Animal Crossing: New Horizons
It’s a funny thing, given the centrality of a shovel in the recent game development comedy Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, that we would get a real world example so soon after. But here we are: after a massive dump of Animal Crossing: New Horizons info in last week’s Nintendo Direct, it seems like the biggest piece of news was a shovel. Not a regular, hole-digging shovel of the kind we’re used to, but a new, magic shovel that can create and destroy terrain at will, giving players unprecedented control over their little island.
The funny thing about the Mythic Quest plot line was that, in that fictional world, gamers were unenthusiastic about the shovel until they reworked it into a weapon. Which might be the most unrealistic thing about that whole show: gamers love things like this, and if they threw a terraforming shovel into something like World of Warcraft people would lose their minds. Such is the case with New Horizons: this magic shovel is the sort of thing that people have coveting for years, and those same people were thrilled to see this news. Together with the ability to plot out where new villagers will live, it gives people an entirely new scope of planning power. The islands in this game will not just be a player’s home, but their creation.
I’m…a little concerned? Not for the game, really, because adding fan-requested features to popular titles is usually a good way to go. But I’m a little concerned about the particular fantasy that I’m looking to engage with here. It started, I suppose, with New Leaf, which upgraded your cheery little villager to town mayor, even if the plutocratic Tom Nook remained the true power in town. The mayor concept begins a narrative that continues unabated here: you are not just a villager anymore. You are in control.
It’s a power fantasy of a kind, the sort I’m not really short on in games. If I want to create my own neighborhood with the power of a god I’ll play The Sims 4, others might play Minecraft or any number of other games. Stardew Valley comes to mind, as well, though that doesn’t let you place others’ houses. That was never the value of the Animal Crossing series for me. It was a more pure sort of life simulator for me, formed not around bending the world around me to my will but simply existing in a little world. I haven’t been a deep, core fan of the game in the past, so I can’t speak for its most committed fanbase. But your relative lack of power always seemed like a selling point for me. It’s a game about living, not creating.
The ability to truly shape my island feels like it could introduce an element of stress not really present before, a responsibility for the villagers and the world they live in. I will see baroque creations on Youtube and wonder why my humble little island doesn’t stack up, I will set out on large-scale projects and then not finish them. With great power comes a real long checklist, inevitably.
That’s a big change from that core fantasy of simply dropping into a little world for an hour or so a day, making friends and tending to your little garden. It’s not like you have no power of the world around you, but it’s deeply limited. The world, instead, remains in charge, which is a calming thing when you can be assured of that world’s ultimate benevolence. This is the key to a certain sort of life simulator: it looks, in a certain way, like a life, just a much simpler, more relaxing one. In my real life, I basically just want to pick fruit and plant flowers. Animal Crossing lets me do that.
I’m sure I’ll love this game when it comes out, and I’m sure that I’ll develop my own manageable, if fraught, relationship with the magic shovel. It’s a very Nintendo thing that what appears to be a rather mundane addition to a long running series could make me feel this way, make others feel the other way. But for me, part of the appeal of moving to an idyllic island with weird animals was always that the island would remain in control, not me.