In Which I Play Animal Crossing: New Horizons

I’m pretty sure Tom Nook is some kind of mine baron. Maybe also a slumlord. Possibly, possibly, a serial killer, or just the creepy Mr. Roarke on this bestial variant of Fantasy Island, or also straight-up Satan hisgoddamnself. Can’t be sure. All I know is, I showed up on this place, and now I’m in debt to a “raccoon” up to my teats.

What I mean is, I’m playing Animal Crossing.

I have never played an Animal Crossing before. I literally didn’t even know what the fuck it was. I just know it looked vaguely pleasant, and in these trying times, I’m looking for metaphorical pillows wherever I can find them.

I am on Day Three of my mysterious island excursion, and my wife has assured me that it is, in her words, “Minecraft as designed by Bob Ross.” Which feel right on the money, except when it doesn’t — sometimes it feels like maybe your character is dead and this is Nintendo’s version of Purgatory, or Limbo. It’s clearly not Hell. It’s far too nice for Hell. But it’s also not Heaven. You can’t just have what you want. You’re semi-trapped on a fairly small island, and, as noted, upon arrival you immediately enter a series of bracketed debts that you owe to the owner of the Company Store, the aforementioned raccoon-not-raccoon, Tom Nook. Who also has you build the Company Store for him. Like I said: not quite Hell, but definitely not Heaven.

(Purgatory, as it turns out, still has mortgages for you to pay.)

So, here’s what I know so far.

I am a human, or a human-seeming being. I am on an island of humanoid animals — in my case, it’s Nook, his two little Nook clones, a hamster named Hamlet, and a… I dunno, an amphibian named Diva. There’s a gull who might be drunk, an owl who hates the fuck out of insects, and a dodo bird. But then I also run around and capture other animals, like fish and bugs, who apparently do not get to be anthropomorphic? Is this some kind of Planet of the Apes situation? Whatever.

We are colonizing this island for reasons. Empire and Colony and all that. My son, also playing the game, has learned that we must share an island, and that there is no way for us to not share an island. (Here, you realize that to have two separate islands, you would not only have to buy a second copy of the game, but rather, a second whole-ass Switch system. Thus proving that Nintendo considers Tom Nook an aspirational figure.) Given that my son and I are on the same island, it sometimes leads to unusual discoveries, like when I dug up what I thought was a fossil, but was instead just a pair of pants. “I BURIED THOSE,” my son said, proudly. When asked why, he said, “THAT’S WHERE PANTS GO,” and I admired that answer and saw no reason to challenge it.

There is a pleasing soft-horn acoustic guitar soundtrack which is endless and eternal. It is pleasant enough, but also never stops, thus lending credence to my thought that this is neither Heaven nor Hell, but an interstitial place that can afford only one NPR-style Muzak track.

We wander our island with little purpose except collection and economy. I have debts to pay, you see. Debts to pay the Baron Tom Nook first for flying me here, then for the mortgage on my house. I am also building them a museum and a store. I have a phone that they gave me, but also that I have to pay for. It’s not entirely impossible that this is a kind of indentured servitude? I didn’t ask for this, but here I am, on the hook for all of it. The good news-bad news is that everything is literally for sale. The entire island is simply a resource farm. I can pull up weeds, trees, rocks, bugs, butterflies, fish, clams, whatever I find, I take it, I fucking sell the shit out of it. I suspect I could sell Timmy Nook to Tommy Nook for the price of a K.K. Slider song. Nothing is forbidden.

All is grist for the grinding mill of our island economy.

Some things seem to reappear overnight. Which is again suggestive of a supernatural realm.

There is a plane. I can leave, but only for a little while. I must always return to Kolohe Ato, my island.

I am semi-married to my phone, in death as I am in life. Everything is driven to my phone. I am also not given the full slate of apps at the outset, but they are doled out to me. Tom Nook is either a love-bombing cult leader, or he’s Tim Cook of Apple. (Tim Cook? Tom Nook? Another piece of this puzzle slots into place as I meander about my walled garden.)

I do not know my purpose. As with life, this afterlife is purposeless but for the purpose you give yourself. I do not see a way to take a mate and breed, so I am left only to wander and participate in the economy and ponder my power in this place.

It occurs to me only now that I wish to kill Tom Nook. It’s not that I want to bring violence to this place — no, not at all, for it is very peaceful, and I hesitate to disrupt that peace. But I also recognize that Nook is the power broker here. I will never usurp him. Even though I am doing all the work: building stores and museums, telling people where to put their fucking tents, even naming the goddamn island. But Tom has everything. He has the microphone. He has the phone-phone. He has like, three stores — there’s a cash-in-your-miles store, an ATM mail-order store, and then one of his little rat nephews runs the other store. Tom Nook, like John Doe, has the upper hand.

I fear that my path leads me into inevitable conflict with the Baron Tom Nook. Could there be any other way? Is slaughter the only outcome? Or is there a bloodless coup I can run upon him and his venomous dynasty? Surely the game will afford me the change to take Timmy or Tommy Nook hostage. If not, soon I will have to find a DIY workbench recipe for a guillotine. (Though surely that recipe will require far too many iron nuggets, an already-precious resource. But one also suspects Tom Nook is sitting on an epic cache of those nuggets. Also N95 respirator masks, the little shit.) An island revolution may soon be necessary. But upon enacting this revolution, what will be the result? Will I manage to institute a new social order, an economy based on need where all are equal, where capitalism is a Purgatory we have left behind? Or will I be lured in by the trap of bells, and miles, and other strange currencies? It is tempting to hold power over my fellow island mates. Hamlet the Hamster should be working for me. He’s not smart enough to be making decisions for himself, which is why I told him where to put his tent. And he listened. He listened to me.

As he should, the little shit.

But Tom Nook won’t listen.

One day, I’ll make him listen.

For now, I do as I can, which is aimlessly fritter about. I can only do so much in a day, and the game rewards me for putting it down and not grinding, grinding, grinding — a small solace, proving again this isn’t Hell, but rather, a cosmic interstice. I try on new sunglasses. I shuck off my shoes and my pants. I dig up clams. I pole vault. I seek beetles. I pay my debts. I plot my revenge.