Welcome to another edition of The Casual Gaymer, an occasional column from AIPT Gaming where I share my questions, comments, concerns, and other unsolicited thoughts about gaming and the games industry as a queer player.
I don’t know if you heard but, Animal Crossing: New Horizons finally was released! All is well in the world, we have Animal Crossing, there are no other current events happening, we’re all just vibing on islands with cute animal friends and all is good. Right?
I already let the state of the world color a lot of my first impressions piece, so I’m going to talk about the game while focusing just on me right now. Call it self-care or something. When I wrote the very first edition of this column, I talked about how New Leaf, the last mainline entry in the series, allowed players to explore the way they perform and express gender by removing the restrictions on what gender player could cover their meat and hair with what shapes of cut and sewed fabric. With the release of New Horizons, I return to the franchise not only eager to see how the game handles clothing and hair, but with a perspective that’s similar, yet importantly different.
Since writing that first column, I’ve come out as nonbinary; finally accepting that I have no connection at all to the words like “male” or “manliness,” so much so that they feel completely alien and uncomfortable when applied to myself. I won’t bore you with the details of that process of self-discovery, but will instead happily report that New Horizons was not only ready for me to become unemployed, but also for me to really be over that gender nonsense and do whatever I wanted with my Villager’s appearance.
From the Villager creation sequence that opens the game, New Horizons immediately allows for leagues more freedom of expression than New Leaf did. Being able to quickly click between skin tones, eyes, noses, mouths, and hair made it easy to get my look just right, even if the initial hair offerings were sparse. Instead of asking if you are a boy or girl, the localized version of the game simply asks you to select your “style,” which presents either a more masculine or feminine image for you to click on. What does your “style” dictate? I still don’t know! It doesn’t change anything about your Villager’s appearance and my neighbors refer to me with gender neutral pronouns–a boon for a recently self-discovered nonbinary queer player like moi. Though I miss chatting with Rover on the way to my new home, I don’t miss him ascribing opposing genders to the words “cute” and “cool.” You also have the option to revisit these menus at any time once you have a mirror or vanity, which everyone gets very early in the game. My favorite detail about character creation is how the developers included two of each set of eyes, one with eyelashes and one without (or in one case, upper or lower lashes). I ended up going with the same eyes I had in New Leaf, but with a little lash to spruce my Villager up a bit!
Not only is Rover no longer present to wrap the chains of the gender binary around my character, but Label and Sable must’ve explained transphobia to Mabel! As in New Leaf, clothing is not locked to gender and when I bought a denim skirt from Mabel’s little stand in front of Resident Services, she simply thanked me for my purchase with nary a microaggression or assumption made! Progress! As if the game was aware of my joy at being able to live my life without any barbs from Mabel’s ignorance poking me, not long after my purchase, my good sis Diva made a comment about how clothing is about how you feel, not how you look. Bless this frog.
You probably noticed my Villager’s lush, prominent eyebrows in the above images. No, there are no options for eyebrows in the character creator. However, a feature new to the series is the ability to take custom designs you make in your company-issued Nook Phone and wear them on your face. It didn’t take long at all for the talented folks on the internet to graduate from little heart stickers for your Villager’s cheeks to mapping out exactly where on the grid you can paint to smack eyebrows over your character’s eyes. I spent longer making these eyebrows pixel-perfect than I have decorating my island home. This is yet another outlet for players to express their gender or otherwise make their character look even more unique than the base character creator allows. I can never go back to an older Animal Crossing after this and even looking at screenshots I took pre-eyebrows, my character looks so naked without them!
Speaking of hair found on your head, you unlock hairstyles and color through our benevolent tanuki CEO’s Nook Miles system. The Able Sisters also don’t set up shop right from the jump, so you are a bit limited for your first day or so on your new island home. However, I made sure the hair color pack was the first thing I spent my miles on, so I had pink hair by the end of day two. As I said, Mabel also visits with a small selection of clothes and you occasionally find garments in presents attached to balloons floating past the island. So while I had to tolerate looking a little bland at first, it wasn’t long at all before I felt like I could throw a look together.
The new dressing room system through which you can throw together said looks is accessible through any wardrobe or dresser and removes the hassle of inventory management, so you can focus on looking your best. Just like with the character creator, being able to quickly click around my clothing options makes expression all the more accessible and allows for easy roleplaying opportunities. Gonna pop by Audie’s house? A few clicks and I’m in a cute dress with matching shoes. Off to hunt for minerals or chop some lumber? Click, click, boom, I’m rocking work boots and a tank top. Gone are the days of making a minimum of three selections to bring up a menu, select a garment, and choose to wear it just to change shoes! In as many clicks, I’ve thrown a whole outfit together and have all the more precious seconds to accessorize. The Able Sisters haven’t set up shop on my game’s island yet, so while I’m working with very limited options, I can’t wait to be able to click around my wardrobe when I have all kinds of garments at my Villager’s…fingertips? Hand…orbs? Let’s just say when I have more clothes.
In real life, I very much still pass as male. A combination of habit, lack of finances, and continued socially ingrained standards mean I keep my hair short and leave the house most days in jeans and a hoodie. I could write a whole different piece about how my weight also informs the degree of freedom I feel I have over my gender expression. Hey! I can ask for more from Nintendo! Give us body diversity next time! Free me from twink prison.
The point is, I can’t shoot balloons down from the sky and find a perfectly fitting garment in a gift box, nor can I completely reshape my eyes and nose at a glance in the mirror. Animal Crossing continues to be an escape into a world in which I can wear cuter accessories in game, get comfortable in them, and maybe let that inform a fashion choice I make in real life. Sometimes wearing a dress and rocking long eyelashes in-game literally leads to me buying and wearing a pastel pink Sailor Moon shirt in real life.
If only the same causation could apply to the amount of Bells in my Villager’s bank account versus U.S. dollars in mine.