I sit my Villager down on a little stone stool I crafted and placed on a patch of beach on my island home’s east coast. Earlier, I had crafted a little clay ocarina and as the sun set, I decided it was a good moment to try it out. I had just finished a trip to an island I’ll never see again, and Blathers just let me know he’ll be upgrading his slapped-together tent to a full-blown museum.
Oh, and earlier in the day? In real life? I learned I would be indefinitely unemployed, as the small business at which I sell my labor can’t afford to stay open any longer during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. I pressed “A” on the controller and my villager started playing little notes into their ocarina. The sky glowed in lovely oranges and purples and a pair of green sprouting leaves from a baby coconut tree waved to me as I played. I’ve been waiting for this game for years and it arrived when I needed it most.
Animal Crossing had always been about escape, within and without the text. Your Villager avatar is leaving their old familiar home for new experiences to, as K.K. Slider puts it, “get out there, explore new frontiers.” It’s also always been the perfect franchise with which you can escape the stressors of everyday life. The loans have no due dates or interest rates, your animal neighbors are never mean to you (well, in the later entries of the franchise), and there’s nothing stopping you from spending a day fishing, catching bugs, or blowing notes into a clay ocarina as the real-time clock ticks the minutes away.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is no different and manages to add both more structure and more freedom at the same time. After two days on Windfall, my Villager’s new island home, I feel like I’ve done a hundred things while neither scratching the surface of the game’s offerings nor stressing myself out in accomplishing everything I did. The new Nook Miles system, which fashions activities typical to the series into tasks listed in an app on your Nook Phone, provides structure for players unsure of what to do with all the freedom New Horizons offers. For seasoned players like me who need no guidance in getting a community up and running, these Miles come as frequent rewards for activities I’m already doing. The only time I felt the need to check my Nook Phone for a task was when I was desperate to wrack up enough miles for one more Island Tour to get those last few iron nuggets Timmy or Tommy (sorry, boys) was asking for to open Nook’s Cranny. See? You can just vibe as the clouds drift by, or min/max your way to colonial, capitalist success.
I do use those words intentionally. As far as first impressions go, everything about Nook Inc. and its latest ventures into settling on “deserted” (by whom?) islands and plundering their resources for the sake of “civilization” and wealth accumulation would read comically heavy-handed were the game bathed in less pastel and sunshine. But pastel and sunshine are in abundance and the game succeeds in smoothing down those edges with whimsy and a sprinkling of self-aware dialogue from Mr. Nook.
The benefit of these troubling themes for the player is the unprecedented control over every Nook and cranny of the island. Being able to choose where new villagers settle into island life doesn’t just assuage the fear of your carefully manicured flower garden getting flattened Wicked Witch of the East style by some flamingo’s new house. It also allows for more role-playing and emergent storytelling. Diva is a frog with a vibe that says, “I’m here to relax. We can grab a coconut milk and hang on the beach together, but give me my space.” I tucked her home in a sunny corner of the beach, not too far from my place, but not too close to bump elbows. Biff is a hippo who wants to be your bro. He likes exercise. He likes fist bumps. He’s gonna smack one of his other bros’ arm if they call something “gay” and tell them, “That’s not cool, man.” I plopped his tent right by Nook Services so he can get a clear earful of Tom Nook’s morning announcements while he does his 6 am stretches.
New Horizon‘s approach to structure and freedom is what stands out most to me about this latest entry in the Animal Crossing series. As I’m suddenly faced with a lot more…let’s call it freedom, in my day to day, I appreciate how Animal Crossing is reminding me about balance. Enough structure to complete the tasks you need, while allowing enough freedom to get creative, have some fun, even take a breath or two and just relax.
If you ever come to Windfall, expect to find my Villager perched on a stump, ocarina in hand, doing their best not to get so caught up in debt and isolation they forget to admire the sky at twilight or the leaves of a newly sprouting tree. It’s pastel and sunshine. It’s coconut milk and new friends. It’s everything Animal Crossing should be and more.