In early lockdown I decided to send a letter to my future self. It read: "I feel calmer, yoga helps. I wish I had a dog." They say brevity is the soul of wit but I'm not sure that applies in this case. To be fair, the letter was written in Animal Crossing: New Horizons using the Nintendo Switch keyboard interface, so it's at least a testament to my stubborn button-pressing. Luckily there are far more interesting ways to chronicle the pandemic through New Horizons: the National Videogame Museum is launching The Animal Crossing Diaries project with this in mind.
Alex Roberts, a curator at the museum, explained that the research project aims to "expand the possibilities of what it means to collect experiences in games and document how to go about doing it in an ethical and sustainable way." The latest instalment in the Animal Crossing franchise is the perfect case study for this, as they put it: "the serendipity of Animal Crossing: New Horizons' release coinciding with the COVID-19 lockdown led to the game becoming an unexpected escape and a lifeline for many players." The game doesn't just provide you with a customizable pristine island paradise, it lets you visit your friends' as well. As Alex pointed out, "finding a place in which you are able to go outside and meet up with friends transformed the role Animal Crossing could play."
It seems like there are as many social media posts about ACNH as there are stars in the sky, but one shone particularly brightly for me. The "Good Night" exhibition was the first installation at the Woodsorrel Garden Gallery, with six pieces of art themed around night time. "The Garden Gallery came about when my partner decided to try Animal Crossing on my Switch, played long enough to set up a tent, and then didn't log in again," creator Sarah Cole explains on her website. "Second homes aren't my style, so I decided to upgrade it, move it back into the garden, and turn it into a creative outlet-an art gallery."
One of my favourite rooms that Sarah has designed is in her latest exhibition themed around joy. This is a 'processional way' made up of two lines of toilets that each open as you pass them-it's Animal Crossing's answer to the Marcel Duchamp urinal but much more interesting. Sarah brought her experience as a creative consultant to New Horizons, designing the exhibitions iteratively. "I have aphantasia - I can't picture things in my head," she tells me over email, "so I generally come at my exhibitions from a spatial angle initially and have to build it up slowly into a finished work that delivers the feeling I want. It's a lot of me going 'What happens if I do this? Would this music change the mood of the exhibit? What happens if I fill this room with toilets?'" Sarah considers her work to be a record of her pandemic experience. "Almost every piece is about something I miss-people, places, feelings. I mean, there's even a piece inspired by East Croydon train station."
Both the 'Good Night' and 'O Joy' exhibitions are now over, though you can technically still visit the latter through the Dream Suite feature. The fleeting, ephemeral nature of player culture has been a concern for both Sarah and the NVM. "Up until now, the National Videogame Museum has focused on its material collections, "Alex explained, "but with this project we obviously need to take a blended approach as so much of the material we need to preserve to tell the story of this game is digital and therefore, extremely fragile." Sarah has already been archiving her work through exhibition guides, screenshots and video footage. In her words, Animal Crossing is the "digital equivalent of renting a flat where Nintendo is the landlord-you can arrange the furniture and have friends round but you have to play by the rules...I've put so much work in, but Nintendo could delete my island tomorrow if they felt like it. Do I even own my own creative output here?" Herein lies the murky undercurrent to the bright utopia of ACNH, as Sarah summarises the Nintendo ethos: "Use any colour you like, but you must colour between the lines."
Animal Crossing isn't the only colourful game that's become part of the pandemic gaming zeitgeist. You've probably heard of Fall Guys, the zany battle royale game. "Certainly the vibe we've seen from the audience is that it was the right time for something bright, colourful and silly to come along," Fall Guys game designer Ben Nizan explained. "Then you have Animal Crossing with its light and fluffy aesthetic. Its whole vibe scratches that itch of something wholesome and comforting to spend your time with...I think superficially Fall Guys has that same inviting, wholesome flamboyance but it's a very different beast. " As has been the case with Animal Crossing, players have created their own emergent narratives through social media.
If Animal Crossing is a dollhouse simulator that's ideal for creating viral screenshots, then Fall Guys is "a gameshow simulator." As Ben pointed out, the wacky physics of the game "drives those shareable moments and TV-worthy stories." Fall Guys doesn't lean into gate-keeping (unless you count unbreakable doors in Door Dash) as it thrives on simple rules and controls. Ben also brings up another interesting point that I hadn't considered - Fall Guys doesn't have any kind of in-game commentary. "This might feel like an oversight, but actually streamers are our announcers and they do a better job of it than any system we could build because they can react to these one-in-a-million events."
When I ask Ben about the online triumph of Fall Guys, he admits the experience has been surreal. "Fall Guys' success still feels like this thing that's just... happening on Twitter. In reality it's this huge phenomenon but it's hard to get perspective when your main window to the outside world has become your PC screen you know?" As much as online play can provide a sense of community there can also be dislocation. Sarah experienced this with the introduction of the Dream Suite in Animal Crossing which means that anyone can now visit a frozen version of her island as long as they have a code. "Most players [previously] would message me while visiting to say what they liked best and come find my villager to express their feelings about the shows using emotive reactions. I have no idea who, if anyone, is visiting the gallery via Dreams, nor do I know what they think of the works. It's like painting a scene, putting it in a bottle, and throwing it into the ocean."
It's easy to focus on the saccharine side of Animal Crossing as the feel-good antidote to the pandemic, but Sarah's exhibition certainly isn't comfort food. A room designed by collaborator Siobhan Fitzgerald-Gibson has a cheering crowd, a crown... and a guillotine. It's simply titled 'Hope.' I was wondering if the National Videogame Museum would be collecting records of political activism in Animal Crossing. "While the selection criteria will be determined in the course of the research as we work with partners to reveal more ways of playing, we absolutely expect to include important events such as the Black Lives Matter and pro-democracy protests being held in the game," Alex assured me. Would the NVM be open to preserving player culture surrounding other games, like Fall Guys? "At the end of the day, we want to collect what videogames mean in people's lives. In times like this, as we all navigate this complex, shared experience we're having - they have the potential to be used in a greater variety of ways and accrue even more complicated sets of meanings for different players."
If titles like Animal Crossing and Fall Guys have been an escape during the pandemic, it's worth remembering the hours of work that went into these digital oases. As Ben told me, the last few months of working on Fall Guys during the pandemic were particularly difficult, and it was thanks to mental health initiatives and supporting staff with the right equipment that the game got "over the line at all." Similarly, the player content creation in these games, like Woodsorrel Garden Gallery, is the culmination of hundreds of hours designing and collaborating.
Creating a 'viral archive' is about acknowledging digital creativity and friendship, even as it is ring-fenced on your consumer platform of choice. It's a testament to dreams of digital community during a world-wide pandemic, anticipating a future when we'll hopefully have the luxury of being nostalgic about it. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is timely, but timeless. As Sarah says, "the flowers on our islands will never wilt, the villagers will always be singing in the plaza," and I'll keep sending letters to the future.