Animal Crossing and the joys of delayed gratification

Why a game that makes you wait is the digital distraction we need right now

Animal Crossing.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a peaceful game set in an island town of the player's own creation, where activities include decorating your house, chatting with your animal neighbors, planting flowers, and going fishing. It's like the comforting video-game equivalent of knitting a sweater, arriving just as real life amid the coronavirus pandemic was growing increasingly bleak.

But Animal Crossing is a delight not just because of the relaxation its low-key goals offer. What makes it the perfect digital distraction for these times is its ability to give players something new to look forward to. The waiting is actually the best part.

As you get started in New Horizons, the latest installment in Nintendo's two-decade-old franchise, you move onto a deserted island with two neighbors and businessman Tom Nook, with tons of work to do to get your town up and running. Among the game's first objectives includes upgrading your tent into a home, as well as catching enough bugs and fish so that a museum curator will move in.

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But here's the key to Animal Crossing: traditionally, once an objective is completed, it doesn't actually take effect until the next day. And this isn't like some other simulation games where you can burn through many days in a session. No, Animal Crossing operates off the real world's clock, and so you'll need to wait until an actual day has passed in real life for major events, such as your tent being upgraded, to occur.

The result is that players won't really feel like they're firing on all cylinders until at least a full real-world week into their experience with New Horizons, if not much longer. In one of the biggest early examples of the slow pace, the game makes it impossible to traverse your island's rivers until you're given a vaulting pole, which won't actually happen on the same day you start playing.

This continues beyond Animal Crossing's first hours, though, and is actually a core aspect of the series' gameplay. Are you building a bridge and can't wait to put it to use? Once you've paid for it, it won't be constructed until tomorrow. Just paid to have your house expanded and are dying to see what it looks like? Once again, check back tomorrow. Plus, tons of activities are only available on specific days. Turnips can only be purchased on Sundays — that is, you must really be playing the game on Sunday — and events tied to specific holidays happen once a year.

Animal Crossing newcomers might at first grow frustrated with all of this, wanting to see much more of what they paid $60 for in a matter of hours and not weeks. But that annoyance should fade away once players realize the tradeoff: the pure giddy excitement that comes with logging off for the day knowing full well all the new kinds of fun that await the next time you jump in.

Indeed, all of the unlocks that activate in the morning — which in addition to specific objectives includes the respawning of fruit to pick off trees, items to buy in the store, and more — constantly renew the game's appeal, making it feel brand new, even if you spent hours playing the day before. Maybe tomorrow's the day the museum opens, or a new neighbor is scheduled to move in, or a house upgrade will finally be ready. Regardless, New Horizons' magic lies in the fact that tomorrow, it will always have more presents for us under its Christmas tree. Booting up your Nintendo Switch to open them never gets old.

Granted, there is a way to bypass this, as you can actually skip time in the game by setting your Switch's internal clock ahead. But most players frown upon this time traveling cheat, and to do so is to deprive yourself of more fun in the long run. Sure, you could skip ahead to get the vaulting pole right away, but then you'll lose out on being able to look forward to a particular day when you're aware it's finally coming. In an age where we binge an entire season of Stranger Things in one weekend and then barely talk about it again, or plow through a game's single-player campaign in a few nights before moving on to another, here's an entertainment experience that provides true long-term pleasure.

So yes, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the perfect game for this moment in time in that it's allowing us to unwind in a sunny, blissful outdoor environment while trapped indoors. But there's more to it that makes its arrival right now so ideal. The coronavirus pandemic has postponed or canceled virtually any real-world event we'd normally write on our calendars and look up to while we trudge through the week, whether it was MLB's Opening Day or the premiere of Mulan. But by constantly teasing us about what's in store a day, week, or month from now, Animal Crossing allows players to start filling those calendars back up. The game is providing exactly what we need right now: the knowledge that a new bit of happiness is always on the horizon.

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