So here’s the real talk: I started this blog over a month ago, after weeks of work on things like a brand, theme, and logo. I was excited for this opportunity I’d created for myself to write about one of my favorite things in the world: video games. I made a commitment to myself that I would post meaningful content at least once a week, I’d get to know other bloggers, I’d read what other people were writing about games, and I would be an active part of this blogging community. I wrote a list of at least a dozen topics for upcoming blog posts. I played all of Deadly Premonition 2 and loved it, keeping handwritten notes on a journal next to me (a sample: “To play DP2 is to say to oneself, ‘I hope this is the most annoying thing the game makes me do’ … while knowing it won’t be.”) I made plans to write a video game-themed short story. I had stuff I was going to do.
And then, and then, and then.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) came out on the Nintendo Switch on March 20, 2020. If you have managed to avoid the internet so far in 2020, ACNH is the latest social/life simulation game in the Animal Crossing series developed and published by Nintendo. You take on the role of a human who travels to a deserted island to set up a life for yourself, accompanied by tanuki pit boss Tom Nook and his two sons, Timmy and Tommy. You establish buildings, populate a museum with artifacts and animals, go fishing, dive for sea creatures, terraform, decorate, make friends, lose friends, all within real time.
Nothing about this sounded appealing to me. My favorite games are things like Portal, BioShock, Mass Effect, Witcher. I like to shoot at things, resolve conflicts, cure genophages (spoiler alert?), and encounter time paradoxes. I like to mow down Nazis and see narrative resolution. I usually find crafting too fiddly, grinding too fussy, and if I don’t get to see a rewarding cut scene after selecting my romance partner of choice, I get a little pouty. I need achievement and awards in video games.
As the United States went into stages of lockdown (my personal lockdown beginning in early March, thanks to a proactive employer), so too did my understanding of routine and rhythm. As Ashly Burch tweeted all the way back in May, “doing half the work takes three times the effort.” My understanding of what it was to be personally productive went out the window, and I struggled to even wake up at what felt like a “normal” time for me.
In those early days, it felt like maybe this pandemic would be over by summer. It was okay to not be normal. It was okay not to adjust to new routines.
Some time in early April, I succumbed to the hype— seeing so many beautifully decorated homes and adorable animal friends on other people’s social media accounts– and downloaded ACNH for my Switch. I had never played an Animal Crossing game, my last Nintendo system being the original Gameboy, and I had no idea what to expect. None of my friends were playing it, so I had no other islands to visit, nothing to do but grind away on my little island, in hopes of iron to complete an early-stage task. And boy did it take me forever to grind enough iron.
Like with Journey, Animal Crossing is what you make of it, but in an entirely different way. It requires nothing of you. There are rewards in the form of Nook Miles, which enable you to buy goods or travel to other deserted islands, and they’re for things like talking to several of your villager friends, fishing, or catching some bugs. Your island and home can look however you want, from Hogwarts to a trash heap. Because the game is played in real time, each day you log in, you emerge from your house, ready to tackle the day. After establishing some key buildings, a lovely dog named Isabelle tells the morning news, which is frequently none, and you set about whatever tasks you’ve established for yourself that day.
Whatever tasks you’ve established for yourself. There’s no narrative, no canon. There’s no fail state. If you don’t farm your fossils every day, you simply don’t farm your fossils every day. Buildings don’t fall into disrepair, and friendships can be mended if you ignore someone for a while (once you get over some passive aggressiveness). The ability to “time travel” by changing the time on your Switch also means that you can cavort across dimensions in search of friends or goods. I frequently did this, feeling too antsy to wait for sharks in July. I sailed into the future like the Doctor, vowing not to talk to any of my villagers in case they would detect I was from the past. “Just here for the fish,” I told myself.
The latest entry in the genre is Ooblets, which is currently in beta on Xbox One and PC. Ooblets, developed by a two-person team under the name Glumberland, takes the adorableness of the life simulator and pumps it to 11. It’s a combination of Harvest Moon and Pokémon, part farming sim and part adorable creature dance battle. Like ACNH, you establish an avatar and set sail for a distant land, finding one instead that is very inhabited by strange dancing people with twee names for everything (instead of hot dogs, they’re hop dobs) and little dancing creatures called oobs. You collect your oob followers by challenging them to dance battles, playing dance moves from character-specific decks of cards. Each conquered oob will give you a seed, which you then plant and nourish, birthing a new little oob to dance to its hearts content. Everything is bright, colorful, and beautiful, and every task is fundamentally some kind of gather or friendship mission, or a combination of the two. You can get coffee in the coffee shop, hang out in various clubhouses that you unlock, get a haircut, buy new clothes, and decorate your house.
There is nothing difficult or stressful about Ooblets (though the beta hints that there’s something sinister beneath the surface). It’s just about these small, achievable goals. And dance battles.
Over the weekend, as though I didn’t have enough commitments to existing animals and patches of land, I picked up Stardew Valley. Stardew, like Animal Crossing, never interested me. Planting crops and caring for them? Milking cows and feeding chickens? Yikes. Hours of grinding in order to build chicken coops? Mining for hours for stone? Why would I do this, I always thought, when I could be romancing aliens, stealth-killing clickers, or raiding ancient tombs?
I don’t know how many hours I’ve already sunk into Stardew Valley and my little farm. I have come to a place in 2020 where I find it rewarding to wake up at 6am in-game, head out to look at my crops, swing around my barn and coop and say hello to my cows and chickens and goats, and then set about my day. I go down to the beach every morning to gaze at Elliott with his beautiful hair and hope to hear a tidbit about how his writing is going. I check in on Shane in the bar to see how his mental health is. I chase after Sebastian with a frozen tear, and I grow flowers in order to pass them out to everyone in town when they’ve bloomed. There’s a lot more to Stardew— hidden secrets, combat, wizards, skull keys, and strangers issuing quests. But for me, every in-game day, my pink-hair avatar named Veronica wakes up on her farm called Neptune, and I set a goal for her.
Today is mining, or today is foraging.
Today is building a big barn, or today is cooking a lot of food.
Today is friendship day, or today is restoring part of the community center.
Today is exploring. Today is a quiet day.