Why Time Traveling Undermines Animal Crossing’s Philosophy

Nick Ransbottom
Games Nintendo
Games Nintendo

With every day feeling uncertain and news getting progressively depressing during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to understand why Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been such a welcome respite for so many. It’s a low-stress game about slowly building up an island and befriending the adorable animals who populate it. You fish, catch bugs, dig up fossils to donate to your museum and work towards paying off your loan to keep expanding your house.

Furnishing your home and decorating the island itself requires you to gradually collect from a vast catalogue, and because Animal Crossing games play out in real-time by syncing up with your system’s clock, making significant progress can take months upon months.

Some, like myself, love the chill pace; understandably, others are irked by it. Playing around with your system’s clock can bypass the mechanic and let you access everything the game offers at your pace instead. It’s always been a divisive tactic because some players feel it diminishes the fun, but I think what it really diminishes are the life lessons that the games try to impart.

The real-time mechanic demonstrates key techniques to help cope with anxiety, and it’s more important now than ever before to understand how.

A Much-needed dose of routine

Animal Crossing has always been a series that wants you to truly live within its virtual world. One way it does this is by allowing you to develop a personal routine that you can settle into. If you’re like me, your day starts with browsing your wardrobe for a new outfit and then doing a bit of gardening. But maybe you prefer to hunt down fossils before going fishing, or checking up on your neighbors as soon as you log in.

Being able to create your own unique schedule prevents your activities from feeling like a chore, and instead fosters a sense of comfort as you give your own actions purpose. Other simulation games like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley let you find your own rhythm as well but don’t operate in real-time, meaning you can go through entire in-game months in one play session. Because Animal Crossing’s days run concurrently with our own, sticking to the routine you established feels more impactful.

The last thing on my to-do list is to visit my stores, which rotate their wares on a daily basis. This randomness makes each shopping trip a surprise, though that can sometimes be frustrating and is one of the biggest reasons people time-travel; not every surprise is good, after all.

But never knowing what’s in stock makes the moment when you finally find something you love more special. After I complete my tasks, I can turn off the game and return the next day. The series has always been at its most poignant, though, when your schedule is completely free and the already slow pace comes to a screeching halt.

Finding the meditative in the minutiae

This newfound freedom helps you learn to pay attention to all the minutiae you might otherwise never notice: a funny conversation between your villagers; a bottled message washed up along your shore; an elusive insect resting on nearby flowers. You enjoy things as they’re actively happening.

This pandemic is making so many of us anxious, and anxiety tends to make us think about the future. How can we focus on today when we’re scared of what tomorrow will bring — or if there’s even going to be a tomorrow at all?

I know firsthand that it’s incredibly easy to get lost in a series of worst-case scenarios about what might happen. Grounding yourself in the present is a crucial skill in combating anxiety, and Animal Crossing provides us with a way to do so. Time traveling is a rejection of that.

It’s not that people who time travel are playing “wrong” — games are meant to be enjoyed, and there’s no right way to have fun! — but that people wanting to time travel at all proves why the real-time mechanic is crucial to the Animal Crossing experience. Having to wait day by day for new items and even new gameplay elements can feel boring, and sometimes the level of patience that’s asked of you can be too much.

This is made worse when you consider that certain bugs and fish are only available during specific real-world months and seasons. If you’re only concentrating on this aspect of the games, then you won’t find anything to do in the quieter, more mundane moments. Wanting to skip ahead for quicker access to seasonal critters or to speed up progress on construction projects misses the point of the series. Its method of locking content isn’t a punishment, and committing to its intended pace can make the games feel more rewarding.

One of the best things to do during this pandemic is to remind ourselves that we need to take things one day at a time. That can be much easier said than done, which is where Animal Crossing can help. I find that it’s calming to have a more relaxed attitude when playing, and I look forward to everything that requires me to wait rather than letting the majority of my enjoyment hinge on how quickly I can get what I want.

They become passive goals that happen in the background and leave me to focus on what’s going on that day. The timed limitations force you to give up control, and while that can initially be upsetting, it actually removes a great deal of pressure.

A virtual hang out space

With its local and online multiplayer modes, Animal Crossing encourages social interaction between players. Your friends will have their own wares in rotation for you to browse, which can help you expand your collection back home. The real fun in multiplayer has always been wowing your friends with your interior decorating skills, but New Horizons takes this a step further and lets you show your friends how you’ve designed your island as well.

As players pay off their loans and take out more expensive ones, their homes gain new rooms. It’s here that you can showcase a diverse sense of style. I love having friends come over so they can see the care I’ve put into cultivating a theme and aesthetic for each area of my home. Completing various tasks and specific gameplay milestones racks up Nook Miles, which you need in order to acquire the most impressive props for your island.

While time traveling can help unlock new rooms and Nook Miles faster, it’s much more impressive to see the result of steady progress. Not taking shortcuts helps me appreciate what I have and gives me motivation to work towards an eventual goal.

Time traveling is relatively harmless in terms of gameplay impact, though New Horizons has taken small measures to prevent it from causing an imbalance. For example, the in-game equivalent of the stock market revolves around the buying and selling of turnips and traveling either backward in time or past that week’s Sunday will cause them to rot and become unsellable.

New Horizons also includes live, seasonal events that require you to sync your Switch with the internet; if you’ve set it to the past or future, you can’t participate until your system’s clock is accurate.

Ultimately, whether or not time traveling increases your enjoyment of the games is a matter of personal preference, and your choice doesn’t make you more or less of a fan than anyone else. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that Animal Crossing has always included its real-time mechanic for a deeper reason than just being a mere gimmick. Embracing the “go with the flow” spirit of the series can elevate it from a simple game to a meditative, escapist experience that we can all benefit from.

Nick Ransbottom
Former reviews editor for RPGFan. Freelancer. He/Him