I love playing life sims. I enjoy how the genre transmutes low-stakes routines into compelling loops and satisfying progress, all in a peaceful domestic package. However, despite being a longtime fan of The Sims and Harvest Moon series (and sinking hundreds of hours into Stardew Valley across various platforms), I never gave Animal Crossing a fair shot. I resolved to change that with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. When we were sent copies of the game, I dove in to act as support for Jeff Cork (whose review you can read right here), but I was not prepared for how completely absorbing this world is. Both thematically and mechanically, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is among the most welcoming games I’ve ever played.
That may seem like a strange category to single out; we often discuss games in terms of things like narrative, weapons, or characters rather than how “welcoming” they feel. That’s not necessarily bad, but those elements don’t figure heavily into the Animal Crossing rubric. Instead, this is a game about creating a bright, idyllic virtual world that you can inhabit for days, weeks, and even years. To pull that off, New Horizons does a few key things that make the game approachable for almost all players – whether they’re seasoned fans or newcomers like me.
Everyone is friendly!
New Horizons is a game of unrestrained optimism. That’s obviously conveyed through the setting, music, and art – but also through the behavior of your friends and neighbors. Everyone is just nice. They treat you (and each other) well, with supportive gestures and words of encouragement. Everyone loves every present you give them. They always think your outfits look great. They clap when they see you catch a butterfly. They teach you crafting recipes and ask for nothing in return. In essence, your village is the perfect incarnation of friendly small-town life – the kind you see in books, movies, and television, but may not actually exist in reality.
At the beginning, you (and a few other would-be residents) show up on an uninhabited island. There is no terrible secret lingering below the ocean. No paranormal entity has summoned you for a grim purpose. The world is not in danger. In fact, there’s essentially no conflict at all; apart from occasional and hilariously minor spats among villagers, your friends live their quaint lives and get along. Your job is just to build a pleasant community from scratch, and the only thing stopping you is when you need to wait a day or two for structures to be built or upgraded.
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In other life sims, you often have various meters – life, stamina, hunger, etc – that limit your activities. New Horizons does not have that kind of pressure. You can do whatever you want as much as you want with no penalty. Fish all day. Catch bugs. Dig holes. Plant trees. You decide what’s important to you, and then you chase it. When I dipped my toes into previous installments, this nebulous, freeform approach didn’t scratch my itch to quantify success. But the new Nook Miles system provides just enough structure to keep me hooked, awarding currency for accomplishing simple tasks like chopping wood or selling fruit. At the same time, earning Nook Milles isn’t so important that it feels like an obligation – so do whatever makes you happy!
Though turning your island into a fully functional community can take a long time, New Horizons is not stingy with satisfying rewards along the way. Every day, you’re getting new recipes, clothes, and furniture – along with plenty of currency to buy the things you aren’t given directly. Some purchases are big quality-of-life improvements, while others are just cosmetic, but all of it blends together to create a steady sense of evolution and progress. Plus, the game supports you in your attempts to support others, since playing multiplayer with friends and giving them gifts is easy. You can’t bypass all of the hard work, but because of New Horizons’ generosity, the work never feels that hard anyway.
I’ve always viewed games as much more than pure escapism … but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a facet of their appeal. Recently, the real world seems to produce a fresh and destabilizing catastrophe on a daily basis. Much of that is beyond our ability to change, but we can still find comfort in the virtual worlds that we do control. New Horizons welcomes you with open arms, and is absolutely perfect for when you need to give your brain a break. In the last couple weeks, I certainly found some respite in this predictable and peaceful paradise.
So, after 50 hours (and counting) of island life, I am glad I finally gave this series a chance. Though the concept seems ridiculous to me now, in retrospect I think Animal Crossing intimidated me a bit. I have a lot of friends who love Animal Crossing, and the breathless zeal with which they discuss fruit-gathering and stone-hitting is baffling – and don’t even get them started on their favorite villagers. From interactions like these, I clearly saw the world of Animal Crossing was big and important to a lot of people. Frankly, that kind of investment of time, energy, and emotion can be daunting. But they poured a lot into it, and it gave them a lot in return. Of course, I say “them,” but it’s really “us” at this point, because now I’m part of the neighborhood.