The Radical Normalcy of New Horizons
Greetings from self isolation! I hope you're all staying home as much as possible and looking after your health. If you're like me, you've also been playing a lot of Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the last couple of weeks. Personally I don't think the game could have come at a better time, and not just because we're in a global pandemic.
I've taken to saying that I'm going to flee to the woods and start a commune over the last several months. Whenever I tell any of my friends of this "plan," their response is invariably some variation of "I'm coming too." There's no sugarcoating it: the last few weeks, months, years have been pretty rough. Many of us are downright exhausted by the current state of modern life: the constant, incomprehensible stream of information, the struggle to make ends meet despite working insane hours, the feeling that we're doing everything we possibly can and it still isn't enough. It's not a stretch to say that we all need a break.
For me and most of my friends, this has manifested in a desire to return to the essentials of human existence: being in nature, living off the land, and providing for yourself and your community without being beholden to institutions that take so much of your life, labor, and happiness and give almost nothing in return.
This is where New Horizons comes in. The latest installment in the Animal Crossing series is about moving to a deserted island and developing it into a thriving society. The announcement trailer for the game focused almost solely on the deserted island aspect, only giving players a small peek at what the island could eventually become in the last few moments. For many players, myself included, this simulation of peaceful low-stakes wilderness living is what resonated most with us. As we dealt daily with the struggles of capitalism and modernity, we longed for something simpler. New Horizons offered an escape into such a simple life.
Yet as the game progresses, there is increasing pressure to move away from this simplicity to build a town that sprawls across the island paradise. I can't deny that I was disappointed at first to realize that the goal of the game is essentially to urbanize a formerly untouched natural landscape; it felt like an escape that wholly embraced nature wasn't possible--only one that made capitalism less bad. This notion of living in and interacting with a cute township full of anthropomorphic animals is par for the the course in Animal Crossing games, but the expectation of quiet woodland existence that New Horizons initially was fundamentally different from the series's traditional route of settling into an established society. I couldn't help but feel a sense of loss as I was asked to almost immediately relinquish my weedy wonderland in favor of carefully landscaped manifest destiny that would turn New Horizons into a more familiar Animal Crossing.
Despite having my expectations subverted, I am deeply enjoying New Horizons. I am finding joy in creating a society that reflects my values as countless other players are doing with more customization options than any previous Animal Crossing installment. My favorite addition by far is DIY crafting for the way that it effortlessly fits into and advances the series's established resource gathering mechanics. And yes, also because being able to quickly build useful and beautiful things rather than having to buy necessities furthers my escapist fantasies of self-sufficiency. The combination of advanced customization tools including DIY, gardening, terraforming, and building public utilities with varying reward speeds makes me excited to get up every morning and put work into my town. In this time of stagnation and struggle, it feels gratifying to be able to actively shape my surroundings and see the results of my labor improve my little world.
In addition to making some dramatic improvements to individual play, New Horizons has done the impossible: made me want to play online. Online play is something that I have never been particularly passionate about since most online games are competitive arenas full of strangers spewing slurs. The online function of Animal Crossing, by contrast, centers around friendly interactions like giving gifts, sharing resources, and showing off and praising each others' decorating skills. With ACNH screencaps, videos, artworks, and memes filling my social media feeds, I even got so invested in the online community around Animal Crossing that I set up a trading post on my island. Although it didn't go quite as planned, I'm still proud of the work I put into it and that people got excited about the idea.
Online play is unequivocally strongest when playing with friends. Despite the game's laborious in-game chat feature and voice chat only being available through the Nintendo Switch app, this function has been invaluable now that my friends and I can't physically see each other. Visiting each others' towns has provided us with much needed closeness that can't always be felt through text messages. Through New Horizons, I have not only maintained my most immediate friendships, I have also felt closer to my newer friends and reconnected with some of my older ones. Perhaps some of these profound interactions are the result of social distancing enabling people to play New Horizons more regularly, but of all the games that could have strengthened my friendships during this unfortunate time, the one that succeeded was the one about going outside.
New Horizons is by no means a perfect game; there are several quality of life improvements that could be made, and hopefully at least a few of them will see the light of day in future updates. The local multiplayer feature is cumbersome in a number of ways, but my sister and I have still had loads of fun sharing our island adventure despite its difficulties (a lot of the time we just sit down and take turns playing, and we make sure to involve each other with all matters of major island design; this may be a good alternative for those of you struggling with local play). It isn't the radical anti-capitalist escapist fantasy that I hoped for, but maybe it doesn't need to be. What New Horizons has given us instead is the chance to exist in a whimsical world that feels like a calmer, happier normal and to feel productive and capable within that world despite our increasingly uneasy circumstances.
I'll conclude today's post with my thoughts on Tom Nook. Some say he's a money-grubbing capitalist landlord, others say he's a benevolent architect. I say, both things can be true. First off, Nook is definitely not a landlord; he doesn't charge you rent, he only asks you to pay for the cost of the labor and building materials that go into remodeling your home (overnight, I might add) with no deadline or interest. That's a pretty good deal, all things considered. That being said, his pricing model is insane. While home upgrades are completely optional, there's no reason that each new room you add to your house should be more expensive than the last, especially if all of those rooms are the same size. Additionally, in New Horizons it makes no sense that the resident representative has to pay for infrastructure that impacts the entire town single-handedly, especially when Tom Nook continuously makes them work without pay to set up the island in the first place. Some argue that Nook's charitable donations to orphanages excuse his business practices, but I can't overlook the fact that his business model predominantly revolves around squeezing every possible bell out of one person, should they choose to involve themselves with the dubious tanuki. In short, I believe he's a money-grubbing capitalist architect at worst, and an overzealous planner who just doesn't understand how money works at best (and his image definitely fluctuates based on the game).
How have you been playing ACNH? What are your thoughts on Tom Nook? Do you want my friend code? Let me know in the comments!