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A requiem for my dead, decaying Animal Crossing island

Goodbye Animal Crossing. It's been real.

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My island is a winter wasteland of weeds.

Steph Panecasio/CNET

When lockdown first hit Australia in 2020, it seemed like every man and his dog decided to pick up a Nintendo Switch and play Animal Crossing. It wasn't just the "in" thing to do -- it felt like it was the only thing we could do. We were stuck at home, but the islands became our way out.

Having never played the game before then, I was transfixed. I wrote about how crafting the island's greenery and entertaining villagers became the main source of my sanity in insane times. I'd set up in-game dates with my friends so they could come see the latest developments on my island or the new furniture I'd crafted. I painstakingly wrote giant swear words with the flower arrangements.

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Roald, the jock penguin, was easily my favorite Animal Crossing villager.

Animal Crossing New Horizons

It was respite for a while.

One of my friends was a master terraformer, whose entire island was covered head-to-toe with strategically placed flowers and structures collected over hundreds of play hours. Going to visit her was a lesson in landscape design; having her visit me was a lesson in humility.

Meanwhile, other friends had filled their museums entirely, art and all. I gave it a good go, but I only really cared about getting all the fish so my best buddy Roald, a sports-mad penguin, could go sit by the tanks in the mid-afternoon.

And then somewhere around August or September last year, we all kind of… stopped. 

Australia was opening back up again. We could see our friends in real time, not as an animated facsimile wearing a scuba suit and top hat. The games went unbooted and, having done its job, Animal Crossing faded into the background of my subconscious.

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There was a time where my partner and I would happily dig all day on our islands.

Steph Panecasio/CNET

But then lockdown came back. 

This June, cases in Australia started to rise again. Having found myself stuck at my in-laws' place for almost two months now, my Switch beckoned to me once more. "Come back to Animal Crossing," it seemed to say. "Come visit Roald in the fishy corners of the museum, spend a little time with us."

So I booted it up. And found what I can really only describe as a shrine to 2020.

My once relatively proud island was covered in weeds. The villagers, who I'd spent ages trying to befriend, were shocked to see my presence at all. "You haven't been here for a year!" they echoed. One of them was sick, so that felt like a double whammy of guilt. Sickness was what led us all to enjoy Animal Crossing -- it was wrong that sickness should find its place within. 

That, and the fact they kept referring to it as "nose gunk." No, thank you!

I'd forgotten the entire layout of my island, so for a while I wandered around aimlessly, reorienting myself. A letter from Mom went unopened in my letterbox, along with a few from the bank and Tom Nook, who really personified the persistent landlord.

The buildings were still fine and the fruit trees were laden, but it still had that vibe -- the vibe of a place that had long been abandoned by the outside world. In a weird way, though, it felt more like an island that belonged to me than ever before. 

I realized, quite quickly, that I was an entirely different person from the Animal Crossing fan I'd been last year.

Nowadays, decay holds my interest in a way that just doesn't happen for things that are flourishing. Everything's thriving? OK, braggart, go back to 2014. Give me disrepair, give me shambles, give me something to fix.

Because of my headspace, I am now all about zombies and decay.

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Pictured: What I feel like when I wake up in the morning.

Telltale Games

Where last year I was all about growing plants and facilitating life, this year my video game lockdown obsession has been flesh-eating monsters. Bit of a departure from Animal Crossing, I'll grant you, but I've really gone all in with the whole rotting corpse vibe. 

Instead of joyfully handing villagers dumbbells or weird outfits, I've been playing Telltale's Walking Dead games, scavenging for cans of food between shotgun shots to zombie faces. I've been deep-diving into the pop culture annals for zombie content, from Evil Dead to The Last of Us -- and even a dab of Plants vs. Zombies, which is a little too telling, if you ask me.

We are certainly in a very different headspace in the year 2021. 

When I thought about it properly, it made sense. Last year felt a lot lighter, maybe a bit more naive. More energized. This year, after nearly 18 months of a pandemic, we're all feeling a bit hardened. I feel less like a happy-go-lucky anthropomorphized giraffe and a lot more like a tired and hungry zombie (though I promise you I seek something to feed my brain, not to feed ON brains).

But I'm glad I did look back on my time in Animal Crossing now. It shows how far we've come in the past year, for both good and bad. It is proof in and of itself that things rebuild with a bit of work. And I'm sure that when the world feels a little less dark, I'll go back and chill out with Roald in the museum to look at the fish. 

I might just wait until the urge to check the dark corners for zombies is gone.