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Animal Crossing is a virtual world where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, out now on Nintendo Switch, is pure happiness in video game form.

An Animal Crossing character laying on a beach chair.
Animal Crossing makes the tropical getaway we all dream of possible.
Nintendo

I’ve been spending a lot of time on an island lately — fishing, catching bugs, building furniture, doing some amateur interior decorating. My neighbors are a family of raccoons, a monkey, a lion, and a horse; sometimes they’re a little needy, asking me to fetch them some fruit from around the island. But sometimes we simply wave to each other while we walk among the nearby pear trees, and then continue on our own paths.

The only limits to what I can do on my island are those imposed upon it by Nintendo, the gaming behemoth that created this little world I love to lose myself in. For my island exists only in the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a Nintendo Switch title that’s a true home away from home. It’s the digital equivalent to receiving a calming boost of serotonin. Playing it feels like you’ve just gotten comfortable on the coziest mattress ever made, with no one expecting you to get up anytime soon.

Most of all, the game is pure happiness. New Horizons is the newest entry in the larger Animal Crossing franchise, which launched in 2002; 18 years and many advances in technology later, each edition is still defined by the core values of wholesomeness, creativity, and delight.

The Animal Crossing series occupies a particular niche in video games that often goes overlooked: There’s no overarching goal, no violence, no time limits or game overs or other unrepentant stressors. Instead, Animal Crossing games fit into what’s known as the life simulation genre, where the only requirement is to jump in and help the character you design and control live whatever kind of life you want them to lead. In Animal Crossing, if you want your in-game avatar to look just like you, have a house that looks like your house, spend money only on what you like to spend money on — go for it. Or you can go in the opposite direction and design your Animal Crossing existence to be totally different from anything you’ve ever experienced in real life.

An Animal Crossing character standing in front of a house.
In my Animal Crossing life, I have a very cute little house and tidy front yard.
Nintendo via Allegra Frank/Vox

The only roadblock to achieving video game verisimilitude is that, aside from your in-game, human self, every other being in Animal Crossing is ... an animal. And even your human character has a disproportionately big — and cute — head and eyes, adding another layer of cartoon-like pureness. (The Sims this is not, though that game’s a very close forebear in terms of the gameplay.)

The animals speak only in gibberish bleats, which mirror the intonations of English. Their voices sound like a much higher-pitched version of the “wah-wah”-ing adults from the Charlie Brown cartoons, although each animal’s chirps sound slightly different from the others’. It’s a foreign language that becomes comforting to listen to, especially because the animals often punctuate their greetings to you with friendly whistles or joyful sways to the background music.

Each animal neighbor has their own personality, and there are dozens of them that could suddenly move to your village, city, or island — depending on which Animal Crossing game you’re playing — and build a new little home for themselves, just as you did when you first arrived. Meeting and “chatting” with these new friends is part of the fun.

Making as many friends as possible is encouraged, but it’s not obligatory. Nothing is, really. The game is an open playground, whose defining trait is how adorably sweet it is. The place you inhabit — specifically an island in New Horizons — is an oasis of cuteness, with pleasant music soundtracking your every move as you run around green grass with a forever smile, your animal neighbors waving hello as they sweep their front yards. Sometimes they don’t have much to say to you when you stop by to chitchat. Other times they ask for favors, or trade gifts for pleasant conversation. Whatever happens, it’s hard to walk away feeling anything other than charmed or bemused.

Animal Crossing games are always the pinnacle of escapism. Now, that feels more important than ever.

I rarely go on fancy vacations in my real life, let alone to somewhere tropical. On that basis alone, Animal Crossing is an escapist salve from an inflexible reality. Money is hardly a concern in the game. I don’t have to feed my character or make sure they bathe, or get them to work on time. The only work in Animal Crossing is whatever job you, the player, assign yourself that day.

The low stakes, the cuteness, the persistent sense of friendship: These are what have drawn me and millions other fans to the franchise. It stands in especially stark contrast to the anxious or violent energy that pervades so many other popular video games. That’s a big reason every new game release within the series is such a highly anticipated event. The recent outpouring of memes, fan art, discussion, and rapturous praise for New Horizons in particular reinforces just how much the series has touched lives, largely because of just how unassuming it all is.

It’s also impossible to ignore just how well-timed New Horizons’ arrival has turned out to be. When Nintendo announced nearly a year ago that the game would be ready for a spring 2020 release, fans lamented the long wait. Fast-forward to March 20, when New Horizons became available on Nintendo Switch — just as promised — and that previously scheduled launch felt more fitting than ever. The game had landed during a pandemic, as millions of people were practicing self-quarantining and social distancing, not to mention looking for something to do.

I hadn’t seen my friends in more than a week when the game finally became available; I had hardly gone outside. The headlines were giving me more anxiety with each push alert. But on March 20, I emerged on a desert island, where the beach is right there, animal friends are always close by, little shops are open for business. All my friends were as excited as I was to play, staying up until midnight on release day to delve in at the same time. It was a new conversation topic, a point of unity in our lives that we could coalesce around, bridging the social gap that has been created by a global health crisis.

When we talk to each other while playing Animal Crossing, we don’t wax nostalgic on the good ol’ days when we didn’t need a life simulation to hang out together. We simply chat excitedly about whose island has which animal folks inhabiting it, which fruits we all picked that day, or which fish we found swimming in the ocean.

Today on my island, I was a lumberjack, collecting wood so I could build myself a very cute new bed. It’s pink with a green bedspread. It took half an hour of chopping at trees to gather all the materials, but I enjoyed every moment. Nothing else mattered during those 30 minutes except building that cute new bed, and having a wonderful time doing it.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is available for purchase on Nintendo Switch. You can hear me talk more about the game on Vox.com’s podcast Reset by Recode. Listen to the full episode here.

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

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