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What it’s like to play ‘Animal Crossing’ for the first time ever

‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ is an insidious game about picking stuff up off the floor.

Screenshot taken fron ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ showing the author’s avatar standing in an empty tent with only a lantern and a pink radio. Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via SB Nation

1. I’ve played roughly four hours of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and spent 90 percent of my time picking stuff up off the floor. That’s maybe the best way to describe the game: A picking-stuff-up simulator. You pick stuff up so you can sell it to earn money that you can then use to buy furniture (stuff you put down on the floor) or make tools, like an axe, that helps you pick up better stuff.

2. I’m not sure I fully get the appeal yet. Getting new stuff is cool. I caught a sea bass and that felt rewarding. But most of Animal Crossing is a loop of things I hate in real life. There’s a lot of busy work to accomplish — I’ve pulled up hundreds of weeds at this point — and in-game smartphone notifications that beep with more alarm than they deserve.

3. What’s worse is that I’m doing all this in service of a convoluted debt that I was only informed of after I signed on the dotted line. There’s a debt I owe Tom Nook in Nook Miles, and a debt I owe him in bells. I think there’s a systems of converting bells into miles and vice versa but I haven’t figured it out. Or maybe I misheard as Nook explained the various services he offers for managing my wealth. I’m sure the conversion rate is terrible. I mistrust the game’s system of credit just like I mistrust my real life system of credit. Fun!

4. The fact that I’m indebted (indentured?) to a family of raccoons — a creature I adore, but not for its magnanimity — verifies that I’ve been duped. This adventure to a deserted island paradise feels like it’ll do more harm to my soul than good. The insidious thing is I feel compelled to keep going.

Screenshot from ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ showing the opening campfire scene. Tom Nook has a stern, and is saying “But that just means we’ll have to rise to the challenge!” Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via SB Nation

5. I think the pull right now is in small accomplishments — catching a new fish, buying a cool shirt, setting up some tiki torches — and knowing that there’s still a litany of things I can’t do, don’t have and can’t access. The game does a good job of subtly teasing me, displaying items (a barbecue!) that I might be able to buy when I’m someday rich, or floating presents on balloons that I still can’t catch (I swing my bug net once and come up embarrassingly short).

6. I saw a friendly ghost bobbing across the river, and my driving force right now is to catch it. Doing so will probably require building a bridge. Which may require chopping down trees. Which means I’ll need to craft a better tool (maybe a chainsaw?) than I currently possess using hardwood, softwood, stone, iron and weeds (weeds are shockingly useful in the Animal Crossing universe).

7. I wandered 10 minutes just to find the one stone I needed to build a flimsy axe so I could whack trees and get more wood. I was so relieved to find this vital ingredient to a bad tool that I took a photo of it with the in-game cellphone camera. Like real-life Instagram, you can also ruin your image with filters. Fun!

Screenshot taken from ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ using the in-game camera. A hazy filter has been applied over the author’s avatar standing next to a stone with his eyes closed, and thinking the word “stone” in a speech bubble. Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via SB Nation

8. At my current pace, I should meet the ghost by May, and I’ll be no closer to paying my debt.

9. Did you know there are tarantulas in this game? One bit me while I was trying to find the stone. I thought I died and lost at Animal Crossing, a game I have been assured is fun.

10. I didn’t die though, so there’s that. For as much work and debt this game imposes on me, there also doesn’t appear to be any consequences for going too slowly. Nook may have me by my pears, but (perhaps as a result) he’s rather undemanding. I’m free to toil at my leisure towards making my island a shrine to materialism. As long as Nook doesn’t call my debt, I can pretend that the tent I live in is fully my own. And if I can pretend, then I can call it effectively and wholly mine. Right?

11. Animal Crossing reinforces some of the great lies of our times. It suggests that debt is a construct and that one’s labor is proportional to one’s standing. Lessons that my parents taught me when I was a kid, probably because it was the easiest way to explain things.

Screenshot taken from ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ depicting the author’s avatar pumping its fist in joy and saying, ‘I set up my tent! That’s a big first step!’ Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via SB Nation

12. In that sense, I’d like to call Animal Crossing a pox. Humanity doesn’t need any more help deluding itself into recklessly pursuing material things. Yet here’s a group of smiling, furry friends cheerfully edging us closer to our spiritual demise.

13. I’d like to think Nintendo wasn’t that oblivious when it made this game. That there’s something edifying in the subtext of Animal Crossing’s relentless buying, selling, bartering, picking up and putting down, picking up and putting down. Why have a debt system at all if it’s of no consequence? You could have made your escapist game a better escape.

14. Anyway, I paid off my debt of 5,000 Nook Miles, and in exchange took on a debt of 98,000 bells so that I could build a house. I’ve sentenced myself to picking up even more stuff off the floor so that I can earn bells towards diametric ends of buying objects that fulfill the comfort I believe I deserve, and paying back my debtor. My standing may be rising, but the loop hasn’t changed.

15. I want to be clear, however, that I’m having a good time. I just don’t get what I’m supposed to do once I catch the ghost.