Dealing With Insecurity in Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a cute, fun game. So why do I feel bad whenever I play it?
For me, one game has risen apart from the rest in recent months. One of the few AAA releases that doesn’t focus on performing wrestling moves on zombies or using a demon’s spine as a pull-up bar. One that’s rather gentle and has become a great comfort to people recently. If you don’t know what I’m talking about yet, it’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
This latest entry in the adorable village simulator has hooked me and millions of others. It’s sold insanely well in the U.S, U.K and Japan, and amidst the ongoing pandemic, it’s been used as a stress ball for so many players. New Horizons is something that you can launch and play for about ten minutes, getting away from the problems of the world.
But there’s one part of Animal Crossing that makes it really stand out, not just this entry but the series as a whole. It doesn’t judge you. There are no scores, no wrong or right choices. You, the player, can do no wrong in the world of Animal Crossing. Everyone’s more or less just happy that you’re there.
Games often use scores to reflect your performance. Sometimes they’re literal scores like in sports titles, others offer up completion rates, and in first-person shooters, your K.D. ratio tells others whether you’re a badass spec-ops kind of player or a baby with a Nerf gun. And while these metrics are all good in their own respects, they open up a player to judgement. Not just from outside sources I.E your friend who won’t stop giving you the business for your low rank in CS:GO, but also internally.
So many games somehow punish or reprimand a player for not performing their best. In some of the 3D Sonic titles, when you’d receive a low grade at the end of the level, Sonic sounds disappointed. And who’s he disappointed in, himself? No, Sonic knows he’s fast, it’s you that he’s disappointed in. How could you, the player, make the fastest creature alive, slow? What the hell’s wrong with you?
That’s where Animal Crossing is different. It doesn’t care how you play. So long as you play, the game offers up nothing but good vibes and positive reinforcement. Seriously; you can give a villager a tree branch and they’ll react with “oh my gosh, this is the coolest thing ever, you’re so great.” To a tree branch. It’s unrealistic levels of support, and I’m here for it.
I’m not saying that games are too harsh or anything. Hell, I’m proud of my good K.D ratios, and my (extremely) modest rank in nearly every single competitive game I’ve ever played. But sometimes you just want to pick up and play a game without feeling like you need to perform to some metric. For once, there’s no stakes – nothing to unlock after exploring a level, no shiny medal, no prestige levels. It’s just you and the game, without any conflict, and that’s a hole in my gaming heart that’s needed filling. It’s this sensation that Animal Crossing delivers in spades.
Yes, I know I just went on for six paragraphs about how Animal Crossing is endlessly supportive, yadda yadda. And it is. That part of it hasn’t, and most likely won’t, change for me as long as I play it. What does change that sensation is other people.
Strangely enough, for a time the worst part of Animal Crossing for me was looking at other people’s creations online. It was a weird case of impostor syndrome. I had built a small town, don’t have terraforming yet or anything, but I’m proud of what I’ve made and what’s there. Then I log on to Twitter and say “wow, did that person really make their island into a full-on city already?” What am I doing wrong? How is this possible? In order, the answers to those questions are not time traveling, and time traveling.
But that feeling remains, even if I’m just looking at a little garden someone made, or a playground. I immediately start thinking “why didn’t I do that?” and eventually, I think that I’m playing the game wrong. Not only is that antithetical to the entirety of Animal Crossing – it just sucks.
— Ross O’Donovan (@RubberNinja) April 15, 2020
The whole point of Animal Crossing, to me at least, isn’t to amass the most bells or get the rarest items. It’s to create something you’re proud of. That’s part of why I’m so happy the village is on a deserted island that you’re free to eventually change however you want. Players get to take a blank canvas and paint what they feel, and it always comes out beautiful. But just like real artists, you eventually look at someone else’s art and think that yours is garbage.
It was only when I stopped looking at other player’s Animal Crossing posts on Twitter that I started to feel better about the game, like how I felt when I had started playing it. When I totally ignored the often amazing creations of others, I looked at mine with an actual sense of pride; like my time was worth putting into this little beach-side with palm trees and fishing equipment. It’s not a lot, in fact, it’s quite small, but it’s personal and I’m happy about it.
Recently though I had a change of heart around this whole issue. I was talking to my partner about this piece, and she said “so it’s about you getting over feeling bad about what you make, right?” And I didn’t really know how to answer that. So far this has been about blocking out what other folks have made and well, that’s not really a good way to cope. I realized how childish that is, and decided to take a new approach.
It’s difficult to avoid being self-critical, especially in games. If you’ve ever been outplayed in a fighting game or dominated in a shooter, you know what I mean. But being self-critical in Animal Crossing is different. The skill barrier doesn’t relate to tech, inputs or aim: it’s all about creativity. It’s my desire to be as imaginative with the tools that I’m given as other players are.
So instead of turning away from other people’s work, I’ve been looking at them critically. How do these pieces bring a room together, how is furniture spaced out and pathing used to make an outdoor area look delightful and inviting? If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not the best at decorating things, but it’s something I’m working on.
This has been a strange thing to write about. At face value, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a simple game. It’s cute; you manage an island paradise and money literally grows on trees. At the same time, this game made me take a good long look at how I approach playing games and the feelings derived from them. It’s not what I expected when I picked it up, and it’s still surprising as I type this sentence.
If there is anything I want you to take away from this piece, it’s that you shouldn’t play like me. It’s a disservice to Animal Crossing to be endlessly concerned about how your island looks compared to everyone else’s. Earlier on, I said that this series is about giving players a blank canvas to paint something beautiful on. That’s still a point that I very much believe. I just have to work on getting there.