When I consider death, and the idea of an afterlife, I have often thought to myself what it may be like. If ‘heaven’ were real, and it was all ‘perfect’, then…wouldn’t it get boring?

Humans do not find joy in life through total contentment, we find it through accomplishment. Without goals our lives stagnate. Therefore a heaven without any kinds of goals to accomplish doesn’t sound like all that much fun after all.

When I began playing Animal Crossing, something clicked. As I shook trees and caught bugs, as I completed small tasks working toward my next big goal (another room in my house, my next item of furniture, my hybrid flowers) I felt accomplishment in my tasks. That was true contentment.

‘Oh.’ I thought. ‘I see. So this is what heaven would have to be like.’

In Animal Crossing you are never in danger (unless you count wasps and tarantulas, but those are fleeting fears that only really add flashes of excitement instead of any longterm consequences). You do not need to eat or sleep. You cannot die. You have everything you need, and the capability to work towards getting anything you could want.

There is no evil. All your neighbors are friendly animals who are happy to chat and give you gifts. You honestly have nothing to worry about, yet importantly, it is also not boring. There are season changes and holidays to look forward to, new clothes and furniture to buy and decorate with. And you can shape your island to be whatever you want (and your villagers will pretty much be okay with anything!).

Almost like…heaven?

It’s far from the first time that a slightly dark undertone has been theorized for a cute children’s game. Another Japanese game series, Pokemon, is littered with such theories. And I am far from the first person to consider such a theory for Animal Crossing as well.

For years people have theorized that in Animal Crossing…you may actually be dead.

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Image from grapefruitsloth on reddit

But with New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch becoming such a huge success and introducing so many first time players to the Animal Crossing world, many might not yet be familiar with the macabre theory…or the multitude of evidence that supports it.

The most blatant and obvious clue as to what is ‘really’ going on in this game is in the inclusion of creatures called Gyroids, and the villager Coco.

Gyroids don’t pop up often in New Horizons, only when building a bridge or incline, but they were a common sight in past games. You would often dig them up out of the ground, and they would make fun noises like singing.

Or screaming.

 

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Gyroids are called Haniwa in the original Japanese game. While unfamiliar to western audiences, Haniwa are recognizable in Japan. They were terracotta figures that were buried with the dead in the Kofun period. Some believed they contained the souls of the deceased. But what are they doing in a children’s game?

Animal Crossing New Horizons begins with you at the counter of an airport. You check in, creating your player character (a child) and then ‘pass through the gates’ to board the flight to your paradise island, seemingly made special for you.

The symbolism is pretty overt.
The other games in the series begin similarly; you awaken on a train or in a car, heading to your new home. Once there you are guided by a character who helps you settle in. In New Horizons this is the fatherly figure of Tom Nook.
There are no other humans in your town, and though you never see them, the game does inform you that you have parents. You sometimes recieve letters from them.

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In past games the letters seem almost wistful, sad. I recall receiving many flowers from my Mom in New Leaf. In New Horizons she sends toys, and once, a box of tissues.
Its not hard to see why many question if these letters aren’t sent through snail mail, but are in fact left at your grave. If nothing else, they seem to exist to comfort the player, to remind them that their parents are out there somewhere…they just can’t see them right now.

What would happen to a child that died before their parents, that had no one awaiting them on the other side?

If your loved ones weren’t there to comfort and calm you, who would be there?

What about friendly talking animals, reminiscent of the toys you loved in life?

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Besides villagers who are pretty blatantly toys, like Stitches and Hopkins pictured above, many of the villagers are designed to look like storybook characters from a child’s imagination.

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Some may even be personifications of beloved pets that passed on before you.

After all, how happy would you be to see your beloved dog Goldie again?

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On Bunny Day (the Animal Crossing version of Easter) Zipper arrives in town and will give you rewards for finding eggs. However if you try to look at the Zipper on his back, he will chastise you, indicating he is not a magical bunny at all. Maybe he is one of your villagers in costume, or even Tom Nook, dressed up to entertain you. While he dances and hops and rhymes in your presence, he immediately drops the act when you are out of sight. Other villagers aren’t given this same show, which means it is for your benefit alone.

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Image from Polygon

Another character who may show up on your island is Wisp, the ghost, who reacts to you initially in a very interesting way.

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Image from metabomb.net

While initially seeming to be a funny gag, if seen in context with this theory it becomes a bit more eerie.

If you do get bored of your town, you can always go visit a friend’s town, another child with an island that is strangely similar to yours, but that they have designed to their liking, and has their own set of villagers. Sometimes you can even find one of the villagers you have on a friends island, and they won’t seem to recognize you. But you can never choose to go back to wherever you came from. You can never go visit your parents.

If you don’t like one of your villagers, you can allow them to move out, and a new one will move in to spice things up (variety is the spice of the afterlife!).

And ultimately you, a child who doesnt understand the concept of death, will be happy, until a time when your loved ones finally cross over and meet you. In western culture it can be seen as a sort of childlike heaven; in Japanese culture it is considered purgatory, a place where a spirit goes when it is not able to fully move on. Such a spirit is called a yūrei, a soul that cannot yet join its ancestors due to having unfinished business or not being given proper burial rites. These spirits sometimes wear hitaikakushi, a paper triangle, just like Wisp.

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Image from Wikipedia

Even the english title of the game, Animal ‘Crossing’ has some interesting conotations. Crossing can mean many things, from a ‘combination’ (a village of animals) to a literal crossroads that you may come to in your town, or a figurative crossroads in your life (or afterlife). Is the game actually about ‘crossing’ over?

The creator of Animal Crossing, Katsuya Eguchi, has said that the game is about friends, family, and community; but more specifically, the longing for it. He came up with the game after he moved to a new city, and was overwhelmed with loneliness.

The idea of Animal Crossing being a game that tries to heal loneliness works perfectly with the the afterlife narrative. In a way, moving to a new city and completely uprooting your life for a new one is very similar to a kind of death (and rebirth), so the connections make a lot of sense.

While some may find the theory of death in Animal Crossing creepy, I disagree. I believe that it is actually comforting.

You cannot ‘win’ Animal Crossing. There is no end to the game. If you step away, even for years, it will be waiting for you to continue on. You ultimately create your own goals, just like in life, and there is a truly a kind of peace in that.