The music that plays at 5 a.m. in “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” is beautiful. I’ve only heard it in-game once. Not because I’m some Fortune 500 freak who thinks waking up at the ass crack of dawn is the key to success, or because I woke up in the middle of the night and booted up the game because I couldn’t go to sleep. No. Because I had been playing “Animal Crossing” for about three hours through the dead of night, planning and landscaping and building a discount Versailles hedge maze on my island.

I was so into this little project that I lost track of time, only to be slapped with a reminder when the Town Hall’s bells tolled at the top of the hour. Although time in “Animal Crossing” is synced up with time in the real world, the day doesn’t officially start anew until the clock strikes 5 a.m. You’re momentarily frozen and thrown into a loading screen to watch the daily announcements from the series favorite shih tzu Isabelle, which I usually see after rolling out of bed around 2 p.m. The soundtrack greets you kindly once you regain control of your character. It mirrors the soft sound of ocean waves rolling in on your island’s beaches and the morning blue-green sky. It’s beautiful, and I never want to hear it again.

***

Oh, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” there was a time when I thought you would be the one to fix my life.

After a year’s worth of intensifying depression, mounting attention issues, dropped classes, exhausting jobs and dealing with all the shit life throws at you post-coming out as a trans woman, I thought 2020 was going to be the year where I got my life back on track. I was going to commit to school, get a stable and decent source of income, pursue my hobbies, be the best I could for my friends. “Animal Crossing” was going to be the reward for a life well lived, almost poetically placed in mid-March as the semester really started to ramp up. I would live each day to the fullest, and treat myself by paling around on my island paradise for 30 minutes or so before a dutiful 11 p.m. bedtime.

It hardly lasted a month. I burnt through the two or three free absences in all my classes, and skipped some more. I forgot to complete an earth science online exam worth a third of my grade before the deadline. I processed the terse term withdrawal paperwork for the second time in my University of Michigan career. I held back tears in the lobby of the Office of Financial Aid as I wondered if I had fucked my scholarship for good. I stayed in bed too much, and ate too little. Suffice to say, it sucked.

Oh, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” there was a time when I thought you would be the one to fix our lives.

The way it all went to shit was kind of funny, I guess. Spring Break was almost over, and Bernie Sanders was holding a rally in Ann Arbor. The sheer volume of people crammed into the fenced-off Diag was electric on that Sunday afternoon, but mortifying to recontextualize now two months later. I voted for Bernie in the primary that Tuesday, and that night I was grinding “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” with my friends only to read the news that he had inexplicably lost every county in Michigan to Joe Fucking Biden. Oh yeah, and the first cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Michigan.

You know, Coronavirus, That Thing That Had Been Happening In China But All Things Considered Will Probably Not Be A Big Deal In America. Or at least, that’s the picture I got from the Trump administration mouthpieces who were broadcasted on the nightly news, which I only ever caught if it was on the TV in the dining hall’s break room. I would aimlessly listen to them proclaiming the situation was under control, not thinking much of it while chewing on undercooked noodles before I got back to my shift. But there I was, sitting in the game room of a fancy apartment building, about to realize that This Thing Was Quickly Going To Be A Big Deal. The University cancelled classes swiftly after the news came out, and soon enough the entire campus was shut down and my job with it.

It seemed like almost all my friends in Ann Arbor were gone within the following week, graduating seniors realizing they had sat in for their last physical class without even realizing it. I was left in this void of an apartment I once thought of comfortably as my home, with no loving family to retreat to and only my girlfriend to help maintain my sanity.

But hey, at least “Animal Crossing” was around the corner! In the first week of quarantine my Twitter timeline was practically clamoring for it, lamenting the quarantine but acknowledging that the game perhaps couldn’t come at a more apt time. A few days before release some fans who have probably never known real struggle in their life were even sharing an oh-so-polite letter to Nintendo pleading with the company to welease their wittle funny animal game eawly. “Animal Crossing” would arrive on the wings of an angel to help ease the whiplash from all this sudden imposed isolation, convince us that maybe staying inside ain’t all that bad when we have cute and cozy video games to tide us over.

Oh, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” there was a time when I thought you would be the one to fix it all. And oh, how wrong I was.

***

First impressions were promising. With past games in the series, all there is to do upon startup is complete some menial tasks for the omnipotent and contentious Tom Nook as you start to pay off your initial home loan. After about 30 minutes, the game starts to open up and you can play it however you want: Some would turn the game off satisfied and pick up where the game left off the next day, while others would “time travel” by manually pushing their system clock forward and speed through days to cut down the wait on new items, shop upgrades, monthly events and the like.

“New Horizons” takes that thirty minutes of initial questing and beefs it up into something resembling a story, with the goal of making your island a vacation hotspot, which takes about two week’s worth of in-game days to complete. My girlfriend and I had the game preloaded on our Switches so we could play at midnight on March 20, and we stayed up until about four in the morning floored by how fun and engaging the new crafting features and “Nook Miles” achievement-tracking system were compared to the first couple hours of past games.

We played in real time, so over the next week, we crafted cute little outdoor spaces for new villagers, built a shop for the Nook’s adorable apprentices Timmy and Tommy and upgraded the cramped Resident Services tent into a modern Town Hall. We laughed at the memes on Twitter about how you could get rich by catching tarantulas or how people stockpiled their island with bugs and fish waiting for the museum to open and its curator Blathers to start taking donations. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” seemed like the rare case of a video game being the target of incredible hype yet still managing to stick the landing on arrival.

Or was it too good to be true? After your island achieves a three star rating and the vagabond musician and series staple K. K. Slider comes to play a concert, Tom Nook finally gives you access to the much-anticipated terraforming features. Your entire island’s layout is now able to be modified to your liking, and with the right items you can entertain the possibility of urban side streets, medieval castles or even covering every possible inch of your island in water.

I mentioned before that it seemed like everyone and their mother was hankering to play “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” and the numbers don’t lie: The game sold more than 13 million copies in the first month or so, which is already more than the last entry in the series, “New Leaf,” sold in its entire lifetime. And since everyone is cooped up at home, and everyone has more time to waste on the internet, “Animal Crossing” has evolved from a popular but more niche life-simulator with communities housed on Reddit and Tumblr, to a mainstream trending topic that will pop up on your Facebook and Twitter feeds even if you don’t play the game. There were articles about how people were hosting birthday parties, graduation ceremonies and even workplace meetings on their islands. The Detroit Lions underpaid an intern to make a seven minute video revealing their 2020 schedule using the game’s robust customization features and a little Photoshop.

It seems like an unwritten Internet rule that the more popular a piece of media becomes the more cutthroat and vocal its fans are. With “New Horizons” the gatekeepers were on guard day one, as a war was waged between time travellers who wanted to make their island look as cool as possible as fast as possible and so-called “purists” who decried anything beyond taking the game one day at a time as “cheating.” Although I was an avid time traveller in past games, I wanted to take the game slowly this time, especially since it would give me at least a tiny bit of structure as the vacuous days of quarantine began to morph together. No problem, right? Twitter told a different story. The purists labelled the time travellers as impatient babies who sucked all the fun out of the game. The time travellers brushed off the purists as the fun-police who were jealous of what they were already able to accomplish.

Regardless of the yelling, by the time I unlocked terraforming and could finally catch up to the time travellers the game started to feel more and more like a chore. Why even bother trying to make a grand outdoor entrance for my museum or a high-octane boxing ring when five other people on Twitter have already done it? For a game centered around themes of leisure and community, it’s amazing how toxic and selfish some of its fans had become. People would bully others for “stealing” their ideas for island design or charge ridiculous prices for the game’s rare items on the ironically-named online fan marketplace Nookazon. The concept of cheating in “Animal Crossing” is a silly oxymoron at best, but people were trying their damndest to make it a competition.

For a while I strayed away from Nookazon and other similar online spaces for buying and selling items, partly because I found the so-called villager “black market” housed on them pretty slimy, but mainly because I really wanted to commit to taking the game at my own pace. Eventually after seeing a fair share of screenshots on Twitter from people who made arcade/casino areas on their island, I caved and found someone on Nookazon with an excess of arcade cabinets to sell in exchange for Nook Miles Tickets (which virtually equates to a single pull on the slot machine of which random villager you’re able invite to your island). The seller was nice, yet wasted no time beating around the bush: They responded to my Discord message in no time at all, and the transaction was completed on my island within minutes.

After a day or two I finally accumulated enough related items to get started, the cherry on top being a download code I found for a wonderfully shitty ’90s arcade carpet pattern. It was no substitute for the insane Round 1 Arcade in Auburn Hills my friend and I made the trek out to in the beginning of March before it all hit the fan, but it was the best I could do. I can cope by playing pretend. I was happy with my decision. I caved, and it felt good.

Two days later the arcade machine was up for sale in my Nook’s Cranny.

I have a couple rare items I could hawk if I wanted to (I got particularly lucky with a white colorway of the versatile streetlamp that is in high demand), but I don’t know, it seems more effort than it’s worth. I have no problem sending my Switch friends nice items as a sort of “hey lol love u” type gift, but that’s easy because the game lets you send items you already have in your catalog to friends directly through the mail. The in-game currency of Bells is practically funny munny considering how easy you can earn them through methods like playing the “stalk market” (and don’t get me started on turnips), but the community couldn’t rest with that and managed to speedrun capitalism in just a few days. It’s scary; kind of impressive, but mostly scary, and I’m not about to fan the flames. It took me a full month to get my unemployment claim approved and it’s more money a week than I’ve ever made in my lifetime, so I’m not really sure if I want to be exploited in “Animal Crossing” too.

***

Nowhere has the moral decay of the fanbase been more evident than the recent “discourse” surrounding the villager Raymond. Raymond was a hot item even before the release of the game as he was revealed to be one of the eight new villagers that would be added to the ever-growing list of hundreds. The internet fell for smug heterochromia cat, much like they did for smug frowny squirrel Marshal when he was introduced in “New Leaf.” Personally, I think he looks like Ellen DeGeneres’s fursona, but for a while, I at least understood the appeal.

The appeal became rabid, though, and those with Raymond on their island flaunted him as a status symbol, flexing on those stuck with “ugly” villagers. When a villager moves out, they take a day to pack up all their stuff in boxes, and on this day another player can come talk to them and convince them to move to their island if they wish. “Raymond in boxes” became a call to arms. Even though he is functionally the same as the 34 other villagers with smug personalities, Raymond became an obsession. His popularity rose exponentially, for seemingly no reason at all other than people wanted him just to want him. People started to scam other players out of good items by promising them Raymond or tried to strong-arm people with Raymond into giving them Raymond because they weren’t treating him right. I saw a Discord screenshot floating around of someone trying to run an essay contest with the winning prize being Raymond and I still can’t tell if it was serious or not.

Although this all sounds like I’m coming off “anti-Raymond” or whatever, at the end of the day I don’t care. I think the drama is funny and I also think people need to calm down, but there’s no reason to take a side because it really doesn’t matter. “Fucking calm down, Greg. It’s animal crossing.

I have been playing “Animal Crossing” games since the mid-2000s with the release of the DS iteration “Wild World,” and I always viewed it as a quirky escape from the real world that you dictated the pace of. However, with the perfect storm of rising popularity, an internet-enabled fanbase and a world on lockdown, “Animal Crossing” is starting to take on a life of its own. The real world is now an escape from “Animal Crossing.”

***

I’ve dumped about 200+ hours into “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” but in the past week I’ve hardly played more than a couple hours. My island is functionally complete, or at least, I’ve built up all the areas I’ve wanted to build up and I quite love all the villagers on my island. (Shoutout Stinky the cat, who literally wears underwear on his head.) I only pop in every other day or so to check if I have any cool new items in my shop or to visit my girlfriend’s island and water her flowers. I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time playing the game, but I also don’t feel like there’s any need to keep putting a ton of time into it.

For the past two months I’ve hardly broken social distancing, except for weekly grocery trips and an occasional walk around the block. I’ve hung out with a friend or two here and there (after we had been self-isolating for an appropriate period of time, of course), and recently I’ve been able to see my writing partner-in-crime Stephen. He knew I had been playing a lot of “New Horizons” and told me his sister had as well, so he asked to see my island so he could send a video of it to her. I cranked up the game and took him on a little tour, showing him the spooky graveyard leading up to my house, the beachfront bandstand, the aforementioned hedge maze.

Her response? “Wowow,” at first, and then: “Doesn’t look like a natural island but ig thats the point of the game (disappointed emoji) (disappointed emoji).” A shot to the heart. Hundreds of hours of work filleted with one text bubble. As I laughed it off, I realized I could be mad at that, maybe retaliate saying “I’d like to see you do better,” but I also realized something greater. If I had a knee-jerk reaction like that, wouldn’t that make me no better than the Raymond stans or the anti-time travel brigade?

“Animal Crossing” has been and always will be a coping mechanism for the harsh realities of our own world, and with how the world has crumbled in the past couple months, it seems like this coping mechanism has betrayed me, mutating into a Cronenberg horror. But in reality, I had just betrayed myself, putting way too much stock into a funny little animal game, expecting it to solve all my problems, directly tying my self-worth to the status of my island.

To Stephen’s sister, the point of “Animal Crossing” is to design around the natural structure of your island, not make it submit to your will. To me, the point of “Animal Crossing” is to be a digital playground where I can make friends with loveable animals, or fuck around and make an outdoor science center next to the museum if I feel like it. And these two viewpoints can coexist with each other, because “Animal Crossing” simply is what it is. It has both no point and every point. It’s all up to you. So, I only laughed off her roast, saved my game, turned off the Switch and sat back down on the couch. “Animal Crossing” would be there tomorrow. And with the uncertainty of today, it’s a miracle that Stephen, or his sister, or my roommates at home, or my girlfriend or even me are still there tomorrow with it.

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