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Animal Crossing is finally being played at the right speed

At the beginning of lockdown, it was hard not to binge New Horizons, but five months later, the pace is slowing down

Molly the duck in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

When Animal Crossing: New Horizons was first released in March, the game was a reprieve from the monotony of lockdown. Players spent hours upon hours improving and terraforming their islands. New Horizons was a game that felt easy to binge, especially if you time-traveled the clock forward to get resources faster.

As a community, the imperative at the time seemed to be more, more, more. Upon the game’s debut, I spent hours — days — at a time trying to make my island perfect. But as time has passed, the amount of time I spend on the game per day has progressively lessened. Five months after its initial release, life on the island has slowed down.

After that first rush of building, terraforming, and achievement-collecting, the impulse to play for hours at a time has decreased, leaving in its place a daily check-in routine. Now, logging on means I do a single loop around my island, checking to see what’s new in the shops and searching for daily spawns. Occasionally, I still sink hours into fishing, gardening, or rearranging furniture, but spending more than an hour in the game has become a rarity.

An Animal Crossing villager hangs out with a player wearing a yukata. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

The Animal Crossing franchise has always been about capturing a slice of life, and taking the time to build a home and community. The very first Animal Crossing game, released for the GameCube in 2001, didn’t require any waiting, the way that New Horizons does. Everything in the town was already established, meaning that the player could dive right into those small, daily tasks.

Binging has never been the model for the series. But it became the way many players initially consumed New Horizons as it launched soon after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Players were stuck at home with little else to do, so escaping into a pandemic-less world and working to make it immaculate seemed like the perfect remedy. Messing with the game’s clock, which mirrors real-world time, in order to skip the required waiting period for certain events (getting the whole museum set up, waiting for flowers to bloom), was a small price to pay to play as much of the game at once as possible.

Using time travel, New Horizons can be binged, and even without it, the game encourages a certain completionist mindset — the museum requests players catch every wildlife species that pops up each month. But completing your museum requires time spread out over seasons, and time-traveling has consequences. Luckily, there’s no penalty for just waiting — if you miss a seasonal event or creature, they’ll come around again next year, and taking a break doesn’t trigger any serious consequences.

In previous iterations, Animal Crossing would punish players by having villagers move away if players let the game languish for too long. The mechanic of having weeds overrun the town remains the same, but New Horizons keeps villagers around until you give them permission to move away, meaning that there aren’t serious consequences to cutting down on how often you log in. Logging in every day isn’t a necessity; players can take things at their own pace. There are still incentives to spend a lot of time on your island, but they’re delivered through updates every so often instead of all being immediately accessible. The game is growing at the rate of a slow jog, not a sprint. New Horizons is less something to defeat and win, and more a sustained, constantly evolving experience.

The biggest proof that New Horizons is an experience made to be savored, not binged, is that, though the game’s initial milestones are now out of the way, players are still innovating. They’re creating their own ways of enjoying the game. Seasonal updates mean new features, such as swimming in the ocean, but they’re functions that offer the player more ways of exploring instead of just rattling off achievements. The point of Animal Crossing isn’t the destination, if there even is one. It’s the journey.

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