Animal Crossing: New Horizons - a refuge in crisis for creatures of habit
What if there were no expectations, no real objective at the end of the tunnel, no pressure imposed upon you to strive for the fabled pinnacle of success, to prove to the rest of the world that you’re made of something? What if everything was just a bit more stripped back and nonchalant?
That hour has arrived, whether we consented to it or not.
This is not a horrible time to be living through, but I feel like it’s a blessing in disguise in some way. The pressure has been eased slightly, hasn’t it? That pressure to always portray yourself as having a million and one things to occupy your time—and now, we’re being encouraged not to prove that at all. In fact, if you’re still doing a million and one things, you’re kind of an arse (as brainless as the swarms of people who gathered at Westminster Bridge to honour the NHS, who want us to STAY AT HOME! I have no words.)
And, just like that... like a flawlessly-timed body of water to quench our insatiable thirst, a gaming experience has landed in our laps as the answer to all of those ‘non-expectation’ desires. It is called Animal Crossing: New Horizons. There’s no denying that it has come at a time when being able to easily evade the conundrums of everyday life is scoring high on our list of things we’re missing, especially when we’re now faced with having to sit with ourselves for a lot longer than most of us had previously found to be comfortable.
In the alternative world of New Horizons, it’s just you, a racoon landlord named Tom Nook, a few anthropomorphic villagers, a reel of handy tools, a haul of DIY recipes and a cute little house to make your own. Unlike other games, where your survival hangs on tenterhooks and the pressure to complete a level on time weighs in at every moment, New Horizons isn’t a game to complete; it promises no obligations or pressures, just an unadulterated existence that permits freedom to enter and leave the game whenever you choose, and start from exactly where you left off. Activities include fishing in the sea and rivers; picking up weeds and planting flowers; mining minerals; and choosing outfits for the day ahead. The real beauty is that you can do as much or as little as you see fit. Maybe it sounds mundane, repetitive even, but since our normal routines are way out of whack, this sense of order and normalcy is allowing us a way to find comfort and restoration, - if only for a short dose of time.
If you think that ‘dose‘ sounds medicinal, then that’s no mistake. This gaming experience offers therapeutic refuge - a medicine - during a time when the real world is more than a little chaotic. It is a dosage of escapism where freedom prevails and a two-metre distancing rule is nowhere in sight—a fantasy that I’ll accept for now.
Whilst in-game socialising can be a major aspect of the game‘s encounters, this doesn’t have to be a friendship contest. Just like in reality when we feel the need to escape physical and social pressure, the cheery non-player characters are all the social interaction we really need for one day. There’s plenty of choice with New Horizons, giving one the freedom to customise the world - turning the level of social interaction up or down, for example.
Having had the unfortunate predicament of celebrating a birthday in quarantine, I needed some sort of distraction from the fact that my trip to Amsterdam and birthday brunches were no longer on the cards. I fired up New Horizons and was greeted by Muffy the lilac sheep, blurting “Come with me and don’t ask questions.” Whilst it all felt slightly MI5-esque, I obliged. Greeting me was another two characters from the island, in a surprise birthday party setting, decked to the nines with celebratory decor and a cake I would have liked more than an imaginary bite of. After a bout of whacking a treat-filled piñata and dishing around some cupcakes to the rest of my neighbouring villagers—who failed to attend my virtual party might I add (RUDE)—I was treated to a New Horizons rendition of Happy Birthday by the in-game celebrity musician, K.K. Slider, and then the celebration came to an end. That’s the delight of a game such as this; these little Easter Eggs are part of what has been the allure of the series, ever since the popularity of its Nintendo DS Wild World edition. Whether you choose the northern or southern hemisphere at the start of the game, you experience events in real time; everything from weather patterns, to night fishing, to shooting stars, to season-dependent bugs and fish. When we look at the extent of how our daily lives have been stripped of much stimulation and excitement, a platform that offers this daily spoonful of invigoration and routine with a measure of hidden gems sewn into the mix is all the incentive we need to keep returning each day.
It’s been confirmed time and time again that sourcing hobbies, activities and tasks to occupy your time is beneficial for your mental health, and since some of these everyday routines have been put on hold, I’m endorsing this game to be as good a valuable distraction and routine as any, however virtual it may be. For me, it’s a chance to cast aside my anxieties and worries, blinker my whirring thoughts and forget - for half an hour or three hours - about this unclear situation we find ourselves in. New Horizons celebrates the notion that we are creatures of habit, and when there’s so much uncertainty floating about in reality, finding gratification in a virtual routine cannot be denied in bringing unprecedented comfort. Call it nostalgia, call it escapism, call it whatever you want, but Nintendo’s latest Animal Crossing instalment morphs into whatever an individual needs it to be at whatever moment they find themselves in.
If that doesn’t sound like a haven for your mental health, I’m not sure what will.