It was a regular morning during the pandemic when there was nothing to wake up for, nowhere to go, and nothing to do. I woke up and realized with a thrill that it was the day Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch was due to come out. The long-awaited game would be playable at 8pm. I checked that I had preloaded the game in advance and spent the day riding the hype train with other members of the Animal Crossing Discord server.
Night came. I loaded the game up, made my character, and with the first step into the game world, I found my reason to wake up in the morning in quarantine times. I picked out a hairstyle and eye color for my character, choosing a spot on the island to set up my tent. There is very little that will entice me to get out of bed when I have no particular reason to do so, but the world inside the game beckoned every morning. I would slip out of bed and grab the game from where it had slipped out of my hand as I played it in bed last night. I woke up with an in-game to-do list: upgrading my tent to a house, collecting bugs and fish to sell and shopping for clothes to build my wardrobe. I shared the island with anthropomorphic animal characters called villagers, who, like me, had moved there for an island getaway. Befriending the villagers was high on my priority list. While we were largely isolated from life as we knew it, I was able to live a whole new life in the game.
When I plugged my Switch into the TV, I could see the game world on the TV screen. Our family pet, a little pink and green lovebird parrot, who we called Happy, liked to hang around the TV. Happy loved game sounds and quickly became my player two. In her opinion, the best game sounds were menu sounds, which included a repertoire of clicks, pings and glassy tinkles. She also liked the alert attention-grabbing sound bites that satisfied her taste for sharp sounds. Animal Crossing had all these and more. My journey building my island, crafting, fishing and picking fruit was accompanied by this teacup-sized sound lover. Happy would alight at the foot of the TV and start chirping to her favorite parts. I soon learned that the sound that ranked highest with her was the little whistle that you can do in photo mode to attract the attention of subjects of the photo. I’d pull up photo mode and set off the whistle repeatedly, and Happy would chime in. I discovered that Happy liked listening to the garbled speech of a character named CJ. Whenever CJ came around looking for fish, Happy would pipe in to talk to him.
I would not have played the game so much in its first year were I not part of a Discord community where we had a well-structured space to connect and talk. The server was divided into channels, some of which were related to finding other people to play or trade with, others which were social spaces for people to hang out. When I wanted a particular item, I would ask for it in the trading or free giveaway channels. When I wanted to play with others during a special in-game event such as a fireworks display, I would post in the visitors channel, and people would arrive at my island or I would visit someone else’s island to have fun playing together. As it was, I met up to play with others almost daily. A few months into the game, the play sessions started to spread out, but remained regular parts of my week that were dedicated to Animal Crossing. Happy remained dedicated to CJ and the photo mode whistle button. With Animal Crossing, the Discord server and Happy the fan-bird, I had everything I needed to get through the first phase of quarantine.
It was all perfect until it wasn’t.
It turned out that Happy got sick. Instead of her presence soothing us, we found ourselves trying to be there for her in her illness. It soon became apparent that she might not make it. One evening, I sat down next to her with my Switch in my hand. I did a variety of everyday things that I would do in the game, just to give her something nice to listen to. Happy, weak as she was, shuffled over to the corner of her cage that was nearest to me to listen to me play. I gave her a full selection of everything about the game that she loved most. She was too weak to reply to any of it. When I finally stood up to take my leave of her and said my customary goodnight, she was too weak to say it back, and instead replied with half a chirp.
It was the last time we said goodnight to each other.
The next morning, I woke up to the news that Happy had passed away in my father’s hands in the early hours of the morning. Happy’s cage was in my parents’ bedroom, and they heard her make a sound in the night. My father went to her and picked her up but it was too late. She gave him one last look before life went out of her. We were distraught. For weeks, you would find a family member weeping in a corner almost every day. We consoled each other that she had lived a happy life and she had known that she was loved.
I found consolation with my Animal Crossing friends too. Once I had worked through the heaviness of wondering if I could even resume playing the game Happy had enjoyed so much, I decided to power up the game and set up a little bell next to the entrance of my island. The sharp sound of the bell when people rung it was exactly the sort of video game sound that Happy loved most. I put up a post on Discord inviting people over and mentioned that they could ring the bell if they wished. The usual group of people came over and yes, upon landing on my island, they rang the bell. I got direct messages from some of them as well expressing their condolences. It was a little in-game commemoration for me that helped me start to heal after this loss.
The pandemic continued.
We got another little lovebird parrot—despite the fact that I wanted to name him Mango for his yellow and peach coloring, the family decision to have our new parrot carry the legacy of our first parrot prevailed. Happy Junior won our hearts, just like his predecessor. Like Happy Senior, Junior felt that the best sound in Animal Crossing was the photo mode whistle, but he disagreed in regards to who had the best voice. Junior’s favorite voice was that of one of the Animal Crossing villagers called Winnie. I reminded myself not to let Winnie move out of my island so that Junior would always have his favorite character to talk to. With the all-time favorite photo mode whistle, I knew I could use it reliably to get a response from Happy Junior if I wanted.
Happy Junior turned out to be the parrot who made friends with my gaming friends. Our main Animal Crossing Discord server broke off into smaller groups – one of these groups is where I found myself spending more time. Though I usually kept my earphones in while on a Discord call, Happy Junior could hear the conversation going on anyway. I soon realized that Happy Junior’s chirps at the ends of people’s sentences were his responses to conversations he was listening in on. The pet lovers in the group loved making him part of our group conversations. “How’s Happy?” became a regular question whenever I appeared online.
This is how things currently stand: I don’t play Animal Crossing as much anymore, but I still love powering up the game every now and then to talk to my favorite characters. I still keep in touch with the Discord groups. Happy Junior still loves video game sounds and talking to gamers. I don’t know how long the pandemic will go on, but as long as I get to quarantine with my favorite animals, I know I am going to be alright.