Janet Murray is a pioneer in the world of interactive narrative. Her book Hamlet on the Holodeck was originally released in 1997, and made many predictions about where interactive technology would be in the future; many of those predictions have come true 20+ years later. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, we can see how people are turning to video games (one of the largest modern examples of interactive narratives) to find a sense of normality.
So what is interactive narrative in the era of COVID-19? Is it the thing that brings us together? Is it the thing that distracts us from the current pandemic we face? Is it the thing that informs us? Daily, people are looking for an escape and a way to connect with each other while dealing with the crisis at hand.
For a game that released on March 20th, Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) has already set many records. It has sold more than the lifetime game sales of any other game in the series (Figure 1) and quickly became the second best selling game of the year (January - March sales) after the remake of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (Figure 2), which has been out since September 12, 2019. While the series has been popular in the past, ACNH released at just the right time to have record setting sales numbers. ("Animal Crossing: New Horizons, United States Market Performance Highlights" 2020)
With this in addition to the fact that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s sales numbers include both digital and physical sales, ACNH ONLY includes physical sales in the numbers from NPD group, which means that most likely ACNH’s sales numbers greatly out pace COD: Modern Warfare.
So what makes this game so popular? I believe the answer lies in Janet Murray's three characteristics of a digital environment.
On the topic of escapism, Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) builds a world that offers players expression and participatory encyclopedic affordance that extends the games life span greatly.
Definitions of Janet Murray's Four Affordances:
- Procedural - composed of executable rules
- Participatory - inviting human action and manipulation of the represented world
- Encyclopedic - containing very high capacity of information in multiple media formats
- Spatial - navigable as an information repository and/or a virtual place
Without time skipping, the game’s end game can be reached within two weeks. However, it is after you reach the “end game”, or more accurately where the scripted content ends, that your world becomes more customizable and more of an expression of the user’s taste. Many in the ACNH community have used the bevy of furniture options and customization to create cafes, dance clubs, and playgrounds, normal places that none of us can visit now. This is not where the participatory encyclopedic affordance ends though. In its definition Janet Murry states that “encyclopedic details that reward exploration they create the experience of immersion.” (Murray, 2017). While many games have expansive online maps full of quests to collect new crafting recipes or rescue NPCs, ACNH only has your island, but it still manages to reward exploration with immersion. Players can fish off the pier and catch new and strange fish, hunt for new bugs amongst the flowers that players can crossbreed into wild colors, and collect recipes from their villagers which they invite to the island through exploring other deserted islands in search for new flowers, fruits, and friends.
ACNH can cultivate a shared interactive narrative using the multiplayer system, where players can invite real world friends over to their islands to trade or enjoy the view. In a time where families and friends are six feet or more apart, the ability to “visit” someone and see their creations increases the sense of immersion as the virtual and real world share a space in one game. In Chapter 4 of Hamlet on the Holodeck Janet speaks about how immersion plays up on the age-old desire to live out fantasies,
"With encyclopedic detail and navigable spaces, the computer can provide a specific location for places we long to visit." (Murray, 2017)
ACNH scratches the "places we long to visit" itch by building a normal town in a normal world that does not live under the shadow of COVID-19.
In Hamlet on the Holodeck, Chapter 5 Janet Murray discusses Agency,
“When the behavior of the computer is coherent and the results of participation are clear and well-motivated, the interactor experiences the pleasure of agency, of making something happen in a dynamically responsive world.” (Murray, 2017)
In a world where it feels like we have no control, agency is what many people crave. Many avid gamers, along with those who have never even owned a switch, have found that in Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH). ACNH is a life simulation game where you are taken to an island by Tom Nook with the objective to build and grow the island so you can attract K.K. Slider (a famous singing dog in the game) to perform a concert on your island.
ACNH is at its core a life simulator much like the Sims or My Life at Portia; it runs in real time and you have to spend real life hours and days making friends with villagers, collecting recipes to craft new home goods, and collecting resources from your island to craft new buildings and furniture. These aspects give the player agency in how their island is shaped and how their play is impacted by their choices. This also is almost the definition of an interactive environment:
"The more realized the immersive environment, the more active we want to be within it. When the things we do bring tangible results, we experience the second characteristic delight of electronic environments- the sense of agency. Agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of decisions and choices." (Murray, 2017)
The agency that players get from being in control of how they reach the end goal is what keeps them coming back to the game day after day, because there is no one way to reach the "end game" where K.K Slider performs in your village square. How you choose to populate and decorate your island is up to you.
Janet Murray's third characteristic of a digital environment is transformation. For those who don't know what ACNH is and have not seen any screenshots of the game, below are some examples of people's creations from a Reddit community /r/AnimalCrossing.
Alt:"A cozy animal crossing house room with many plants and shelves with knick knacks on them to create an indoor conservatory"
Alt:"Animal crossing outdoor "zoo" with stuffed animals in place of real animals"
Alt:"Animal crossing recreation of a Super Mario level where the player uses several traversal tools to navigate the "level""
Alt:"Animal crossing multipart race where three friends race against each other to complete several task before the other players. During the race they must use the ladder and vaulting pole to navigate the island and grab an egg to finish the race."
This is only a small example of what people have made using Animal Crossing. In this morphing story environment, many gamers have taken to hosting fishing and bug catching tournaments with friends, constructing mazes for friends to explore, and have even created game shows for friends to play and win prizes in.
"Another kind of narrative experience that takes advantage of the shape-shifting digital medium is one in which interactors are invited to enact or construct their own stories out of a set of formulaic elements. We can think of such an environment as not so much a story as a narrative world that is capable of supporting many possible stories." (Murray, 2017)
Now as a reminder this quote comes from a book originally published in 1997 and yet it to T describes how people are currently interacting with ACNH. So many small narratives have cropped up: friends hundreds of miles apart are creating spaces that they can meet and have fun in during a time when flying or even meeting face to face is nearly impossible (or at least not safe). They do this by using the tools that ACNH has empowered them with to make almost anything they want.
The landscaping tools that many players have used to create fantastic looking islands and experiences don't even unlock until you finish the scripted story that ACNH has. So after all structured narrative has been finished people still come back to the game daily to build and mold their island. The landscape customization along with the myriad of other customization options makes it possible for every island to be a reflection of someone's unique story. In ACNH, your real-world friends can meet your villagers, you can share fruit and flowers from your virtual island with your real friends and you can have fun exploring the world you've crafted with those friends. The ability to share a normal world with your friends without having to stay six feet apart is in short supply these days. These aspects of agency, immersion and transformation, the three characteristics of a digital environment, have been executed so well that ACNH, a game with originally one story line has been able to gift the world with a space to create new stories every day.
People that inspired this article
- Janet Murray Website | Twitter Who wrote Hamlet on the Holodeck and laid the foundation for how we understand interactive media.
- Joycelyn Wilson Website Who was my professor Spring 2020 for LMC 4720 Interactive Narrative and who inspired me to write this.
Murray, Janet Horowitz. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. MIT Press, 2017.
“New Horizons Was a Significant Driver of U.S. Video Game Market Performance in the Month of March.” The NPD Group, 21 Apr. 2020, www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/blog/2020/connections-and-community-animal-crossing-new-horizons-propels-the-us-video-game-market/.