One of the last walks I took through the downtown shopping mall near where my pre-pandemic office was located took me past a video game store where a large stand-up cardboard cutout display heralded the impending arrival of a game of which I was only peripherally aware.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released in late March 2020 to the kind of gloriously suspicious fanfare that actually floated wacky conspiracies that Nintendo had created the COVID-19 virus to coincide with the launch of its lockdown-perfect game. After all, checking into a virtual island daily for multiple hours was a luxury few had until forced to stay home and avoid human contact — by law!
I bought into the hype in early April and ordered a copy from that same mall video game chain (but online) and the Switch cart arrived on my doorstep on one of those blurry days of the spring first wave. We plunked it in, built an island (with a trio of family players) and —
Truth be told, my family kept at the progress long and strong, while my interest faded to other things by early May. My character spent each night in a small, one room house with a cot for a bed, while the other residents built multi-story mansions, elaborate virtual friendships, and checked off the museum bingo card of collectables.
So it seemed pandemic-appropriate that the first of my neglected games for the holiday season saw me booting up the title that had kicked off the first month of what is now a nine-month-long ordeal and a two week stay-at-home (by law!) vacation.
After nine months the family has come close to capping out their own progress. I re-enter the game as a player who missed out on halloween goodies, thanksgiving party supplies, and a summer of curious collectables. My little house invited me in and reminded me of my neglect by releasing an infestation of cockroaches scurrying across the floor.
“You gotta squish them, dad!” The kid informed me.
Yet despite the virtual oppulence that has blossomed all around me, I am no further ahead as a ride-along passenger on our Anthropomorphic Island. My recipe collection lacks. My house is crowded among cultivated gardens and groves looking more like it was in the way of the kid’s inspiration than part of a larger plan.
I ran around the landscape and tried to remember what I was supposed to be doing. I shook some trees, picked up some tree branches, dug a worthless fossil from the ground, and was scolded by some very outgoing animals for disappearing for SEVEN MONTHS! I thought you were avoiding me, they chided.
Maybe I was.
Yes, maybe I was.
The game became something of a meme, landing on multiple lists of pandemic lockdown to-dos.
Did you bake sourdough bread? Check.
Did you grow your hair to your shoulders? Hell, yeah.
Did you binge-watch Netflix? Of course.
Did you play Animal Crossing? Did we ever!
The game has a way of keeping you connected, of course. Unlike mobile app games it can’t send you reminder notifications or nag you to check in, though. Instead, it worms into your brain and implies that this little virtual world is alive and chugging along in real time, and stuff still happens while you were out there in the real world, y’know, working, buying groceries, and trying to stay sane through the wackiest year of your life.
Will I keep checking in? It’s the holidays and it’s so easy to load it up for a few minutes while chilling on the couch — so, yes? It may not satiate that trigger-finger, action-craving gamer urge, but I’ve got an extra reminder to visit more often: Dad? Have you checked your mail? I sent you something. Dad? … Dad?