Clay Supremacy

On going home for a birthday visit

Clay Supremacy

'Can you remind me to play Animal Crossing on Thursday?'

My daughter is asking me this question at what I would consider a High Tension Moment. Specifically, the five minutes before we are due to leave the house for school. It is at this exact moment, no matter how organised I've been all morning, that time seems to accelerate, and suddenly I'm refilling water bottles, scrubbing toothpaste from jumpers, yelling at the shoe cabinet for eating the shoes again, etc.

'Er,' I say, half-listening, wildly glancing around for my son's coat which was there a bloody second ago, 'Yeah. Sure. Why?'

'Because it's Clay's birthday!' she says, swinging her bag onto her back and nearly toppling over with the momentum. 'I want to make sure I say happy birthday to him.'

'Okay,' I say. 'Understood.'

And I do understand. Our house is a Clay Supremacy. He is the absolute OG favourite. Something about him appeals to all of us: his sardonic, laid-back personality, his general kindness, and his little face/general appearance make him a top-tier island resident.

Clay gets along with everyone. Everyone. He's a happy-go-lucky hamster. He's not interested in drama; he's too busy enjoying island life. The more energetic villagers find his lack of productivity frustrating, but he's not bothered. He's in his own little groove. Whenever I find him fishing outside of my house, it is a genuine joy because I love him.

I haven't actually played Animal Crossing: New Horizons in a while. I left it behind having reached the limits of my creativity, and moved on to the million other games on my to-do list. In fact, none of us played it for a good year or so. I presumed it would go the way of the other three entries to the series that live in our house: they'll gather dust, never to be revisited, but surviving every round of decluttering for the rest of time as important life relics. We don't actually own a physical copy of New Horizons so this is now more of a metaphorical thing, but you get what I mean.

But my daughter started playing it again recently. It started with a quick visit and then kind of escalated. Now, she checks on it most days. She waters the flowers, says hi to the villagers, and changes her outfits. It's a daily ritual.

'It's nice that you're getting back into Animal Crossing,' I say, on the way to school, squashing down the automatic thought because it's so much better than Roblox. 'I like seeing you play it.'

'Yeah,' she said, 'I like it. I dunno, it just makes me feel better.'

Flashback to my first exposure to Animal Crossing: I am playing Wild World on the DS. It is 2006. Chris is about to go away for his last year at uni, and I am anxious about him leaving. The summer romance has been a welcome escape from some past psychological trauma, and now that Chris was going away, I have no choice but to face up to it. Plus, you know, I’m eighteen and in the throes of young love, and the thought of being away from him made me physically ache.

We buy two copies of Animal Crossing for our respective DS's (what is the plural of DS? Maybe it's just DS. Like sheep are sheep, but not sheeps.) Every time Chris leaves, it feels like a small heartbreak. I fire up Animal Crossing. It immediately calms me; the quiet, methodical action of pulling up weeds, digging for fossils and chatting to the villagers makes my heart rate return to normal. This is my daily ritual. By the time he comes back, my village has been transformed into something beautiful, and after some painful and interesting inner work, I have transformed along with it.

In my busier moments I wish you could skip past some of the dialogue in the Animal Crossing games. I don't want to have to go through the rigamarole of having to wake up Blathers after another fishing trip, I just want to hand it over and receive my rightfully earned praise. But I'm glad I can't. The dialogue forces me to slow down, stops me haring around from one stop to the next. I have so many games that are like instant gratification machines; I have a space in my life for something more reflective. Something that takes a little bit of investment every day.

My daughter is at a tricky point in her life right now. I recognise her need to come home from a relentless day and root herself back into the calm with New Horizons. I see her unwind over the course of twenty minutes. It's almost like a physical thing. By the time she puts the Switch down, she's fully back home. It's like a tool for transitioning from a challenging day into her safe space.

Is it an addiction? Maybe it is. But it's not necessarily a bad one. Sometimes we need something to lean on. Recently, I told my daughter all the things that make me feel better when I'm really sad or anxious: reading uplifting news stories from Happy News, watching some comedy, calling my parents or my sisters, or going to Chris for a hug. That kind of thing. In my younger adult years, I thought looking after myself like this was a sign that I wasn't coping, that I needed to cocoon myself away like a child; now I realise that the world is impossibly dark and difficult, and we all need rest and recovery sometimes.

Anyway. I've seen people online bemoaning the rise of Cozy Gaming as something silly and insignificant. You can slap cute animals and twinkly music on a game without much substance and call it cozy, I guess, and it will sell because there's a market for it. But Animal Crossing has depth; the way your village (or island) gradually changes as the villagers get to know you makes it feel like a good investment of your time.

Rarely, a game will transcend from 'I really loved playing this’ into something that gains a kind of emotional significance. I think every entry to the Animal Crossing series will do that for me, partly because it has the power to soothe me more than any other game I've ever played. They always seem to come along at times of great change, in a kind of spooky coincidence. I mean, it could be that life is just a series of changes all the time, but either way, I lean on these games to keep me steady. And now my kid does, too.

On Clay's birthday, I decide that not only am I going to remind my daughter to visit him, but I am going to do the same. He's overjoyed to see me even though I haven't seen him for ages. 'Where have you been?' he says. And I know that I'm not going to start playing New Horizons again: it feels 'done' to me. But giving him a quick visit lifts my day, and I'm glad I stopped by. It kind of feels like coming home.