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Despite updates, some Animal Crossing fans are burned out

Has the time come for New Horizons?

A villager in Animal Crossing: New Horizons stands among some trees Image: Nintendo via Polygon
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons has only been out since March 20th, but the game’s most die-hard fans have already sunk hundreds of hours into the slice-of-life simulator. They’ve customized their entire island — and in some cases, torn it all down and re-customized it from scratch — filled out their museum, and curated their towns to only have the freshest and cutest villagers.

Since launch, Nintendo has dropped new downloadable content for New Horizons, from a whole system built around diving and collecting sea life to the mischievous art dealer/forger Redd the fox. A newly announced update will add fireworks and the ability to visit towns asynchronously. These additions are meant to support New Horizons as a long-term game that you play year-round, but some of the game’s most dedicated fans are putting it back on the shelf instead.

Burning out

One player who goes by Jaz spent over 250 hours in New Horizons, focusing on creating a rainbow garden of rare flowers while collecting a vast wardrobe. That playtime was largely possible because she worked from home during the quarantine. “It was a bit of a problem at first,” she admits. “I had my manager message me after a Zoom meeting to ask me to mute my game.”

Jaz wasn’t alone; she was part of a massive community online, swapping stories and posting screencaps. Polygon spoke to over a dozen players who were part of these online communities. Players on social media shared every inch of their islands, their favorite outfits, and amassed Nook Tickets so they could chase down villagers like Raymond. New Horizons’ release in 2020 was wild because it seemingly transformed the premise of the game from something slow-paced and meditative into something more social.

That social pressure meant that, for Jaz, the magic wore off. Social media was definitely a factor for her, and two jocks moving in at the same time didn’t help.

“It felt a little like graduating past playing with dolls, which feels sad, because I really do love the game,” says Jaz. “But talking to the same villagers, and getting the same lines, and seeing Leif’s stupid face in my plaza all the time changed it for me. It was like living through Groundhog Day.”

Sarah is another player who had to put New Horizons down. “For me, it’s almost like I have an anxiety about it,” she told Polygon over Twitter. “Diving looks okay, I guess, but I have to log in and navigate through piles and piles of weeds that have sprouted, probably, and all of my villagers will say how much they missed me. And if I see Redd, I’m going to think about the fact that one of my museum wings is empty.”

A villager looks at trees in their inventory in Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

DLC and deadlines

New Horizons encourages players to return to the game through a Nook Points bonus on the ATM, stamps, time-limited bugs and fish, and more. “For me, that started to feel almost like a mobile game, just dressed up in a nicer package,” says Sarah.

Jaz, Sarah, and other players I spoke to all mentioned some similar issues: a clunky crafting UI, a lack of custom design slots, and repetitive villager dialogue. These small issues were aggravated by the pressure to consume and devour the game in multi-hour chunks. The fact that it was a social craze meant that everyone was playing, and players were worried about being left behind.

“I don’t know what kind of update I would need to make me come back,” says a third fan, Bells, over Twitter. “I don’t think I need a big headline feature. I’d prefer just something that cleans up some of the stuff I don’t like about the base game.”

A leisurely game in stressful times

“The problem isn’t with Animal Crossing,” Sarah says. “The problem’s with me playing it too much. But I’ve been playing since I had it on the GameCube, so I know I’ll come back to it one day.”

“I don’t blame the developers, because the game is so chill and calm,” says Bells. “It’s meant to be this thing you do for 15 minutes a day. I went hard on it because I liked it so much and because the rest of the world is on fire. It was great while it lasted, but my entire life became New Horizons, and now I’m like ‘OK! Time to catch up on actual real life stuff!’”

There’s a whole community of players still digging into everything New Horizons has to offer, like building the perfect pool, downloading player-made mods, studying how to recreate the franchise’s iconic Path, determining weather patterns, or downloading Nintendo’s official updates. But other players have found that the general malaise of 2020 eventually crept into New Horizons, creating a situation where the best thing to do is take a long break.

The next level of puzzles.

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