The last days of Animal Crossing

The last days of Animal Crossing

The island of the day after.

A section from the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, showing Arnolfini and his partner in their house with a chandelier and a mirror behind them.

Image credit: The National Gallery

A few weeks back, I read that the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield has created a virtual exhibition to record the role Animal Crossing: New Horizons played in the early days of COVID lockdown. Oh gosh, those weird, terrifying days! Hunting for toilet roll, struggling to handle my daughter’s homeschooling with lessons over Skype and whatnot, worrying about elderly relatives and not-so-elderly relatives and friends. I can close my eyes and sense the eerie quiet of the streets with no cars, the return – or so it seemed – of the birds to the trees, I can feel the crunch of twigs underfoot during that illicit-feeling half-hour of daily exercise, and I can hear, what’s that? The jangle and shudder of the door to Nook’s shop opening and closing as I head in to look for furnishings.

For a lot of people I gather Animal Crossing is a huge part of their lockdown memories: it’s the island they went to when they couldn’t actually go anywhere else. It was community when actual community was limited to clapping for the NHS one evening a week or whatever it was we were doing. People wrote letters to polygonal villagers because they had friends and family who they were worried for, who they missed, and they needed to express themselves to somebody. In this way, I think Nintendo provided one of those once-in-an-era services for their audience. They opened a virtual window when people needed to feel a breeze, even a virtual breeze. What a thing.

For me, though, and I suspect for a lot of Animal Crossing lifers, the new Animal Crossing was just the new Animal Crossing. Of course we played it through lockdown. We continued playing it long after that too. I remember checking into Animal Crossing after getting my third – my fourth? – booster? I’ve been playing it long since the cars are back and the birds can no longer be heard. I’d like to make clear here: I know that COVID isn’t over, particularly for vulnerable people including my fellow MS patients. But the cultural moment has faded, and Animal Crossing, for the last few years, has been free to be just Animal Crossing.

Our video team looks at Animal Crossing.Watch on YouTube

Now I’m starting to wonder what Animal Crossing has become for me. Or rather, I’m starting to look at my weekly interactions and see how strange and interesting they’ve become. It is very unlikely the game will be getting any updates. Soon there will be a new Switch, and this one will head for that place in the sky where all consoles end up – it’s called the loft. I log into my island every few days – “I log into my island”; how strange this game still is – and I walk around knowing that it won’t last forever. But I also walk around knowing that this is still virtual life, this is still experience. This is what Animal Crossing is like now. So I want to tell you what my Animal Crossing island is like, in what feel like my personal final days of the game. What do I do? What have I learned?

My last days on my island! I know the end is coming, just not when, just like I know every parent knows there’s a last time they’ll pick their child up, they just won’t know when they’re doing it. My last days are surprisingly cosy. They’re cosy because Animal Crossing is a deeply cosy thing, sure. But they’re also cosy in the way that apocalyptic fiction can sometimes be cosy, the way I can squint and imagine having a semi-pleasant life in the world of I am Legend, changing the mural every few weeks and scavenging in dormant Ralphs, or looking forward to my next chat with the spectral barman of the Overlook.

Speaking of that, not a day goes by in Animal Crossing without a visit to Brewster. I am pretty confident that when I check out for the final time, I will still have a Brewster coffee in my belly. A few thoughts, from the perspective of the end of the world, on Brewster. One: his coffee shop is almost the platonic ideal of a coffee shop, in that, in my mind, it mingles with Daibo’s coffee shop as described in Anna Sherman’s luminous book The Bells of Old Tokyo. It’s a place to get coffee, sure, but it’s also a place to enjoy solitude indoors, surrounded by wood and elegant tiling. I love the pictures on the walls, the booths I’m not allowed to sit at because they’re always reserved – that sense of being in the right place but always at the wrong time! I love the fact that Brewster, like Daibo, understands that coffee is barely a beverage. Rather, it’s a ritual, a chance for one person to show love and care and attention to another, and for that other person to appreciate it.

Here’s the drop on 2.0’s free update from a while back.Watch on YouTube

That care and attention is why I never turn down pigeon milk, even though I dearly hope that Brewster will not offer it. I have read about pigeon milk and my advice to you is: do not read about pigeon milk. Even so, if Brewster asks if I want it, what can I say? I have to say yes. I have to say yes to everything. One day there will be a glitch and Brewster will ask me for 90,000 Bells instead of the usual 200 for a coffee. On that day I will not blink. I will say: fine, no problem. The floors will flood and shimmer and we will both be floating in pigeon milk. The game will be absolutely screwed – perhaps this is how it dies – but I will be fine. No problem.

Brewster is a lovely synecdoche for a lot of Animal Crossing, I think. I go there for a drink that is not real, a chat that repeats regularly along with its repeating variations. I go there to pay money that is relatively hard to come by for something that does me no actual good. And I go there to watch some perfectly judged minimalistic animations and moments. The pause after Brewster places the cup on the table, before he prods it towards me. The way he cleans the cup afterwards and stows it away with that lovely evocative domestic click-clack of crockery. The bingo win chance that on my way out the door he will have something special for me.

This kind of stuff happens all over the island. I’ll go to Nook’s in the evening to hear the special shut down music. I’ll build something just to see that animation of hectic cartoon industry, its speed corrugated by my pressing of buttons – I’ve done it so often I could not tell you which button. If I fish anymore, it’s just to see the surprisingly huge fish leap from the water in the air: a ribbon eel, a sunfish. You? Here?

A festive winter scene in Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Image credit: Nintendo

Two players enjoying a late night picnic in Animal Crossing
Image credit: Victoria Kennedy/Nintendo
Animal Crossing.

That brings me onto something else: the things I no longer do. By and large I do not fish anymore. I do not weed anymore, even if I sometimes reflect on the fact that New Horizons’ weeds are both pretty and manageable, whereas its non-weed flowers multiply endlessly and are a total nightmare, another I am Legend note as they swamp the island and steadily take over. I don’t really buy anything from Tom Nook anymore. I will never, ever open my mailbox unless I have something from Redd on the way. I’m not lazy – look at all that pointless, time-consuming coffee I’m buying! What’s happened is a kind of emotional triage. I know my time here is short, and with that awareness has come a fierce unspoken clarity. The lines have been drawn for me between what’s intrinsic and what’s extrinsic. Simply the thing I am – I think it was Tom Nook who said this – shall make me live.

So finally, at the end of the world, on this island at the end of time, where no updates are planned, where dataminers have found no more secrets lurking in our future, what do I actually do?

I suspect this is different for everyone, but for me my last proper thread, outside of Brewster, outside of the pleasures of the daily wander, the endless attempts to ensure that Spike never, ever gets disgruntled – or more disgruntled anyway – and decides to leave, is my gallery. I don’t care about the dinosaurs in the basement. I don’t really care about the fish in the aquarium, though my daughter, who has long since stopped playing, used to love to visit and peer into the tanks, just as she loved to leave me stranded in the sea alone when she handed the game back to me. I go to see the butterflies so rarely that I always get lost. But the gallery!

Here’s the thing about the gallery. It is not remotely complete. I have all of the Dutch and Spanish Golden Age stuff, that wall of Impressionists and Impressionist-adjacent, and almost all of the Japanese prints. But I have barely any statues, beyond Winged Victory, which I adore, and pretty much nothing from the Renaissance. Even so, I love to wander here, to move from the flip-flop slap of my feet on stone to the creak of the wood. Here at the end of the word is something that remains to be done. So I will keep coming back. Like Billy Bones, I will take walks on the cliff and scan the horizon, but I’m looking for something I want: I never miss the chance to visit Redd, even if it means getting royally conned.

Bedtime in Animal Crossing - two players asleep in a four poster bed
Image credit: Victoria Kennedy/Nintendo

Animal Crossing snow - a winter scene with snow in the trees.
Image credit: Nintendo

The player character laying down a path in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Image credit: Nintendo
Animal Crossing.

That thing I just said: the creak of wood. Floorboards squeaking and bending is something that will forever take me back to art galleries. Years back I was at the cinema and I saw this advert done up as a documentary about a man who was trying to get into as much of what London had to offer in a day – probably to create an analogy for all the extras a mobile phone contract would give you or something like that. And at one moment, the music dropped away, his voice became a whisper, and he was in the National Gallery, or the Courtauld or whatever it was, out of hours, the whole place to himself, all that beauty, and underfoot the creak of old floorboards with no other visitor chatter to muffle it.

I think of that whenever I drop into Animal Crossing to visit my gallery. And sometimes I think of a dream I had during – hey! During Lockdown! Unable to go out. Trains a memory. Distant London had become a fiction. And yet my wife and I were somehow alone at the National, standing in front of the Arnolfini Portrait, entirely alone. Another vision of the end of the world? Thank you, Animal Crossing. Thank you for everything.

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