This is a particularly strange case for me because I have never really been one for games that benefit from personal creativity. I like defined storylines where I know what direction to go, who to speak with, what exactly I need to do, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons basically threw all of that out of the window, and said "enjoy this island however you like." Needless to say, it was something I wasn't ready for, but its massive success and community focus in a divided period unlike no other meant I had to explore the trend, and it might have changed the way I personally play videogames forever.
For the most part, our Games of the Year have been massive spectacles: The sort of projects that give you sprawling worlds or an experience so refined that it is hard to discredit - essentially, the AAA deal. Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn't quite like that. It's so cute and charming that it almost gives off the feeling of a big budget indie game, where you can really feel the personality of its developers shining through, even though it is very much a AAA title.
Releasing around the same time the pandemic slingshot to scary heights and social distancing was becoming the norm, Animal Crossing: New Horizons offered a way to bring people together through its community centric islands and cooperative gameplay. Launching alongside Doom Eternal, the pair benefited off each other's strengths and somehow, even though they reside at pretty much opposite ends of the gaming spectrum, the communities of both titles became closely connected, which looking at it today, is pretty much what Animal Crossing achieved with gamers across the world.
The entire concept of this game is to relax and just appreciate life and nature. Whether that is through collecting bugs or catching fish, building up your town, terraforming the landscape, or even simply travelling to other islands: there is no right answer and every choice is encouraged. Personally, being someone who enjoys a game with progression, my method of approaching Animal Crossing: New Horizons was always to collect as many Bells as possible, so I could quickly unlock the next house upgrade or skill from Nook Inc.
Actively engaging in activities that promote progression isn't always necessary in this game either though. You can spend hours just talking with your island mates, or even simply crafting new furniture to make your personal space that bit more unique and fitting to your personality. I always found a great way to disconnect from a busy, stressful day was to pull out a fishing rod to try and net some monster sea creature from beneath the waves.
To keep Animal Crossing: New Horizons exciting, Nintendo has been releasing updates that deliver new content (or rather rotates it out on a seasonal basis) consistently. When the game first released, springtime was just kicking into full effect in Europe and even if we couldn't really head outside to experience the flowers blooming and warmer temperatures due to lockdowns, Animal Crossing ensured it delivered the next best thing - a digital, positive alternative.
Combining this with the ability to connect with friends over a method that was probably the next closest thing to physically being with them in person, Animal Crossing: New Horizons made the first lockdown feel digestible and like a walk in the park. Since then, it has only elevated its efforts by serving up a series of celebratory, annual events that even though they aren't quite the same as the real thing, fill in quite nicely.
When this article goes live, we will have just had Christmas, and New Years Eve will be right around the corner, and for me, living in the UK with a whole list of national restrictions still in place, I won't have seen most of my family or friends in person in a long time. Most of you out there are probably in the same boat, but at least we have Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a way to bridge this unprecedented societal gap. This is precisely why Animal Crossing: New Horizons is in our number two spot, as it couldn't have come in any better shape or style, or at a more crucial time.