All video games offer some form of escapism, but for years, the Animal Crossing series' form of escapism has gradually become more enviable. Animal Crossing games let you get a fresh start in fresh town, where you're hooked up with your very own house and a mortgage that's such a pittance, it can be paid off after a few months of picking fruit. Your days are filled with fishing, treasure hunting, and running occasional errands for good friends. Everybody wants to live in Animal Crossing.
Indeed, few game series enjoy an audience as varied as Animal Crossing. Everyone loves it: Adults, kids, men, women, straight people, gay people, trans people, non-binary people. However old we are, whatever we identify as, Tom Nook plays a tune and we all dance behind him.
A recently announced feature for Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Switch suggests Nintendo understands Animal Crossing means a lot to so many kinds of people. An interview Polygon conducted with the New Horizons team at E3 2019 reveals you can design your Villager pretty much however you want thanks to skin tone customization, gender neutral hairstyles, selectable facial features, and clothing that's not gender-gated. Better still, you can change your Villager's characteristics any time.
"Right from the start, you’ll be able to choose the way you want to look. All the facial parts or hairstyles are all gender-free," New Horizons director Aya Kyogoku tells Polygon. "So you can select from a pool of hairstyles and facial features and then they’re also changeable at any point in the game. So, if you feel like a certain way one day, then you can make that change pretty easily."
Video games still aren't great at representing races and orientations that aren't straight, white, and male, but some developers are trying to do better. Unfortunately, as the recent Cyberpunk 2077 controversy demonstrates, having good intentions doesn't always mean you'll telegraph your message without hurting the minorities you're trying to help.
Developers might be tempted to throw up their arms and say, "Well what can I do if I’m just going to piss someone off?" I think a good start is to make sure you follow New Horizons' lead: Let people play through your game as themselves whenever possible. If a developer goes on-stage at a press conference and talks about how "you" can play through Adventure X, people expect to be able to play as themselves, even if they identify in a way that can't be neatly categorized.
Going by Polygon's interview with Kyogoku, New Horizons—a game that's about you and your life on Tom Nook's Hunger Games Island (whoops, that was embargoed information)—actually lets you put yourself the Villager's haunted ragdoll shoes. You can wear your hair however you want. You can set whatever skin tone suits you. You can dress yourself however you want, keeping in mind that Animal Crossing: New Leaf already lets you wear dresses if you play as a boy, and none of your neighbors shame you for it. You can shape your face on the fly instead of having it chiselled into stone by Rover's quiz at the start of the game. And then you can change everything whenever you want, because new days bring on new feelings.
As someone who largely identifies as cis, but still describes her relationship with her gender as "a little distant," there's only so much I'm qualified to say about what games can do to make its LBGTQ+ players feel more welcome. But what I hear from my LBGTQ+ friends is mostly, "I want to see myself in more games." Character customization options that aren't gated behind gender makes a big difference in that regard. Animal Crossing is a game you live in for weeks, months, even years: You'd damn well better have options that make you feel welcome and comfortable, even if you look like a marionette with murder on their mind.
Now we just need customization options that let us live in Animal Crossing as actual animals, and we'll be all set. I want to run around with antlers, Nintendo.