The pandemic began for me on March 19, 2020, when my husband and I arrived back in Ottawa from Glasgow and sank into 14 days of mandatory quarantine. I returned to a mountain of mail, among which was a package from a dear friend with the note: "to keep your mind occupied so your heart can rest." It contained a Switch Lite.
I'd never owned a gaming console of my own before. I'd never purchased big-name games before, and balked at the price tag on most of the ones recommended to me. But within a few days I'd bought Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and a monthly Nintendo Online subscription so that I could visit the islands of my much cooler friends, and the value I've gotten out of those purchases has been immeasurable.
ACNH is an escapist cartoon fantasy where conflicts between villagers are easily resolved with gifts and the only things that can physically harm you are stinging insects. To play Animal Crossing: New Horizons in the spring of 2020 was to be aware of the degree to which everyone else was playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons — and, ironically, to be aware of the degree to which people weren't trying to escape reality so much as propagate it into the fantasy.
People wrote thoughtful articles about the economics of ACNH, about Sow Jones' Stalk Market, about enterprising sex workers monetizing hitting people with butterfly nets, about debt and millennials and the increasingly impossible dreams of home ownership. Shing Yin Khor made headlines by recreating famous art installations on their island. For a few merciful weeks epidemiology news was punctuated on Twitter by the bright candy colors of ACNH screenshots as people photographed their sunsets, their goofy animal neighbors, their beaches littered with fragments of fallen stars.
ACNH is fantasy, but for me, its most miraculous achievements lie in the realism of its foley artistry, the meticulous curation of the game's soundscapes. While the animal-people of the game speak incomprehensible approximations of their textual dialogue — not unlike hearing language in a dream — and the jaunty soundtrack provides comedy noises when you get stung by wasps or bitten by mosquitoes, the sounds of your character moving physically through the island are astonishingly immersive. The sound of your footfall changes depending on whether you're wearing sandals or boots, whether you're walking on grass or flagstones or bricks, wood or sand or arched tiles. The visual cues may be cartoony, but the sound's realism translates the green triangles of grass into vividly encountered texture.
But I don't think I fully understood or appreciated the granularity of this sound design until summer, when they introduced a swimming mechanic.
ACNH is all islands, but for the first four months of play the only interaction you could have with the sea was to fish (vastly unlikely) creatures out of it: everything from mackerel to coelacanth fall prey to the unbaited fishing rod you've made out of five fallen tree branches and a lump of iron. But from July on, you could don a wetsuit and leap into the waves — ostensibly to hunt for even more unlikely deep sea creatures, but mostly, for me, to swim.
Swimming in Animal Crossing is transcendent grace. Some magic happens between the angles of light and sound, the motion of limbs and the rhythm of breath, the color of the water in conversation with the time of day. I love especially to swim in very cold water on very hot days, and almost every day in July and August I had the unbearably specific pure-summer experience of cold water skimming the heat from my limbs as I plunged myself into it at noon, and the opposite experience, of wading into warm twilit waters on a breezy evening, all without once getting wet. I found myself feeling, not only as if I were swimming, but as if I had swum, in the wake of it; my skin was tricked into feeling salt-prickled and sun-struck even when I wasn't playing.
I stopped wanting to swim as much in autumn, when the trees changed color and you could catch falling leaves like butterflies; I stopped swimming completely in the winter months, when snow fell on my island and I found myself longing to wear only warm winter coats and clothing, thick socks that I couldn't see through my fuzzy boots, but that I felt cozier for wearing. Now the snow's melted from my island, and it's melting from the fields outside my window, and the change in season feels like a kind of travel and a kind of promise: both a return and a departure, as vaccines get rolled out and we begin to see the shape of the aftertimes.
The game gave me a cake to celebrate its first anniversary, which is apt; the whole game is a kind of cake you can have but not eat. But for a year, Animal Crossing occupied my mind and rested my heart. For a year, I lived in two boxes: One in my apartment, baking and crying and unable to read, and one inside my Switch, building a fanciful house with many rooms, growing blue roses, swimming in an ocean full of sharks without coming to harm, wishing on shooting stars with my friends and finding bright pieces of those nights glinting in the morning like jewels. It didn't replace reality, but it helped me endure it. And I can't wait to go swimming again.
Amal El-Mohtar is the Hugo-award winning author of The Honey Month, co-author with Max Gladstone of This Is How You Lose the Time War, and writes the Otherworldly column for the New York Times Book Review.