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Animal Crossing: New Horizons is my self-isolating Nintendo comfort blanket

Two weeks with my virtual animal friends on my special island.

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Imagine.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET
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As my kid and I ended up getting lice and we got our nits combed out, I played Animal Crossing. As the coronavirus scare started to feel more real and my trip to San Francisco to the Game Developers Conference was canceled, I played Animal Crossing. As New York slowly seemed like a less tenable place to work, I played Animal Crossing. As I started working from home, wondering if the schools would close, or if the world would enter some sort of extended social hibernation phase, I played Animal Crossing.

In my work-from-home time, in the evenings, in the mornings, in the quiet moments and occasionally on the last few trains to the city I took -- already feeling emptier, stranger and more germ-paranoid -- I huddled and played. 

My family played too and loved it. They found it comforting. But they made another island, on another Nintendo Switch. Their happy place is somewhere else. I live on mine, on a Switch Lite, alone.

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I've done this before. I played Animal Crossing on the GameCube back in 2002, a year after 9/11, at a new job in San Diego when I was wondering what the future would bring. I played Animal Crossing: Wild World on the DS in 2006, right after I'd been laid off from my job. I played Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS in 2013, a year after my dad passed away when I was still lonely, lost, fuzzy-headed.

My kids and I build our two separate islands, every day.

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Every day.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

They grow apples and pears over on theirs. I grow oranges. I have an elephant friend and a cat friend who live on my island. My elephant friend likes to work out while my cat friend wanders around and is nice.

I don't do much. I arrange furniture. I plant flowers near my house. I catch fish by the rivers and oceans. I catch bugs. There's a beautiful museum that appeared in my island and I leave my bugs and fish and fossils there. I like to wander through it, because it's a beautiful series of rooms. I have a routine. I hit rocks with my shovel to get bits of metal and rock. Sometimes there's money. 

I made a mistake of breaking the rocks and then I had no rocks. And I had to wait for the rocks to come back, one each day. My wife has decided to time travel, skipping around back and forth by changing the time on her Switch. I don't do that. I want time to be like it is here, for it all to move naturally.

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My friends.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

Animal Crossing has ways for others to join and play with you on your island, or for you to visit other people's islands. I haven't been able to do that yet. I am alone. I like it like that. I do have friends, these island people. And sometimes I'm invited to visit another island, one even more remote. Those places have other fruit, coconuts and bugs. And sometimes there are people there. 

I have a few everyday friends, like Tom Nook. Is he my friend? He seems nicer than the landlord I remember him being. Now he seems to care. It's like he's a camp counselor for all of us, as we live together on this deserted island place that no longer seems so deserted as we keep living on it. It's becoming developed. Maybe this is the story of all places.

I can craft things here. That's new and different. I made some tools. They break, though. It's like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where I have to find recipes to do things. I have a workbench. It reminds me not to just buy things.

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I don't look at my NookPhone that much.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

I have a phone, too. Even here, far away from everything, there's a phone. A NookPhone, given to me by Tom Nook. But this phone has helpful apps. I can earn miles based on doing things and it shows me how to achieve little rewards. It doesn't have Netflix or Twitter or Slack. I don't look at it much. It stays in my pocket unless I need it.

It's been a week and a half, now. I have a messy house. I have an Easter Island statue on my lawn and a campfire, where I like to sit. My bed is surrounded by old sewing machine things. I don't decorate much. And I don't write letters. But I love to go to people's houses and say hi.

Each morning, when I think of the world right now and things I need to do, I go back to Animal Crossing and see what little surprises are around. And my littlest kid asks to play on his island, too. We can't play at the same time unless I turn Airplane Mode on, because Nintendo makes its game-saving weird like that. And I don't know if our two islands will survive. Will one of ours disappear if game save rules change? Will he have to say goodbye to his Good Isle forever? Or will I have to say goodbye to Bonbini?

He gets sad when a balloon goes overhead and he doesn't catch it in time to pop it and get the present as it falls. But he's happy when he finds another.

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My little garden.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Scott Stein/CNET

More people have been arriving, lately. An anteater and a dragon. We've made a bridge. Shops are getting larger. I'm crafting more. I've made a tiki jungle in my yard. I keep saving a lost pelican sailor and a ghost, over and over. Time repeats itself. At night, sometimes, my wife sits next to me, collecting things on her island, in the dark, before we go to sleep.

My kids' schools are closed, now. We stocked up on more groceries. We're all home. We're all together. We're all playing Animal Crossing.

These little moments of island escape, right now, are welcome. We're not going on vacation any time soon. We're not going on a plane.

You may not be, either. Animal Crossing has never felt much like a game; it's felt like a comforting place, a cozy blanket to wrap yourself in. And it's never felt more like that than now.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrives Friday, March 20, on the Nintendo Switch. I've been playing since Feb. 28.