Looking Back on the Year of 'Animal Crossing'

'Animal Crossing' gameplay still
Animal Crossing/Sharareh Drury

Sharareh Drury's 'Animal Crossing' character outside her home on Isla Kiara.

As the year draws to a close, The Hollywood Reporter's Trilby Beresford and Sharareh Drury chat about why the social simulation game characterized their time in lockdown and whether they'll still be playing the game in 2021.

Depending on who you ask, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the unofficial video game that defined COVID-19 lockdown amid the strange and strenuous year of 2020.

From its relaxing garden vibes to the sweet and often hilarious conversations to be had with villagers of varying personalities, to the island get-togethers and seasonal events, the game provided a sense of community and purpose during the monotony of home isolation.

At least, it did for The Hollywood Reporter's associate editors Trilby Beresford and Sharareh Drury, who, in looking back on the year in gaming, discussed why the game — in which lifetime sales are over 22.4 million, just behind Nintendo's best-selling Switch game Mario Kart 8 Deluxe — struck a personal chord with them.

Trilby Beresford: I was a late recruit to Animal Crossing, which is slightly embarrassing to admit, but I had heard that a lot of people were having great fun hosting fishing competitions and hanging out under shooting stars and having costume competitions. And I was like, I need to explore this world. So midway through the pandemic is when I started playing Animal Crossing and it became an everyday activity. Every day, every morning, every night, and I totally got the hype immediately.

Sharareh Drury: I think what is so interesting first off about it was a lot of people said it was just the perfect timing because the game came out right when a lot of states were shutting down or going into lockdown, so we were all home. And that’s essentially why I got it — a few weeks after it was out. Also, Animal Crossing and DOOM Eternal came out together.

Beresford: Yes, two strikingly different games!

Drury: Exactly, it was hilarious. So I got Animal Crossing and my husband got DOOM and we could not stop playing either of them. The biggest reason I got Animal Crossing was that, first off, I just thought it looked adorable. I had heard about the Animal Crossing craze. I’d seen the past games. But I had never even tried playing it.

Beresford: Same.

Drury: I just thought to myself, I like Switch games, I like playing on the Switch, I like most things that are by Nintendo, and I needed something to occupy my time when I wasn’t working from home. I think the other big thing was that my sister was going to get it — she’s in Tennessee and I’m here in California. I thought this is a great way for us to play something together because you can go to each other’s islands and we could talk about how we’re decorating our houses and all. Overall, it would be a fun way to stay connected to my sister and then eventually, with friends. I found out others who were playing and my little group started to group. I was like, okay this is a great way to stay connected.

Beresford: Yes, exactly. You can explore home renovation, which I never thought I’d be interested in. [Laughs].

Drury: Same. That’s a good point! I’ve never been that obsessed with home decor. I’m pretty basic. I have IKEA furniture all over my apartment. But I got really into home decorating with this game.

Beresford: What did you put in your different rooms in your house?

Drury: Oh I love this question [laughs]. So on the main floor, my living room is pretty generic — I've got a couch, a TV, a bookshelf, and there's always some fish in a tank — I rotate which one I like out. Then I have a modern looking bathroom, a cute little kitchen. The third room on the main floor is what I like to call my dream room because I have the bed Luna gifts you in there — and you can visit other people's dream islands.

Beresford: Oh yeah, yeah!

Drury: So the dream bed room has a garden vibe. My top floor is my bedroom, and it's similar to my actual home, which is very beachy. Then my basement has a lot of the mermaid items — like fountains and shell lamps. And the house itself is also by the beach.

Beresford: Yeah mine was by the beach, too. I planted a lot of palm trees and really enjoyed getting the coconuts.

Drury: Nice. How did you decorate yours?

Beresford: I had a pink roof. I had a lot of flowers and plants decorating the garden. And I had a little white picket fence, the Australian dream! And I had a game room inside, which I am very, very proud of.

Drury: Like an arcade setup?

Beresford: Yeah, yeah with a big TV screen, a Switch, arcade games, there was a Foosball table, it looked rad.

Drury: I think that’s the other fun part of the game. Like hmmm, I am going to finally make my dream house.

Beresford: Exactly.

Drury: Right? Also, this is something I didn’t realize you could do until late in the game. I created a character through my husband's Switch account so he can be a person on my island. Now, my husband does not play this game. I just made a character for him and I play as him sometimes. And it’s hilarious because I made it look like him and everything. His house is next to mine. I did that partially because I had so many ideas for my house and now I have a second one to play with. But his house is totally his taste. Because he’s a doctor I have a little computer set up, his study space, bookshelves and all of that. He has a little gym for his character to workout. And for the basement, I made a game room that looks like a '90s arcade.

Beresford: Game rooms are very important in Animal Crossing. I also had a gym with a kick boxing bag, a treadmill, exercise ball, bicycle.

Drury: Oh a treadmill? That’s fancy.

Beresford: Oh yeah. And the floor was red. And I think I had fire on the walls. It was a very explosive gym.

Drury: It gets you fired up!

Beresford: It does, yes.

Drury: That’s hilarious. How often do you feel you played at your peak? Because I will say I know I had a surge where I played a lot and then I plateaued for a bit and then I didn’t play and then I went back. So when you were most active, how often were you turning on the game?

Beresford: Definitely when I first got it I was playing every day. It reminded me of my God of War obsession because when I had that game I played it every day and every morning and I even dreamt about it, honestly. [laughter] So I thought about it 24-7. Animal Crossing was a little bit like that I think because of the social connection aspect. It just became a great release in pandemic times.

Drury: I think I was too. I could easily say from like April through July I played it a lot. A big reason for that for me was simply because my sister was the most available because she is a teacher. When lockdowns happened, her spring semester of school became completely virtual — she's a band director — and so she taught at home and had a lot of time on her hands. So all summer we played together. Also, a big reason I played so much is because it took awhile to get all the villagers, to set up the island the way I wanted it. And then I lost my mind when I realized that you could terraform and change your island.

Beresford: Yes, I remember that, on your island, it was very elaborate.

Drury: When you came and visited mine?

Beresford: Yeah!

Drury: At first I thought, oh this is kind of interesting. And then I went into it. I will say, I have to give props to my sister because her island is probably the most incredibly decorated and elaborate one I've ever seen. She did an amazing job with her island so I’m just trying to compete.  But yea when terraforming was available, she and I both got excited and angry at the same time because we had set up our islands a certain way and now we're like, wait, you can change it? You can change where the rivers are? I have to change everything now!

Beresford: My island was pretty laid back. I didn’t do any terraforming. I kept the rivers where they were when I started. But one of my favorite things was just meeting all of the villagers on the island.

Drury: Do you have a few favorite villagers that you’re like, 'oh, I hope you never leave'?

Beresford: Yes, the character who was always weight lifting. What was his name? LOUIE! He's a wonderful monkey. I spent lots of time with Louie.

Drury: Yeah, among all the Animal Crossing types,  I think one of my favorites is is Bill. He’s a little red duck and he’s always ready to work out. Then there is Sydney, my purple koala. I also love Audrey, who is this sassy fox who is trying to become some famous movie star. I think that’s what’s so adorable about some of them — all of their little personalities. Oh gosh, I forgot Erik — he's a sweet deer who is always like, 'Oh, I'm hungry, I'm looking for snacks.'

Beresford: Yeah, that’s my personality type.

Drury: A hundred percent. I love all my villagers so it's hard to pick a favorite... probably though it is Bill and oh gosh, Derwin, who is this nerdy little duck. Honestly, if there is another reason why I play this game is if I’m not in a good mood, it’s always nice to go and play that game just to chat. And that brings me to the next point of discussion: why do we think this game has become so popular?

Beresford: It’s such a positive game and it really does relieve stress. As soon as you log in, you can talk to your villagers, you can go and see Isabelle in the town square and she is just delightful. She always made me happy as soon as I saw her face, heard her sweet voice and heard her talk about how she left a red sock in the washing machine and now all of her clothes are red with her whites. I think the characters are a big reason why Animal Crossing is so popular. It’s very easy to just jump in, spend 20 minutes planting or talking to characters and then jump out. It’s not something you need two hours to really get into.

Drury: It’s definitely a stress reliever. You can go around and plant flowers and terraform and it takes your mind off a lot of things. But I also think.. and I know we’ve talked about this a bit.. but I think a big reason too it’s popular is because of the ways that you can connect with people anywhere. Now, the Animal Crossing community has been here for a while. But I think for a lot of people, it exploded because we are all home now and we have a lot of time on our hands and we miss connection.

Beresford: Yeah, you can have parties!

Drury: You can have whole parties, you can do games. My sister and I literally are five-year-olds and we play hide and seek and tag on our island. I just need that right now because everything else is horrible. Also, I haven’t attended these myself but I just love seeing how creative people are getting. Like Jenny Yang does Animal Crossing comedy shows. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris used the game to campaign and Joe Biden had an island. There’s so many wild ways that you can use this game! I also love that there are people who get so invested in the turnips and they calculators and projectors so you can figure out how to make loads of bells.

Beresford: Yes, turnips are massive.

Drury: So I know turnips are crazy. But with my sister, she was able to give one of her villagers, Raymond, to someone for like 20 million bells. We found someone through Twitter who was willing to pay that much for him because he's such a rare villager, I believe. As for me, I've been trying to get rid of Pietro — this little clown sheep — forever and he just keeps coming back. I am not a fan of clowns... but yea it's crazy how popular the game is and how there are threads and community boards for this kind of thing. People all around the world are connecting with it.

Beresford: I think another reason why it’s so popular is that you can visit the game for real-life events. So you can go in when it’s Halloween, you can go in when it’s 4th of July, all these things.

Drury: The fireworks were so fun!

Beresford: Yeah exactly, fireworks, shooting stars. And the game is in real time. So that’s another reason why it feels very... real.

Drury:  You’re right! I love that because if you come on early in the day, they’re like good morning. Or on a Friday, Isabel is like, the weekend is almost here, get ready!

Beresford: Right, it sort of gives some structure to your actual day, which is nice.

Drury: Yeah, I love that. And regarding the holidays, that’s the reason I came back on because I think around July/August I dipped for a bit. My sister was teaching again and she's actually back in the classroom vs. going virtual so she does not have as much time to be on. I felt like I had done everything I could in the game. But once Halloween came around, that’s my favorite holiday and when I saw that you could decorate your island for Halloween, I was back in it. Now I'm figuring out what to do for Christmas and the New Year. My sister already made an entire ice skating rink on her island plus a Christmas tree farm.

Beresford: Yeah that’s a great idea.

Drury: So I’m sitting here, trying to figure out what I’m going to do. But that’s probably why I came back.

Beresford: I definitely want to revisit the game for Christmas and New Year’s. For sure.

Drury: I’m curious what people will do for New Years, that’ll be super fun.

Beresford: Some of my friends got really creative during the pandemic. I attended an Animal Crossing birthday party where there was about 15 people and we all met up on someone’s island and this friend had created all these games of musical chairs and we went from place to place playing the game. It was like we were really there because we could all talk to each other, we could laugh with each other. It was hilarious. We spent four hours doing that and it was honestly one of the best parties I’ve been to... ever, I think.

Drury: Yes, ability to hang out and do things, especially as a group. I did a couple birthday parties with my sister and her friends this summer. I've also had friends come over to just roam about the island. I honestly do think it helps bring back a little bit of normalcy.

Beresford: Yeah, I think it’s important.

Drury: It's helped so much during the pandemic because for me, I don't live near any of my direct family and I miss them a lot. And I’m sure plenty of people are going through this, I don’t know the next time I’m going to go see my sister or my parents or my brother. So I think for me, my favorite total experience is just that I’m able to do something with friends and my sister for sure. While my parents and brother don't play, they hear about everything going on on our islands — we share photos of what's going on. It just helps us stay connected with each other.

Beresford: I also feel like it replaced online shopping for me this year. I didn’t do much real life shopping but I looked for items in Animal Crossing a lot.

Drury: Yes! And now that you can search for different designs in the clothing store — that is epic. Speaking of the clothing store, it's one of my favorite places to visit. I always get crazy outfits to wear whenever I visit someone's island.

Beresford: Oh, yeah.

Drury: I have to be ridiculous. I really enjoy seeing what people wear when they first visit you too, when they're coming off the plane.

Beresford: When you see someone for the first time it’s so funny.

Drury: That’s with you and me, when you visited my island for the first time and I saw what your person looked like…

Beresford: Yeah, I think I was wearing my space jacket and my red beanie. I think that was my favorite look.

Drury: Visiting people's islands is my way of travel now, basically.

Beresford: What was the name of your island?

Drury: I’m Isla Kiara. My cat’s name is Kiara and my flag is my cat’s face. I love my cat that much. When I saw that you could, in the first few minutes of the game, that you could your name your island. Oh wait...

[A stay at home warning comes through the phone]

Beresford: 2020 continues.

Drury: As we’re talking, this is happening?

Beresford: Yes, this is what we’re dealing with.

Drury: This is what we’re dealing with in real time, getting stay at home orders when we’re trying to talk about Animal Crossing, which is one of the reasons I’ll be playing it a lot is because we are in a very restrictive stay at home order right now.

Beresford: Yeah, everything now is closed.

Drury: Basically closed.

Beresford: Animal Crossing is open.

Drury: What did you name your island?

Beresford: My island is called Lemon Drop. That’s my favorite drink. And I will also say it is my favorite drink because my wife makes awesome Lemon Drops. And so when I named my island, that seemed appropriate. Lemon Drop is a very quaint island. It’s not elaborate in any way. But the stores and the villagers keep it bustling.

Drury: I love that! I don't think I changed much on my island until I started to see other people's versions. Then I started to get a little ambitious. For the most part, what I do like about Isla Kiara is it maintains the island vibe. Lots of palm trees and bamboo trees. I’ve seen some people transferring their island to look like a city, put pavement everywhere.

Beresford: Yeah, I prefer the island get away style.

Drury: Yeah. I want it to be an island get away. And I like creating little areas of peace. I have a big garden by my museum, there's a little pond, rocks to sit on, flowers. And I love going in that area and just chilling.

Beresford: Yeah, I have hammocks on my island. I like hammocks in real life and in games, and I have one at my real house and my Animal Crossing island.

Drury: Look, you gotta have some things that are symmetrical to your life.

Beresford: Yeah. I have lots of seating areas on my island with little stone stools and nice relaxing areas by the river. And also on the beach.

Drury: I’m curious, what games do you feel can compare to the craze of Animal Crossing? People playing every single day and connected with others around the world over it?

Beresford: I think it does remind me of Super Mario and all the Mario games, playing with other people, which I did a lot when I was a kid. I’ve done that a lot as an adult and will probably do for the rest of my life with those games. I just love hanging out with people over video games and I think Super Mario has been one of the ones that really continues to speak to me.

Drury: Mario is iconic. I'll say it’s in between Mario and Pokémon for me. And Pokémon for me probably being the bigger one because I played every single version of that game, traded cards, all of it. This year, aside from Animal Crossing, the other game I've played consistently is Pokémon Sword & Shield. I have the Sword version. I love how you can customize your character in that game, similar to Animal Crossing. You buy different clothes for them. So yeah, I feel like as simple as it is, you see yourself in your character.

Beresford: Oh yeah, definitely.

Drury: And Pokémon, I feel as a franchise, is the only other thing I could probably compare this to in terms of how much people love playing as well as how expansive it has become. I mean you say Pokémon, everyone knows what it is. Even those who don't play it. The way people have favorite Animal Crossing villagers is similar to how people have their favorite Pokémon. Also just to add — I've been playing Yoshi's Crafted World a lot this year too and I've realize all of these games are positive and offer a big break from the very scary year that has been 2020.

Beresford: Very, very. Yeah. I was a late recruit to Breath of the Wild and I have played that a lot this year because you can just really explore and take your time and really relax in that game. It’s very similar to Animal Crossing. This year has really demanded that you relax to get through everything.

Drury: Absolutely. Do you feel because of that, Animal Crossing willremain popular next year? We have no idea obviously what’s going to happen with this pandemic in terms of how long we’ll have to remain mostly at home. But do you feel it'll remain this popular?

Beresford: Yeah, I feel like it will be popular because Animal Crossing is a game that comes out with new updates every now and then and they tease those things so there is a lot to look forward to. Plus the fact that you can host your own events makes it a fresh game experience and you can really play it how you want to. There are a lot of games coming out next year but I think Animal Crossing will be one of the ones that remains popular. I know for me I’ll still be playing it.

Drury: I’ll definitely be playing this for the long haul, no matter what the situation is next year. Probably because, like these other games we’re talking about that we’ve loved so much, there is such a strong connection to it. Especially because of everything this year. So I’m sure it will still remain even in a post-pandemic setting. It will always be interesting though because that’s the memory I’m always going to connect Animal Crossing with.

Beresford: Oh yeah, 2020, the year of Animal Crossing and staying at home.

Drury: Yup. That’s the perfect description. I think if you were going to put a time capsule together for this year, you can’t do it without throwing in a Tom Nook and Isabelle.

Beresford: Yes and buying turnips on Sundays. For me, I’ll just mention quickly that I forgot to buy turnips a lot of the time on Sundays because I was sleeping from the busy week, then my wife would wake me up and she’d be like 'Hey, I remembered to buy your turnips!'

Drury: This is amazing. But hey that’s your routine. You do your laundry, you gotta run some errands and you’ve got to make sure you get your turnips.

Beresford: Yes it became a thing to do.

Drury: This game has encapsulated this year so well, truly. I'll be playing it a lot over my Christmas break and the time that I have off this year over the holidays.

Beresford: Definitely.

Drury: We’ll have to visit each other’s islands for the holidays!

Beresford: Yes we will. Lemon Drop is open anytime.

Drury: So is Isla Kiara.