Animal Crossing: How to enjoy loneliness

The current situation caused by the global pandemic has made (almost) everyone shut themselves and Animal Crossing has given them something to look forward to.

2:00 a.m. I turn my Nintendo Switch on and start Animal Crossing: New Horizons. At these hours I don’t expect anybody to be online nor even send me a message, so I choose to talk with one of my in-game animal neighbors.

Me too, Canberra.

The dialogue hits home real hard. After a whole day saturated with news about how the pandemic is changing the world as we know it, this game appears to be a personal shelter and, somehow, it’s aware of that role in our lives. But why has Animal Crossing become such a tool in these days? The answer may be hidden since the first game of the franchise.

You’re a 21-year-old who has been working on some quite famous titles (Star Fox, Yoshi’s Story) for one of the most promising companies in the country, Nintendo. As such is your duty to leave your hometown near Tokyo to somewhere closer to the company’s headquarters in Kyoto, around 515 kilometers (320 miles) far from your current home. You get there, now it’s time to start a new home, new habits, a new life after all.

Nintendo developer Katsuya Eguchi.

That was the case of Katsuya Eguchi, the creator of Animal Crossing, who felt the need to share that experience in a video game format. “The game features three themes: family, friendship and community. But the reason I wanted to investigate them was a result of being so lonely”, said Eguchi in an interview with Edge magazine.

This may be one of the most known anecdotes in video game history but there’s something that I find quite endearing about it, Animal Crossing was born out of loneliness.

The start of each game encapsulates those feelings, you’re the new one arriving at a new town where nobody knows you and you don’t even know what to do. There are no objectives written more than paying a debt for the house you live in and even that isn’t something you have to rush for.

This game starts by saying loneliness is something you shouldn’t be afraid of and even if you do, it won’t last long. Little by little you start meeting your neighbors and create bonds with them but they’re not there to entertain your every waking hour, they have their own lives (or at least seem to do so). You have to spend time on your own and learn to appreciate it.

They also share really good pieces of advice.

The latest entry, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, accentuates these feelings even more. You don’t even start with a new house, it’s a tent as you’ve chosen to join the “Deserted Island package” the raccoon entrepreneur Tom Nook has offered you. You’re in the middle of the sea with just a few people with the same plan.

This may be a good time to remind you that Animal Crossing runs in real-time, which means you can’t fast-forward (by traditional means) your progression. Plant a tree? Wait a few days for it to grow. Create a house? Another day for the construction to be finished. The game constantly reminds you that projects take time and that there’s nothing wrong with it.

GameXplain beautifully showcases the real-time mechanic here.

New Horizons producer Hisashi Nogami told The Verge he hoped the game could help players in some way. “Considering the timing, we hope that a lot of the Animal Crossing fans will use this as an escape, so they can enjoy themselves during this difficult time”, explained Nogami.

These words seem to have come to fruition as you can see the game’s popularity in Twitter, Facebook, and even Twitch, a platform mostly known for streams of action-filled games like League of Legends or Counter-Strike. A game that has no objectives and replicates lonely experiences is taking the world by storm.

You’ll find this “announcement” mostly every day.

There’s a concept called “Bonsai no Kokoro” which describes the process of enlightenment through raising a Bonsai tree. According to it, there’s a spirit inside the tree that welcomes the people who raise it once they achieve a certain state of mind.

“This spirit is not cultivated overnight but over a period of time and requires devotion, self-control, and frequent attention”, said Saburo Kato, author of The Master’s Book of Bonsai and internationally recognized bonsai artist.

The game even has its own bonsai trees.

Some of these characteristics can be translated into Animal Crossing as almost every change in your island’s environment is your own milestone. Each building or landscape upgrade is a reminder of what you’ve accomplished within days and hours of sheer will and self-drive.

Yeah, that much is true.

If you analyze the core mechanics by themselves you’ll find that most of the stuff you do in-game is just a reflection of real-world tasks such as paying debts, gardening and tidy your room. Even renowned artists like British actor Stephen Fry have picked up the game and showcased this point.

So why, in a moment of global solitude, is a game like this taking off? It may be because that’s what we needed. To take some time for ourselves and be appreciative of what we’ve accomplished. This isn’t a new medicine nor a new way to escape completely from reality but a cute little way to enjoy yourself.

Almost everything you see here was bought, traded or crafted.

In the end, this island becomes your own canvas and shelter, a place where you don’t hide your problems under a rug but set them aside for a little while and gather your thoughts. A micro-world where your dedication shows clear results and its invitation is to gather the courage and explore your own self.