The Cozy Escapism of Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley
There are many reasons people play video games – to pass the time, to hear a story, or to bond with friends. But for many people, their reason for playing a game is escapism.
Escapism is when a person seeks to escape the real world – and all its boredom, frustrations, or stresses – through imagination, fantasy and entertainment. It can be hard to define what exactly makes a piece of media ‘escapist’, since everyone engages with the concept differently. Some people even engage in escapism purely through their own imagination, with no media. But in general, escapist media allows readers and/or players to escape to other, often more fanciful and wonderous, worlds. Many people use books and movies and even music as part of their escapism, but as video games have grown in popularity in recent decades, they’ve grown in popularity as escapist fiction as well.
When escapist video games are discussed, the commonly pointed to examples are RPGs (roleplaying games), especially fantasy titles like Skyrim (2011). It’s not hard to see why. Fantasy is a genre often used in escapist literature, as it allows writers to construct a completely new world, one where things are different – and better – from the real world. Fantasy games similarly do this, and many, like Skyrim, allow their players to have some agency in their gameplay choices. If you want to be an all-powerful wizard, you can be. If that’s not your thing, you can be an incredibly strong swordsman or a sneaky thief. RPGs like these are often the perfect escapism media for many, as they allow players to have some control. Control that they may be lacking in their everyday life.
But while sword and sorcery RPGs make for a good example of escapism in games, they are not the only type of game. Nor are they the only form of escapism. In fact, going on social media it seems like many people’s escapism games of choice are the tonal opposite to games like Skyrim. Instead of escapism to a fantasy realm where you can kill a dragon, they seek escapism to a rather simpler world. It’s all ‘cozy’ games, games where you can farm and fish and plant flowers and make friends with in-game characters. A more relaxing form of escapism.
Animal Crossing and Escapism during the Pandemic
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was published in March 2020, the same year that the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world. Looking back, it seems like the game was practically designed to be the perfect thing to relax with during what was an incredibly stressful time. In this latest entry in the Animal Crossing series, the player is a person who has just purchased a package to live on a little island, a beautiful slice of nature with rivers filled with fish, bugs buzzing around, and trees filled with fruit. While the player may spend their first day on the island in a tent, the place quickly grows and changes. Soon more villagers arrive at the island, all cute and quirky animal people, and more shops and buildings populate the landscape. Speaking of the landscape, the player is even given the chance to decorate their island as they see fit by creating ponds and rivers, raising and lowering the terrain, planting flowers, and placing structures.
There are goals in Animal Crossing, but there are few time limits imposed on them. You have to pay off your house, but there’s no interest on the loan, so you can take as long as you need. The museum stands empty initially, and it’s up to you to collect the bugs and fish for the exhibits – but the bugs and fish are seasonal, so it’s impossible to do it all at once. You’ll need to collect resources for various projects across the island – but you can only collect so many resources on a given day, and once you’ve collected everything, you may need to just sit and wait for more. As such, the game invites you to take it slow, decorate your home, and talk to the villagers on your island. The game’s unusual time system also helps here, as the game happens in real time – if it’s 10 o’clock in the real world, it’s 10 o’clock on your tropical island, there’s no time dilation as is found in most games. Once again, this puts minimal time pressure on the player, instead encouraging them to play daily.
Upon its release, New Horizons was widely praised, and it is currently the second best-selling game on the Nintendo Switch (surpassed only by the latest Mario Kart game). Reviewers praised it for many reasons, but there was often an emphasis put on just how relaxing it is, especially in the face of a global pandemic. It presented a world with no pandemic, and few pressing concerns beyond making your island look nicer. As such, it makes a great game for escapism.
This form of escapism may seem strange, when most works cited as escapism are often a little more ‘exciting’ that Animal Crossing, such as works of fantasy, sci fi, or pulpy detective fiction. Like Skyrim. But escapist literature does not just include these genres. Yes, some examples of escapist fiction are exciting and dramatic, allowing one to imagine themselves as a powerful warrior, mage, or detective, but many are a little more relaxing. For example, romance fiction often uses elements of escapism, allowing its readers to escape to a world of true love where things will turn out alright in the end. Utopian fiction, works set in an ideal or model world, is often also considered escapist literature, and the point of these works is often to show the shortcomings of our own world by imagining a better one. Escapism is about leaving our world behind for another, and there are many ways to do that, and many different worlds to leave for. It should be no surprise that some choose Animal Crossing over Skyrim.
But in this case it’s about more than just a difference in taste. Animal Crossing has always been relatively popular, but New Horizons is the bestselling entry in the series. Many blame the pandemic. People didn’t just want any escapism from the pandemic – any genre or type of game – they wanted Animal Crossing specifically.
Animal Crossing and Iyashikei
This type of escapism is certainly not unknown in Japan, Animal Crossing’s country of origin. The genre ‘iyashikei’ or ‘healing’ is often used to refer to relaxing slice-of-life anime and manga, pieces where there is little conflict – and when there is conflict, it’s often low-stakes or focused on personal development. The story generally ends happily and is often set in or near to nature.
One of the earlier and best-known pieces in this genre is the Studio Ghibli film My Neighbor Totoro (1988), an anime movie about a pair of girls who move to the countryside with their father, and come across the forest spirit Totoro. While there is conflict, when one of the girls is lost, it is quickly resolved with the aid of this magical spirit. Since then, the genre has told stories about high schoolers learning and developing, mundane life in magical worlds, and other similarly relaxing topics. While Animal Crossing may be a game rather than an anime, it seems to share a lot of similarities with other works in this genre with its natural setting and relaxing tone.
Iyashikei’s emergence and popularity is often linked to the trauma of certain crises in Japan, including the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. The ‘healing’ name is quite literal; these are works that are intended to soothe and relax a person going through a hard time. Once again, this genre in general proved popular during the pandemic, with some media outlets recommending iyashikei works to relax a person’s pandemic anxiety. It’s no surprise that the same happened with Animal Crossing.
In fact, some feel that New Horizons made a specific attempt to be even more relaxing than previous entries in the game series. While even the earliest games were relatively calm, this latest game has made a few changes to make the game even more relaxing to players. One of the biggest ones is the villagers’ attitudes towards the player; in some of the early games, the villagers were initially cold and sometimes even outright mean. They only became nicer as they ‘got to know’ the player. There was even one character, a mole named Mr Resetti, who would yell at players if they quit the game without saving. He would pretend to reset their save if they did it too many times. In New Horizons, however, the villagers are noticeably much nicer from the beginning, and even Mr Resetti is much calmer, though he no longer appears when you forget to save.
While some people disliked these changes, saying they made the villagers feel more flat and less interesting, they do arguably make the game more calm – and even better for escapism. When imagining a perfect world to escape to, most people don’t want to be yelled at for quitting without saving, they want to make fast friends with a sweet cat.
Stardew Valley and a Longing for a Simpler Life
Though it’s a slightly different take to the escapism offered by Animal Crossing, another of the most prominent and obvious examples of these chill escapism games is Stardew Valley (2016). Its opening cutscene lays out this desire for escapism very neatly. At the beginning of the game (after character creation), the player is shown a cutscene of their ‘grandfather’, who gives them an envelope with the instruction to open it ‘when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life’. It then cuts to the player in a dingy office, working at a dirty desk under constant monitoring by a security camera. Obviously feeling this burden, they pull out their grandfather’s letter and discover that he has left them a farm. He wishes for them to reconnect with real people and nature, just like he once did. The player immediately packs up whatever life they may have had in the city and moves to the country to start a new life as a farmer, where they can find satisfaction, friendship, magic, and romance.
This opening is one that may be relatable to many inner-city adult gamers. If you’ve ever had a hard office or retail job, in a city where you rarely see any nature, you might start to long for a life in the countryside. To run away from everything and start afresh. Of course, in real life things are more difficult than it is in Stardew Valley. Most people don’t have the money or resources to just quit their boring job, and even if they did they’d soon find the work is a lot harder than Stardew makes it seem. And you certainly won’t make friends with any forest spirits in real life. But Stardew Valley appeals to that fantasy, making it less realistic but more accessible and more fun.
However, the escapism that Stardew offers is rather different to Animal Crossing, not just in what you do, but in the difficulty. In Animal Crossing, you could pass time by talking to your villagers, browsing the museum, and inviting friends over. There are no time limits, and though the game sets you tasks, there’s little obligation to complete them. You can also time travel, so any events or seasonal insects you miss you can simply catch up on. Meanwhile, in Stardew Valley, it’s a little more stressful and fast-paced. At the start of the game, your farm is small and covered in weeds and debris. You have to hand-water all of your crops. You also have a limited amount of time to do any tasks each day (about 12 –13 minutes, depending on when you get to bed), and a limited amount of energy, so you need to allocate your time and responsibilities wisely. Not using them wisely results in penalties, loosing energy for the next day, or being forced to spend your hard-earned money. And the townsfolk can be resistant to the player at first, with some (such as Shane, Jas, and George) initially acting abrupt, uncertain, or shy towards you. Even your house is tiny at the start of the game, and any resources are more likely to be put to farming than to making nicer furniture.
While at times this may seem stressful, an odd choice of escapism compared to the more laid-back Animal Crossing, the same escapism elements are still present in Stardew. The desire to leave a pointless desk job brought up in the opening cutscene is repeated and expanded on throughout the game. In the town is a grocery store owned by the same company the player once worked for (a monopoly company called ‘Joja’), and over the course of the story, the player is given the chance to make them go out of business and leave the town, in favor of a group of nature spirits. Though it’s possible to side with the store instead of the town and spirits, few players do – according to online game retailer Steam, only 3.7% of players completed the ‘Joja’ route (siding with the corporation) vs. the 19.3% of players who completed the ‘town’ route (siding with the local people and the nature spirits). In addition, it’s generally a more expensive option to support the chain store instead of the more local option, as seeds are more expensive at the Jojamart. Being given the chance to not only leave a soul-crushing job, but to damage the company that caused it, may provide a sense of catharsis to players.
In addition, while Stardew Valley may seem more difficult than Animal Crossing, it’s still quite forgiving. While there are penalties, most are quite short-term – if you lose money, you can always earn more, and if you lose all your energy, you’ll simply regain it at the start of the next day. The years and the seasons repeat, so even if you miss an event, growing a particular crop, or catching a seasonal fish, there’s always next time. There’s goals, but there’s no set time limit on doing them, so you can take as long as you need. That’s more forgiving than a lot of other games.
Similar to Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley also has friendship mechanics. Over the course of the game, you can talk to the npcs once a day, and give them gifts twice a week in order to increase how much they like you. With some characters, this can go from a friendship to a romance and even a marriage (or a roommate, in one case) and parenthood. Romance and marriage has been a staple of the farming sim genre ever since its inception. The Harvest Moon series, also known as the Story of Seasons series, has allowed the player character to get married to an eligible non-player character since the very first game was released in 1996. As one of the first and most iconic farming sims, this set the stage for romance to be a common element across the genre. However, many of these earlier farming sims had only particular types of romance – players could only marry candidates of the opposite gender. In the first Harvest Moon, you couldn’t even play as a female farmer. In recent years, however, this has changed. Indie farming sims such as Stardew Valley and many other smaller publications, such as the recently released Coral Island (2022), routinely have romance options regardless of gender. This has expanded to more recently published Harvest Moon games. Being able to have a romantic relationship with a charming npc is a big part of the escapism of these games for many people, and it attracts a lot of players.
In the stressful world we live in, it’s no surprise that many gamers wish to escape to one where they can live a rather simpler life. While not everyone finds Stardew Valley completely relaxing, due to its time and energy mechanics, it presents a world where the player has a fulfilling job, where they can see themselves succeed and thrive, and where they can make friends. They can build a life they may feel they can’t have in the real world, and this escapism contributes to Stardew Valley’s popularity.
Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley are, of course, only two games. And it’s unlike that their popularity stems solely from escapism – New Horizons comes from from one of the biggest video game companies in the world and is from a series that had seen years since its last mainline game. And farming sims have plenty of draws beyond escapism, like the satisfaction of watching your farm grow or the light romance mechanics.
And yet, in the midst of a crisis, why do individuals express the desire to live a life similar to that of these video games or to put more effort into their virtual worlds than in the real one? It’s difficult to fail to get why, for many individuals, escapism isn’t about being an all-powerful wizard or a strong warrior.
Cozy escapism is about wanting a life different from your own. One where you can unwind, make new friends, and do a job that satisfies you.
There are issues with escapism, especially when it comes to using video games for that purpose. Psychologists have found it can result in negative outcomes including social anxiety and loneliness. But escaping to video game worlds can also result in positive outcomes, such as enjoyment.
And, of course, relaxation.
When we live in a stressful time, with a pandemic still on our heels and a cost of living crisis, it’s hard to blame people who’d rather escape to a tropical island.
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