It's fairly safe to say that we were all pretty depressed at the start of 2020, what with all the *gestures at everything*, and in March, I was in the same boat. I had just come back from a trip to Boston for PAX, a gaming expo, and the whole COVID thing started happening for real about halfway through the week-long convention. It was weird - everyone suddenly started replacing handshakes with elbow bumps, as if that would stop the spread of a highly contagious disease in a convention centre filled with thousands of people.
Luckily, there was Animal Crossing: New Horizons waiting for me back at home. I spent roughly 300 hours on New Leaf, so with my 14 million Bells in the bank and my fully upgraded home, I was ready to beat Animal Crossing all over again.
When it came out, I had a five-hour headstart over all my friends, because my account was based in the UK and I was living in Montreal, Canada - a five-hour time difference from London. I used those five hours to blast through the intro and start unlocking friendships, fishing, and FUN. It was glorious: a light of happiness at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.
Only, it wasn't the end of the tunnel, was it? It wasn't even really the start. Remember when people tweeted things like "Day 6 of lockdown!" as if we'd still be counting? Yeah, I stopped counting when I stopped caring about wearing trousers.
I'm an extrovert, you see. I thrive on company, and being way too full of energy at parties and gatherings. Now we can't have parties and gatherings, so I'm left without anyone to bother. Animal Crossing was a godsend - suddenly, I was connecting with people I hadn't talked to in years, visiting the islands of people on Twitter that I'd always wanted to be friends with. I was having these huge parties on my island, which is named "egg" (in lowercase and everything), where everyone would congratulate me on my excellent island, and I would show off my cute house, beaming with pride (and, yes, ok, a little bit of smugness).
But, eventually, the shine wore off. Somewhere in mid-summer, the reality of the whole thing started really setting in. I was in a long distance relationship, and although I forced him to buy New Horizons, too, it wasn't the same. I was living in Canada, thousands of miles and a whole dang ocean away from my family and some of my closest friends. Animal Crossing was like putting a tiny Thomas the Tank Engine plaster on a missing leg.
I stopped playing Animal Crossing around June, when I was probably at my saddest point. I went from playing for hours every single night to not even touching the Switch. Isabelle's sunny face no longer lit up my evenings; Blathers' Museum gathered dust; and the updates that came after that - diving, Turkey Day, everything winter-themed - went entirely unacknowledged. I'd see people tweeting about Snowboy and there would be naught but a hollow ring in the place where my heart used to be.
Yeah, yeah, I'm being dramatic. But the reality is this: it's hard to find joy in a joyful thing when you've squeezed it all out, and there's nothing left. Animal Crossing cannot be used as a flotation device when you're drowning in the ocean.
For the past few months, I've been better - but I still haven't gone back to Animal Crossing. Just as a song can remind you of a breakup, I'm afraid that walking around my island will bring back memories of a worse time. Maybe it'll be talking to a character with a catchphrase that I found funny at the time; maybe it'll be in the gigantic pile of turnips that are no doubt rotting in my makeshift backyard. Perhaps it'll be the reminder that I sometimes used redecorating my island and home as a way to stifle the rising panic and worry in me. Maybe it'll be the villagers chastising me for my 8-month absence. The thought makes me feel a little bad. What will Sherb do without my daily gifts?! He'll be so sad!
I'm a little afraid that I've been left behind, that my totally embarrassing lack of pine cones and snowflakes will mark me as an Animal Crossing noob after I worked so hard to make my island beautiful. I don't know how to dive! I haven't been buying Redd's paintings! I've missed all the Autumn stuff!
I know that a lot of people have probably already come to the conclusion that Animal Crossing doesn't have to be a catch-em-all, collectathon, leaderboard-topping kind of game. It certainly has the structure to be that, if you want it to, but if that's causing you undue stress, then maybe it's time to take a step back and remember why you loved this game in the first place, right? It's hard to remind yourself that not everything needs to be a competition to prove how worthy you are. It certainly feels that way, yes, especially when our only human contact is social media, the place where everyone is constantly trying to make their lives seem perfect.
But I want to go back to egg. I want to hang out with Sherb again. I want to learn to dive, to make a wonky Snowboy, to make slow progress on my house - so this time, I'm going to do it for me, and me alone. No screenshots on social media. I'm not even going to try to impress the Happy Home Academy. My return will be quiet, and totally mine.
Well, apart from this article, I guess. But you know what I mean.