The Animal Crossing franchise’s cosy aesthetics and relaxed gameplay have enjoyed wild popularity, especially since the release of their newest title, Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch. For the uninitiated, the premise of Animal Crossing is simple: you are a friendly town resident with friendly animal neighbours, and you are free to fill your days with decorating, gardening, fishing, catching bugs, and generally just leading an idyllic and idle life.
The Animal Crossing franchise’s cosy aesthetics and relaxed gameplay have enjoyed wild popularity, especially since the release of their newest title, Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch. For the uninitiated, the premise of Animal Crossing is simple: you are a friendly town resident with friendly animal neighbours, and you are free to fill your days with decorating, gardening, fishing, catching bugs, and generally just leading an idyllic and idle life. New Horizons introduces new characters and concepts while keeping much of the core game intact. The most relevant change is that instead of overseeing a town, you have now become the representative of an entire island, which you are free to customise at your leisure.
There is a frightful amount of control that one is able to enact over their island in New Horizons—perhaps the most amount of control that’s ever been possible in any Animal Crossing game to date. Players can now lay down paths, decorate areas with furniture outside their houses, control which villagers come in and out of their island, and more. If you decide to drop even more money on the New Horizons DLC and a Nintendo Online subscription, access to DLC-exclusive furniture and designs posted on the Internet means that customisation options become functionally limitless.
With the unparalleled power of the Nintendo Switch comes a paradigm shift in the Animal Crossing formula, specifically one that was informed fundamentally by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. New Horizons was released at the end of March 2020, just in time for coronavirus lockdowns to sweep the world. Stuck at home with a much-anticipated video game release, many Nintendo fans turned to the world of Animal Crossing to tide them over, losing themselves in completing the museum or playing the Bells stock market. The resultant online impact was staggering. Suddenly, Twitch, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube were flooded with New Horizons content (Villager hunts! Glitches and exploits! Builds of all kinds!). You couldn’t turn your Switch on without seeing all your friends playing New Horizons, and I know that because I too was one of those people who couldn’t tear themselves away from those crisp graphics and charming bossa nova beats. Most impressively of all, in my opinion, was the launch of Nookazon: a fan-made website founded just over two weeks after the release of the game itself. Although the last major update for the game has made Nookazon largely unnecessary, for a long time it was the only place to acquire specific iterations of furniture that one’s island simply wouldn’t stock, or to trade millions of Bells or Nook Miles Tickets for particularly coveted villagers.
New Horizons’ explosion in popularity has been tied inextricably with its social and political context. Not only does Nintendo’s formidable weight of nostalgia lend itself well to a dedicated fanbase spanning generations, but the coinciding factors of worldwide lockdowns and vocal Internet communities have led to a uniquely online way to play the game. Many of you will already be aware of the rise of aesthetic awareness and appreciation online, largely among younger adults. For those unaware, this is typically bundling together thematic images and visual elements to create any amount of “-core” aesthetics you desire. For a game whose launch was met with massive online anticipation and features decoration as its central mechanic, the rise of cottagecore/dark academia/horrorcore/kidcore/normcore/fill-in-the-blank-core islands in New Horizons feels inevitable.
A popular fan-made app, Nookea, functions as an unofficial and easily accessible New Horizons Wikipedia. For example, it gives fans a straightforward way to get basic information on villagers—details like original catchphrases, the layouts of their houses, and their preferred gifts. More interesting are the suggestions that Nookea makes for decorating said villagers’ external and (if you have the DLC) internal living spaces. The app recommends “cottagecore” and “citycore” for Lolly; “elegantcore” for Whitney; “fairycore” for Audie and Merengue. None of these terms are present in the game’s original code, and yet for many members of the New Horizons community (as well as specific kinds of TikTok users), these words—or words very similar to them—have become mainstays of the vernacular. Nookea provides extensive lists of appropriate furniture to use depending on if you would like your island to be kidcore or horror. And even beyond Nookea, a preliminary Pinterest search will yield countless recommendations of custom designs that any Nintendo Online owner is welcome to use; most designs are commonly organised by aesthetic bounds.
It is interesting to me that, in a game designed to encourage creativity and experimentation with design, the first instinct of many fans is to limit their focus. Limitations breed creativity, after all, and there is excitement to be had in creating an entire island for the sake of a specific vision. The conceptualisation of various aesthetics in online spaces, when applied to New Horizons specifically, can therefore provide a convenient sense of direction to a player that might be unsure of either what they want out of their island, or how they might go about achieving their goals.
That being said, there is also a significant part of me that wishes for a less prescriptive approach from the wider New Horizons community. After all, part of the appeal of New Horizons is its unmatched capacity for customisation. Clinging excessively to preconceived notions of what should and should not go together (what furniture, what villagers, what flowers, what shapes of rivers) is a sure-fire way to kill any joy you might have had in exploration and creating something on your own terms. One too many people have asked me about what I am “going for” with my island, or what my island’s aesthetic is, for me to let this go that easily. I’m not “going for” anything! I resent the assumption that to get joy out of this game, I must approach it with the intent that goes beyond blind experimentation and following my own creative whims! There is nothing in the rulebook that says you must have direction in the way you put your island together, and that’s because there was never any rulebook to begin with.
Ultimately, I care very little about how people choose to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons. On the list of things that affect me and my life, the way that strangers decide to organise their cute little fictional islands does not even slightly appear. However, in an online world that is increasingly concerned with “aesthetics”, watching the ways that people have approached something as innocuous as New Horizons feels like a compelling site to engage with modern anxieties over appearance and belonging. Although Animal Crossing is a game franchise famed for its aesthetics, I would encourage anyone thinking of playing to push yourself beyond the ascribed bounds of acceptability. Get weird! Get ugly! Nookea will always be there if you decide you don’t like it—and the possibility of stumbling upon something you enjoy just for yourself remains, in my view, far more exciting anyway.