Trouble on the horizon
My knee-jerk reaction to the initial review of Animal Crossing: New Horizons at E3 2019 was incredibly negative. Considering that Animal Crossing is one of my all-time favorite Nintendo series, this was just about the last reaction I expected that I’d have, but one that I couldn’t kick nonetheless. As we’ve learned more about the game, though, and particularly after the 2.20.20 Animal Crossing Direct, I found my position swing radically the opposite way. As of right now, I’ve seldom been this excited for an upcoming game, and no game since Super Mario Odyssey has captivated me to the extent that New Horizons has. Paradoxically, though, many of the sentiments that galvanized me against the game this past E3 still ring true—it’s my mindset that has shifted. To remain in the realm of the paradox: New Horizons looks phenomenal, but it doesn’t look like a great Animal Crossing game. Allow me to explain.
Designing a special experience
Animal Crossing carved out a very unique niche in the marketplace due in large part to its intrinsic design philosophy. From the series’ inception all the way until New Leaf, Animal Crossing intentionally bottlenecked player agency. In other words, the games purposefully restricted the ways in which the player could interact with the game world. This is why the series has fascinated me from a design perspective, because it asks what would happen when control is wrestled back from the player. It’s antithetical to most game design and that makes it feel so fresh. Playing Animal Crossing was never about intense, hands-on gameplay, instead it was about relaxing and allowing the world to develop around you. It truly is the most lifelike life sim on the market: your town and its villagers march on with their lives external to the player. You could nudge or guide the direction of the experience, but on a fundamental level, Animal Crossing was never about the player himself, but about integrating the player into a larger, living world.
This inherent design move serves largely as a litmus test for whether someone can enjoy Animal Crossing. For a group of people, Animal Crossing has been a series with nothing to do. To these people, Animal Crossing lacks any real gameplay thrust or any meaningful level of interactivity. For me, though, the ways in which Animal Crossing takes control away from the player is exactly the reason why I love it.
Out with the old, in with the new
This is a game series that provides me with a level of comfort and relaxation that few others can. Unlike games such as Stardew Valley, which demand far more micro-managing and engaged gameplay, I can boot up my Animal Crossing town and truly unwind. It’s a breezy experience: there’s no real pressure leveraged onto the player, nor is there any “correct” way to interact with its systems. I can log on after a long day of classes and unwind while traipsing around my town, talking to villagers, and catching bugs. It’s an experience that thrives upon its gallons of personality and its organic world. The metered pace at which your town develops and new features roll out feeds into the laid-back ethos of the entire experience. The fact that Animal Crossing is so hands-off is why I find it so addicting; jumping back into its world each day and seeing what is unfolding in the village is satisfying in a totally different way than most games. Instead of asking the player to make the game world subservient, overcoming its challenges, it asks the player to let the game develop around them, and to stay in step with its grand design.
New Horizons, though, doesn’t seem interested in that experience, one born out of design limitation. Instead, it has taken cues from the survival and farm-sim genres, placing an unparalleled level of agency back in the hands of the player. From the crafting system to the development permits which allow for the direct terraforming of the landscape, New Horizons has essentially forgone one of its most central design principles. Like it or not, New Horizons is not the New Leaf sequel that the community expected. And, for a while, I firmly didn’t view it as the New Leaf sequel I wanted.
A little help from Hyrule
Considering this dichotomy in design philosophy and the way in which New Horizons is delivering me an experience I didn’t necessarily desire; it took me a while to reconcile my latent frustrations with my mounting excitement for New Horizons that grows with each passing day. It turns out that the key to my mental clarity lay within Hyrule.
All I needed to do was look back to 2017. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of my all-time favorite video games, but I don’t necessarily believe it is a great Zelda game. It lacks the narrative focus, dungeon design, and itemized progression that makes the Link to the Past-style titles so engaging. While it lacks these core tenants of the Zelda experience, it is easily one of the most elegantly designed and engaging games I’ve ever played. It synthesizes and transforms the franchise’s tropes while still evoking its spirit. The magnitude to which Breath of the Wild shook up the Zelda formula is just about commensurate to what New Horizons is doing to Animal Crossing, and considering the resounding success of the former, I absolutely have my fingers crossed for the latter.
After readjusting the lens through which I view New Horizons, contextualizing it with Breath of the Wild’s subversive success, I can more clearly see how phenomenal the game looks. By returning agency to the player, New Horizons has essentially become a sort of Animal Crossing power fantasy, allowing the experience to be reshaped entirely. When I set aside my bias for the classical Animal Crossing design philosophy, it is undeniable that the game’s unprecedented level of customization will command my attention for months on end. From the macro level of diverting rivers and placing houses to the micro level of personalizing coffee mugs and collecting resources, I know I’ll get lost for hours at a time on my personal, deserted island.
Beyond the new freedoms born out of this design shift, New Horizons is simply overflowing with tantalizing, new features. Perhaps the most efficient way forward is to simply hyperlink the recent Animal Crossing Direct, as every single new feature elicited an excited grin or murmured “wow,” which I’m sure my girlfriend found more than a little bit strange. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was giddy during the presentation. The level of ambition and the extent to which New Horizons is pushing the Animal Crossing series forward is astonishing, and I have no doubt that it’ll join the most elite tier of Switch titles when it releases.
A community event
With New Horizons’ release under a month away, I find myself becoming more and more impatient to get the game in my hands. No launch since Super Mario Maker 2 has felt like this impactful, and I’m very glad to be swept up in its wake. Seeing the entire Nintendo fanbase rally around this game in mutual excitement is simply fantastic and affirms to me exactly why I find so much joy in being a member of this community.
Of course, if I had never widened my perspective, I would still be on the outside of the New Horizons conversation. I was blinded by the game not being exactly what I wanted, and as such, I stubbornly spent months ignoring the very game I cannot wait to experience right now. Innovation and experimentation are essential facets of art and clutching so desperately to what already exists stands in the way of progress. As was the case with Breath of the Wild, New Horizons is a bold direction to take the series in, one steeped in creative risk-taking. The game looks quirky and engaging in ways that feel both familiar and startlingly subversive, and I can’t wait to experience it for myself.