April 4, 2020 | 10 minutes read

The Red Carpet: Crossing the Horizon

In this edition of The Red Carpet, our cultural critique series, we consider what Animal Crossing: New Horizons is doing in tandem with our isolation, paranoia, fear, anxiety and sickness.

The Red Carpet: Crossing the Horizon

Seasons come, Seasons go

It’s been a funny sort of spring.

Sitting inside, it is hard to know if that shift from winter to spring, from cold into the promise of warmth, has happened. It must be nearing that point; the unmanned scaffolding across the street glows gently, and the air through the window sometimes, although not always, feels a bit more gentle than it did.

When I first played Animal Crossing: New Horizons, winter was beginning to thaw from the first day. My snowmen really didn’t last very long. It took this for me to notice it was spring outside too. It was odd not to have noticed the change.

It is a time of absolute upheaval. The crisis we are going through at present is unparalleled in most of our lifetimes. The economic analysis is vital to understanding this crisis, and the political analysis is absolutely essential to challenge it. But The Red Carpet, our cultural critique series, is perhaps the best space to quietly contemplate what this crisis is doing to us, on our own, in our bedrooms. The crisis of COVID-19 and its social treatment is impacting us all, in ways that we can only begin to understand now. Without wanting to in any way erase, negate or reduce the unequal way that this sickness is manifesting, it is unarguable that each of us will be changed. Regardless of our proximity to the virus itself, in varying ways we struggle to engage with its long lasting consequences in the present.

The outside world is changing, and we are changing with it.

Beginnings and ends of events are not as simple as we often depict them; they connect, in cause and effect, that blurs the possibility of seeing them distinctly. When did this pandemic truly start, and when will it end? We seem to be anticipating the Pandemic as a singular event, a phase; in reality, it is a change.

So many of our conversations have become gazing at the horizon of ‘after this virus’, of ‘after lockdown’, when we are free to roam fields and streets in a summer heat and forget this ever happened. Our images of our near future look a lot like the breezy placidity of Animal Crossing.

But will that point ever come? Physically, perhaps, yes. It seems inconceivable to imagine that lockdown will last forever. But we know that history does not just disappear; the end of the pains of the pandemic will not necessitate the end of the pains of capitalism. The so-called War on Terror never ended, it simply changed. We will undoubtedly be shaped by the policies, the decisions, the deaths of the pandemic. But we will also be shaped by the days, weeks and months spent in our bedrooms. Such is the nature of life; the present necessarily shapes the future. Our world has changed, and we cannot go back. History is not written but etched.

Material Girl in a Material World

I have been playing a lot of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. And I’m far from the only one: sales of this game are the highest of any single game on the Nintendo Switch; more than Zelda or the individual Pokemon games. It is massively popular - the game of the isolation, arguably.

For the uninitiated, Animal Crossing is a game where you play a resident in a village, and you just sort of... exist. You pick fruit, grow flowers, capture critters for a museum. In and of itself, it offers interesting critique of what it is to play a video game. People often complain that it feels pointless, but like any game it endeavours to provide relaxation by achieving arbitrary goals for the sake of satisfaction. It just doesn’t dress up the ruse as much.

Many will anticipate this article to be a head-on analysis of the economics of Animal Crossing, and to come up with a final take on the fierce debate about whether Tom Nook is a fiendish landlord or benevolent ally; I originally intended this to be just that. But art must reflect the times, and this is needed to be a reflection, not a review. The details of the game are less revealing than our playing of that game within the new world we find ourselves in.

To try and engage with The Nook Question reveals its limitations. On the one hand, we have the corporation Nook Inc settling on an island. Not a great start there; it’s uninhabited (although potentially haunted? And a character alludes to the island having been a dinosaur burial ground? Much to unpack), however the political history of what spaces are considered inhabited or uninhabited means this definitely doesn’t absolve Nook. He dominates the economy of the island; your house, and all services, are financially tied to his corporation. He seemingly has an absolute monopoly, and no one voices opposition to it. He has his kids running his shop as he sips coffee and orders people about. It’s all... Not great.  On the other hand, you are never particularly compelled to do what he wants. You get a mortgage for optionally upgrading the size of your house, and pay it off interest free and without any negative consequences for not paying. But all this shows how the question is pretty impossible to answer: Animal Crossing is a game predicated on no one having any needs and everything being eternally just swell. In Animal Crossing, an amalgamation of capitalism and communistic life are possible because it is an idealised world. In our real world, with material laws, this combination is impossible. Communistic life necessitates communism and the end of capitalism.

From another angle: PETA have launched their latest campaign against Animal Crossing, on the basis that fishing and various practices in the game are not vegan. This series has always posited that cultural outputs do work. It is less interested in the morality of the internal logic of a cultural object, but the work that that instance of culture does to and with the real world. In the case of fishing in Animal Crossing; the fish are not real. Applying real world ethics or analysis to fictional objects is utterly pointless. Instead, PETA should be arguing about what fishing in Animal Crossing does to animal welfare in the real world (the answer is, acutely, nothing).

I am therefore more interested in what Animal Crossing is revealing to us than in these intricacies. What is this game doing in tandem with our isolation, paranoia, fear, anxiety and sickness? Amongst many aspects of life, we ourselves are changing, and a funny little game is taking up a lot of our time as we do so - we should pause to consider them together.

A Day in the Life

It is an apt choice to be deemed the isolation game. The parallels are compelling and yet contradictory. To be stuck on an island, occupied with repetitive routines, is a miserably appropriate reflection. And yet to be pottering around almost exclusively outside for the hapless sake of pleasure is simultaneously a reality that seems absolutely removed from most of our lives at present, a wistful imagining of what our lives could be without the pandemic and without capitalism, both of which entrench a life of survival without relief.

Personally, I struggle to either entirely relax in its farce or to fully reject it. Because whilst a cynical portrayal is true, the flip side remains also; it would be remiss to paint Animal Crossing in a solely sinister light. It is undoubtedly heartwarming to see such love for the game, with all sorts of creativity and niches being funnelled through it. It has become something of an LGBT+ symbol which is an odd and utterly predictable conclusion. The game itself is undoubtedly sweet and gentle, with a sort of childlike naivety that forgives it so (perhaps too) much. I truly enjoy playing it, even if I struggle to identify really why. There is something deeply satisfying about its loop, and even if the characters communicate in hollow platitudes I cannot help but feel quietly reassured by their lulling optimism.

The repetition of life on the island breathes familiarity into our own lives that have become so monotonous. We are in a moment of abject crisis, and yet for those of us fortunate enough for it to do so, the chaos manifests in long hours of repetition and boredom, of the mundanity of life condensed into one room, perhaps one building. Eating, sleeping, working. Every day I log into the game, to do my daily tasks; those fossils aren’t going to dig themselves. A friend described life at present to me as a simulation: a stasis where we are doing the things that we should be in life, but all with an uncanny film of fakery over it. Animal Crossing is itself an uncanny simulation of a possible life. For example, communication in the game doesn’t really exist; when you talk to a villager, you simply indicate that you want to talk and they give a line or two of dialogue. It’s a surreal emptiness that describes a lot of life right now. An idyllic visage of lackadaisical time-wasting, masking the existential fears of a sickness we feel collectively if not physically.

Animal Crossing is like the 😃 emoji; overly simplistic and cheerful that it cannot quite be believed as authentic - the eyes are just a bit too glazed open, the smile too wide. We opt for emojis of half smiles, blushes or closed eye smirks to visualise our happiness in more recent years, because it is closer to our real life expressions that are more exercises than authentic emotions. In my more earthly moments, Animal Crossing feels too forced in its wholesomeness. It doesn’t quite feel present, in touch; someone from an older generation using the 😃 emoji oblivious to its sarcasm, or someone fully aware of its mocking implications. Perhaps that is the context of the player; I am not the oblivious child that I was when I played the earlier games.

Yaz Minsky offers a compelling analysis of Animal Crossing, perhaps the best I have seen thus far. Minsky argues that Animal Crossing, by offering itself as a game of relaxation, demonstrates that our comfort is found in the context of human exploitation of nature, where the landscape can be literally moulded to your designs and the animal villagers all exist to please you, the sole human. This is an excellent argument, although in the context of isolation and capitalism the stress Minsky places on the humanity of the player is better placed instead on the isolated individual that is you, in the game. A protagonist without a story, a world of therapeutic malaise that is necessarily centred around the lone player. This is your island, your kingdom, which you make valuable and you bend to your will. Unlike old games, where you move into a pre-existing village that you operate within, here you are pivotal in building it from the ground up on a ‘deserted’ island that you operate over, customised to your desires, be them driven by aesthetics or efficiency. You utilise and decorate the commons however you please, extract nature for classification and give purpose to the island’s population. Tom Nook is not the landlord; you are. Our relaxation is not just in human dominance over nature, but in the idealistic notion that we have isolated agency over our spheres. The idea that we alone can shape our worlds is a fantasy of individual power which, for the working classes and oppressed people of the world, can only be true in a video game, in fiction. The fantasies of bourgeois culture tease us with individualism in order to make us forget that in the material world, our power is collective.

Over the Horizon

Unlike so many games, Animal Crossing is compelling because it is almost believable. Yes of course it has its fair share of imagination with talking animals and such, but fundamentally it feels close; just over the horizon, even. There aren't giant space battles, floating shapes or plumbers jumping on sentient mushrooms to save princesses. You just sort of... pick fruit and things.

In this life, it would be nice to reach a point where all we need to do is to just pick fruit. The games’ notion of wandering about, fishing when you want to fish, picking fruit when you want fruit, digging weeds when you feel compelled to care about your environment (which you do regularly and without coercion) is deeply communistic. This image depicts something like what we want to be doing in our future.

I often think about this. I think all of us do, teasing ourselves by imagining a world that we likely won’t, perhaps inherently can’t, see. In a world long after the revolution, where a socialist state has withered away and class antagonisms decayed to a blooming communism, what would I be up to? I like to think I'd live somewhere like Animal Crossing. I’ve never been good at gardening, but maybe once we can stop struggling I can learn something about plants.

Like the end of the pandemic, I'm not sure we ourselves will ever get there. We are trapped within the horizon that we find ourselves in, compelled to go forwards. Specifically, I'm not sure you or I will ever live to see a world where we can be content to just plant flowers or talk about the sky with our neighbours. But we struggle so that someone will. The respite that Animal Crossing offers is temporary and fundamentally removed from our lives; its relaxation is predicated on being able to create rules that do not work in the real world. We eventually, always, look up from our screens and look out our windows.

It is a beautiful coincidence that the game is called ‘New Horizons’. Although punctuated with different meanings in different contexts, a horizon always demarcates a distinction, a limitation. It is the space we occupy pressed against a space we do not, be it physically or temporally. Our lives in isolation, and in Animal Crossing, are islanded, the outside ocean and the inside land. The notion of leaving is never as simple as simply stepping out and forgetting where we were before.

I started this by arguing that what is happening now will change us, forever. That is not wistful sentimentalism, but a hard rule of reality. It is also not fatalism. The villagers leave because I didn’t talk to them enough, the turnips go off because I forgot to sell them on time. The flowers bloomed because I remembered to water them yesterday, and the village hall is built because I helped give them the resources to do it. The new world of tomorrow is the horizon of today; right now, that horizon looks darker than it has in so long. But whilst we may understandably rest in our dreamscape villages, we must deal with what is in front of us in the real world. To quote our friends at Prolekult: ‘The road to extinction may yet be long, but we are upon it. No crucifix, nor television, nor Tiktok may turn us around. Only we can’.

Recently blossoms started to appear on the trees in my village. I wonder when summer will come.

Redd Carpé