There was buzz surrounding Animal Crossing: New Horizons even before the Nintendo Switch game dropped. Celebrities like Brie Larson and Lil Nas X patiently awaited the moment they could bring their islands to life, and the masses quickly followed. Within days of its launch, Animal Crossing memes dominated our timelines and its lo-fi music soothed our souls. It turns out, a fictional island where you can make your home, chat with your animated neighbors, and invite your real-life friends over for a casual hang was exactly what we all needed as the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus forced us all indoors. After all, how else can we join an impromptu meet-and-greet with Ross Butler (courtesy of Noah Centineo, no less) during this anxiety-ridden period of social distancing?
With its colorful interface and anthropomorphic woodland creatures, Tom Nook’s world quickly became a halcyon salve in these uncertain times. But has the quality of life inside Animal Crossing surpassed that of the real world, or are we approaching the unsettling world of Ready Player One a little too quickly?
Welcome to Cross / Pop, where MTV News navigates pop culture's biggest questions with logic, reason, and personal preferences. In this week's edition, Social Impact Editor Christianna Silva and Culture Writer Brittany Vincent debate whether life is just better inside the game.
What would life look like inside Animal Crossing?
Christianna: You wake up whenever you want, talk to animals, make crafts, and vibe. It’s like the ideal Sunday, every single day, but without the Sunday scaries and a 100 percent chance that everything will turn out fine. When it rains, you don’t need a coat; you can catch tiny magic fragments when you see a shooting star; you can visit neighboring islands and hang out with friends and family you can’t in real life because of social distancing. Sure, the eggs are a little weird, but it’s a small price to pay for genuine serenity. And the tunes! Not only can you catch a concert by music’s favorite dog, K.K. Slider, but after you upgrade your Resident Services building, the background music changes every hour.
Brittany: If only life were so idyllic! On my island, you wake up, fret over how many Bells and NookMiles you owe your corporate lord and master, and look around your home as you realize you still haven't toiled enough for a house that contains more than a bed and a few trinkets. So you peel yourself out of bed — despite the high probability of getting stuck in conversation with your oversized chicken of a neighbor who won't stop squawking about their favorite thing to do — and work from dawn 'til dusk in the hopes that today is the day you catch that rare stringfish you've been looking for since three weeks ago, only to sell it to pay for your furry neighbors' homes. At least my town tune is Tame Impala, so I get to hear "Borderline" every so often.
In what ways does Animal Crossing reflect real life?
Christianna: I craft a lot in real life, and I craft a lot in the game. All the villagers in my town are so wildly diverse, not only in that they are literally different breeds of animals, but they have different personalities, tastes, and hobbies. Despite it all, they come together under shared values, which vaguely resembles how everyone in my community is stepping up to the plate to help each other during this pandemic. You have to pay your mortgage to Tom Nook, which is similar to real life in that I also have to pay rent, unfortunately. But in Animal Crossing you get to pay on your own schedule with Bells, which you collect by selling items like bugs and fish. You’ve also got that good, good stalk market, a turnip-based stock market, that can really help bring in some money if you’re smart.
Brittany: Exactly. You work all day and night for a boss who's as greedy as they come, and you've got to save and invest your money wisely or you'll just be running circles with your wealth. You've constantly got bridges to build, both literally and socially. If you don't speak to the other villagers they might get a little testy with you. Also, sometimes when you go fishing, all you catch is a boot; sometimes those cool items you find on the beach are actual tin cans. That's how life is.
Is dealing with local management (Tom Nook) better or worse than dealing with a landlord?
Christianna: Way, way, better. I’ve been asking my actual landlord to fix the hose in my yard for weeks, but you ask Tom Nook for something, and it’s done! Down with capitalism, obviously, but for an insane raccoon rent shark, he’s very community-minded and is always down to get some help sprucing up the place. Plus, I don’t have to stick to a payment schedule every month in the game like I do with my actual landlord.
Brittany: Sure, but currently, the office staff at my real-life apartment complex can't guilt trip me into helping them raise funds to build a store on the property for me to funnel even more funds into. They also don't hold a monopoly on all real estate. If I want to leave, I can just terminate my lease. In Animal Crossing, Nook is a shrewd businessman who owns just about everything. When you're on an island with Tom and his tanuki Nooklings, you may as well be a worker drone — every Bell you have goes back into their racket and "improving" island life.
In what ways is life in Animal Crossing completely bonkers?
Brittany: You can outfit yourself solely in costumes from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. You can live out your Beastars dreams, too. If you’re really creative you can decorate your home with your favorite vinyl (I’ve got Era Vulgaris in mine). And there are no real laws; there are no regulations for the fruit and fish you collect and sell to a family of raccoons, who presumably pass it on to villagers.
Christianna: You can visit your friends and family without a 6-foot germ radius! You can add a room to your home or move an entire building in 24 hours! Your neighbors are talkative and kind and never steal your packages! My character has big pockets, an unknown privilege to someone like me, who has spent her entire life wearing entirely impractical jeans. And then there’s the egg thing, what is that?
Does the social aspect of the game feel like an adequate replacement for IRL get-togethers while we’re all social distancing? (And will it still hold up post-pandemic?)
Brittany: It's a nice facsimile, but it makes me want to leave the house instead of meet up in-game more than ever. It's fun to hold birthday parties and quick get-togethers, but there's still so much you can't do. I can go to friends’ islands to buy items and steal the fruit from their trees — that's great. But I can't strike up an interesting conversation because of the chat restraints: Typing out a single message on a virtual keyboard takes ages. Staring at an avatar, no matter how stylish, has never made me feel closer to my long-distance acquaintances. And unlike other simulation games, like Stardew Valley, it lacks a cooperative element that makes it perfect for long-term play.
Christianna: Nothing beats IRL get-togethers, but in the time of social distancing, it holds up! What’s nice about hanging out with friends in Animal Crossing is that, unlike FaceTiming or texting, you don’t have to talk the whole time. You can just vibe. In a post-pandemic world, when vibing in public is once again allowed, I’m not so sure it’ll hold up. But for right now, it’s been somewhat of a saving grace for me, my friends, and my family, to coordinate our gameplay and virtually sit with each other for a quiet visit to everyone’s islands.
The unruliness of life inside Animal Crossing can be fun — for a little while. But as we move deeper into our socially distanced lifestyles, there are aspects of the real world that we’ll start to really miss, like the ability to say goodbye to overbearing landlords, should we need to, and quiet afternoons spent doing nothing with family and friends physically by our sides. Hugs just aren’t the same online.