March 2020 was, for most, a precarious period of national lockdowns, quarantines, and canceled plans. But for Nintendo, March 20 of last year marked the beginning of a phenomenon that took the world by storm – Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The timing couldn’t have been better. As Queen Quarantine raged in the real world, many found themselves absorbed in a virtual reality where they were the ruler.
New Horizons’ updated format of the Animal Crossing franchise gave many players a level of creative control they never had before. In a typical Animal Crossing game, you find yourself dropped into a preexisting town or village, setting up camp as the only human living in a neighborhood of animals. In 2020, you could fly to your own deserted island. You may start from humble beginnings, but shortly you are a villager no more. You are “Resident Representative” – and much like in real jobs today you’re actually assigned multiple tasks you didn’t sign up for. You are the island’s architect, designer, and socialite all in one. (Furniture sold separately).
As a 20-something graduate living at home in the middle of a pandemic, exercising this kind of control was more than cathartic for me. I used Animal Crossing not to socialize with my cute animal neighbors, but with my partner.
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In the beginning, both of us spent hours working on our island designs, then invited each other over for a tour. Once I even stepped out of his island’s airport to be greeted with a giant Godzilla statue.
“Surprise!” he announced over video chat.
Lady Brittany, a frequent Animal Crossing: New Horizons Twitch streamer, went so far as to create an island full of date spots. Visitors range from couples on their first Tinder meetup to long-time lovebirds holding virtual wedding ceremonies.
“It was called Upendi,” she told me. “Which means ‘love’ from [The] Lion King 2.”
Hotspots include a swing bench surrounded by tall, lush trees, a beautiful blue rose garden with an arch to get married under, and beaches lined with hammocks and tents.
I asked Brittany about couples who had their first dates on her island.
“Nothing was really different between them other than the type of conversations — whether it was reliving fun memories or asking questions to get to know each other and talk about future hopes and dreams.”
She added that “Just because it is in a game doesn’t make it any less of a date to me, or to all the people who’ve enjoyed their dates!”
Even so, part of me felt that couldn’t be entirely true. How could New Horizons and an internet router really connect us?
My partner and I have been on four years’ worth of real-life dates. New Horizon dates began as just a temporary replacement until lockdown blew over. But with one fifth of couples living in the U.K. like us now meeting online, there had to be something to it.
Before the pandemic struck, we were lucky enough to make our dream trip to Japan. One day, we decided to go to Kaiyukan — also known as one of the world’s largest aquariums.
Needless to say, it was magical.
You start at the top of the aquarium and gradually make your way down through and between the creatures in a spiral. The further you go the weirder and more wonderful they get.
The main attraction was at the spiral’s center: the aquarium’s largest tank, nine meters tall and holding a giant whale shark. I held my partner’s hand and watched in awe as the enormous creature swept its body diagonally from one side of the spiral to the next, accompanied by a chorus of mind-blown Japanese children.
Across the Animal Crossing franchise, there are recognizable buildings that appear in most of the main game as part of regular play. One of these is a museum, complete with its own aquarium. However, for New Horizons, the developers redesigned the entire structure with an astounding level of detail. Never before had players seen the light glint off the glass so perfectly, or seen their fishy findings being so animated.
One day, after my partner agreed to get a certain monster to stop terrorizing me, I came over to his aquarium.
To my surprise, he showed me a huge shark he had caught in-game. It swept its massive body diagonally from one side of the cylindrical tank to the other. Our avatars put their circle-shaped hands next to each other and stood in front of the tank, watching the shark exactly as we had done in Japan.
It was strange. We both knew it wasn’t the same, exactly, but we were happy.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons has created a strange dichotomy. It allows you to recreate your pre-COVID life (or a version of it) while growing new memories and experiences from that attempted recreation.
So, even if just for a few moments, it can make you feel like nothing’s wrong.
To me, that’s a perfect date, whether virtually or in real life.