Game of the Month is a new USgamer series where we highlight our favorite game we played of the last 30-something days. This month: Animal Crossing: New Horizons showed why its strengths go way beyond just being "wholesome."
I couldn't help chuckling yesterday when I opened up a document detailing USgamer's strategy for March 2020 and saw the words "GDC coverage." It was only a month ago that we thought the world would continue on basically as normal; that the cancellation of GDC felt totally unfathomable. Were we ever so young?
The incredible (and terrifying) events of March 2020 made it one of the most momentous months in gaming history. People around the world suddenly found themselves unable to leave their houses, and they turned to video games for comfort. In the midst of this tumultuous transition, one game in particular dominated: Animal Crossing: New Horizons, our Game of the Month for March 2020.
There have already been a million articles written about how Animal Crossing is the perfect antidote for the uncertainty and fear that comes with a global pandemic and social isolation. It's wholesome; it's meditative. It lets you turn a massive profit on turnips. Basically everyone in my life is playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, including the entire USG team, which is something I've seen only a handful of other times. It's even managed to win over people like Eric Van Allen and myself—competitive players with little use for rote activities like collecting pears day after day.
Why does Animal Crossing resonate so deeply right now? It feels trite to say this, but I think it's because it's basically the perfect social game. You can see it in the way that people enthusiastically swap codes with unique artwork; how memes are finding their way into the decorations, and how people are finding interesting ways to interact with their respective worlds. From swap meets to weddings; turnip trading to political protests, a whole world has been built off Animal Crossing's comparatively simple foundation.
Its unique strengths were on full display last night when I, like so many others, went on an Animal Crossing date. First, we showed off the progress of our respective villages; the decorations in our houses, and our gardens. In many ways, our islands weren't so different, but the subtle differences that did exist added up—Nook's Cranny being on the eastern side of the island instead of the west; a weird skeleton in the doorway to my house, a full garden in her yard. Moreso even than other games of its type, Animal Crossing provides a window into an individual's soul. Just ask USG Guides Writer Joel Franey, who turned his island into a house of horrors (and tormented me with a creepy doll, which he sent with the ominous note that there would be "no refunds.")
After the grand tour was finished, we swapped gifts: a plaid skirt for her, a flower for me to wear in my hair. I bapped her on the head with a butterfly net. We watched a meteor shower and made a wish. I played with a Star Wand and enacted a scene out of She's All That, my mesh hat, t-shirt, and glasses vanishing in favor of a little black dress.
Moments like these have helped to reform the badly-needed connections shorn by the pandemic. They've been a comfort to, for example, my friend who was supposed to get married next month, but now can't even visit his fiancee because she lives in another country. They've provided warmth, comfort, and companionship to those trapped within their houses, uncertain when they might receive their next paycheck.
Animal Crossing isn't the first multiplayer game of its kind, and its social hooks are hardly unique. What separates it, I guess, is its overflowing charm; the subtle ways in which it lets you imprint your personality on your island, and the many small but meaningful ways that it lets you interact with other people. It has Timmy and Tommy, Tom Nook, Blathers, and Celeste, all of whom infuse the setting with their unique personality quirks. (I love when Blathers wakes up from dozing during the day with a loud "HOO!") It's a world that feels real and substantial in a way that few "lifestyle sims" can manage.
I originally turned up my nose at Animal Crossing because I tend to hate repetitively gathering items. Now I find that it's my daily ritual; a cheerful hour spent collecting fruit, building furniture, and plotting ways to get Goose off my island. As with everyone else, it's gone a long way toward helping me forget that I can't return home to visit my parents this week, and that many of my normal pleasures are out of reach (baseball was supposed to start this week... sigh).
It's not often that the perfect game is released at the perfect time. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is one such game, and I wouldn't be surprised if it ultimately proved to be my Game of the Year for 2020.