The timing of Friday’s release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons was dazzlingly, (and, for that matter, unfortunately) fortuitous. TIME, The Guardian, Forbes, The Telegraph, GQ, Engadget, Yahoo!, and Jezebel sister site Kotaku all agree: It is the game we need right now. In general I am allergic to this kind of hyperbolic veneration, but this time it might just be true. At the very least, it’s one of those instant-classic cultural touchstones like Get Out or Breaking Bad or the self-titled Beyoncé album that arrived precisely at the right moment. (It’s obviously possible to survive without a twee video game, but for its instant legion of enthusiasts, it feels like an essential.) Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in its own adorable and silly little way, as defined right now.
I played for several hours this weekend and thought a lot about why the distraction it offers is so tantalizing while civilization buckles under the weight of a virus outside. For the uninitiated, Animal Crossing is a “life simulation” game, in which you create a society from the ground up. (This one takes place on cartoon islands.) You hobnob with anthropomorphized creatures. You make money (currencies include “bells” and “miles”) through manual labor like fishing, foraging, and bug-collecting. You pay off your land debt to your landlord, a raccoon in a Hawaiian shirt named Tom Nook. (You start the game in indentured servitude, working off the 5,000 bells that you owe him for just showing up on his island.)
While it is cathartic in this day and age to move freely, touch anything you can get your lollipop-like hands on, and have in-person conversations with within steps of strange creatures, what I think I like most about this game is the way it converts your obligations and priorities. It is not unlike Christmastime or Disney World vacation, in that by committing, you’re given a laundry list of new, low-stakes tasks to focus on. In doing so, you press pause on the rest of the world (which just happens to be on pause itself). You’re left with the distinct, real-world feeling of accomplishment. I’m sure you can say that of most life simulators; I’m not sure that any are quite this charming. For my money, Nintendo is second only to Disney in its consistent ability to create extremely varied universes that are uniformly adorable. These brands trade in multitudes of cuteness.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a cheery paean to capitalism, one based on principles of supply and demand and the guaranteed results of hard work. This, of course, is out of step with a time in which our economy is crumbling under our feet, but boy, is it a relief to invest a cartoon version of the American Dream that isn’t full of shit, at least not in its own reality. (If you have any doubt that this game is a reflection of our own consumerism, check out how many bells a red snapper can fetch you versus that which you make from selling other kinds of fish. Insane markup.)
As you go about your Animal Crossing day, performing meditative and simple tasks like fishing, digging up weeds, gathering wood, and visiting other islands to do some more fishing and digging up weeds, the game treats you to a host of dad jokes, which I love.
The character in these screenshots is none other than me. I went full-on Lord of the Flies. It turns out my alter ego is running around with an upside-down face painted on his face, wearing Oakleys knock-offs, a red T-shirt that says “Ciao!,” fuchsia sweatpants, a terry cloth durag, and boots. I have been stung by wasps several times and my neighbors; a pink-and-black dog named Cherry and some sort of robotic bird named Sprocket keep mocking the resulting swelling of my face.
Sprocket, by the way, is a meathead obsessed with working out at home, who refers to me for reasons that aren’t clear as “zort.” He’s so annoying. I love him.
Earlier today, I was playing and my boyfriend sat next to me to watch. “How do you beat the game?” he asked. “You don’t beat it,” I said. “You just stop playing at some point?” he asked. Yeah. Just like life.