff to navigate.

One of the features I spent a lot of time with in that first period was the “Mystery Island Tour.” It’s hard to explain without actually talking about what Animal Crossing even is, so…

What is Animal Crossing?

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which you live in a small village, maybe with a few other humans, and with up to ten animals. There’s not much that you have to do, but you’re encouraged to make friends with your neighbors, grow flowers, plant trees, furnish (and at notable expense, upgrade) your house, decorate the island, and catch bugs and fish for your village’s museum.

The game runs on a real time clock and calendar, which means that some activities can only be done once a day, fish and bugs and weather may or may not appear at a given time of day or during a given month, and some things you might want to do will take days, or weeks, or months.

The quick description might be that it’s a relaxing game about delayed gratification and being a good neighbor.

Exploring New Horizons

my character is near a tent, and the date "3/20/2020" is superimposed in the corner like an old 35mm camera

New Horizons sets your village on an island. You start off in a tent, the island has a single kind of fruit and a couple kinds of flower growing on it. In my case, I had cherry trees, cosmos flowers on the main central island, and windflowers in the hills. You also have two random neighbors; mine were Fuchsia, a fuchsia-colored doe, and Sprocket, a robot ostrich.

The first week of growing your island involves collecting bugs and fish and donating them to Tom Nook (the racoon bureaucrat), and eventually Blathers (an owl who serves as the museum curator); selling stuff (fruits, sticks, bugs & fish that the museum already has, basically anything) to Timmy & Tommy (raccoon shopkeepers); and eventually the options for stuff to buy or build at a workbench really opens up. This runs in conflict with the daily limitations of life on your island. A tree only fruits every three days, you can only get so many rocks and iron, and there’s only so much you can buy after selling bugs and fish.

The way the game addresses this is by adding “Mystery Island Tours,” which take you on an airplane ride to an instanced island that has trees, flowers, and occasionally a few other interesting occurrences. In the early weeks of the game, the legend of “Rancho Island” circulated.

Most of the bugs in Animal Crossing are harmless. The man-faced stinkbug can’t hurt you, but tarantulas and scorpions will send you to your front door or the airplane you flew in on if you don’t know exactly how to be careful after dark. However, this minor risk pays off, since these bugs are worth up to 50 times what a less-venomous bug would be. Hypothetically, if there was an entire Mystery Island full of tarantulae (“ranchos”), you could make a lot of progress paying for your next house upgrade.

This is of course entirely hypothetical for me, since I’ve visited and clear-cut a hundred or so Mystery Islands, and never found Rancho Island. What I have found are lots of wood, rocks, the full complement of fruits, and new residents for any empty houses. I’m not killing entire evenings island hopping like I did in the spring of 2020, but that’s largely because the way the game fits into my schedule has changed.

Yeah! That gets me pumped!

I visited Japan in 2018, and because the transit systems in and around Tokyo are superb, it’s easy to simply not notice that you’ve walked several miles until your muscles, honed by a decade of desk work, start protesting. While enjoying an espresso and a comfortable chair indoors at the Hakone Open-Air Museum, I groused to a friend that I was terribly sore, and he correctly diagnosed me as fat and out of shape.

Since that trip, I’ve started working out on a regular basis. First it was just riding the recumbent bike for a half hour a couple times a week, then it was five times a week, then it was with more time at higher resistances, and once it became clear I wasn’t going to be “going places” for a month or two or twelve, it became seven days a week. On its own, it’s pretty boring, so I listen to a podcast, and play a game that doesn’t have a lot of language. At first it was “Polytopia” on iPad, which is a Civilization-style game that you can normallycomplete in a half hour or less, which I’ve been playing on and off since 2015, because that’s exactly what I want sometimes.

As the reality of no-travel started to settle in, I got “Trainz Simulator 2,” also for iPad. It’s a game in which you drive trains. It comes with a handful of maps and missions, more are available for $2 per bundle, and the game is janky, some of the paid content is busted, and it’s been neglected since 2014.

After a couple weeks of that I realized I could just play ACNH while on the stationary bike. I’ve been making good progress, both on the fitness goals and my island. The former I’ve been measuring based on how much out of my way I have to take when I go to the store to get a full move ring on my watch. The latter, the game gives you a few indicators.

Beat the Game and Watch the Credits

K.K. Slider holding a guitar in the town square with the whole island out to watch

In New Horizons, both your house and island are rated. Once your island is fully-inhabited with ten animal neighbors, and sufficiently clean and decorated to merit three (of five) stars, the musician K.K. Slider shows up and performs the game’s theme song to the game’s credits roll.

To me, this echoes another Switch game, Super Mario Odyssey. Through Mario’s (pretty fun, first 3-D Mario game I’ve beaten) Odyssey through EPCOT-tier versions of different countries kingdoms, you pick up “Power Moons” to advance through the game. However, through your exploring, you’ll see ghostly un-collectable power moons. Only once you conclude the main storyline and watch the credits do they materialize and enable what’s basically the remaining half of the game.

ACNH’s post-credits gameplay isn’t drastically different from before, but it does feel nice to hear the theme song with all your neighbors.

Fundamentally, New Horizons is about the steady state. Showing up each day, doing the chores, talking to neighbors, seeing which visitors are around, and slowly getting your island and house ratings up.

Wild Lizards

As of this writing, New Horizons has almost 400 animal neighbors, and if you want to spend time with them all, they’re going to have to cycle through the ten houses you have. Every couple weeks, one of them will ask if they should move out. For my first few months playing, I always said yes.

Around this time, I was kind of falling into a new hobby. For a lot of 2018 and 2019, I was really into calligraphy, to the extent of getting a webcam setup so I could stream writing sessions. However, the webcam I have wasn’t super-pleasant for this. It didn’t render colors super well, required a lot of fussing with computer UI to focus consistently, and just looked like a tiny sensor and tiny lens was shooting video. So I got a DSLR. Used entry-level Canon, APS-C sensor, 18-55mm lens, memory card.

a grey-colored green iguana on a concrete curb in front of plants

This immediately became something I was into. The parks in my neighborhood were reopening (people weren’t catching or spreading a respiratory disease at parks in the spring and summer), I learned how to find lizards, I got a longer 55-250mm lens to take pictures of iguanas, I learned how to find lizards better, got more lenses, got into taking nice walks in the park a few times a week, and have pretty much been having a lovely time.

Fuchsia, one of my original neighbors, asked to leave. I said no, for the first time. While originally the randomness of the game was appealing to me, by this time I realized I was getting plenty of recreational chaos on long walks with a camera. This kind of changed my relationship to the game, specifically on how I chose to suspend my disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief is important to me. It makes the last Warthog run in Halo more exciting when you have it, and it just ruins that last Avengers movie when the green man vs. purple man punching fight just destroys it for you. I’ve found that even though I always find my mind resting on the game’s RNGs and reward cycles and occasional trips to Nookipedia, the Animal Crossing wiki, it somehow always feeds into my desire to keep my streak going, get my neighbors’ photos, and otherwise just have a nice half-hour or so.

The Bunny Day Music is Really Good

The game’s special events are interesting in this regard. There’re holidays like “Bunny Day” (Easter Sunday), “Toy Day” (Christmas Eve), “Festivale” (a Brasilian-themed Carnival), and Halloween; these tend to have a special character, a handful of items to get through normal gameplay stuff, and new lines from your neighbors. They’re neat, but I’m kind of wondering how it’d work if you had, like, an adult and a few kids time-sharing an island on Christmas Eve.

Blathers the museum owl pondering an ink-squirting contest of champions

Splatoon 2 had special “Splatfest” events; originally monthly until July 2019 (I went for team Chaos, booyah!), they brought three old ones and a new promotional one back for four quarters in 2020 and 2021. It was nice! Splatoon is basically the opposite of Animal Crossing: it’s a fast multiplayer shooter, with a complete game playing out from matchmaking to the lobby in about five minutes. Each one of these was a blast; got to play and voice chat with friends from fedi, get back into a fun action game, and then be basically done for a few months, since I don’t really have the space in my life for it on a regular basis.

Boxing Day

One thing that was hard to make space for was the quest for a new neighbor. When a neighbor leaves, they’re “in boxes” (their house is bare, with boxes piled up, and they’re theatrically sweeping the corners) for a day, their lot is vacant for a day, and then your new neighbor is there the next (with boxes, but unpacking them.)

a penguin named Gwen, holding a broom and surrounded by boxes, saying she needs to finish unpacking

When there’s a vacant lot, you have a few choices.

  1. Do nothing, and get a random neighbor. At one point, I had three lazy slob neighbors, who basically had one personality split between them. Three neighbors that have crusty shirts and bugs whispering secrets in their ear gets tiring.
  2. Go on Mystery Island Tours. When you have a vacancy, these islands have an animal there that is willing to move to your island. This speeds up the random/do nothing option, and gives you some choice, but it’s still random, and more than once I’ve been up way later than I should’ve looking for a non-slob.
  3. Visit another player’s island, and talk to a future-ex-neighbor of theirs that’s in boxes.

(We’re somehow 2600 words into this review and just getting to multiplayer!)

In addition to Mystery Island Tours, you can invite other players to your island (with the game’s “Best Friends” list, the system’s friend list, or a Dodo Code™ that lets anyone visit), and visit someone else’s island. The latter option enables more sites like Nookazon where you can list items and neighbors for free or trade. I was initially resistant to the trade in named characters, but I realized I wanted an octopus neighbor, and instead of just rolling the dice endlessly, I could get one with an hour of effort.

Later, I found out that in Nookazon’s chat server, there’s a free neighbor exchange channel, for when you either just want one of your neighbors to find a new place to live instead of entering the void, or aren’t picky and want to spare another human that feeling.

I’ve not used a clearinghouse like Nookazon for anything except neighbors. I haven’t felt that there’s been an item or colorway of an item worth it (got burned by oysters in GTA: San Andreas back when it came out on the original Xbox (good game tho)), but I get the mentality. In my case, I emphasize with the character “Eddie Krieger” in “17776” by Jon Bois:

I don’t want to tell you because I don’t want to deprive you of mystery. Uncertainty is our greatest scarcity. You should be delighted to not know something. […] Mystery is an exhaustible resource. If you depend on that to make you happy, you better start saving it instead of gorging yourself like a little piglet.

In my case, one experience I didn’t want to deprive myself of was breeding flowers. I got most of them in the first few months, but then I learned about blue roses.

Colored Glasses

Leif buying 21,140 bells worth of weed

Flowers in Animal Crossing: New Horizons have complex genetics. All flowers have three trinary genes, and roses have a fourth. You can get flower seeds with known genes from the store or Leif (traveling sl0th merchant, will also buy your weeds for a premium), and from there you can get on a blue rose flowchart that will almost certainly span months.

I started “Asteriation’s 4-Step Method” in September. The flowchart says you don’t have to worry about testing the genetics of clones, but it is slower because of that. I figured testing would be a pain and I’d forget to do it, but keeping the flowchart open on my phone wasn’t a huge lift. Getting started was actually hard, because rose seeds of every color aren’t consistently available. I ended up getting some seeds from my friend Eirik’s hoard, and got it rolling that first week of September 2020. Not quite two months later, on November 29, I had my first blue roses!

my character standing next to blue rose buds

I have one rose color left: gold roses. These require a “golden watering can,” which requires a five-star island. A year into this game, and I’m still not there somehow. I’d like to get there, but I haven’t really felt like I need to put in the effort to do so. Like so much else in this game, I’ve read online about a thing, but the gameplay loop that I experience daily, over a year after release, is so damn comfy that I haven’t engaged in a big project to shake that up in a few months.

And that’s worth something to me, and the few people I know that are still playing New Horizons. It’s comfortable, it’s not stressful, and I’m glad it’s part of my life right now.