I was catching butterflies for Blathers, a loquacious owl who had just moved to my island, when I got a call from my boss. “Hey, so, as you might have heard, the Governor ordered us to close the store. So ah, unfortunately, this does mean that we will have to lay you off at this time. This was, ya know, a difficult decision for us, but we really appreciate all your…” Anyway, he was real nice about it. That was the second job I lost last week; the other was a substitute teaching gig for a school that won’t be open for at least another month. So I hung up, put away my butterfly net, and entered Blathers’ tent.
“Hoo! A pleasure to meet you!”
Oh, believe me Blathers, the pleasure is all mine. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the fifth installment of the Animal Crossing franchise, and for many people since its release, the game has been a much-needed reprieve from the grim realities of COVID-19. You play as a villager who, along with two other residents, has settled on a deserted island owned by a profiteering raccoon/land developer named Tom Nook and his two “nephews” Timmy and Tommy (although their relation to each other is the subject of some dispute). Your only goal is to explore this idyllic world and shape it into a bustling town of your own design. And, of course, pay off your ever-increasing debt to Tom Nook.
This aspect of the game in particular—the Pullman-esque relationship you have to this greedy raccoon landlord—is puzzlingly delightful and has consumed most of the Animal Crossing discourse. Many a meme has been made about Tom Nook in an effort to make sense of how we could possibly enjoy something that so closely resembles the capitalist anxieties we face in real life.
nintendo: so you hate doing chores, right
nintendo: and you hate working a job
me: so much
nintendo: what if you did all that while hopelessly in debt to a capitalist raccoon?
me: will it be cute
nintendo: so cute
me: then i will do it for 20,000 hours
— soul nate (@MNateShyamalan) March 20, 2020
However, in playing this game myself, I realized that the enjoyment of it comes not in spite of our relationship to Nook Inc. but because of it. This cartoonish rentier state allows us to play out fantasies of home ownership and economic stability that help us to purge the immense angst and stress we feel from the same oppressive systems that the game caricatures.
First and foremost, the rules of the Animal Crossing world are completely different from our own and different even from previous iterations of the game. If you neglect to pay your mortgage in real life, the bank will take you to court, foreclose on your home, and leave you in the gutter. And Tom Nook of previous games was never afraid to get his hands dirty either. Shoot, the old Tom Nook would threaten to knee cap you at the first sign of delinquency.
But in New Horizons? Hardly says a word about it. He just hands you 98,000 bells and trusts you to pay him back some day. There is no death, no hunger, no global pandemics. The fruit you pick on Monday will grow back on Wednesday. The worst thing that could possibly happen to you is that you get stung by bees until you faint. But it’s not like there are consequences for it. You just wake up at home and skip off to whatever you were doing before.
Without that pressure, you are free to do whatever you please. And there is plenty of work to do! The game does an excellent job of giving you complete freedom with just enough structure to not feel lost. By the time you exhaust all the missions that are given to you—like helping Blathers open his enormous zoological museum—there are a hundred projects of your own to pursue. Occupying free time with labor is satisfying, so long as we can keep and enjoy its fruits (no pun intended). Especially now, as so many sit at home without jobs, New Horizons helps replace the routines that have been lost.
Because time in Animal Crossing passes with real time, the game requires you to be patient. But that’s okay, because Tom Nook is happy to be patient with you. The goals that you end up achieving, like owning your own home outright or planting an apple orchard, are ones that can be reached in 48 hours, not 48 years. He walks and talks like a moneylender, but at least you won’t spend a lifetime working your fingers to the bone to be free from his grip. Just a few days of dutiful fruit-picking should do it.
So Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t going to solve my problems. I’m still out of a job and we’re heading toward a major economic depression. But it is nonetheless a soothing balm for the dread and loneliness that lurks in the corners of the bedrooms we cannot leave. Almost everyone I know is taking refuge in their little island homes, trying to find cute wallpaper to match the new coffee table they built. At night, we have social conference calls so we can drink wine together and cast our adorable fishing rods into the ocean. And yeah, Tom Nook is gonna make a buck off it. At least it’s a debt I can afford.
S.E. Shopp is a Philadelphia-based writer and musician. His band Birdspotter released ‘A Garden Everywhere You Go‘ last year.