Why spend your day isolated in quarantine when you can spend it relaxing on a tropical island surrounded by cute talking animals and all of your real-life friends, too?
As if being the first mainline Animal Crossing game to release in over eight years isn't exciting enough already, Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrives at a time when life as we know it has been flipped upside down. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic–characterized by social distancing, food shortages, and rampant joblessness–Nintendo's patent brand of life simulation feels like an all-too-necessary escape to a far better world.
Coronavirus may have been capable of destroying the dream vacation to Japan that I booked in May of 2019 and spent close to a year planning, but when I booted up Animal Crossing: New Horizons on my Switch, everyone at the Nook Inc. travel agency seemed entirely unconcerned about my upcoming flight to a deserted island getaway. Within hours of meeting Tom Nook—the island's tanuki (raccoon in the US version) proprietor who gives out houses with interest-free loans—I had already made friends with my jock squirrel neighbor, Sheldon, eaten a ton of fresh pears, and hoarded roughly 20 fish in tanks stacked outside my tent with plans to start an aquarium.
Animal Crossing is the perfect distraction from everything horrible going on in the real world right now. The aesthetic is overwhelmingly adorable, the island locale is relaxing, and the gameplay experience is entirely tailored to your own inclinations. You can spend your day exploring new islands, hanging out with your animal villagers, or creating custom art to display on your wall. You can also visit your real-world friends' islands and just hang out.
As it turns out, that latter feature is especially useful during a real-world quarantine. During the weekend of the game's launch, I discovered that nearly every one of my friends who owns a Switch had also purchased Animal Crossing—even people I wouldn't expect to play a cutesy life sim game. On Saturday, I visited five different friends' islands to hang out and chat. On Sunday, my friends and I took things to the next level, getting together on the same island and hopping on Discord voice chat so we could all literally talk to each other while fishing and gazing at virtual shooting stars. Amazingly, hanging out in Animal Crossing actually feels like socializing during a time when hanging out in-person isn't possible.
Throughout the weekend, I heard roughly the same sentiment from nearly everyone I met up with in-game: "Animal Crossing couldn't have come out at a more perfect time." I agree wholeheartedly. It's a thought I had many times during the weeks leading up to the game's launch. As the world seemed to crumble around me, as my long-held plans for the coming months fell to the wayside, I kept thinking, "At least Animal Crossing is coming out."
But then something dawned on me, a notion so chilling that it sent...well, a chill down my spine: Animal Crossing: New Horizons is timed so perfectly, that maybe, just maybe, it's too perfect.
If the past few years have taught me anything, it's that the world is a godless sh*tcircus wherein the most stupid, bad faith takes are usually correct and no attribution of evil intentions are ever too far-fetched for humanity's boundless penchant for villainy.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons stands in stark contrast to this worldview. Animal Crossing is good and wholesome, a happy game worth being excited over, a genuine reprieve from everything gross and vile. The laws of the universe practically mandate that, in the midst of a global pandemic, something as pure as Animal Crossing must be secretly tainted. Seeing as the game wasn't delayed, and it really is as great as everyone always wanted it to be, it follows that Animal Crossing's toxicity isn't upfront but, rather, behind the scenes.
It follows that Nintendo was behind the entire COVID-19 pandemic. Their plan? To create a deadly virus forcing humanity into quarantine, with nothing to look forward to other than Animal Crossing. Then, when everyone is playing and realizes that they can hang out in-game, chilling in Animal Crossing: New Horizons will become the new default form of socialization. People, by and large, will never leave their homes again, preferring to live vicariously through their cute little avatars on their happy fictional islands. By this point, Nintendo will have successfully cultivated an army of dependent consumers who will buy whatever Animal Crossing: New Horizons DLC they need in order to maintain their new form of social status.
Yes, I submit that COVID-19 is all about selling DLC.
The open secret of DLC is that even though gamers constantly complain about how much we hate it, we continue to buy DLC because it adds more content and, by proxy, longevity to our favorite games. On a baser level, in multiplayer games where the DLC is largely cosmetic, we buy DLC to flex on other people by making our accounts look better than theirs.
There are no paid Animal Crossing DLC items yet, but there is a Nook Inc. Silk Rug DLC that you can download if you subscribe to Switch Online (which costs $20 per year and is necessary to hang out with non-local friends in-game). Of course, Nintendo can't just come swinging right out of the gate. They're playing the long-game. That's why they possibly released this pandemic. It's not hard to imagine a future where nobody wants to go to your island to hang out unless you have the coolest new virtual firepit or virtual sound system that you can only get with real money. At that point, when socialization is conducted exclusively through Animal Crossing, your options will be to buy whatever new item Nintendo is shilling or become a social pariah.
In order for Nintendo to make their plan a reality, people need to emotionally fuse themselves with the game. Due to COVID-19, it's working. I wasn't the only person who spent my weekend substituting real-life human interaction with Animal Crossing chill seshes.
All across the Animal Crossing subreddit, users have shared stories of the genuine human interactions they've experienced in-game. People are going on virtual museum dates and connecting with family members from different countries, all from the safety of their own homes. In short, human interaction via Animal Crossing is becoming the new normal.
All of this would be genuinely beautiful if I wasn't so certain that Nintendo engineered the entire thing to sell DLC. Because if Nintendo didn't engineer the whole thing, if Animal Crossing: New Horizons really did just coincidentally come out at the time when it was needed most to provide people with a novel, wonderful means of human connection amidst a crisis, well...that would mean there's still goodness in the world. And if there's still goodness in the world, that means there's also hope that things can get better. I can't accept a reality where it takes a virtual squirrel named Sheldon who always talks about lifting weights to make me recognize that my worldview is flawed. Because if I did, one might say that Animal Crossing has shown me...a New Horizon.