As I said in an earlier post, there were three GameCube games that got me through the worst, hardest days of my freshman year in college. Super Mario Sunshine, Wind Waker, and Animal Crossing. While the first two gave me escapism, adventures on the high seas and prettiest beaches the GameCube could handle, Animal Crossing gave me a cozy, much-needed taste of home.
The series has evolved a little past that first iteration, but it's always been about the same thing. Essentially, you are hanging out in a cute, low-poly town. Making buddies with the quirky animals who also live there. Collecting things every season (fish, bugs, fossils). Taking part in crass consumerism by decorating your home with only the coolest furnishings (the Happy Home Academy can fuck right off, man).
It's basically a chill out simulator. There's no high-stress situation (other than paying off your house, which, seriously, Tom Nook can also fuck off), or obstacles, or even need to participate in all the time-dependent activities. I spent hundreds of hours in my first town, and in fact, played the game throughout my four years of undergrad. I paid off the house and got my statue erected in the town square.
I never cared much about having the coolest things, only decorating when I felt like it. Mostly, I'd while away the hours by fishing, or catching bugs, and sending presents to all my favorite townsfolk. I'd listen to the chill music and just make my rounds, sometimes as a warm-up to other activities, or sometimes, because I so badly needed a place to feel comfortable.
I alluded to my bad roommate situation elsewhere, and I'll still spare the details. But for a depressed, anxious kid, living with a stranger who didn't like me was hellish. I'd like to think that the person I am today would find a proactive way to deal with it. At the very least, 18-and-19-year old me had this outlet.
No matter how bad lacrosse practice went, or how depressed I was, or how much I wasn't into my world history class, I could come home and boot up Animal Crossing and finally feel at home.
Later in life, I'd find very similar comfort in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I was living in San Francisco, and about to move to new York City. While I had complex feelings about the move, I also… really didn't want to leave. The Bay Area was really the first place I'd felt at home since childhood, and even though Brooklyn sounded exciting, it was also very hard to say goodbye to my friends and my boxing gym, the real-life place where I often felt most myself.
A few days before moving, my girlfriend (knowing acutely how hard I was taking it) bought me New Leaf. I played it religiously, whenever I needed a break from moving stress during the day and every night before bed. I made my new animal buddies, I got to fish and catch bugs and fill out my museum, and god, I made so many trips to that island, I'm pretty sure I could still recite every variation of the song that captain turtle sings.
The series—and the original game—gave me something beautiful and intangible, something I had always used games for, but not necessarily consciously. A place to hang out. A place to feel warm and comfortable. For that, I'll be forever grateful.