The latest installment of Nintendo’s sim franchise, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, launched mid-March 2020, and it quickly transformed from an unassuming island-escape sim to a venue in which players constructed the COVID-19 pandemic as a cultural trauma and wrestled with its temporal effects. Drawing on the trauma-informed analytical frameworks developed by Maria Cizmic and Judith Herman, this article contends that Animal Crossing’s easy-listening soundtrack provides an aesthetic rhetoric through which players perform the pandemic’s traumatic effects. The repetitive soundtrack offers a psychological space for players to grieve while also enacting a sense of temporal regularity. Looped background music creates a Muzak-like affective environment that contributes to workplace nostalgia as players complete menial tasks. Further, music-centric events in the game’s local-level narrative dictate the speed at which the game is played, embodying the fragmentary temporal experience often attributed to the effects of trauma. Such a perspective traces the ways in which trauma theory has the potential to inform audience reception to video game music.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to force the world to stay at home, millions of casual video gamers, like me, boarded flights to their own private islands, courtesy of Tom Nook, an entrepreneurial tanuki. The latest installment of Nintendo’s simulation franchise, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, launched mid-March 2020, and it quickly transformed from an unassuming island-escape game to a venue in which players constructed the pandemic as a cultural trauma and wrestled with its temporal effects. Most recent scholarship about Animal Crossing focuses on its capitalist subtexts, but little has been written about its unexpected cultural significance during the pandemic, and even less has been said about its soundtrack.1 As Aubrey Anable notes, “Video games might be key emotional and cultural touchstones,” and nowhere is this truer than the infinitely expanding archipelago of Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ islands during the pandemic shaping the ways of being in the world under new technosocial conditions.2
In this article, I argue that players perform the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic upending their everyday lives through their embodied interactions with the game’s soundtrack and its sonic enactments of temporality. Drawing on the trauma-informed analytical frameworks developed by Maria Cizmic and Judith Herman, I contend that Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ easy-listening soundtrack provides an aesthetic rhetoric through which quarantined players perform the pandemic’s traumatic effects.3 The repetitive soundtrack offers a psychological space for players to grieve the loss of their everyday ways of life while also enacting a sense of temporal regularity. Looped background music creates a Muzak-like affective environment that contributes to workplace nostalgia as players complete menial tasks. Further, music-centric events in the game’s local-level narrative dictate the speed at which the game is played, embodying the fragmentary temporal experience often attributed to the effects of trauma.
Late at night on March 19, 2020, I was sprawled on the floor of my makeshift home office, scrolling through my phone and impulsively looking at the latest COVID numbers rather than attempting to finish any of my final papers. I took a deep breath and switched to Instagram, where I was instantly met by dozens of friends posting stories of tiny, cartoon versions of themselves sitting by campfires with the captions, “finally!” and “it’s here!” I had planned on getting ready for bed, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to be far from looming deadlines and exponentially soaring case numbers, to hop aboard a Dodo Airlines flight (without a mask!) and be anywhere but inside an immunocompromised, overworked body enduring a long Chicago winter in what had just been declared a global pandemic. I turned on my Switch, and as soon as the software finished downloading, I was soaring off to Nataland, the (virtual) deserted island of my dreams (see Figure 1).
Animal Crossing thrives in the space between reality and reverie. Conceptually, the game’s virtual reality–inspired plotline is relatively straightforward: players, also referred to as villagers, spend their time picking fruit, mining for iron, redecorating their homes, paying off mortgages, turning a profit in Sow Jones’s stalk market (not a typo, it is based on turnips), catching fish and bugs then donating them to the island museum, and cultivating the perfect anthropomorphic community (please, please let Goldie the golden retriever be the visiting villager at the campsite!). The gameworld corresponds to real time, and as the island’s resident services assistant, the player enjoys days upon weeks of relaxing, mindless busywork. Perhaps the most unreal part of the game is not its talking animal neighbors but its lack of conflict.4 Nothing truly bad ever happens on the island, beyond accidentally buying a fake piece of art from the bargain-hunting fox Crazy Redd or getting stung by wasps while shaking trees. In the safe haven of this not-quite-virtual world, we are free to explore our islands at our own pace, choosing when to develop the island and when to simply exist.5
The latest installment to the beloved Animal Crossing franchise was eagerly anticipated across the globe, and it quickly became one of Nintendo’s highest grossing games in company history.6 Officially released on March 20, 2020, New Horizons found itself launched into new horizons of video game sales: Nintendo reported that it sold 11.77 million units by March 31, and after six weeks on the market, it sold a total of 13.41 million units.7 By the end of 2020, it sold over 31.18 million units worldwide, landing just behind Mario Kart 8 Deluxe as the Switch’s highest selling game.8 Merchandise of the perennially cute NPCs has continuously sold out within minutes.9
This instant success has been widely attributed to a combination of nostalgia and the game’s conveniently timed release during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.10 Nintendo Switch consoles became as scarce as toilet paper and were out of stock at many large retailers for weeks, if not months, at a time. NBC cultural critic Ani Bundel wrote in an op-ed that “[New Horizons] is the coronavirus distraction we needed at a time of widespread social distancing and stay-at-home orders.”11 Meanwhile, critic Imad Khan of the New York Times claimed that “with the world in the grip of a pandemic, the wildly popular game is a conveniently timed piece of whimsy, particularly for millennials,” which draws attention to the curious player demographics that finds that most New Horizons players are older than what might be expected.12 Animal Crossing series head Hisashi Nogami noted that most players are in their twenties and thirties, and the gender divide is pretty evenly split, as shown in Figure 2. I, for one, had not played an Animal Crossing game since the Nintendo DS version, Wild World, was all the rage in my fifth grade classroom. Regardless, its adorable escapism lingered with me for years, and I gladly dropped $300 on a new gaming console upon hearing of the new release, which was coincidentally exactly one week before the University of Chicago announced that it would transition to remote learning for the Spring 2020 quarter.13
The allure of virtual reality games inevitably took on heightened social functions as lockdowns shattered in vivo interconnectivity. As William Cheng reminds us, “(Virtual reality’s) perceived autonomy frees us in turn, allowing us to relinquish control and to revel in unruly objects of animated spectacle…What role-playing affords is not the facile transcendence of corporeal existence, but rather effortful renegotiations of this existence’s material contingencies and experiential boundaries.”14 Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ success is not quite about trying to escape from reality, but rather to propagate a sense of normalcy through nostalgic fantasy.15 By foregrounding the quotidian, Animal Crossing’s version of virtual reality sidesteps what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman call the “immersive fallacy,” wherein players lose themselves within the game and ultimately cause the game’s frame to disappear.16 The game is not so much of an island escape as an island getaway, selectively incorporating elements of the real world that matter most in unprecedented times.
The game relishes in its liminality between the social and the isolated, the real and the virtual, the together and the apart. With a Nintendo Switch Online membership, players access semblances of connectedness through calls on the NookPhone or letters to other players and visits to a friend’s island, only insofar as to create a social environment that is not wholly peripheral to the real world but supplemental to it.17 The version of normalcy-infused virtual reality afforded by New Horizons offers a social prosthesis, similar to the ways in which Ken Hillis describes video game avatars as a “bodily appendage-cum-psychic extension and therefore as an actual (if not material) part of the person.”18 Cheng expands Hillis’s observation, claiming that “insofar as prostheses play correctional roles, they simultaneously normalize bodies—(re)making them whole and wholly human—while pointing up the contrivances of human normalcy.”19 If social interactions are a fundamental part of being human, then virtual realities simulating interconnectedness provide an opportunity for bodies enduring COVID-induced isolation (and its accompanying anxieties) to heal. Video games, as Patrick Jagoda describes, have the potential to alter the conditions of the historical present.20 Perhaps, then, we might alter Susan Sontag’s description of illness wherein everyone “holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of sick” and add a third domain: in the kingdom of Animal Crossing.21
A Sound Investment
In New Horizons gameplay, if an animal villager is sick, their shivers, sneezes, and lethargic steps have their own fuzzy sonic palette. The player may choose to gift them a bag of medicine, which, upon consuming, causes the animal villager to spin in a circle alongside an E major run. Their sound effects return to normal. If New Horizons were like a bag of price-gouged medicine we bought from Nintendo, our recovery spin would sound like the game’s soundtrack. Music in New Horizons is a perfect antidote to the chaos consuming the real world, sonically soothing the body in shock from news of a novel virus. Sociologist Neil Smelser claims that people turn to affect as a way to interpret the meaning of a cultural trauma, and Kazumi Totaka’s endless web of easy-listening tunes provides a stream of lullabies for a restless reality.22
Totaka’s trademark palette of bossa-inflected guitars, bongos, funky synths, and the occasional horn lick gently weave together to form a sonic safety blanket.23 Loops that are between a minute or two in length, instruments with bell-like amplitudes that fade effortlessly into the distance, and punctuations of atmospheric sounds prevent listener fatigue and provide an affective environment conducive to hours upon hours of ambiguously productive play.24 To paraphrase James Buhler and Nicholas Reyland, the soundtrack is typical of postclassical cinematic soundtracks in that it relies on condensed, brief lyrical material, less concerned with forging a character’s identity than with emphasizing affective gestures.25 Melodies are secondary to timbre, texture, and rhythm. Elisabeth LeGuin has described the calmness inculcated in easy-listening music as “bland as oatmeal,” and while I certainly to do not share in her use of this descriptor, I believe that New Horizons builds upon her claims regarding timbre, looping, and nondisruptive (read: not soliciting active listening practices) features that establish “a safe ‘place’ to be; a ‘place’ where one is pleasantly relieved of the necessity of having to focus, make connections, and interact—a place free of demands.”26 Such digital monotony in Totaka’s score seems to call forth the 1980s Japanese minimalist tradition kankyō ongaku, creating musical decor for the likes of Muji stores and other emergent industrial environments during the period of economic boom.27 Composer Satoshi Ashikawa describes this subgenre as “an object or sound scenery to be listened to casually. Not being music which excites or leads the listener into another world, it should drift like smoke and become part of the environment surrounding the listener’s activity.”28 In its gentleness, Totaka’s soundtrack is an unintrusive, regulatory balm of not-so-intense intensities.
As Anable argues, video games provide “an interface for grasping a contemporary structure of feeling,” and the ubiquity of the video game soundtrack during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic makes it the optimal sonic interface for processing pain. Although the team behind New Horizons in no way could have anticipated how their product would go on to provide an essential cognitive respite to a world receding into their homes, I believe that the game’s soundtrack was always already imbued with characteristics that would allow it to effectively bear witness to the trauma of COVID-19 for millions of gamers. Totaka foregrounds mood- and time-regulating features that had the potentiality to be reinterpreted as sonic analogues to the psychological and emotional responses to trauma. Allan Young describes trauma as a “disease of time”; it interrupts continuous memory formation and alters time sense.29 The cyclical soundtrack creates a safe affective environment in which the (virtual) body reestablishes a sense of safety and allows time to start moving again.
New Horizons, then, inadvertently provides a therapeutic gaming experience by emphasizing the very musical elements that promote an affectively healing environment, restoring a constructive relationship with time marked by purposeful action and initiative. By intentionally encouraging disengaged listening, the soundtrack allows the player to, as LeGuin describes, “exercise the option of encountering the musical work in a place of putative, experimental, fictional unity, one which nether denies the damaged I nor accepts it as a condition.”30 Totaka has mentioned that the soundtrack intentionally emphasizes liminality and memory, which in turn allows its music to create a safe space in which users feel free to recover from their pandemic-induced trauma. He reflects, “We didn’t want to tell the whole story with music…Rather, we put the highest importance on composing music that shaped the space between the sounds.”31 Totaka’s soundtrack facilitates a reparative gaming experience by foregrounding the listener in its sonic narrative-building process and highlighting repetition and predictability.
Although I will not spend too much time describing the traumatic effects of COVID-19 in this article since it is still a bit too close to home at the time its writing, I would like to elaborate on a few foundational aspects of trauma theory that explain why New Horizons’ soundtrack became the sonic salve we did not know we needed. But first, I need to underscore that the experiences detailed in this article are exceptionally privileged: I speak to the middle-class position of relatively easy-to-follow work-from-home orders and the ability to take precautionary steps to avoid serious illness, hospitalization, and death. To be abundantly clear, I do not speak to the trauma related to severe infections and medical care, nor music’s role in these clinical settings.32 The psychological distress endured while staying at home and playing a video game addresses a specific subset of traumatic effects: feelings of captivity, dissociation amidst uncertain safety conditions, unexpected loss, and isolation resonate throughout the pandemic experience, especially in the early quarantine days. COVID-19 is the ultimate perpetrator, leaving us all in prolonged contact with unpredictable outbursts and outbreaks, never knowing when restrictions will heighten or ease or what new variant might push hospitals over capacity.
Judith Herman describes in Trauma and Recovery that “under conditions of prolonged isolation, prisoners need ‘transitional objects’ to preserve their sense of connection to others. They understand that to lose these symbols of attachment is to lose themselves.”33 Children experiencing domestic abuse may carry a stuffed animal or another comfort toy into adulthood. Torture victims may cling to a physical remnant of their past, like a scrap of cloth or a piece of jewelry, or even a song. For those fortunate enough to have access to Animal Crossing at the start of the pandemic—those with the disposable income to spend up to $300 on a video game and $20 annually for a Nintendo Switch Online membership—the game became what Herman describes as “a ‘transitional object’…enhancing the sense of secure attachment through the use of evocative memory…fortify[ing] their sense of connection to the people they love.”34 Little did anyone know that Animal Crossing—a cutesy simulation game that took playgrounds by storm fifteen years earlier—was just the transitional object that millennial and Gen Z gamers sent home from work and school needed.
Foremost, the familiarity of Animal Crossing’s musical identity to its largely millennial fan base enables the traumatized player to engage in reparative work while still isolated in their home. As Herman argues, “The fundamental stages of recovery are establishing safety, reconstructing the trauma story, and restoring the connection between survivors and their community.”35 Many players wistfully recall their pre-pandemic childhoods playing Animal Crossing: Wild World (2005) or Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2012) on their Nintendo DSes, relishing in its optionally teleological narrative, its simulations of social interaction, and, of course, its soothing sonic signifiers. Totaka writes that “Animal Crossing is meant to be ordinary…It presents a mostly regular, everyday world…[and calls to mind] the more inconsequential thoughts and feelings that come up in ordinary, nondramatic daily life.”36 The repetitive soundtrack offers a psychological safe space for players to grieve for their lost ways of life while also enacting a sense of temporal regularity through its changes based on the real-world passage of time. Gently, Totaka lulls players into an alternate mode of being in a panicked world, connecting them to a past “before COVID” that the listener has yet to process as being the past.
Totaka has been the franchise’s sound director since its beginning, and many of the tracks in New Horizons closely resemble or, in the case of most of K. K. Slider’s (the in-game celebrity musician modeled after Totaka) repertoire, are direct copies of earlier iterations. Nostalgia seems to be carved into the aesthetic fingerprint of Totaka’s score. If it sounds safe and familiar, that’s because it is, for veteran players.37 The score for the first game in the Animal Crossing series (Dōbutsu no Mori (2001), translated as Animal Forest in English) was restricted by the Nintendo 64’s cartridge limitations and 16-bit audio technology. By necessity, textures were relatively thin, sound quality was heavily compressed, and musical tracks were often shorter than in more recent video games.38 These technological constraints provided the foundation for the Animal Crossing series’s sonic aesthetic, and it has not evolved much despite spanning five consoles over twenty years. Even in later installments of the franchise, there are rarely more than five or six distinct voices sounding at a time—including diegetic sound effects—dynamics are nearly nonexistent, and dissonance is used extremely sparingly. Timbre is the main expressive mode, and even that has changed little from the game’s inception. The sounds afforded to the Switch mark a drastic departure from previous Animal Crossing compositions operating according to technological restraints, but New Horizons’ core compositional palette remains recognizably similar to earlier installments.
As Cheng remarks, “The tedious recycling of music from the past stems, players might imagine, from the unwillingness or inability of traumatized survivors to create new tunes following global atrocity.”39 Similarly, Bessel van der Kolk claims that “trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.”40 Millions of players at a time sit together, much, much more than six feet apart, and float in an affect-driven, shared past. Ordinary sensory experiences become exceptional to the bodies that have become chronically unsafe. Subtly, it’s an ever-present reminder of the present; the game progresses in real time, and each hour corresponds with a different musical track telling us exactly what hour of the day we’re drudging through. The tracks elide gently into one another, easing the pain of knowing we’ve spent yet another hour in COVID-captivity.
As such, many features of the New Horizons soundtrack create a similar affective register to the one described by Cizmic in Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony. In Performing Pain, Cizmic notes that “a reparative process begins by working toward a sense of safety within one’s own body and then extending a sense of reliability out to the environment. [Górecki] musically creates a sense of safety through the predictable use of repetition and incremental change.”41 She goes on to emphasize the significance of sonic safe spaces, arguing that through musical analogues to the traumatic experience “a listener can comfortably allow for a wandering mind, always returning to familiar and stable musical material. Such slow, deliberate repetition analogously performs an ameliorative response to trauma and loss, creating a musical space of safety a listener may find stabilizing after a painful event.”42 Totaka’s music provides a soundtrack for millions of gamers to safely explore an embodied performance of their recovery from the trauma of a life locked inside by COVID-19.
Work Hard, Play Hard, Zone Out Hard
The first few weeks of the pandemic felt like one continuous, static blur to me. I missed my colleagues, and a sense of loneliness and isolation crept in. I booted up New Horizons regularly when I should have been catching the bus to the Regenstein Library, taking a lunch break by the food trucks, or trekking home from campus before dinner. I did not get nearly enough schoolwork done, but at least I was doing something (or so I kept telling myself).
The Washington Post’s classical music critic Michael Andor Brodeur commented, “[New Horizons’] endless to-do list of tiny tasks can offer solace for a workforce caught in indefinite limbo, and its expansive cast of relatable critters (or ersatz co-workers) can feel something like a social life.”43 Repetitive, looped background music cultivates a neo-Muzak affective environment on the island that contributes to a sense of workplace nostalgia in traumatized players. I am reminded here of what Ronald Radano has suggested: “by transposing a sonic image of a familiar domestic world into the public space, [Muzak] helps to temper the modern condition of dislocation and dissonance at the same time it metaphorically expresses that condition.”44 Pandemic-afflicted villagers recreate a sense of neoliberal normalcy on their islands as they complete menial in-game tasks, easy-listening work songs and all. In the New Horizons soundtrack, sound becomes something that players, desperate to dissociate from the disease and depression around them, are lulled into working for. Jagoda questions the ludic neoliberalism cultivated through Animal Crossing’s robust social components: “Are the soothing qualities of this ambient game—its repetitive gameplay, nostalgic pleasures, and self-care opportunities—more than networked opiates or features of neoliberalism?”45 Animal Crossing occupies a privileged position amongst video games in that it both challenges and succumbs to teleology, or as Jagoda describes, it is both poison and cure, according to the individual player’s objective. Music-based objectives, then, are endowed with the potential to instill a productivity-based way of organizing time for the distressed mind.
New Horizons’ sonic experience can be generally divided into three categories: the prologue soundtrack, the hourly soundtrack, and in-game diegetic music, such as the tunes played on characters’ in-home stereos, music played inside the shops, or chiming bells from the clock tower. During the first week’s worth of gameplay, variations on the same theme music, progressing in complexity as the island develops, plays at all times in the background. My days blended together seamlessly as I moved from couch to bed to floor to kitchen table and back to the couch again, placated by the syncopations of Totaka’s acoustic guitar riff alternating ad infinitum in the game’s prologue, which develops in seven distinct phases as the villager develops the island’s starter infrastructure. Totaka points to the timbral and harmonic coding of accessibility and the immersive potential of open spaces, such as rests and long, strummed rhythmic values on open strings, within the pared-down prologue theme:
Anyone can pick up an acoustic guitar—it has a low barrier to entry, in that anyone can play music as long as they know a few chords. That is also why the guitar is so familiar to everyone. We thought that this familiarity might help players feel relaxed and comfortable. Also, the way a strummed chord reverberates conjures up images of a wide-open space with the horizon off in the distance and a pleasant breeze blowing, making the listener feel like they've been set free.46
Each of the phases is in A major with the same basic underlying rhythmic pattern: all but Phase 4 are swung. As shown in Figure 3, harmonies get increasingly complex, loops contain more eight-measure phrases, and the instrumentation becomes slightly denser as the villager makes their way through the prologue. Up until Phase 5, the majority of chords could be played in first position with mostly open strings. Meanwhile, the villager runs around the island, gathering twigs, hitting rocks, and donating insects, all without any explicit instructions from the game. When undisclosed quotas are met, the island infrastructure slowly expands and the music becomes increasingly more harmonically intricate. The barrier to entry is low, and it sonically welcomes players into a pseudo-social environment in which their work and the pressure to be productive sound as though they might be decoupled (yet aren’t, completely).
Once the player has done a handful of tasks, such as paying off their initial moving fees and opening the island shop (adorably named Nook’s Cranny), a yellow shih tzu administrative assistant named Isabelle arrives. She brings along access to Totaka’s full, hourly soundtrack. The soundtrack wholeheartedly embraces a tonal idiom—teleological in the smallest essence, productive at the micro level. Each track, however, ends on a half cadence, building in a sense of unendingness. Just like in the healing process, work is never truly “done.” Unlike other casual games, such as Diner Dash or Farmville, the game’s pace never changes, and its score’s tempi never exceed 112 bpm (with the exception of the “Chased by Wasps” track, which is a heart-thumping 190 bpm). Its temporal consistency feels as though it resists Taylorization and the urge to produce more, faster, as time goes on.47 Rather, these hourly tracks establish what Cizmic describes as “gradual and predictable change; the musical stasis of each provides a stable sonic world from within which one can reflect upon life events that fundamentally challenge a sense of safety.”48 The affective labor produced by the New Horizons soundtrack arises from the pandemic’s traumatic intensities that disrupt the process of subjective linear narrativity. To riff on Brian Massumi, spending hours upon hours playing New Horizons fills in
a temporal sink, a hole in time, as we conceive of it and narrativize [the pandemic]. It is not exactly passivity, because it is filled with motion, vibratory motion, resonation. And it is not yet activity, because the motion is not the kind that can be directed (if only symbolically) toward practical ends in a world of constituted objects and aims (if only on screen).49
As much as the game positions itself as an escape from work, from the disease, from our anxieties, like many other casual games, its existence is contingent on a frustrated relationship with productivity. Video game soundtracks, Linda O’Keeffe argues, provide a social construction of virtual spaces, and the hourly tracks provide an imagined community, a sonic reminder that somewhere out there, someone is listening to the same thing.50 Herman underlines that community and connectivity are imperative to the healing process: “Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.”51 Totaka’s soundtrack becomes a socially binding agent, forging sonic relationships and interconnectedness amidst a state of captivity. We feel safe from our COVID crises in our familiar work environments, and with organized work come structured work songs. The perpetual propulsion of never-resolved melodic lines in quirky, kitschy easy-listening timbres revel in what Ian Bogost describes as “occupational sentimentalism,” affectively appealing to our disrupted labor conditions.52 Totaka effectively creates a COVID-era Muzak, soothing our unproductive, frenzied souls with the sonic simulacrum of Life Before.
Isabelle’s hourly soundtrack is an amalgam of soothing signifiers, crafting a calming, yet productive, neo-Muzak affective environment for a fevered world wondering how to get back to work. At this point, Tom Nook has no more jobs for us, he regretfully admits, so now it is up to us to make ourselves useful developers and custodians of the island. The music reflects this sense of an endless stream of futile, goal-less productivity. All but one track is in 4/4 and is in either G, A, C, D, or E major (with the exception of the jolting, dissonance-infused 3:00 a.m. track in B major, which is inexplicable other than the game sonically shaking our shoulders and asking “why are you still playing at this hour?!”). BPMs range from 112 (for the more active morning player between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m.) and 60 (for that late morning slump at 11 a.m.).53 Diegetic sounds like distant crickets, shovels clunking against rocks, crunching leaves, and faint hisses of an ocean breeze fill in the spaces in Totaka’s sparse textures as the villager works hard to relax.54
Beyond Totaka’s hourly soundtrack, the game employs conventional signifiers of the passage of time to provide temporal regulation for the villager’s workday.55 The island tune, a sixteen-note theme in C major composed by the villager, chimes out from town hall bell tower every hour, on the hour. Each new interaction with an island resident or worker begins with their own timbral take on the tune. Further, the tracks alter slightly with changes in the weather, seasons, and holidays that correspond to those in the real world. Unpitched percussion tinkles during the winter season, and crunchy, Harmon-muted trumpet melodies rattle bare trees on Halloween. The game’s sound design is immersive on a granular level: the clacks and crunches of the villager’s footsteps alter slightly depending on whether they are wearing boots or heeled shoes, or are walking through piles of leaves, drudging through sand, or running across paved walkways.56 These sounds filled in the sonic spaces left by the sudden absence of airline jets taking off from Midway Airport a mile or so away from my apartment. As I became sonically entrained into a post-pandemic world, Animal Crossing clicked away in the background, metronomically maintaining the passage of time even as my own relationship to it was painfully altered.
K. K. Fragmentation
Although New Horizons generally revolves around optionally goal-oriented play, several music-centric events in the game’s local-level narrative initially dictate the speed at which the player unlocks new features.57 The first musical event is Isabelle’s arrival with the twenty-four-hour soundtrack, with each of the tracks being based on fragments of what I call the “‘Welcome Horizons’ theme,” shown in Example 1. The other main musical event toward which players must work is K. K. Slider’s highly anticipated first concert on the island. The famed beagle’s first “live” performance creates a sharp break in the player’s relationship to sound during gameplay in a way that provides a musical experience analogous to the process of incorporating and coping with a traumatic memory.58
We are introduced to “Welcome Horizons,” the full New Horizons theme, during the first five minutes of gameplay, wherein players watch a complimentary video presentation about deserted island life while Tom Nook’s nephews Timmy and Tommy prepare the getaway package. We view the video through our character’s eyes, as if we were watching the video on a screen in front of our airplane seats. Stock villagers demonstrate the activities that await us, giving us previews of what the island looks like at different times of day and seasons.
By the time that Isabelle arrives with the hourly soundtrack, for those of us who began playing New Horizons near the beginning of the pandemic, our situation has drastically changed from when we first heard the theme. Not only has our villager become permanently relocated to the island, unable to ever escape their island getaway, but we as players have entered into a new relationship with the game and our quarantined surroundings. Several weeks into the pandemic, we are subsumed by fear, anguish, uncertainty. It is no longer the “I’ll just stay home for two weeks then this will all be over” sensation that accompanied our first encounter with the “Welcome Horizons” theme beneath Timmy and Tommy’s video. Instead, we find ourselves haunted by fragments of the theme, unable to freely conjure up the full version. From one hour to the next, motives from the theme are disembodied, recontextualized into a digital age idée fixe. As shown in Figure 4, each hourly track builds upon motives from “Welcome Horizons,” but never the same one in a row, never reconstructing the whole theme over time. This brings the realization that we have been listening to disjunct motives from the theme for weeks now. Animal Crossing never ends, there is no distinct “before” and “after,” only an unending stream of fragments.
The second, and final, time that the full theme appears diegetically is at K. K. Slider’s first concert on the villager’s island, about three weeks into gameplay and after nearly all the game’s major features have been unlocked. The villager circles around K. K. Slider with all the other island residents as Slider croons the “Welcome Horizons” song. The credits roll on the side of the screen as cherry blossom petals and maple leaves swirl around the concertgoers (see Figure 5). Although the entire New Horizons tune plays every time the player starts up the game, strikingly, the theme only appears in gameplay in its entirety during these two moments. Both times, the controls are turned off, the screen goes momentarily black, and the player is rendered inactive, forcibly subsumed in their role as an audience member.
Two crucial distinctions separate the initial exposure to “Welcome Horizons” and Slider’s performance that suggest the potential of recovery. First, rather than being subservient to the content introduced in the flight video, the song is the primary object. Second, the flight video positions the player outside the game world, showing us the video as though we were watching through our avatar’s eyes. Our character is alone, and none of our typical in-game action buttons work (no pausing, no movement—we can only turn the console off or return to the Nintendo Switch home screen) no matter how hard we smash them with our thumbs. In the concert, we see our villager smiling, dancing alongside all their beloved neighbor NPCs. In this wholesome display of connection and reciprocity, perhaps we too might feel the sense of community and closure on display in our town plazas.
As Cheng notes, instances of diegetic singing in video games are rare, and they often “command significant attention, taking center stage and marking out a self-important space of performance.”60 The dark screen is the moment between when the house lights dim and the curtain rises. K. K. Slider’s performance quite literally disrupts all the previously established game mechanics, freezing the player in a timeless, spaceless liminality in which characters float atop a black void, listening to K. K. croon his biggest hit.
In Game Sound, Karen Collins bemoans the reliance on the “physically passive listener” modality of understanding interactions with sound in new media and, particularly, in video games. Interactivity is often fluid in video games, and she points to the unique subject position occupied by gamers that articulates an unclear divide between the player and the spectator.61 Cheng, too, marvels at the ability of video games to provide pleasure through their “joyously exaggerated sense of control, or amplification of input,” making the moments that it denies agency all the more startling.62 The pandemic has rendered us all helpless to invisible enemies, made us acutely aware of the extent to which we can protect ourselves and when we must simply accept that we have no control over our surroundings, our work schedules, our roommates’ behaviors, our bodies.
This sudden lack of agency frustrates Herman’s framework: this is not a manifestation of the flight-fight-or-freeze response or constrictive symptoms. Rather, I suggest that this sonic experience is more hopeful, hinting at the potential of recovery amidst a splintering reality. Herman extensively develops a theory of trauma and narrativization, claiming that recovery rests on the victim’s ability to verbally contextualize their fragmented memories into a cohesive whole amidst a supportive community. Agency is at the heart of Herman’s framework: “traumatic reactions occur when action is of no avail” and players once again feel helpless, unable to articulate the entirety of their experience.63
Cizmic builds upon Herman’s narrativization framework, yet she puts pressure on how the humanities’ applications of trauma theory tend to focus on linguistic expression to the point of excluding other aesthetic forms. Affect, as Cizmic suggests, might substitute for aesthetic expression of representation during the recovery process. Slider’s performances are nothing but affect in all its protolinguistic intensity. Similar to Cheng’s comments on the character Celes’s aria performance in Final Fantasy VI, Slider’s performance is “devoid of dynamic contrast, timbral inflection, intelligible text…and other audible nuances that one would expect from singing.”64 The interplay between the ensemble of musicians in the New Horizon theme’s original format is transformed into a confessional-style performance in which Slider shares the fully integrated theme with his friends. Slider’s “cover” of the theme song reframes its content within a pared-down acoustic rendition that suggests the affective domain may lay elsewhere.
Genre-coding Slider’s performance as an acoustic ballad points to the cathartic potential afforded to this style. Slider’s whistling and howling interjections, alongside the tight circle of NPCs swaying around him with their eyes closed, provide a sense of intimacy, urgency, and isolation that has been best summarized by Emily Dolan: “Indie pop highlights this idea of temporal and aesthetic disjunction by sounding wistfully outdated, thus preserving the memory of some distant and imaginary past…This aesthetic distance is not cynical but nostalgic; it is not an absence of emotion, but its intensification.”65 As many others have discussed, reduced instrumentation paradoxically enhances affect and perceptions of authenticity in indie rock and other acoustic ballad forms.66 The integration of the theme’s previously fragmented motives within a different generic context that emphasizes community functions analogously to the restorative, therapeutic processes of narrativization.
According to Herman, the integration of fragmented memories is a fundamental step in trauma recovery. Trauma disrupts linear integration of memories into narratives, and much has been written about the significance of such integration for the recovery process. Again, Cizmic’s comments on Górecki’s Third Symphony are particularly salient when she notes the significance of “the integration of musical and literary fragments into a seamless musical surface that avoids disruption. Integrating fragments into a coherent fabric provides a paradigm of a reparative response to trauma—as well as an analogy for the process of making sense out of a difficult loss.”67 Górecki’s slower, repetition-driven method is a significant departure from the post-WWII, modernist approach to trauma-inspired composition that foregrounded the jarring effects of fragmentation and disruption. More than musically mirroring the processes of inner turmoil, these same aesthetic conventions could be repurposed to form a trauma-informed compositional style that constructs sonic analogues of recovery.
Echoing Herman, van der Kolk writes that “as long as a memory is inaccessible, the mind is unable to change it. But as soon as a story starts being told, particularly if it is told repeatedly, it changes—the act of telling itself changes the tale.”68 Prior to the concert, players are unable to freely conjure up the entire “Welcome Horizons” track within the game world. Afterward, K. K. Slider gifts the player with a bootleg copy of the track to play on any in-game audio device. With repetition and integration, the “Welcome Horizons” motifs sprinkled throughout the hourly tracks become more familiar, more contextualized, more whole. Herman describes recovery as a spiral “in which earlier issues are continually revisited on a higher level of integration.”69 The song that serves as the soundtrack to our earliest pandemic memories could be a painful reminder of unprecedented times, or, perhaps, the ways in which it maneuvers throughout the game could allow it to be a sort of guide to the recovery process. As the villager gently sways back and forth, visuals signifying every season and time of day drift in the background. First cherry blossoms, then green leaves, orange leaves, snowflakes, and stars. “Welcome Horizons” was with us all along, whether we noticed it or not.
Thematic fragmentation and motivic nondevelopment structure New Horizon’s musical trauma analogue. Only at the game’s beginning and what could be seen as its end (since rolling credits are generally seen as the “end” of a game) does Totaka provide an uninterrupted development of the New Horizons theme. And even when the motives are contextualized in “Welcome Horizons,” Totaka’s music points to the cyclic, unending process of integration with half-cadences and elided phrases at crucial structural points. There is no true “ending” for Animal Crossing, just like there is no “end” to the recovery process. There are only fragments that villagers and victims must work toward reintegrating. The villager’s restoration of their agency—now freely able to listen to the theme in its entirety on their island whenever they please—makes all the difference.
Save and End
The UK National Videogame Museum debuted an exhibit in September 2021 devoted to New Horizon’s critical role during the pandemic called “The Animal Crossing Diaries.”70 Players shared their personal stories under headings such as “Keeping a Routine,” “Making Your Space,” and “Keeping in Touch.” Although at the time of writing this article, the traumatic effects of COVID-19 are far from over, Animal Crossing has already come to the fore as a formidable lens through which to view (and hear) the mid-pandemic experience. In an interview with museum curators, game co-creator Katsuya Eguchi revealed that feelings of isolation and loneliness were the impetus behind the original Animal Crossing series: “Animal Crossing features three themes: family, friendship, and community, but the reason I wanted to investigate them was a result of being so lonely when I arrived in Kyoto [in 1986].”71 For a moment when minutes turned into hours turned into weeks (did I really spend over 320 hours playing this game?!) and suddenly we’re lost in an eighteen-month-long compression of time and space, well, Animal Crossing arrived just in time.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons functions as a (virtual) public forum in which players engage with self-representation in an aesthetic environment that blends past (nostalgia) and present (trauma), in turn providing a therapeutic game experience for its players. As I continue to work on this project, I hope to explore how nostalgia for earlier iterations of Animal Crossing might fragment memory or facilitate its integration. I wonder how the popular time travel cheat might disrupt the game’s internal aesthetic conventions and how this might speak to an aesthetics of trauma. How do other games that expressly deal with traumatic themes, such as the experimental, glitch-driven Problem Attic (2013) and Dys4ia (2012)? How might trauma-informed affect theory shed light on their sonic aesthetics? As loved ones pass away in the real world, some users turn to the game as a way to keep their memory alive, playing as the deceased one’s avatar or creating shrines on their islands. I cannot help but think of how K. K. Slider’s repertoire sings a sort of requiem behind these digital altars.72 From a more sociological standpoint, empirical studies on the efficacy of video games as a psychological placating medium throughout the pandemic are just starting to emerge.73
As I write this, Animal Crossing: New Horizons version 2.0 and its paid DLC Happy Home Paradise have just been released. The update brings several new features that supplement and challenge the arguments I have laid forth in this article that I hope to return to in the future. Kapp’n serenades us with sea shanties, K. K. Slider has added twelve new songs to his repertoire, and waged work has been formally introduced to the platform as we design resort homes for NPCs. In the background, the delta, nu, and omicron COVID variants are reprising the anxious hum from a little over a year ago. But for now, it seems that we’re ready to wrap things up, and we must press “save and end” so that I can put my Switch in my backpack to play during my booster shot observation period.
Other examples of academia’s growing fascination with the Animal Crossing franchise are: J. Y. Yang, “Media Review: June 2020,” Lightspeed, June 2020, accessed September 21, 2021, http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/nonfiction/media-review-june-2020/; Lin Zhu, “The Psychology behind Video Games during COVID-19 Pandemic: A Case Study of Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” Human Behaviors and Emerging Technologies 3, no. 1 (January 2021): 157–159; Gregory Leporati, “Inside Academia’s Growing Interest in ‘Animal Crossing,’” Washington Post, July 14, 2020, accessed October 9, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/video-games/2020/07/14/inside-academias-growing-interest-animal-crossing/. Animal Crossing has become such a hot topic amongst academics that Loading…The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association dedicated an entire issue (vol. 13, no. 22, 2020) to the discussion of its themes. Another compelling consideration is Nathan Schmidt’s discussion of land ethics and communal ecology amidst ACNH’s neocapitalist structure. Nathan Schmidt, “The Land Ethic in Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” Gamers with Glasses, April 29, 2020, accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.gamerswithglasses.com/features/landethic-animalcrossing.
Aubrey Anable, Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), x, xii.
Maria Cizmic, Performing Pain: Music and Trauma in Eastern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 2015).
Allegra Frank, “Animal Crossing Is a Virtual World Where Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Hurts,” Vox, March 31, 2020, accessed October 9, 2021, https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/3/27/21194698/animal-crossing-new-horizons-review-nintendo-switch.
An especially similar game in its ecological connection between the human and nonhuman is Stardew Valley (2016). Kate Galloway, “Soundwalking and the Aurality of Stardew Valley,” in Music in the Role-Playing Game: Heroes and Harmonies, ed. William Gibbons and Steven Reale (New York: Routledge, 2020), 161.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the eighth entry to the Animal Crossing franchise and is the fifth main-series installment. For a deeper exploration of Nintendo’s success in America, see Jeff Ryan, Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America (London: Penguin Group, 2012) and Daniel Sloan, Playing to Wiin: Nintendo and the Video Game Industry’s Greatest Comeback (Hoboken: Wiley, 2011).
“Fiscal Year Ended March 2020 Financial Results Explanatory Material,” Nintendo Co., Ltd., May 7, 2020, accessed July 13, 2022, 12–13, https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2020/200507_3e.pdf.
“Top Selling Title Sales Units,” Nintendo Co., Ltd., last updated June 30, 2021, accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/finance/software/index.html; Kyle Orland, “Why Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ 31 Million Sales Are So Incredible,” Ars Technica, February 1, 2021, accessed September 28, 2021, https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2021/02/putting-31-million-animal-crossing-new-horizons-sales-in-context/.
Tom Nook and Isabelle plush toys sold out at Build-a-Bear within three hours, and Sanrio Amiibo cards, available at Target, sold out seemingly within seconds of being made available online. Rebekah Valentine, “Update: Isabelle and Tom Nook Build-a-Bears Sold Out after Hours-Long Queue,” IGN, last updated April 6, 2021, accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.ign.com/articles/isabelle-and-tom-nook-build-a-bears-are-up-for-pre-order-but-the-queue-is-a-nightmare; Patricia Hernandez, “The Internet Is Sad about Animal Crossing’s Sold-Out Sanrio Cards,” Polygon, March 26, 2021, accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.polygon.com/22352196/acnh-sanrio-hello-kitty-amiibo-cards-target-sold-out-scalpers-resell-buy-new-horizons-switch.
Leon Botstein argues that musicologists, performers, and audiences should resist fear and nostalgia as the music marketplace is reworked for a post-pandemic life, but I wonder to what extent these emotional responses might be reoriented to create a productive, trauma-informed music life. Leon Botstein, “The Future of Music in America: The Challenge of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Musical Quarterly 102, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 351–360.
Ani Bundel, “‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ Is the Coronavirus Distraction We Needed,” NBC News, March 29, 2020, accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/animal-crossing-new-horizons-coronavirus-distraction-we-needed-ncna1170521.
Imad Khan, “Why Animal Crossing Is the Game for the Coronavirus Moment,” New York Times, April 7, 2020, accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/arts/animal-crossing-covid-coronavirus-popularity-millennials.html. Popular media has raved about the timeliness of the game, as shown in: Keza MacDonald, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons Is the Escape We All Need Right Now,” Guardian, March 16, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/games/2020/mar/16/animal-crossing-new-horizons-review-nintendo-switch; Cecilia d’Anastasio, “I Am Not at All Relaxed by Animal Crossing,” Wired, April 9, 2020, accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.wired.com/story/animal-crossing-i-am-not-relaxed/; Louryn Strampe, “‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ Is the Game We All Need Right Now,” Wired, March 28, 2020, accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.wired.com/story/rave-animal-crossing-new-horizons/.
Andy Robinson, “Animal Crossing’s Developers Say the Series ‘Must Continue to Evolve,’” Video Games Chronicle, September 6, 2020, accessed September 29, 2021, https://www.videogameschronicle.com/news/animal-crossings-developers-say-the-series-must-continue-to-evolve/.
William Cheng, Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 9.
For a more personal musing on the recreation of normalcy in Animal Crossing, see Amal El-Mohtar, “A Year of Falling Stars, Evening Swims and Friendship: Animal Crossing Turns One,” NPR, March 27, 2021, accessed September 29, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/03/27/981630137/a-year-of-falling-stars-evening-swims-and-friendship-animal-crossing-turns-one.
Kate Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 451.
Cheng both exalts and cautions against lively social settings in video games, and I ask: During the COVID-19 pandemic and its heightened effects of trauma, is finding social fulfillment through virtual reality games necessarily a bad thing? Cheng, Sound Play, 11. Further, Richard Bartle claims that once reality is introduced to a virtual world, it can no longer be considered virtual: “Adding reality to a virtual world robs it of what makes it compelling.” Again, I respectfully disagree for the same reasons. Richard Bartle, “Not Yet, You Fools!,” Game Girl Advance, July 28, 2003, accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.gamegirladvance.com/2003/07/not-yet-you-fools.html.
Ken Hillis, Online a Lot of the Time: Ritual, Fetish, Sign (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 132.
Cheng, Sound Play, 141.
Patrick Jagoda, Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), xi.
Susan Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor,” New York Review of Books 24, no. 21–22 (January 1978).
Neil Smelser, “Psychological Trauma and Cultural Trauma,” in Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernhard Giesen, Neil Smelser, and Piotr Sztompka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 40.
The musicians credited on the recording are: Eric Miyashiro (flugelhorn), Takahashi Ebinuma (upright bass), MATARO (percussion), Saburo Tanooka (accordion), and Tetsuro Toyama (acoustic guitar/ukulele), mixed by Nobuyuki Aoyagi.
Axel Berndt, “Adaptive Game Scoring with Ambient Music,” in Music Beyond Airports: Appraising Ambient Music, ed. Monty Adkins and Simon Cummings (Huddersfield: University of Huddersfield Press, 2019), 202–3.
James Buhler, Theories of the Soundtrack (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 281; Nicholas Reyland, “Corporate Classicism and the Metaphysical Style: Affects, Effects, and Contexts of Two Recent Trends of Film Scoring,” Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 9, no. 2 (2015): 123.
Elisabeth LeGuin, “Uneasy Listening,” repercussions 3, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 6.
Günseli Yalcinkaya, “Going Deep on the Blissful Brilliance of Animal Crossing’s Soundtrack,” Dazed Digital, April 24, 2020, accessed October 9, 2021, https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/48988/1/going-deep-on-the-blissful-brilliance-animal-crossings-soundtrack-new-horizons.
Satoshi Ashikawa, quoted in Midori Takada, Satoshi Ashikawa, and Gareth Quinn Redmond, liner notes for Still Way (Wave Notation 2), Satoshi Ashikawa, We Release Whatever the Fuck We Want Records, WRWTFWW030, 1982, rereleased in 2019, vinyl.
Notably, Young critiques the understanding of trauma through fragments and lacunae. Musical manifestations of trauma, however, have a developed aesthetic that draws heavily upon motivic fragmentation. Allan Young, The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 7. Cizmic, Performing Pain, 148.
LeGuin, “Uneasy Listening,” 8–9.
Totaka, quoted in Michael Andor Brodeur, “The Animal Crossing Soundtrack Is an Unlikely Lullaby for a Nervous World,” Washington Post, April 21, 2020, accessed October 9, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/video-games/2020/04/21/animal-crossing-soundtrack-is-an-unlikely-lullaby-nervous-world/.
For an exceptional analysis of trauma in medical settings, see Ailsa Lipscombe, “Precarious Bodies: Viral Listening to Sound, Silence, and Trauma,” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2022.
Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 81.
Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 150.
Totaka, quoted in Brodeur, “Animal Crossing Soundtrack.”
For a further investigation on the ways in which nostalgia functions in the Nintendo-verse, see Sarah Pozderac-Chenevey, “A Direct Link to the Past: Nostalgia and Semiotics in Video Game Music,” Divergence Press, June 2, 2014, accessed September 28, 2021, http://divergencepress.net/2014/06/02/2016-11-3-a-direct-link-to-the-past-nostalgia-and-semiotics-in-video-game-music/.
Karen Collins, “In the Loop: Creativity and Constraint in 8-bit Video Game Audio,” Twentieth-Century Music 4, no. 2 (2008): 209–227.
Cheng, Sound Play, 23. In New Horizons, the jolt of music from previous games might function similarly to a flashback, such as when the abrasive Resetti tune sounded when I requested emergency relocation help during the May Day maze event. Instantly, I was transported back to the days of being verbally accosted by a mole with anger management issues whenever I accidentally forgot to save my Wild World game file before turning my DS off.
Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 43.
Cizmic, Performing Pain, 148. As Claire King points out, however, musical repetition and looping have been used on horror films (and, Cheng argues, in horror video games) to exact a sense of paralysis wrought by a traumatic memory. Claire Sisco King, “Ramblin’ Men and Piano Men: Crises of Music and Masculinity in The Exorcist,” in Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear, ed. by Neil Lerner (New York: Routledge, 2010), 114–132; Cheng, Sound Play, 104.
Cizmic, Performing Pain, 148.
Brodeur, “Animal Crossing Soundtrack.”
Ronald M. Radano, “Interpreting Muzak: Speculations on Musical Experience in Everyday Life,” American Music 7, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 453.
Jagoda, “Playing through a Serious Crisis: On the Neoliberal Art of Video Games,” Post 45, August 30, 2020, accessed October 9, 2021, https://post45.org/2020/08/playing-through-a-serious-crisis-on-the-neoliberal-art-of-video-games/.
Totaka, quoted in Gab Ginsberg, “Inside ‘Animal Crossing’ Composer Kazumi Totaka's Meticulous Process,” Billboard, May 27, 2020, accessed October 9, 2021, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/gaming/9390953/animal-crossing-composer-new-horizons-music-interview/; Patrick Jagoda also speaks to issues of accessibility and game difficulty. Jagoda, “On Difficulty in Video Games: Mechanics, Interpretation, Affect,” Critical Inquiry 45, no. 1 (Autumn 2018): 199–233.
Taylorization is the Fordist, turn-of-the-century management system developed to increase efficiency by breaking down the manufacturing process into smaller, specialized, repetitive tasks. Anable, Playing with Feelings, 90; Jonathan Levy, Ages of American Capitalism: A History of the United States (New York: Random House, 2021), 327.
Cizmic, Performing Pain, 154.
Brian Massumi, Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 26.
Linda O’Keeffe, “Sound Is Not a Simulation,” in Game Sound Technology and Player Interaction: Concepts and Developments, ed. Mark Grimshaw (Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2011), 45; Paul Allen Anderson, “Neo Muzak and the Business of Mood,” Critical Inquiry 41, no. 4 (Summer 2015): 811–840; Cheng, Sound Play, 22.
Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 133.
Ian Bogost, How to Do Things With Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 86; Elise Taylor, “What If Work Was More Like Animal Crossing?,” Vogue, June 18, 2020, accessed October 9, 2021, https://www.vogue.com/article/what-if-work-was-more-like-animal-crossing.
New Horizons follows an SPC curve tracing the natural flow of a workday, elaborated upon in Anderson, “Neo-Muzak,” 822; see also Duncan Williams, “Affectively Driven Algorithmic Composition AAC,” in Emotion in Video Game Soundtracking, ed. Duncan Williams and Newton Lee (Hoboken: Springer, 2018), 27–38.
The ways in which ambient sounds seamlessly integrate into Totaka’s soundtrack blur the distinction between nondiegetic and diegetic sounds in New Horizons. This hazy line between what the player hears and what their avatar hears raises questions about which musical features warrant metaphorization in virtual reality games. Berndt, “Musical Nonlinearity in Interactive Narrative Environments,” in Proceedings of the 2009 International Computer Music Conference, ICMC 2009, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, August 16–21, 2009, https://researchr.org/publication/icmc-2009; El-Mohtar, “Year of Falling Stars.” In an early interview, Totaka details the struggle to create a music that matches the game’s visually relaxed atmosphere without making it “too relaxed,” by using synthesizers to mimic acoustic sounding instruments. Totaka, quoted in “Animal Crossing—Developer Interviews,” Shmuplations, accessed September 28, 2021, http://shmuplations.com/animalcrossing/; Dana Plank, “Audio and the Experience of Gaming: A Cognitive-Emotional Approach to Video Game Sound,” in The Cambridge Companion to Video Game Music, ed. Melanie Fritsch and Tim Summers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 285.
Players can also collect different musical pieces and play them in their homes (or wherever they place a music-playing machine), which Rose Bridges likens to musical interior decorating. Rose Bridges, “Animal Crossing Music: An Introduction,” Music Transcription and Video Game Fandom: A Reception Study, last updated December 10, 2016, accessed September 28, 2021, https://scalar.usc.edu/works/video-game-music-transcription/animal-crossing-music-an-introduction.
Sound effects director Taro Bando has commented that he collected over 100 different types of footstep sounds for the first Animal Crossing installment. Taro Bando and Kazumi Totaka, “Animal Crossing—Sound and Music 2001 Interview,” accessed September 28, 2021, http://shmuplations.com/animalcrossing/; Anable comes to a similar conclusion with the affective experience of touch made audible and the game Sword & Sworcery. Anable, Playing with Feelings, 63–64.
Michiel Kamp argues that musical experiences in video games are rule bound and goal oriented, but I believe that the cyclical nature of Animal Crossing’s soundtrack frustrates Kamp’s model. Kamp, “Musical Ecologies in Video Games,” Philosophy and Technology 27, no. 2 (2014): 235–249.
For K. K. Slider to appear, the player must create a three-star island, which involves: unlocking island evaluations by paying off the island getaway package debt and opening Nook’s Cranny, inviting seven or more villagers to live on the island, removing all weeds, building fences, planting and tending flowers, connecting all parts of the island with bridges and inclines, and building and placing twenty-five pieces of exterior furniture and DIY items. Felicia Miranda, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons Three Star Island Guide—How to Raise Your Rating,” IGN, last updated April 21, 2020, accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.ign.com/articles/animal-crossing-new-horizons-three-star-rating. Duncan Williams provides a compelling consideration of how vocal processing manipulates a character’s affective potential, and I believe the heavily compressed processing of voice actor Shun Oguri’s singing is what makes K. K. Slider so mood-regulatory. Anecdotally, one time I selected that I was feeling down when K. K. Slider prompted me for my mood, so he performed the invigorating “K. K. Adventure” track in all its tempo-modulating glory to boost my spirits. Duncan Williams, “Emotion in Speech, Singing, and Sound Effects,” in Emotion in Video Game Soundtracking, ed. Duncan Williams and Newton Lee (New York: Springer, 2018), 17–26.
Special thanks to Graham Ellinghausen with his assistance on these figures.
Cheng, Sound Play, 62.
Karen Collins, Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 3, 169.
Cheng, Sound Play, 45.
Emily I. Dolan, “‘…This Little Ukulele Tells the Truth’: Indie Pop and Kitsch Authenticity,” Popular Music 29, no. 3 (October 2010): 464; Metzer makes a similar observation about the authenticity of the “unplugged” sound. David Metzer, The Ballad in American Popular Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 193.
Metzer, Ballad, 192; Ian Biddle, “‘The Singsong of Undead Labor’: Gender Nostalgia and the Vocal Fantasy of Intimacy in the ‘New’ Male Singer/ Songwriter,” in Oh Boy!: Masculinities and Popular Music, ed. Freya Jarman-Ivens (New York: Routledge, 2007), 129, 131.
Cizmic, Performing Pain, 148.
van der Kolk, Body Keeps the Score, 193.
Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 156.
Jay Castello, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons Museum Exhibit Finds the Personal Amid the Pandemic,” The Verge, September 10, 2021, accessed September 29, 2021, https://www.theverge.com/2021/9/10/22664681/animal-crossing-new-horizons-national-videogame-museum-exhibit; Florence Smith Nicholls, “How the Animal Crossing Diaries Are Chronicling the Pandemic,” Eurogamer, October 3, 2020, accessed October 15, 2021, https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2020-09-18-how-the-animal-crossing-diaries-are-chronicling-the-pandemic.
Katsuya Eguchi, quoted in “Context & History,” Animal Crossing Diaries, accessed September 29, 2021, https://animalcrossingdiaries.thenvm.org/context-history/.
Aron Garst, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons Players Are Remembering Loved Ones In-Game,” GameSpot, October 5, 2020, accessed October 9, 2021, https://www.gamespot.com/articles/animal-crossing-new-horizons-players-are-remembering-loved-ones-in-game/1100-6482592/; Jordan Erica Webber, “Playing with the Dead,” Art of Now Podcast, BBC, October 27, 2020, accessed October 9, 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000nv36.
Niklas Johannes, Matti Vuorre, and Andrew K. Przybylski, “Video Game Play Is Positively Correlated with Well-Being,” Royal Society Open Science 8, no. 2 (February 2021), accessed July 16, 2022, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.202049.