Two years ago, the United Kingdom entered a national lockdown to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus. In an unprecedented measure against a burgeoning pandemic, we were all told that apart from food shopping or exercise, we had to remain in our homes. We’re still not totally out of the woods even now but this week, we’re reflecting on the video games that helped us stay sane during lockdown.
Welcome to the games that got us through the pandemic.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
It’s sometimes easy to forget how scary the early months of the pandemic felt. We had so little information available to us, except for daily infection and death figures. That unknowability easily turned to fear. The panic of lockdown soon gave way to something else, though: boredom. There were only so many Zoom quizzes and movie nights we could do before the banal reality of being trapped at home set in. I’m something of a homebody myself but sometimes you just need to get out of the house for a while, you know?
Like millions of people, I turned to Animal Crossing: New Horizons for comfort. It was something of a blind purchase; I’d never played an Animal Crossing game before, or even had much interest in the series. My Twitter feed was flooded, though, With images of cutesy characters and gorgeous homes. Animal Crossing seemed to offer escape at a time where escape was impossible. When you’re trapped between the same four walls for months, who wouldn’t want to travel to an island paradise?
The early days of New Horizons felt almost magical. There was something so special about arriving on that deserted island in the middle of the night, with nothing but a loan from Tom Nook and the hope of building something new and beautiful. I’d run around chopping wood and catching bugs and fishing off the shore. I’d sit in my real life garden doorway with a beer at the end of a long work day, taking in picturesque sunsets within the game.
Every morning, I’d boot up the game and check my daily tasks. These were often simplistic, instructing me to spend 5000 bells or plant a few flowers. I completed them obsessively, though, often popping on a podcast as I went about my chores. These quests were mindless, but they offered the satisfaction of a job done at a time when life felt like it was on pause. Maybe I hadn’t achieved anything during my day in the real world, but I’d achieved something in the game. Earning all those Nook Miles certainly didn’t hurt, either. Every day I’d check in at the Nook Stop and peruse the wares, buying new furniture and trinkets to personalise the place.
And soon, that empty island began resembling something a little more like civilisation. My camping tent became a house. I picked out spots to place a town hall and a museum and a general store. Adorable animals decided my island was somewhere they’d like to live; every few days, I’d build another house for another new arrival. I had a particular soft spot for Leonardo, the fitness-obsessed tiger whose infectious enthusiasm was in direct opposition to his IQ. It genuinely felt like I’d built a little community there, albeit a fake one.
For a while, I became obsessed with gaming Animal Crossing’s stock exchange system. I began tracking the prices of turnips twice a day in an ineptly-programmed spreadsheet, waiting for the perfect time to sell my wares and get rich. I cannot understate how much I hate spreadsheets, and how unusual this behaviour was for me. For some reason, though, I felt compelled to fill my house with turnips and monetise them by any means necessary.
Joe and I even wrestled with Animal Crossing’s maddening online functionality and visited each others islands. We spent time in our respective homes, admiring the fixtures and fittings, and picked fruit that neither of us had in our own lands. I found a coat at the clothes shop that looked remarkably like one Joe owns in real life, and gifted it to him. We only did this once or twice, such is the frustration of playing Switch games online with friends, but the experience has stuck with me.
But nothing great lasts, and New Horizons began to lose its lustre. The main thrust of the game’s story comes to an end when legendary singer KK Slider perform a concert on your island. Everything builds to this moment, but once it had passed, something changed. I didn’t really have anything to aim for anymore. Without that looming end goal, what was left? It certainly didn’t help that at this very time, we were all starting to make our way back out into the world again There simply wasn’t as much need for the artificial life I’d constructed; I was beginning to once again get on with my real one.
Every now and then I’ll return to my island, only to find it in total disarray. My house is full of cockroaches. The terrain is half flattened and empty from a terraforming project I quickly abandoned. My villagers are restless and needy, and talk of moving away. It’s no longer the little slice of paradise that it once was. Now, it’s just a monument to my own incompetence and neglect.
I’ll contemplate getting the island back in order for a few moments, but the impulse will quickly pass. There’s simply too much work to do for too little reward. It’s far more exciting to build something from the ground up than it is to maintain it; at least, it is for me. Millions of people are still regularly playing New Horizons, and their mastery of the game astounds me. They continue to build incredible new things and inventively redecorate their homes, demonstrating great passion and creativity, and I admire and envy them.
Sometimes I even fantasise about deleting my save and playing New Horizons from the very beginning again. Maybe returning to those early, simpler days would rekindle my own love for the game. I don’t think I’ll ever do it, though. I think my time with Animal Crossing might be over for good, and that’s okay. It was exactly what I needed it to be, exactly when I needed it. I really can’t ask for much more than that.
Games That Got Us Through The Pandemic continues tomorrow.