When Tom Nook asked me to choose the plots for the houses of three new villagers and build nine items for the construction of those houses to start, I audibly groaned. I panicked, my mind racing with the long list of new tasks. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had no time to waste. I had to do them as soon as possible because, then, I could finally reunite with the new friends I had made during my island travels/colonialist-lite excursions over the last several days. My island would soon be more exciting, which I have desperately needed, and all that stood between that and my current small and underdeveloped community was, well, me.
I feel like I need to preface this essay by saying I adore Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I haven’t time-skipped, so I am still experiencing its arguably too slow beginning, but I already know it’s in the running for my favorite game in the series. It’ll likely be my game of the year—or at the very least, one of the top three. It’s come at a time when I’ve needed something like it, something I’ve genuinely looked forward to and been excited about during a time when it feels like there is only despair and dread.
There’s an overwhelmingly predominant narrative that New Horizons is perfect for life under the coronavirus—that it is the epitome of therapeutic and healing. And in some ways, it truly is for me, just like it is for so many others. That it is adorable, relaxing, and wholesome can’t be denied. But I find New Horizons—especially in comparison to the first game—to be a welcome source of escapism every bit as it can be anxiety-inducing, especially during this tumultuous time.
Throughout my childhood, I used Animal Crossing as a coping mechanism for the loneliness, financial instability, and family problems that inevitably manifested into an anxiety disorder. That disorder, combined with an intense depressive episode, pushed me to take a medical leave for the first semester of my senior year. In a way, it’s worked out; I didn’t have to hurriedly move out in the middle of the semester because of COVID-19. But COVID-19 has demolished all healing I had done, as I have to watch my mother go out the door almost every day to work at a grocery store where she is harassed by horrible customers and exploited by bosses who still aren’t letting her, a clerk in contact with hundreds of people per shift, wear gloves. I have to wonder every day if that will be the day she’ll come home sick with the virus; if that will be the first of the days leading up to her death, or my father’s, or mine.
I’ve developed a routine in New Horizons, which I have dedicated several hours to every day since its release. I check my mailbox, talk to the few villagers on my island, do a pass on my island for digging up fossils, shaking trees, and hitting rocks. I do another pass to assess fossils and donate them, chop wood, and sell my findings to Timmy and Tommy. I then go talk to my king Tom Nook, redeem Nook Miles, and go to a random island. I come back to store, sell, or donate my findings from that island, buy items, fish, and catch bugs. I work, so I haven’t had the time to dedicate a whole day to the game as much as I’d like to, but this is the rhythm I’ve developed so far. It’s comforting, almost mind-numbing.
Almost. But not quite. During this relaxing routine graced by peaceful music and the sound of the trees rustling, I am allowed to think. About the global pandemic; about the rising rate of deaths; about my phobic fear of death; about my mother and father’s health; about how we’ll pay the bills now that my father’s hours have been halved; about the customer who told my mother to shut up and not contaminate the items she was checking out for him at the register. The core behind the addiction to Overwatch I once almost developed, my tendency to ask my friends to get on Apex Legends on the days I’m most stressed, and the appeal of a loud and chaotic game like Doom Eternal sinks in. And so I realize this isn’t the therapeutic past time that personally helps me much at the end of the day. What I need is to not be allowed to think.
And, especially during its slow beginning, New Horizons gives you so much time to think; to live with your anxiety.
It also places you in a specific, anxiety-inducing position as the Resident Representative. You’re not simply one of many villagers in a community; you’re a representative of that entire community. You decide the island’s name. You decide where the museum, shops, and villagers’ houses will be placed. You decide who gets to move into your island. You even decide its layout, for not using terraforming to modify your island’s structure is inherently a choice. With crafting, you essentially decide how and how fast your island develops. New Horizons gives you an incredible and thrilling sense of agency, but in the process, it abandons the series’ illusion of giving you a world that exists without you. You are special, and this island relies on you and your special abilities in order to flourish. You exist to enjoy island life with your animal friends, but you also always have a task, a goal—something you can do or improve or change.
The experience of playing New Horizons is anxiety-inducing when I stop playing the game, too. It’s an extremely social game without having to visit a friend. Twitter is inundated with hilarious and adorable clips and memes that quickly go viral. Half my feed consists of the incredible designs people have made in the game’s pattern designer, or the incredibly unique things players are doing, or screenshots of beautiful, rapidly developing islands that I can’t help but compare with mine. It feels like I see a debate about The Right Way to play Animal Crossing on my feed every day, for even though the developers have stated they don’t see time-skipping as cheating or invalid, some players feel strongly about how other people play.
This is the first Animal Crossing I haven’t time-skipped in by this point, for as a child, I’d time skip to play the entire day. I’m trying not to do it as an adult, especially as an exercise in mitigating my anxiety and letting me just take things day by day. But not doing so is also giving me anxiety because of my need to see this project get completed; to get more materials to craft the next thing I need or the tool that just broke; to unlock a new feature. Doing so would still give me anxiety because I’ll feel judged for time-skipping, and I’m not even someone who often feels pressured to play a certain way. But as many are working from home, working in dangerous conditions or not being able to work at all, and relying on social media more than ever for connections, information, and a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos, it’s proving more difficult than I’d like.
While it’s important to sit with one’s anxiety and process it, especially with the help of a psychologist you’re compatible with, it’s something I can’t stand to do right now. New Horizons feels like every meditative experience I’ve had—something I recognize is good and necessary, but that heightens my anxiety because I still don’t know how to properly relax. I might never know what it’s like to properly relax, so it isn’t on the concept of meditation or New Horizons.
But for me—and I suspect a good amount of people with anxiety issues—it isn’t the simple, entirely comforting experience it used to be, for better and worse. My relationship with this game is already complicated.
I don’t resent it for all this; in fact, I love all I can do in a game so filled with details that I am continuously left in awe. I miss how I could just exist in past Animal Crossing games; how I could simply be a mostly unremarkable member of a community. How being ignored by the grander narratives of a society felt comforting rather than angering, heartbreaking, and yet altogether unsurprising since this country has never valued lives like mine or my loved ones.
I’ve accepted it’s the natural progression of things. Not a capitalist empire happy to rebuild its long-crumbling and inherently broken infrastructure in the middle of a pandemic by using the bodies of the most vulnerable, of course; I mean Animal Crossing’s changes. Games are bigger, more in depth, more immersive than ever for an endless amount of reasons, ranging from money to the expectations of the dominant live-service games model to the simple destiny of all art to expand.
Everyone handles anxiety, grief, anger, despair, and fear differently. For some, each swing of their axe against a tree in New Horizons is a way of releasing those emotions; for others, it’s a tiny part of the responsibility you bear as a representative of an entire island. For me, it’s both—though often more of the latter. For every day, my vast influence in this virtual, flourishing, and hopeful home is juxtaposed with the utter powerlessness I feel in the face of the withering, uncaring, horribly real world.
Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things.