What a wild month it's been in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Entire industries have been birthed, crimes have been committed, empires have risen and fallen. We all got through that week with the eggs. The amount of creativity and self-expression, both within Animal Crossing and across its community, has been staggering. And all the while, all I've really done is clock up 160 hours in pursuit of the perfect bathroom.
If you can't tell by the look on my face, I am so immensely proud of this thing. As I bloody well should be: the bath mat, acquired from Saharah, is just the right shade of blue, the pile of books by the basinless toilet positioned to help while away the moments when I'm flushing any excess fruit away, the hanging terrariums and mini cactus just the thing to ease any tension as I unwind at the end of a long day. Even the incidental soundtrack is spot on; coming home from a damp evening spent running some chores, it's bliss to stand and listen to the washing machine softly churn while raindrops beat against the window and the hot water gently hisses from the taps. This is my happy place, and it's worth every single one of the hours I put into its creation.
There have been times, though, when I've looked up from the Switch screen at the wider world of Animal Crossing and wondered whether I'm missing the point. I'd never insist there's only one way to play a game, but I have been frequently baffled by the extremes people have gone to in Animal Crossing: New Horizon this past month. Min-maxing fruit farms is one thing, and the tarantula island exploit was cute, even if I never had the nerve to try it myself, but trafficking villagers? It's astounding - actually, make that deeply depressing - what the free market can inspire.
Maybe it just makes me shudder because it's so very counter to how I - and doubtless many others - play. I'm the kind of person who stops at traffic lights in Grand Theft Auto, and I have an equally normcore approach to Animal Crossing. I dress like a geography teacher, getting in a tizz over what socks best go with my chinos. I fret about finding the right kitchen furniture, and the right colour tiles to complement them. The extent of my adventures is typically a walk to the shops and maybe if I'm feeling bold I'll throw in a late afternoon trip to the bank to deposit some bells.
Such mundanity has been such a large part of the appeal of this series, stretching all the way back to the GameCube days. I think it's what got me hooked in the first place when I was still a teen: the promise of another life, and a chance to play at being a real adult with a real house and a real mortgage. Now I'm an adult with my own house and my own mortgage, weirdly the appeal hasn't dulled in the slightest - if anything I've become more besotted than ever with the constant busywork of a low-key life in Animal Crossing.
Thankfully New Horizons allows me to be more boring than ever before. It allows me to nerd out over my vast collection of KK Slider vinyl, or to place furniture exactly where I need it, and have it the colour I want it to be. It's let me fulfill my ultimate fantasy of living in Dungeness' Prospect Cottage, with my own little idyll overlooking the sea, complete with a driftwood garden that's within reach of the lapping waters. It's a place where I can bliss out as the sun sets and I admire all my petty achievements in-game.
And it's from there I can retire and once more admire that perfect bathroom, the result of so many hours of scouting, decision-making and refitting. It's how I choose to play Animal Crossing, and I'm perfectly happy that way - and I'm grateful that New Horizons offers such a broad possibility space that it's entirely enjoyable to take the more casual approach. Are the people finding exploits, or even exploiting other player's desires for the perfect villager, playing Animal Crossing wrong? Lord no - they're just making extraordinary and often inspired use of the broad and free space that Nintendo's provided, and I'll never hold them in the same disdain I have for time travellers - something that always has been and always will be a crime.
The cults, communities and small industries that have emerged in New Horizons are what makes it such a fascinating game. Animal Crossing often has the ability to place a mirror in front of its players, revealing their quirks and grotesqueries in its own cutesy way. I think I'm just happy to find that my own reflection is, in its own way, entirely unremarkable.