Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch has been the smash hit of the season, but I didn't expect it to almost replace real-world travel. But there I was, wandering around my buddy Myke's island, and feeling a depth of emotion I didn't see coming.
Yes, as we all sit here in our homes, sheltered in place and social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19, I know for a fact that I'm not the only one who had to cancel his travel plans. I'd planned to spend a little over a month in the United Kingdom, half for personal pleasure and half for work. It was going to be the mini semester abroad I never took in college.
Then we all became familiar with the COVID-19 coronavirus, and airlines suspended 90% of their flights as part of their efforts to ground all of our travel for the foreseeable future. But that's not stopping the folks at Dodo Air, the preferred (and only) method of island-hopping in Animal Crossing.
It started out with a gift, how did it end up like this?
As I said, I didn't intend to feel a lot of feelings while playing Animal Crossing. It just happened. One day I walked into the Nook's Cranny shop on my island, and saw the perfect gift to buy for my friend Myke Hurley, with whom I always hang out when I go to London.
Myke is a professional podcaster, and when I saw an ink jar, pen and stack of paper (an "Essay Set") for sale I immediately thought of Myke's show The Pen Addict. He knows more about all the different kinds of pens than I will ever learn, but I couldn't simply give him the set, as we hadn't become friends in Animal Crossing yet.
So I texted Myke to set things up, teasing his incoming present. Later that night, when I saw his name appear in the top-left corner of the Switch UI, I let him know I was going to be coming over.
Myke then texted me his Dodo code, which I thought was an odd way to invite me over. Couldn't Myke just open his airport to all of his friends? Well, I've since realized that Myke was giving only me access to his island, so we could enjoy the moment by ourselves.
Mega Island isn't the U.K., but it felt like somewhere else
When I got to Myke's island, which he's named Mega, I felt a smidge of that feeling you get when you go somewhere completely new. Unlike all the other Animal Crossing islands to which I've traveled, Myke's was organized and designed to an extravagant degree.
Spotlights shot out from the grounds, rows upon rows of flowers lined the walkways and there was even a brick oven on the beach, with cast iron chairs and a table. Before we could get any further, I dropped the Essay Set in front of Myke's character, and he replied with the Joy emote, where blooms appear over the head and the character swoons.
This virtual trip to Mega felt like a neat little moment, but it was all amplified when I saw a UK-style phone booth on his island, and I remembered the trip that I'd cancelled. And as our little avatars moved around his island, myself in a red luchador mask and Myke in a snazzy fedora and leopard print spectacles, I noticed the little details.
As we ran side by side, our arms fluttered in the most adorable way. Standing outside his museum, we both performed the Delight emote. The emote looked similar to a pose that we'd seen a pro wrestler strike. Myke told me he didn't see that similarity before, "but now I won't think of it any other way."
Myke even gave me a tour of his three-level flat in Animal Crossing, which inspired me to buy some better flooring in my own game. But when I was inside his bathroom, I noticed not one, but two fans. When I asked about the necessity of such aeration, he replied "lol." Leaving the island didn't feel bad, as we added each other as Best Friends in the game. This will make returning easier.
I'm not the only one, either
Animal Crossing meetups are real, and not just for friends trying to connect when life won't let them. Mindy Weisberger, a colleague of mine at Live Science, tweeted out a little anecdote she learned during quarantine:
"High school relationships in the time of social distancing = hanging out on each other's islands and whacking each other over the head with butterfly nets, apparently." For teens, that's a lot less exciting than a real date, but parents must love it.
So far, as we all adjust to this bizarre way of living, I'm finding Animal Crossing connections to be a lot more pleasant than the Zoom calls. Videoconferencing has wiped us out so much that there's even a phrase for it: Zoom fatigue. Animal Crossing linkups, by comparison, are easier to focus on, as you don't have a grid of different people's faces, drawing your attention everywhere.
Even weddings and graduation ceremonies are being held in Animal Crossing, CNN reports. And I can't blame anyone. The calming and adorable islands of Animal Crossing may not have the power to create the moments that in-person events can, but so far, they're the most calming option around.