Global Pandemic. I can’t say I ever thought those words would really affect my life all that much, beyond Contagion trending on Netflix or everyone complaining about how awful the new season of The Walking Dead is. The idea that something as microscopic as a virus could actually stop me walking out of my front door seemed ridiculous a few months ago, or at least that it might be the kind of thing to happen in other places, to other people.
The reality of the current coronavirus crisis has, of course, changed that. Where there was previously the wild, unbridled ability to grab a coffee with friends, try on a pair of shoes in a shop, or the incredible, life-enriching ability to hug strangers in the street – ok, perhaps that last one was still poorly received – for many the new daily commute involves moving from the bed to the couch, and back again, with a brief, balmy visit to the shower or a sojourn to the cold, white reaches of the refrigerator.
Within this utterly out of control situation, one game has risen to eclipse all others. Where your competitive Call of Duty or frantic Fortnite sessions might provide some cathartic respite from anxiety, fear, or abject boredom, Nintendo have once again proven that simplicity and routine are forever the true companion to humanity’s daily labour.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is, for the uninitiated, a game about doing things. Simple, minuscule things, that you might well have taken for granted in your everyday life, while probably never doing them. Digging up the ground with a spade, heading down to the river with a fishing rod, or making a net to catch butterflies and other creepy, crawly things sounds more like the opening chapter of an Enid Blyton book than a world-defining video game. There isn’t even a mysterious house filled with ne’er do wells to find in chapter two.
Instead you can quietly, respectfully, cultivate an idyllic island habitat. One that breeds simplistic relationships with your neighbours, a community spirit that extends and touches other players beyond your own sphere, while caring for and nurturing your local ecosystem.
There’s a museum to become involved with, housing for other residents to be built, visits to the sick, and in most cases no real reward beyond the odd stripy sweatshirt. Many of the tasks you’re handed would make you the world’s greatest volunteer-statesperson-eco-warrior in real life. If only some of that mundane magic stretches beyond the screens of those millions of Nintendo Switch when this is all over.
Animal Crossing has given players exactly what Covid-19 has taken away from them: the ability to fashion things in your own image. We may not feel like it, but you have agency over the world around you, we just forget that we do.
In many cases we only exercise it to choose which baked good to buy from Greggs, or whether the lawn can wait another week before mowing it, but it’s there, lying in wait like a phoenix-dragon-badger creature for some grand scheme, golden opportunity or life-altering decision. Let’s just say that it’s having a grand siesta right now.
So, while our external agency is trapped, what we do have is New Horizons. Here, all those little benign things that we don’t give any thought to in the real world become control points for existence – tethers to the cliff-face of reality. A hole in the ground for every step not taken outside, a shake of a tree for every freshly budding flower we’re not seeing. Perhaps, once we escape the plush, welcoming, detainment of our sofa prisons it’ll help give us a renewed sense of exercising that control.
Animal Crossing’s impeccable timing has gifted us this tiny portion of a world over which we have absolute control – not withstanding those hateful, Bunny Day treats that have infected the land, the sea, the earth, and even the blasted sky. From the sanctity of our living rooms we can explore, we can shape, we can congregate. We can keep a schedule, we can work, earning money for tidying the place up, and we can repay our debts in a laid-back, laissez-faire manner. That’s at least one thing that has, at least briefly, also appeared in the real world.
There’s no escaping the severity of the crisis the world is facing. It’s at the forefront of every news site, every video channel, every thought, and we should in no way belittle or diminish the threat it levels at our loved ones, our communities, and our livelihoods. Humans, while tenacious, are still fragile, exquisite creatures, and staying at home is, for the majority of people, the best thing they can be doing until told otherwise.
Nintendo’s coincidentally timely contribution to our imposed habitation can provide comfort, both in its delightfully dreary tasks, and in the power it hands to us as we feel most powerless. The world is a bright, kaleidoscopic cornucopia of experiences, actions and inactions, and while a cloud – or perhaps another hateful air egg – has briefly drifted across its surface, the sun will shine another day. For now, there’s Animal Crossing.