When I arrived on the island of MisfitToys, I was excited to be living my best tropical life. Tom Nook greeted me, gave me a tent, and allowed me to pick any spot to call home. I chose a spot adjacent to my girlfriend’s, the Resident Representative on our island “MisfitToys”. I unpacked and began to start foraging materials. I wanted to get our new community up and running; so far we had only our tents and a plaza established. I quickly found out I was locked from contributing myself.
Animal Crossing New Horizons establishes more of a progression than any of the previous Animal Crossing. Rather than joining a community and integrating, you are creating a village from the ground up. That means using the natural resources of your island (and other islands designated by Tom Nook to be strip mined) to build items. The “DIY” system is really fun; it’s great to forage for materials to build your own furniture and tools rather than simply purchasing them from the shop. This system is also where Animal Crossing draws hard lines between players. Each Switch is allowed to create one island and each island can have only one Resident Representative. You can have a total of 8 other player characters live on the island, but only one can be the “master” account, so to speak. The Resident Representative is what all progression flows through. Tom Nook will assign tasks directly to the Rep. Want to get the museum? Build Nook’s Cranny? Build new homes to entice new villagers? The Resident Representative has to contribute all the required materials directly to Tom Nook. The option to contribute to these tasks are not even presented to any other players. The best a secondary villager can do is leave the materials for the Rep to turn in. This implicitly creates a hierarchy amongst player villagers; a managerial system where other players can do the work but only one gets the credit.
That may be overblowing it a bit, but it can be frustrating being on the locked end of a progression system. Worse yet, there are specific DIY tool recipes that are handed off to the Resident Representative with each new step. For example, the ladder recipe is given to the Rep upon completion of the new villager home getaways. Ladders allow players to access higher elevation parts of the island. This is a big step! Ladders open up new places to live, fish, and potentially new plant life. This recipe is not given to any other players; you literally have to go to Nook’s Cranny and PAY FOR IT. Animal Crossing New Horizons literally charges a premium for other players to exist on the island. This goes for all the tool recipes; shovels, vaulting pole, etc. New Horizons literally checks you. The working class is not given anything, you should rightly pay Tom Nook for the privilege to move up (literally). The secondary player is expected to work hard, clean up the island, and then you’ll have the ability to pay for the next step, but only if the Rep has received it already. It is the “actors receiving iPads at the Oscars” of gaming.
Weirdly, the game invites secondary players to participate in other non-progression systems. You can celebrate new building completions each time they’re ready. You can complete the Tom Nook Customization workshop. You can even go to Harv’s photo island before your Residential Representative. There’s a weird disparity at play here; have fun with the events but consult your elected Representative before making meaningful change. It becomes an unexpected economics and political lesson that I don’t think was intentional in this game about escaping to a village with cute talking animals. Yes please enjoy the island, participate in the “Nook Miles” program, make your home lovely; just don’t try to build up without going through the proper channels.
The game doesn’t give me the option to circumvent this at all. I am stuck asking (read: begging) my Rep to move things forward. No don’t go water the flowers, we need wood goddamit! I am stuck consistently playing second fiddle. She says fetch, I say ok. And Tom Nook serves to be the racoon embodiment of the establishment. I watch as my Residential Representative gets special dialogue options with him that assign her these tasks. When I go to ask him about those, it’s mysteriously absent. Tom does not deign to allow me to work on our community; he mumbles pleasantries at me, waiting until the more important and interesting person to arrive. “Yes the weathers nice, I hope you’re enjoying your house, you know you can work toward a bigger one” are all part of his conversational treadmill.
I am still really enjoying the game though. Animal Crossing is first and foremost about interacting with the animal villagers and customizing your home. I don’t even mind the new crafting systems and the game is still good about setting new goals to reach via Nook Miles. Playing coop has been a lot of fun too, even if it is strange that the second player is best used as an unstoppable material harvest machine. My Residential Representative is a good one too; she’s very kind about passing on new tools, items, and recipes to me. It’s the game that’s the problem. No matter how benevolent my Rep is, New Horizons is there to remind me that I am the working class.