In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, there is a bench at the end of your little main street that overlooks a cliff. Sitting on this bench does nothing. For ages, this drove me crazy. You can sit on the bench, which means the developers programmed that capacity into the game. Which means it's there on purpose. But try as I might, no matter the time of day or circumstances, I could never get sitting on the bench to produce anything.
Still, I sat on the bench. I took screenshots on the bench. I would watch the game transition between the hours on that bench, listening to the music transition from the late afternoon to the evening. It slowly became my favorite spot in the game. Every time I played, I returned to the bench, if only for a few minutes—a private ritual between myself and the game.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been touted as the game "we all need right now." In some ways, that's true. It allows me to connect with nature even when I'm stuck in doors. It's created new ways to connect with friends. In some ways, it's relaxing, if you are like me and feel relaxed by crossing things off a checklist. I have never seen Animal Crossing played in the way that New Horizons is being played, though, and the fact that most people are stuck inside with this as their one quarantine treat has definitely stretched the mechanics of the game outside of their limits.
One sign of this is that I hear my friends lament that they are "behind" in New Horizons. You can't be "behind" in Animal Crossing. The game progresses at the excruciating pace that it is designed to do whether you like it or not. It will take a week for you to fully unlock the basic tools and have a decent amount of villagers on your island, and there is nothing you can do about it.
Animal Crossing isn't a game you grind.
In a normal world where I can go outside, that doesn't feel all that annoying. It feels like Animal Crossing is respecting my time and showing me—quite aggressively sometimes—that the game doesn't have any active goals for me to pursue. I can chop trees and plant flowers to my heart's desire, but Nook's Cranny will always close at ten o'clock.
Animal Crossing isn't a game you grind. It's full of park-bench moments that don't "do" anything. The perennial K.K. Slider is the perfect example. He's the in-game musician behind all the songs that you hear villagers listening to. In most games, you can call him to your town where he can perform a concert. Is there any in-game advantage for attending the concert? No. It's just a concert.
Is there any prize for finishing the museum? It's purely bragging rights. How about having a five star village? Well, now your town looks nice! What about sending letters to villagers? There actually is a prize for that one: they might write you back.
Animal Crossing is a meditative experience, a way to be with myself and my thoughts for a few hours a day. It's meant to be a game that you play in fits and bursts, designed for people who don't make gaming a huge part of their life.
And yet the grind has come to Animal Crossing. People are trying to get to all the milestones faster and faster, partly because we are all inside and we are very bored. But you can't blame all of this on the circumstances. New Horizons sometimes invites the grind mentality, specifically when the game brushes up against design decisions from its mobile game cousin, Animal Crossing Pocket Camp.
When you look at crafting recipes, you pretty much are being urged to collect those resources. Some of these recipes, like a stone arch I've been eyeing for my little bamboo grove, costs 99 stone. In almost any other game, the next step would be to collect all 99 stone. In Pocket Camp, where crafting was first introduced into Animal Crossing, you'd be able to use Leaf Tickets, which you buy with real money, to make up the difference if you couldn't get enough stone. The islands in New Horizons don't have enough rocks on them to give me anywhere near 99 stone, but Nook Miles Tickets can send me to islands with more rocks, which then leads me down a hellish path of doing random unmotivated tasks to be able to destroy a bunch of rocks.
The lesson that Animal Crossing has tried to impart is that it is alright to stop rushing.
The much loathed Bunny Day event was a perfect example of how mobile game mechanics don't exactly mesh with what Animal Crossing is at its core. Bunny Day was the 12th, and leading up the event you could collect new crafting recipes for another, even greater reward. I largely let it pass me by because I found it very annoying. During this event, the game had an unpleasant urgency that I resented. The artificial scarcity of the recipes bothered me, especially because I was being asked to craft all of them. It was even more irritating because I thought all the designs were ugly. The much cuter cherry blossom crafting recipes could also only be collected during that time, and I didn't find a single one of them. Suddenly I did find myself looking at other people's screenshots and getting frustrated that I didn't have the recipes I wanted. I felt like I was being pushed into the game just to keep up with the Jones's. Although I'm looking forward to more in-game events, for now I'm wary of the direction they're pulling the game in--away from peacefulness, into the mad dash of a collector's mindset.
When I reviewed Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I called it a little piece of paradise. Emphasis on little. The lesson that Animal Crossing, as a series, has tried to impart is that it is alright to stop rushing. It's okay to take a seat on a park bench, to be with yourself for a moment, to just breathe. When I play New Horizons I try not to think about needing 99 stone—though the game doesn't make this easy. I try instead, to think about the bench from New Leaf. New Horizons isn't asking me to do anything in the game with any urgency. It's island living after all—in the fiction of the game, we all moved here to take it slow.