When Katie noticed a camping tent had popped up in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, she was excited to see what villager awaited her inside. But when she opened the flap to find out, she recoiled. “Oh, heck no,” she said.
There he was: Pietro, the smug clown. Infamous among Animal Crossing fans, the colorful sheep is public enemy number one when it comes to hated villagers. But Katie wasn’t playing alone. Over her shoulder, her 72-year-old mom was watching her play — the idyllic life simulator had become a bonding glue between the two women in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. And as far as Katie’s mom was concerned, her daughter was being too harsh.
“He could be very nice,” her mom said. “You’re being mean to him.” Mom later argued that Pietro “just wanted a place to live,” and that Katie shouldn’t just “throw people away.”
And so Katie was guilted into accepting the jester onto her island. It was a reluctant concession. She didn’t like how garish Pietro looked, or how overwhelming his carnival of a house felt. It wasn’t until she invited a friend over that she noticed her feelings for the sheep with the painted face had begun to change.
The friend, who considered Pietro a demon, started digging holes outside of the clown’s house so that he couldn’t leave the premises.
“I suddenly felt very defensive of poor Pietro,” Katie recalls. Sure, she didn’t like the clown, but she liked bullies even less. That, she says, was the moment she started warming up to the rainbow-colored sheep. She started giving him gifts, ultimately noticing that no matter what happened, Pietro was always positive and nice to her. Before long, she started to actually love the little guy.
Maybe her mom was onto something after all.
Animal Crossing fans have strong feelings about certain villagers — popular ones can go for millions of bells, but disliked characters get called ugly, or worse, get harassed. Pietro falls into the latter camp. Early memes about the jokester saw people trapping the poor sheep in a hole and then pretending it was his grave. Mostly, though, people just don’t like Pietro. One player, Samuel, tells Polygon that Pietro’s appearance on his island has even put a strain on his relationship, because his girlfriend, who shares the island with him, can’t stand the sight of the clown.
Pietro does have his defenders — people who think he’s misunderstood or unfairly maligned. Part of it is the culture, judging from my conversations with dozens of Pietro devotees.
According to Animal Crossing player Allie, many fans “are obsessed with having a perfect island which includes perfect or ‘cute’ villagers, and Pietro falls outside that category.”
New Horizons’ expanded customization options have encouraged a culture of total control over their island — and Pietro’s mere existence pushes against that, according to his fans.
“Pietro’s bold aesthetic is very specific and potentially clashes with whatever style [players] had in mind for their island,” says Pietro supporter Edward. “Pietro’s presence demands you to adapt at least SOME of your island to his super vibrant look.”
The whole clown thing also doesn’t help — many folks have phobias around this. Pop culture in the West also loves to position clowns as evil or grotesque, rather than what they are supposed to be, a source of joy.
“Once people start making jokes about you eating children, it’s pretty hard for a clown to salvage his reputation,” says Pietro admirer Ryan.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to hear, then, that many folks I interviewed who believe in the power of Pietro didn’t start out that way. Many of them, like Katie, received Pietro as their first campsite villager. New Horizons forces players to accept initial campers onto their population no matter what, and while you can go on to kick these animals out, you still have to let them roam about for at least a few days. And once you get to know the clown, it turns out that he’s not nearly as bad as the memes make him out to be.
“It went from ‘who is this awful gaudy clown in my town’ to ‘oh no, I love him,’” Ben, who was initially unhappy to be saddled with Pietro, tells Polygon.
But the negative stigma has also helped pump some lifeblood into a broader Pietro reclamation effort, where fans embrace the flashy clown as visibly as possible. One player I spoke to, Callie, says she spent 2 million bells, in addition to some Nook Miles tickets, to purchase Pietro. And once Pietro is on an island, many fans go on to build him shrines or dedicated areas.
New Horizons player Laura, for example, has an island with a medieval theme — some of her villagers include Knox and Sterling, chickens who are dressed up as knights. And perfecting the look means having a court jester, of course. Enter Pietro. “He has the biggest yard of anyone on my island,” Laura says.
Nathan, another player I spoke to, says he’s building a theme park loosely inspired by Disney World, so of course the clown’s presence is a given.
“Pietro almost reminds me of drag queens in how heightened and ridiculous he is,” Nathan, who identifies as queer, tells Polygon. “It’s fun to see Pietro as a smug, Bianca Del Rio-esque personality on my island.”
Elise Favis, a reporter for the Washington Post, has gone so far as to erect an entire clown mountain for Pietro. It comes equipped with a carnival, marketplace, and a graveyard.
“Whenever someone visits and asks why Pietro has his own personal graveyard, I just shrug, and say that they should ask him about it,” Favis jokes.
Players who spend time with Pietro say they have plenty of fond memories with the jokester — moments, they argue, that if other players could experience them, could debunk the narrative that the clown is a bad villager.
New Horizons aficionado Rainy recalls a time when they wanted to give Pietro a balloon hat, which seemed like a perfect accompaniment to the clown’s aesthetic. But, on a total accident, Rainy gave Pietro a black coat instead. It looked terrible. Rainy complained to Isabelle about Pietro’s attire in the hopes that he would change his wardrobe. Rainy even tried gifting him a bunch of other clothes — all to no avail.
“I’ve learned to accept that he wants to be a goth clown,” Rainy says.
Simon, another Pietro appreciator, recalls checking out his museum art gallery recently, which is a fairly new addition to the game. Most players only have a few pieces to put up on the walls, if that. And yet on that day, Simon found Pietro wandering the museum halls.
“It was so empty and yet he was making the best of it!” Simon says.
Many people noted that Pietro’s inner world seemed surprisingly complex, too. Ryan remembers a time when Pietro mentioned that they were both “secretive” people, which struck him as a “strangely earnest” thing for the clown to say.
“Of course, it was immediately followed up by his signature ‘honk honk,’” Ryan continues. “I guess that’s why I like him now. He might come across as smug, weird, or even creepy to some, but to me it seems like an act. It’s just how Pietro faces the world.”
One time, in Elise’s Animal Crossing game, Pietro gifted her a “Scary Painting” based on a Japanese woodblock print. When Elise took the artwork to Blathers the owl, she found out the piece was fake. For some, this would be a strike against Pietro, a surefire sign of his failings. But for Elise, the mishap is actually reflective of a deeper understanding between her and the clown. The Scary Painting forgery, as it turns out, is haunted — which means that when players look at it, the model posing for the portrait blinks at them.
“He gets me,” Elise opines. “He likes spooky stuff, just like me. A ‘Scary Painting’ is the perfect gift.”
Pietro is great when he’s being silly too, defenders say. Pietro fan Maxwell fondly recalls the time Pietro mentioned that he somehow made a grilled cheese sandwich with the cotton candy maker in his house.
New Horizons devote Onnolee, meanwhile, once tried making Pietro’s catchphrase “gay rights.” Onnolee is queer, after all, and figures that “any sheep that flamboyant must not be afraid of bucking gender norms.”
When Pietro first received that piece of information, he frowned and said he didn’t like that idea. Onnolee’s heart sank.
“I’m well-adjusted and aware that yes, he is mere lines of code and not capable of acting out of animus, but still, I had a moment of legitimate fear,” Onnolee recalls. But when Onnolee continued the conversation, Pietro clarified that he didn’t like the idea because he loved it. “He knocked it out of the park with his declaration of support,” Onnolee says.
For players like Onnolee, Pietro’s status as a horrible character is a low-hanging fruit for the public. Folks like to lump him in with other so-called ugly villagers merely because he’s a clown, thereby ignoring that he has “a clearly defined aesthetic and carefully curated color palette,” Onnolee says.
But when people actually give Pietro a chance, they often find out they were wrong about him. That was the case for Kathryn, a player who says she’s “absolutely terrified of clowns” and was therefore horrified when Pietro first appeared on her island. But before long, her heart softened for the bright comedian. She now says that she’d feel crushed if Pietro ever woke up one day and asked to move away.
“I’ve always been weird — I had bad teeth, bad acne, and I’m fat,” Kathryn says. “There were countless times where I sat alone at lunch or at assemblies because nobody wanted to sit with me.
“When I realized I was casting that on Pietro, it broke my heart. Nobody, not even pixels, should be made to feel bad about themselves.”
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