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Doom creature rains down fire on a character from Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal are polar opposites of gaming
Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: id Software/Bethesda Softworks / Nintendo

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In a terrible time, video games can help

Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal offer some relief to lockdown misery

There is a strange kind of magic in games right now, specifically in the timely, simultaneous releases of the happy-sappy Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the demonic death-party Doom Eternal. The charm of these two brilliant games, I think, is sharpened by much larger events.

I hardly need to dwell on our collective circumstances. The coronavirus crisis has upended society and claimed thousands of lives. It has confined millions of us to our homes.

While the pandemic rages and our frontline workers cope with this awful emergency, most of us are obliged to remain indoors and occupy our time. Denied the pleasures of outdoor life and social mingling, many of us turn to the comfort of video games.

Playing Both

It’s a curious coincidence then, that Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal — two genuine classic games — arrived on the same day, just as lockdowns were being ordered around the world. Many Polygon readers are playing either (or both) of these games.

I’ve spent the last 10 days, at home, bouncing between them. Yes, in real life, I’m worried and stressed and scared. But I’ve found a merciful diversion by what’s turned out to be the best gaming fortnight of my life.

Over the last 30 years, I’ve enjoyed many fantastic gaming weeks. A few times a year, the arrival of a brilliant new game in my life brings hour upon hour of enjoyment and happiness. Last year, for example, I was blessed with four of those weeks. (Total War: Three Kingdoms in April, Outer Wilds in May, Untitled Goose Game in September, and Death Stranding in November.)

But I can’t think of a time when my attention was split so starkly between two such differing games. I’m astonished by how Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom compete ferociously for my time. Part of my astonishment is based on how these games represent distinct polarities within gaming. There is pleasure to be found in contemplating these oppositions.

Gruesome Cutesome

Doom Eternal is the gruesome epitome of violent, hardcore gaming. It’s the pearl-clutcher’s worst nightmare; a ghastly foray into dismemberment and murder. It’s bloody and beautiful, in the way of a Jan Van Eyck painting. It’s challenging enough to test aficionados of brutal shooters and of previous Doom games.

I’m usually a bit squeamish when it comes to onscreen violence, but id’s game is a celebration of gore comedy, in which hideous monsters are plucked from the sky, so that their eyeballs can be ripped, hilariously, from their heads. I greet enemies with a chainsaw that cuts them in two, diagonally. I play this game in short bursts, sometimes spending half an hour trying to clear a section, before taking a rest. This is, after all, a journey into a hellish world of demons, zombies, and giant insectoids. It’s exhausting.

Doom is a crimson, sulfuric fantasy of tormentation, in which my only care is destruction. It’s the sort of game your grandparents worry might be turning you into some sort of satanist.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is set on an idyllic deserted island of soothing greens and yellows and blues. It’s a kind of heaven where nobody gets killed or maimed or unduly upset. There are no enemies — only friends, who take on the form of cuddly animals.

This is the soft toy of video games, in which pleasure is derived from the squishy feeling of being loved just for being me. Animal Crossing is Nintendo at its mawkish peak of emotional manipulation.

I play this game for long hours at a time, calming myself with its simple rota of tasks and activities. I build my own little house and I collect twigs and stones and stuff to make decorations. I fish and collect bugs, but these creatures are treated with respect. Everyone in Animal Crossing is a vegan.

Nature’s Blessing

Animal Crossing is a song for nature, but only the nice parts. Creatures and plants are celebrated for their individuality, most especially the things that make them lovely. It’s true that wasps and spiders will sting me, but only when I blunder into their spaces. This is merely a reminder that we all have our differences, which ought to be respected.

By contrast Doom Eternal’s main interest is abomination. Nature is merely a conduit through which corruption flows.

Doom celebrates power through the blunt language of machine gunnery. When I meet another being, it’s almost certain that we will try to kill each other, to the tune of a death metal din. We have nothing to say to one another that cannot be expressed via a rocket launcher.

Animal Crossing’s inhabitants squeak a cutesy dialect that’s part woodland fawn, part nursery room. In the background, soft trumpets caress easy notes, while harps tinkle rhapsodic.

I am encouraged to be kind and generous to everyone at all times. The currency of this game is niceness. When I walk into a room, my friends all do that eyes-tight-shut pleasure face that babies do when tickled.

In Doom Eternal, I let loose the hounds of hatred. I strive to eliminate horrors. I literally save the planet from alien agents of annihilation.

In Animal Crossing, I build and create and connect with others. I am an agent of personification on an island, far away from the strife of the world.

Despite their differences, these two games are filling my days right now. I’d have enjoyed playing them at any time, but right now, they satisfy some need, or anxiety that’s directly related to the current clusterfuck.

In the great scheme of things, video games aren’t important — certainly not when people are dying in overcrowded, understaffed, under-provided hospitals. But when our contribution is to stay home and offer no burden on a reeling society, the really good ones can help us find a brief escape.