VGC’s Game of the Year: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Nintendo’s charming life simulator brought people joy, comfort, and community in a year marked with tragedy
With a quick Google search, you’re able to pull up a minimum of 12 different variations on the headline “Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the game we need right now” from around the time of the game’s launch in March. Those headlines are, of course, correct.
New Horizons’ timing was a perfect, tragic accident. In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic reached North America and Europe, many of us entertained illusions that the disease that as of this writing has killed 1.7 million people globally would arrive, irritate, and then pass by summer or, at worst, autumn.
VGC’s 2020 Awards
Person of the Year: Phil Spencer
Innovation of the Year: DualSense
Platform of the Year: PlayStation 4
Developer of the Year: Supergiant
Game of the Year: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Even with the most prescient of crystal balls, it was hard for regular folks — doctors and experts aside perhaps — to wrap their minds around the idea that now, nine months later and a few days before Christmas, we’d be shutting ourselves indoors with our families and celebrating small, quiet holidays to avoid spreading the pandemic to those we love.
The flurry of articles that resulted from New Horizons’ launch argued that this charming life simulator was the game we needed for the handful of months we might be shut in before (we thought) returning to Business As Usual, and they were of course spot on.
In the month that followed, New Horizons not only enjoyed record-breaking sales, but saw players leap and bound through its early game objectives, dashing in days or weeks through milestones that might have otherwise taken a month or more of casual daily play. It’s not precisely the way Animal Crossing was designed to be played, which may have burnt out a lot of the more hardcore among us, but for many it was a welcome distraction.
But beyond its initial burst of popularity, Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ balm has continued to soothe. It’s evolved from a game the start of the pandemic needed to a game the entire year needed – and not just because it’s a relaxing retreat with plenty to do and a charming aesthetic. The Steam marketplace has hundreds of those.
Rather, New Horizons has offered to all of 2020 a social hub, an event space, a source of much-needed steady change at a time when we’re all stuck staring at the same four walls of our homes constantly, and an infallible source of joy.
From the start, players have recognized and embraced New Horizons’ viability as a social center. Fatigued from endless Zoom meetings, many have taken to New Horizons to connect with friends, be that sharing drinks while sitting in a scenic spot or showing off our island’s progress — a mark of achievement at a time when we can’t put tangible handiworks in front of our friends and say, “Look what I’ve accomplished!”
“From the start, players have recognized and embraced New Horizons’ viability as a social center. Fatigued from endless Zoom meetings, many have taken to New Horizons to connect with friends, be that sharing drinks or showing off our island’s progress”
While the initial surge of big social gatherings in the game may have worn off, many continue to use it simply as a space to exist around others even without conversation. It’s fun to open the gates of your island and invite other human beings to be in your presence for a little bit while you fish or bug hunt — a bit like working from a coffee shop, or reading a book in a park.
But more than that, Animal Crossing has continued throughout the year to be an ideal event space. Without the ability to gather in person, New Horizons not only offers the chance to get people together in a group regardless of distance or social distance, but lets them act like humans while they do so. We can look like ourselves, play games, set up real-life approximate scenarios, and react to one another in, if not entirely realistic, at least appropriately emotive ways.
I’ve been on a talk show, attended multiple birthday parties, a Suhoor meal, and hosted my own Halloween party. I was able to cheer on my friend while they celebrated their graduation while our friends made speeches; I’ve taken my partner on multiple virtual dates; friends have left goofy, cheerful messages on my town’s notice board for me to find later on, reminding me even when they’re not around that we’re thinking of each other.
Still, the focus on players using Animal Crossing for social interaction has waned over the course of the year, perhaps because the articles came and went or perhaps because other games like Fortnite with its virtual concerts have served a similar purpose.
But even without a steady parade of articles showcasing how Animal Crossing fans are celebrating Insert Holiday Here in-game, New Horizons has gone a step further to provide a welcome source of pleasant, uncomplicated change this year.
As 2020 distorted our collective sense of time (remember how long March was, and how April basically didn’t exist?) while simultaneously hitting us with wave after wave of new, unpleasant headlines and issues, New Horizons could be counted on to deliver some fresh new joy every few months.
Plenty of folks have dropped off of the game for a time, only to return because Nintendo introduced swimming in the ocean, Halloween decor, or the ability to make snowmen. Though seemingly small and seasonal, the ability to mark the passage of time with joy rather than another bout of doom scrolling has improved at least my own mental health by several percentage points.
“New Horizons is a game about happiness. Its early objectives guide the player to set their own island stage for a long game of small, quiet moments of connection between the player and characters, visiting friends, and themselves.”
But even so, why? Why return month after month, or even next year? Why keep playing when the museum is full, you’ve crammed every corner of your massive house with furniture, and your town is quite literally “perfect” per Isabelle? Because beyond being simply cute or soothing, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game about happiness. Its early objectives guide the player to set their own island stage for a long game of small, quiet moments of connection between the player and characters, visiting friends, and themselves.
Even hundreds of hours of play into New Horizons, there is still delight to be found in seeing your goofy cat neighbour Bob wearing a baby romper with a top hat, or in building the perfect snowboy at last, or in climbing to the top of your island late at night to catch a surprise meteor shower.
And with Nintendo’s major content updates also sneaking in small touches like the ability to sit down on the ground next to your neighbour who’s eating a doughnut, there are still surprising joys to be found even after you think you’ve read every line of dialogue available.
I do not need to relitigate the awfulness that was this year to explain why all of this — delightful on its own — was especially necessary in 2020 of all years. Even with the global pandemic aside, the world’s stores of political awfulness, social frustration, and collective misery seemed to burst at the seams year-round. Even if you had a relatively good year personally, 2020 hung like some dark cloud over us all.
New Horizons can’t dispel that cloud — it’s a video game, sunbeam of one though it may be. It won’t cure the pandemic or spark world peace. But it did provide a safe, quiet space to find happiness when we wanted and needed it — to rejoice in community, delight in mundanity, and remind ourselves that there are still pleasant things in life both now and to come.
Though its astonishingly perfect timing may have been an accident, it is nonetheless a representation of the power of games to reflect the goodness of those who make them and enjoy them — a stark, daring contrast against the hellishness of 2020 that deserves to be lauded for having the audacity to ask us to rejoice.