You know that feeling when you look back at a childhood memory, but only remember a slice of it, no matter how hard you try to bring it back? And it’s frustrating as all hell? Here’s mine. I know that I played Animal Crossing. In 2009. On GameCube. Hours. Days, if you added it all up. I’m sure of it. I definitely shot the shit with Tortimer, had a fishing outing or two, and even grew my very own money tree.
But I can hardly recall any of it. It’s like I Eternal–Sunshined myself, but instead of erasing the love of my life, I’ve scrubbed every delightful little critter from all the spare pockets of my mind, and filled those spaces with grown-up stuff. The animals would be very sad to know that I forgot about all the time we spent together. Tom Nook would yell at me. K.K. Slider would write a song about it. Isabelle might even cry.
I only remember one tiny, borderline unimportant part of Animal Crossing, and it’s by far the most materialistic, self-serving aspect of the game: decorating my home. Yeah. It’s weird, but I loved it enough to remember it over a decade later. If you’re a normal, well-adjusted human who remembers the moments you spent in Animal Crossing’s lush, green pastures with friends—and not being cooped up inside, adjusting the position of a floor rug for 45 minutes—let me refresh your memory.
In Animal Crossing, one of the first things you get upon your entrance to the neighborhood is a brand-new home. How nice! There’s a mailbox, a bouncy, fire hydrant-looking guy who takes all your admin work, a literal white picket fence. When you walk inside, you’re greeted by an empty room, which you can decorate to your heart’s desire (or go full Marie Kondo, and you know, keep it that way).
So, if you’re a wannabe Property Brother like me, the game becomes less about your furry neighbors, and more about bartering and trading and working those neighbors for a new Cabana Table, or a Cabana Vanity, or even a Cabana Chair. Once you get the Cabana Lamp of your dreams, you can take it back to your home, and put it wherever you want—arranging, rearranging, and rearranging again for optimal feng shui. Apparently, the whole feng shui thing was not a turn of phrase; the game rated you on how well you decorated your home. Though, I’ll admit, I didn’t know that optimum furniture position actually mattered when I played Animal Crossing. I was just gunning for the coolest crib.
And what were those big-ticket items that made shaking down an anthropomorphic raccoon worth your time? Here are some Amazon Essentials for any home-owner in Animal Crossing: A stereo, which lets you play K.K. Slider’s jams (not his long-anticipated “Old Town Road” cover, though); tables, lots of tables, to hold all your fruits and flowers; and a TV, of course.
Animal Crossing’s home-decorating was so popular that they even made a separate game about it, 2015’s Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, where you work for Nook’s Homes and help the other villagers decorate their houses. Here’s a quote from one of the developers of Happy Home Designer that I love: “We had to think about, what kind of things would this animal like? What kind of life do they lead?” What kind of life do they lead? Damn. Get me the job where I wonder what kind of life a skunk named Blair, whose catchphrase is “nutlet,” leads.
But what made home-decorating so appealing to gamers like me in a year that also saw the releases of new Call of Duty and Uncharted entries? When you’re a teenager, you have that big-fish-small-pond complex, where you’re just sure that you’re ready for your own pad. Your house, the one with kitchen appliances, running water, the culmination of everything your parents worked so hard to provide for you? It’s lame as shit. If given the chance, you’d deck out your place the proper way. A popcorn machine would be a must. Maybe you’d snag that ginormous bean bag you saw in IKEA. You’d definitely have to keep the whole thing lit with a black light from Spencer’s.
For us hot-shits-in-waiting whose Bob Marley posters weren’t enough at-home creative expression, Animal Crossing was the closest thing to fulfilling an MTV Cribs-esque fantasy, one where money wasn’t an issue, and you could build the no-limits home of your dreams.
Hopefully, for a new generation of gamers—who, unfortunately, are probably feeling cooped up in their current digs right now—Animal Crossing: New Horizons (out Friday) can offer the same sort of escape. In the new iteration, you can build a mini outdoor utopia, in a feature that looks like someone sprinkled a dash of Roller Coaster Tycoon into Animal Crossing‘s tried-and-true house-decorating experience. And, yes, it almost goes without saying, but an uber-social game where you can escape into another world, one that gives you total freedom to make it look exactly how you’d like it to look? In a time when we’re encouraged to stay inside and distance ourselves from the rest of humanity? It feels like a godsend to me. Video games have always provided relief from real life, but without our usual go-tos—sports, movies, concerts—it’s one of the only escapes we have left.
So, go ahead: Grab that ping-pong table and put it under a giant, Godzilla-looking monster right next to the river. Invite your animal buddies over. Lose a couple hours. Make it look how you’d want.