Imagine escaping to an island paradise where bags of money fall out of trees and a talking raccoon can approve you for a mortgage.
With the world in the grip of a pandemic, that’s exactly the sort of escape that has captivated so many — not in their fantasies, but in the world of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It’s the latest in a series that’s been around since 2001, but New Horizons is the first built-from-the-ground-up console release in 19 years. It’s also a conveniently timed piece of whimsy for gamers — and has become a phenomenon.
In Animal Crossing, players take on the role of a lone human on an island filled with pudgy anthropomorphic animals. Players are tasked with building a thriving society, filling it with shops, bridges and other accommodations for its residents. There are no high scores, vampire Nazis or final bosses. The game is played at a relaxed pace, in which the player can do as much or as little as they want on any given day. Upbeat acoustic jams or sultry bossa nova synths play in the background.
Already, early sales figures from Japan and Britain suggest that this is the strongest launch for an Animal Crossing game in history. (U.S. figures are to be released later this month.) And the game has extended its reach beyond its main platform, with users sharing screenshots on social media of their Japanese-inspired homes, custom T-shirt designs and perfectly arranged flower gardens. It became the No. 1 trending game on the platform, with Japan, the U.S., Korea, France and Spain at the top.
“It’s now the No. 1 most talked-about game in the world, dethroning the likes of Fate/Grand Order — which held that title for nearly two years — and Fortnite,” said Rishi Chadha, global head of gaming partnerships at Twitter. “The growth in conversation has been astronomical. Conversation volume since launch has grown over 1,000 percent and the number of people tweeting about the game has grown over 400 percent.”
Indeed, there have been more than 38 million tweets about the game since its release, many celebrating its ability to provide comfort and social connection in a time of isolation and struggle.
“There’s no nastiness. There’s no violence that exists. They get absorbed into the day-to-day things without the real world consequences,” said Romana Ramzan, a lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland who teaches game narrative. “It’s like you’ve been transported to a parallel universe. It’s the universe you’ve always wanted, but can’t get.”
Dr. Ramzan posits that the opportunities Animal Crossing affords players contribute to its wide appeal. For children, being able to engage in adultlike chores, like building and decorating a house, gives them power often out of reach. For adults, especially millennials who have lived through the Great Recession and current coronavirus-induced economic stress, it offers the white picket fence often associated with the American dream that’s increasingly elusive. Debt, which can accumulate quickly in Animal Crossing, can also be paid off easily. Goals feel attainable and within reach.
Though the aesthetics of the game might lead some to believe it’s geared toward children, it’s found a dedicated audience with millennials, some of whom grew up with the franchise, and with younger audiences experiencing it for the first time. It’s all the more intensified for those struggling with isolation and addiction.
Joseph Gorordo, 35, is a vice president of outreach for Recovery Unplugged, a chain of music-based alcohol and drug treatment centers. He and his clients have been using Animal Crossing as a way to connect while practicing social distancing.
“On Sunday night, I got onto my island, I opened it up, within an hour I had four friends, two colleagues, and two clients in recovery who were all hanging out on this island and having a mini support meeting,” said Mr. Gorordo, a former heroin addict.
He understands intimately many of the anxieties being felt by millennials, especially those who turn to drugs and alcohol. Animal Crossing offers a haven and can give players a feeling of empowerment and community, particularly at a moment when many are being told to stay at home.
“So much of recovery from addiction or mental health issues is connection,” Mr. Gorordo said. “With so much of us trapped in our houses right now, meeting up virtually has us support each other in this game in a way we haven’t, being self-isolated and in quarantine.”
Animal Crossing follows a real-time clock and calendar, meaning a minute in the game is a minute in the real world. The game changes day to day, with new fish, bugs and other surprises appearing only during certain seasons or months. Animal Crossing doesn’t have an end and can be played indefinitely — which is especially prescient when there’s no deadline to the current crisis. This pace bestows on the game a level of calmness, one that gives the player total control over progression.
“Animal Crossing makes work feel soothing — we call it gentle progression,” said Jennifer Scheurle, 31, lead game designer at Arena Net in Seattle, the developers behind the Guild Wars franchise. Ms. Scheurle said Animal Crossing’s pace — players chop wood or build a bridge at their own speed, for example — makes it feel both personal and predictable.
The sweater-wearing chubby bears or cardio-obsessed squirrels are upbeat and positive. And the entire warm-hug aesthetic gives the game its universal appeal.
“I don’t want to be stereotypical here, but women don’t mind doing small task-based games,” said Gwen Reilly, 24, a freelance illustrator from Pasadena, Calif. “They enjoy the process of building stuff up slowly.”
For Ms. Reilly, there’s a parallel between hobbies popular among women, like sewing or gardening, and the deliberate pace of the game. “Watching Animal Crossing slowly build up is a part of the cathartic factor, seeing your creation improve day by day.”
Animal Crossing may be a game without a final goal that ends the journey, but users will eventually stop playing it. Years from now, when the coronavirus has passed and the economy has recovered, players can still log back in and see how their island is doing. Sure, it will be covered in weeds, certain residents may have moved, and cockroaches will be hiding under furniture.
But when players do run into another resident, their old animal friends will be happy to see that they are doing OK.