I’ve never written about a video game before, so where better to start than a game unlike any I’ve ever played: Animal Crossing: New Horizons? Olivia Bono recently wrote two columns — one on Animal Crossing’s fishing “minigame” and another on how the COVID pandemic encouraged her to buy New Horizons — about Animal Crossing, but we as a department have yet to formally “review” the franchise’s newest entry. Let’s fix that.
The first question a player like me is going to ask after moving to their deserted island — the randomly-generated paradise on which the game is set — is “what should I do?”
Dropping players into the middle of nowhere without much, if any, substantial direction, ACNH excels at encouraging players to forge their own path, whether that path be centered around farming, fishing or any other sort of island preoccupation. Players unlock more and more activities to explore as their increasingly populated islands gradually progress towards a visit from “K.K.,” a deity-adjacent entity whose eventual recognition of their achievement serves as the closest thing Animal Crossing has to a traditional ending.
K.K., and the reverence with which all the non-player characters regard him, seems a good segway into what I can only assume was every other new player’s second question: “Who the hell are these people?”
Despite ACNH’s exploration-first atmosphere fostering an accessible gameplay environment, it is here that the new title stumbles. From what I’ve gathered, the Animal Crossing franchise is one rooted in a deep continuity and most, if not all, of the island characters are reprising roles from earlier games. So while a seasoned Animal Crosser might immediately be familiar with the “museum owl” (Blathers), “yellow lady” (Isabelle) or “business racoon” (Tom Nook), new players like myself might find themselves confused as to the significance of each.
The frustration this informational disparity can cause a new player is only exacerbated by the game’s stunningly slow start, a period during which a players’ daily gameplay options are severely limited, creating a painful dissonance between what one wants to do and what one can do. And while grinding through the game’s initial dead period made the eventual revelation of additional ways to continue improving my island all the more rewarding, I can easily see how another new player might have their experience soured before ever getting the opportunity to properly sink their teeth into the game.
For those who can warm up to its dogma of delayed gratification, though, New Horizons becomes a world into which one can reliably fall, one of their own personal creation and one in which every fence, shrub and lantern feels earned. It is for those players that Animal Crossing really shines, both in the little moments and the big.
Just yesterday, I was absentmindedly running around and came across a spot on my dock from which I had a new view of my island.
It was breathtaking.
I have played thousands and thousands of hours of video games in my life and have never felt a sense of accomplishment as intense as that I felt overlooking my fledgling peach tree grove. It wasn’t much — it still isn’t — but it was wholly and entirely mine. I had delicately planted each tree, taking the time to properly space them so they would each have space to grow. My town hall’s flag was just visible above a small outdoor seating area, the flowers for which I had spent weeks cultivating. One of my fellow residents, Roald, a delightfully cheery penguin, waddled across the screen chasing a butterfly.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is unlike any video game I’ve ever played. It is also, perhaps, perfectly suited to its time. And while it certainly isn’t a “cure” for quarantine, ACNH provides those fortunate enough to play it with much-needed respite from the turmoil in which we are currently embroiled; a blank canvas upon which anyone — young or old, experienced or new — can paint a stress free picture of life, however fleeting it may be. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Nick Smith is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.