How to return to the game after a long hiatus.

Emilee Geist

With its release in the initial weeks of the pandemic lockdowns, and its fine-tuning of the franchise’s cozy gameplay loop, New Horizons officially turned Animal Crossing into one of Nintendo’s marquee global franchises. From March 2020 on, millions of new players built their first house, paid off their first loans, […]

With its release in the initial weeks of the pandemic lockdowns, and its fine-tuning of the franchise’s cozy gameplay loop, New Horizons officially turned Animal Crossing into one of Nintendo’s marquee global franchises. From March 2020 on, millions of new players built their first house, paid off their first loans, and made their first animal friends. They checked in every day to discover what their island had to offer, whether it was a new neighbor, letters in the mailbox, or a cute piece of decoration on sale. For those of us stuck indoors, New Horizons was a welcome ritual.

However, another, less charming first came along soon enough for these players: the storied first time you stop playing an Animal Crossing game. It’s a rite of passage for almost anyone who invests in their village or island; a time comes in your life where, for one reason or another, you fall off from booting up the game every day. Maybe you check in every other day for a bit, or log on to see K.K. Slider perform on Saturdays or buy turnips on Sundays, but eventually, you stop playing altogether. And that’s totally normal: Unless you’re a viral Grandma or making a living streaming the game online, you will eventually leave your island paradise behind and move on to other games.

But now, Nintendo wants you to come back to New Horizons. Last month, the company announced the game’s final free content upgrade and the Happy Home Paradise paid downloadable content, both designed to convince those of us who haven’t visited our islands in a while to return (and spend $30 while doing so). And while releasing new content is a logical business practice consistent with the gaming industry as a whole, Nintendo is underestimating how the distinct circumstances of the game’s launch have magnified the psychological burden associated with revisiting the islands that some—maybe most—of us abandoned at some point in the last eighteen months.

Although a full-price release, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has nonetheless functioned similar to “games as service” free-to-play games like Fortnite, using regular content updates—announced via Nintendo’s YouTube channel and social media accounts—to encourage players to stay invested in the game. Animal Crossing games have always had a natural engine for investment via its seasonal structure; the game evolves in real time, enticing players to regularly log in for at least a full year to experience every holiday, catch every fish and bug, and witness how their island reflects the real-world change in seasons. But the social media announcements have amplified these baked-in incentives, likely resulting in a greater number of players sticking with the game longer than they might have with past titles that weren’t “updated”—or promoted—the same way.

Once that year is over, however, the shine of new experiences dulls as the amount of novelties wane. While it may be impossible to “beat” New Horizons (although you do hit end credits when you get a three-star island rating), getting through a full one-year cycle means that you’ve experienced the majority of what the game has to offer. It feels like a natural endpoint even without “The End” appearing on screen. Nintendo has continued to release minor updates since the game reached its first anniversary in March, but tweaks to recurring holidays and occasional new items drops do more to reward those still playing than draw back in those who already fell off.

The version 2.0 update—which had been long-rumored by data-miners, who found details of unreleased content in the game’s code after previous updates—changes this. With it comes new things to do, such as farming and cooking, and returning features like Brewster’s cafe and Kapp’n’s mysterious islands, alongside various quality of life improvements. The downloadable content, Happy Home Paradise, adds new gameplay focused on Animal Crossing’s many design elements, expanding the natural manner of play in significant ways. If there was ever a time to return to your New Horizons island, it’s now.

If only coming back were that simple. If you’ve never had the experience of returning to your Animal Crossing game after an extended absence, you might not understand the dread that came over me when my sister-in-law asked if I would be getting back into the game. New Horizons, like every game in the franchise, wants to shame you for falling out of your routine. The cockroaches in your house and the weeds that take over your island are unpleasant, but they’re nothing compared to the fact that every one of your islanders will call you out for “disappearing.” From Isabelle’s opening announcement to every interaction you have while venturing around, that first day back on your island is a never-ending guilt trip for the fact that your friends have all been living their lives wondering why you abandoned them.

"The way you disappeared 2 months ago, we figured it was all some kinda hush-hush thing," says a red octopus to a character wearing a blue beanie. They are standing outside on a virtual beach with a chair and ball to their left.
*sob* I’m so sorry, Octavian!!!!
Nintendo via Slate

If you can’t tell, I have recent experience with this: My birthday came only a week or so before the game’s 2020 release, which meant I didn’t get to celebrate it during New Horizons’ first year.  As a result, when my birthday came around in 2021, it was one of the last parts of the yearly gameplay cycle I hadn’t experienced. Despite having fallen off from playing the game in January, I decided to bite the bullet and log back in. But my trepidation proved unfounded; because it was my birthday, one of my fellow island residents was at my front door to invite me to his house before I could even have one of those awkward “Where were you?!” conversations. When I showed up, there was Leonardo, Hornsby, and Eugene, my best bros, throwing me a birthday party as though I hadn’t left them alone for two months. Yet instead of this bringing me relief, I just felt even more guilty—and I haven’t logged in ever since, because facing them after they put on such a brave face for my birthday is too much to bear.

Now, after you work through the initial awkwardness, your islanders have short-term memories, and once you squash the bugs and pick the weeds, your island will look as though you never left it. But I would argue that the circumstances under which we invested in New Horizons in 2020 create a more significant burden for re-entry than with past Animal Crossing titles. We didn’t just casually play New Horizons last spring and summer; we played it while trapped in our homes by a global pandemic, our virtual islands serving as a central form of socialization. I spent over 300 hours on my island, averaging an hour a day for the 10 months I played consistently. The idea of returning to the game feels more daunting than ever before, because in my head, my island is something that consumed my life. New Horizons isn’t just a game that I stopped playing: It was a panacea for an unprecedented moment, which—despite the pandemic still very much happening—has mentally passed as more of us return to something closer to a normal existence.

Nintendo hopes that being able to share a coffee with your favorite residents and hear some sea shanties from Kapp’n will be enough to convince you to re-engage with New Horizons, but the reality is that the world is a different place than it was when many of us stopped playing the game. Not only do we have to face down the friends we abandoned upon our return, but we also need to reimagine our relationship to the game to fit into a different lifestyle, one where we’re probably going to miss more than a few K.K. Slider concerts, or forget to check which recurring visitor has dropped by our island each day. But after 10 months straight of playing it so intensely, I’m not sure I can imagine interacting with Animal Crossing in a more casual fashion: How do I dip my toes back into a game that I dove into for as long as I did out of emotional necessity?

New Horizons is not the only pandemic coping mechanism raising this existential struggle. Several of the forms of virtual socialization that emerged in my life over the course of the pandemic have become less of a priority in recent months, as we all struggle to reconcile what we did to survive with the demands placed upon us by a return to our “normal” life. And I have no doubt that Netflix’s forthcoming sequel to Tiger King will find an audience far less willing to throw their whole energy into a world that might not have caught their attention if their own wasn’t infinitely smaller at the time. Our lives are different since we first stepped foot on our New Horizons islands in March 2020, and asking us to go back means asking us to confront that fact in a way that amplifies the existing fear of facing the animal friends we abandoned.

Three animal characters shout HAPPY BIRTHDAY at a human character with his back to the screen in a tatami-covered room.
Never have I felt less deserving of a birthday party.
Nintendo via Slate

Which is perhaps why, faced with the surprise launch of the 2.0 update earlier this week—days ahead of today’s once-simultaneous Happy Home Paradise release—the only solution that seems viable for me is starting over entirely. While it would be painful to abandon the island of Cupful and its residents, the reality of the moment is that to come back to Animal Crossing: New Horizons might require finding a clean slate and forming a new relationship to the game that helps it fit into my life as it is now instead of how it was last spring.

Maybe I’m just not mature enough to face the consequences of my absence. But the only way I see myself returning to New Horizons is to embrace the game’s title: to look to the horizon for a new path forward.

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