Before last week, I was sitting on a fence between naming one of two utterly wonderful, smaller games (anti-RPG Moon and weird Lovecraftian baseball simulator Blaseball, please go check those out) my Game of the Year for 2020.
But then this happened:
If you’re not up for watching: this was the Game of the Year announcement at The Game Awards, which saw the London Philharmonic play an outstanding medley of the themes from each Game of the Year contender. We hear the battle theme from Final Fantasy 7 Remake, followed by familiar melodies from Doom Eternal, Ghost of Tsushima, the sad twanging banjo of The Last of Us Part 2, and the energetic devilish beats of Hades. It’s all beautifully done, but it’s also all thematic doom and gloom. All dark, violent, often tragic and fierce.
“That feeling of pure, undiluted sunshine was, for me, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and I have no idea how I ever entertained anything else as my favorite game this year”
And then…and then! At the very end, a ray of sunlight bursts through the clouds as the orchestra ends the montage on the Animal Crossing: New Horizons theme. The sudden, dramatic change in tone instantly lifted my spirits. I found myself smiling without even thinking. I teared up a little bit! I know that’s corny! I’m not sorry!
That feeling of pure, undiluted sunshine was, for me, Animal Crossing: New Horizons throughout 2020, and I have no idea how I ever entertained the notion of anything else as my favorite game this year. Plenty of ink has already been spilled on how it was the game we needed in 2020 when we were all stuck in our homes due to the ongoing global pandemic. I won’t retread that ground, except to say, of course it was. It was a social space; a slow-paced, long-play game perfect for wiling away days, weeks, and months, and a bit of happiness in an otherwise dark time.
But beyond that, I think Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the full realization of a direction the series has been going as it’s grown over the years. If you played the original Animal Crossing, you might remember how utterly weird that game was. Goofy, round characters hanging out in a sparse forest village, animal neighbors that were frequently more insulting than charming, and a mole who would yell at you if you shut down the game without saving. A far cry in many ways from the charming vision of 2020’s release.
“Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the full realization of a direction the series has been going as it’s grown over the years”
Yet somewhere in there was the seed of something new and joyful. It encapsulated a feeling of freedom — of escaping the frustrations and pressures of whatever lives we’re living now to exist in a pleasantly goofy village with uncomplicated neighbors and no obligations. Over time and multiple entries, that morphed into a game about building community in a new place. While games like Wild World softened the series’ edges, New Leaf instituted the player as mayor, giving them an edict to build up the town and make it better for all citizens, including fulfilling requests for certain public features and taking the lead at holiday celebrations.
That brings us back to New Horizons, which combines the emphasis on building a community with, Nook Miles aside, a much gentler touch when it comes to progression. You’re no longer the mayor, and while the opening’s rapid-fire progression of goals felt a bit gamified to many folks stuck indoors and able to careen through objectives at a speed that was clearly never intended, soon you’re cut loose and left to simply…be.
Nine months of gameplay and 500 hours into New Horizons, I have accomplished just about every objective the game could throw at me. I have nearly completed my bug collection, finished both fossils and fish, and my town is as perfect as it can be. I have a full community of lovable residents, a musician visiting for a weekly concert, and every inch of my island decked out with furniture, flora, and features. I’ve grown blue roses. There’s nothing more to do.
And yet I return, day after day, for no reason other than the sheer delight of it. I talk to all my neighbors and give them gifts just to see their cheerful reactions and immediate donning of whatever goofy costume I’ve just handed them. I gently rearrange my flowers, or adjust my decor to reflect the current season. I try on new outfits; I help my animal friends resolve questions and conflicts; I wish on stars; I fish for the fun of it now, needing neither money nor museum exhibits.
“Even if the world is dark, most of the people in it are not. After all, some of them made this lovely game about being nice and feeling happy”
That’s because New Horizons, like the other Animal Crossing titles before it, asks you to rejoice in mundanity. The reward of every action you take in this town may have been Nook Miles in the beginning, but this game was never designed to be a short sprint. It’s always been a marathon, meant to be played year-round for the sheer joy of catching Muffy singing in the plaza, finding a brand new DIY, or catching sight of a rare double rainbow.
It’s also designed, in a way, as a kindness simulator. With a full bank of money, all the outfits and furniture I could want, and literally no goals left whatsoever, my animal neighbors still ask me for favors, and take pleasure in the silliest of gifts or the simple act of me chatting with them. They comment on the decor I put up around the island, or ask me to resolve their conflicts with other neighbors. A recent update gave me the ability to sit down on the ground next to them and keep them company while they read a book or eat a popsicle.
All this is a joy to do. Simply seeing their darling reactions to my assistance or presence and feeling that I did something good for a bunch of admittedly fictional creatures has sustained me this year, especially at a time when random acts of kindness toward real people on a day-to-day basis were made considerably more challenging due to distance and isolation.
Even without the global pandemic, the world in 2020 has seemed almost constantly, oppressively dark. Despite certain recent political shifts, all signs point to a lot of that darkness sticking around. I don’t think the answer for our collective mental health is escapism, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons has, for me, been a pleasant place to recharge. There, I can practice vulnerability without risk of being heartbreak, and kindness without risk of scorn.
And I can remind myself that even if the world is dark, most of the people in it are not. After all, some of them made this lovely game about being nice and feeling happy. And an awful lot more people resonated with that desire, reflecting it in the community that sprung up around Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The game may be a fiction, but those feelings are real, and they’ll stay with me for a long time to come.