I haven’t played Animal Crossing: New Horizons yet, although I’d quite like to. (I need a Switch first.)
I can’t help but feel a certain dread when I think about it though.
As I scroll past other people’s clips and screenshots on Twitter, showing off all the fun they’re having with the game in quarantine, I just want to know one thing:
Do you still have to pick all the weeds?
I was a big fan of the original Animal Crossing, even before I’d played it. For a long time I’d wanted to try and get the Japanese import of the N64 version back in 2001 but rumours of a port were so rife I held out for years until they finally announced a European version of it for the GameCube in 2004.
I don’t know why but I had a thing for the quaint Japanese lifestyle simulators. Harvest Moon was another one. They were like a tonic to the drudgery of the school day. Goldeneye 64 was cool and Perfect Dark was bad ass but, sometimes, even a tween just wants to relax, you know?
The day it came out I was so psyched for what felt like a long, long holiday. After about a year of it I couldn’t go near it again.
The game was enchanting in all the same ways I’m sure the newest version is — albeit with a few less bells and whistles. But there was something else to it…
There was a pressure to it; a dark underbelly that tried to get inside your head. It was almost like living in Blue Velvet: the shiny veneer of suburbia held dark secrets and, just like in David Lynch’s unsettling masterpiece, those secrets weren’t just in dark alleys but waiting for you on your lawn.
It was nothing to do with Tom Nook. There were no communist memes wanting to send him to the guillotine back then. He was a little demanding and hard-nosed, sure, but he was also fairly easy to pay off and, once your house was as big as it could be, there was nothing but RNG and the game’s reliance on an external calendar stopping you from collecting everything and donating to your town’s museum.
This reliance on real time was novel and kept things interesting, but it was also its downfall. By relying on a schedule of real-world events, the game ingratiated itself into my daily routine. Even if it was just for 15 minutes, I felt the need to pop into my town every day to see what was new. But after a while, those 15 minutes weren’t enough.
It was because of the weeds. You always had to dig out the weeds.
I was fourteen years of age but by the time I was fifteen I felt like I knew what the life of a salaryman was like. My loyalty was to the company, or rather the village green preservation society. It was as tyrannical as any sovcorp.
My perceived lack of loyalty to the town brought a real sense of shame to my tiny abode. I even started receiving hate mail in my little bouncing postbox. As life outside the GameCube took over, the townsfolk refused to let my neglect go unacknowledged. Ironically, it ended up feeling like what real life — adult life — would soon become.
Again, Tom Nook wasn’t necessarily the enemy here. He was just an opportunist; cunning but as naive as the rest of them. It was the fact that the daily tasks and little quests had made incisive impositions upon the management of my time outside the context of the game. Soon enough, I wasn’t working to pay him off but simply hold together the fabric of this little society. If I didn’t do that, this community of animals quickly turned on each other.
I vividly remember loading up my save after a month-long exam period at school and finding that no one would talk to me. Everyone in my town would be angry and miserable. It was always because I wasn’t keeping up with the weeds. Drudgery was enforced by a needless moralism and an inequality of time. No one else took responsibility for their surroundings, after all. It was all left down to the new human whilst the animals in my midst leached off of my initial pride and turned it against me. It was like school had become my recreation and Animal Crossing was my job.
There was no escape. Choosing not to participate in the game began to feel like losing it. Breaks were allowed but you still had to play catch up. If you gave up entirely, good luck trying to get back in everyone’s good books.
I couldn’t play the game any longer. The demands it placed upon the player — the sense of responsibility — were too much. It was real life inverted. Soon, the therapeutic tranquility of Mattville, tainted by the drudgery of required labour, faded into the pixelated twilight until all that was left was darkness and disgruntlement.
I’d still try to load up the game on a Friday if I could bear it, so I could hear what song K. K. Slider had for us that week but, in the end, it felt like that dumb bohemian dog was just taunting me.
I thought that was the life I was going to live: roaming the towns, playing songs, swapping fossils, living carefree… It was all a dream — a futile, naive dream. That was K.K.’s role and his alone — the privileged nomad; the weekend hippy…
I was the weed picker. I had always been the weed picker and I always would be…