My house in Animal Crossing: New Horizons looks like the “guys really live in apartments like this” meme. My landscaping looks like the set of Holes. The host of a Netflix gardening show might issue a begrudging nod toward my patchy garden before they trip on a half-buried tire on their way out and stumble into a bramble of unpruned weeds.
Widely lauded—including by WIRED—as the perfect pastime for this quarantine moment, Animal Crossing: New Horizons must mean to be relaxing. It has the telltale signs: chibi animals talking in high-pitched mumblesqueaks, a lazy island guitar soundtrack, flowers literally everywhere. I can fish on the seaside or chase a blue butterfly. I can dye my hair pink and lay a picnic basket along the river’s edge. There are no threats, except a couple of choice insects, and I can’t even fall off a hillside. Invisible bowling bumpers line each one.
And yet Animal Crossing: New Horizons is relaxing to me the way a high-end Maui resort may be relaxing—the kind where at-attention employees taxi $20 cocktails to your stinging-hot metal beach chair atop 500 truckloads of stolen white sand. I sit out in the sun, getting more and more intoxicated, but nothing stops the stinging, and the bill just keeps getting steeper.
How is it possible to feel so completely unrelaxed in Animal Crossing? I’ve wondered this for hours, pitching my brain against the game’s repetitive dialog, frustrating mechanics, and obsession with debt bondage in search for a lasting dopamine high. And while I’ve enjoyed small, short-lived bursts of joy—a new fish species, a gift dropped from a balloon!—in the end, Animal Crossing has only felt like the grind, charmingly reskinned.
In Animal Crossing, your character purchases a “deserted island package” and leaves the workaday world behind to live on a pristine, naturally beautiful enclave. Once you arrive, a tanuki named Tom Nook, founder and president of Nook Inc., who sold you the package, explains what you can do there to unwind: upgrade your tent into a house, decorate that house, craft tools, mine materials, make furniture. Doing so, he says in what I imagine to be the voice of Gilmore Girls’ Taylor Doose, will help you pay back the steep loan you apparently took out to be there.
So you work. You knock axe against stone, shovel against dirt, and when those axes and shovels break, as they always do so quickly, you make yourself a new one with haste. You catch fish and pick fruit and dig for fossils and sell it all to Nook’s henchman in exchange for “bells,” the island currency, to pay back your loan. You can also play the Stalk Market, and wait hours in a line of hundreds of other players to sell turnips at good prices. If you want respite from this saccharine indentured servitude, you can fly to someone else’s island and literally pillage it.
Eventually, through hard work and savvy financing, players can make or buy enough items to express themselves in Animal Crossing. And how impressively they do. The internet is littered with screenshots of Animal Crossing zen gardens and manicured replicas of the Jardins du Château de Versailles. I see millennial pink homes garnished with succulents worthy of a Brooklyn high-rise and British tea rooms all prepped for the Queen. I love your maid outfit and cannot get over the details on that muumuu. I’m impressed, even a little jealous.
Meanwhile, I am sneaking up on a locust with my bug net spring-loaded. Slowly inching toward the flower it rests on, I position my net just so before slamming it down and, somehow, catch myself an invisible cherry blossom petal instead. My net immediately breaks, and the locust disappears into the brush. I must craft a new net. Racing around my island, I vigorously shake every tree until five wood branches drop. I return home to my workbench. When I go back outside, net in hand, a lucky second locust catches my eye. Slowly, I move toward it. I carefully aim, triangulating on the damn thing like a warship missile, and sink the net down. I miss. The locust is gone.
I want to be relaxed by Animal Crossing. I want to feel at peace in this game, but undercutting me nearly every time are its strange gameplay systems. Breakability aside, aiming tools is a trial with no reward. I cast a fishing line behind the fish, next to the fish, on top of the fish. I plant a flower, and in attempting to dig an adjacent hole dig up that same flower two, maybe three times, like the eternally damned victim of some Greek god. I once accidentally beat my axe against Tom Nook’s tent flap instead of entering it. When I later approached my fellow islander Bill, the jock duck, I feared a little for his neck.
Item aiming is one of the few UI upgrades you can’t pay for in Animal Crossing. Players must wrestle with a strangely punishing interface for the first couple of hours of the game until they amass enough money to earn a normal gameplay experience. To switch tools, you must open your items and scroll through until you find the one you need. Eventually, you can shell over hard-earned currency to upgrade into an item ring. Item storage is incredibly restrictive at first, and though you can pay for more, you might still hear, ad nauseum, “Huh? My pockets are full already! Should I swap it with something?”. (Much of my island is now strewn with abandoned pants, piles of wood, rocks, and debris that I dropped in exchange for a fossil or a bit of iron). Really, I doubt my character is so surprised, since it reliably happens several times an hour.
Another thing you can’t pay for is silence. Sweet silence. I am not endeared by Blathers, the owl museum attendant, whose voice lines repeat, and repeat, and repeat every time I deliver him some fossil or fish (for free!) for his collection. Yes, I know you are a night owl. Yes, I know you are, somehow, afraid of bugs. No, I do not want to hear a single jock-ducking thing about the Parasaur Tail I dug up, and I desperately wish you had a permissions tab with a “deny” option.
As the game drags on—slowly or quickly, depending on whether you go full Hackers and adjust your Switch’s date and time to move ahead in-game—I buy myself out of one bit of suffering and into a more existential sort. Over time, I feed more and more of my island’s natural resources into the insatiable corporate behemoth that is Nook Inc. and fall deeper and deeper into debt, until I eventually earn myself more real estate to fill with more things, all of which converts into more opportunities, wasted on me, to express myself in Animal Crossing. It’s an endless cycle of kawaii capitalism, one in which bossman Tom Nook is selling the means of production as a pastoral fantasy and profiting off it, too. According to New York University professor Naomi Clark, this system is inspired by the workings of village debt in 18th century Japan. Relaxation at its finest.
Animal Crossing seems quite self-conscious of this system of cute exploitation: When a Nook Inc. henchman asks me to mine my island for materials so he can build a store—from which he will certainly profit off me—my reaction options are excitement, “I guess,” or “As if I have a choice … .” The reward? I can choose where the store is placed.
I have played Animal Crossing in bed on a weekend. I have played it sprawled out on a hammock with the sun shining down. I have played it intoxicated with friends, and for well over a dozen hours in total, not including the time I skipped because I had to see what I was missing. And I will continue to play Animal Crossing, even though it does not at all relax me, simply because it is a thing to do at this moment in time—and maybe even the thing.
To quote Al, the gorilla I encountered on an island I was pillaging, “I could stay here forever, pointing at stuff saying, ‘That’s nature!’” I don’t feel that way at all, but maybe I will after I pay off my next loan.