Like most consumers that are self-isolating during COVID-19, I’ve logged a shocking number of hours on my Nintendo Switch since the launch of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The game follows its predecessors faithfully, allowing the player to don a childlike persona who starts life anew in an underdeveloped town.
The gameplay is simple enough, too: gradually pay off a house loan to Tom Nook by selling items found in town; fish, catch bugs, shoot presents from a tree—the world is one’s means of making money, but the player can do with anything as they see fit. One can donate specimens to the museum, plant numerous flowers, and decorate their ever-expanding house. Animal Crossing was designed to let players express themselves and form their town how they choose; it’s a lifestyle role-playing game at its core, and Nintendo has only furthered this with the newest installation—notably, with a huge modification: New Horizons has no gender.
Let’s break this down. When creating a character in installments earlier than Animal Crossings: New Leaf, if the player chose to be a girl, their character would always wear a dress, no matter the pattern; likewise, a boy would always wear a shirt and shorts. The visible differences between genders were as obvious as the silhouettes on bathroom stall doors. However, with New Leaf, the girls could wear pants, but there were still limits as to what characterization options each had due to that gender difference, such as hairstyles.
New Horizons breaks the barrier between binary gender roles by using a singular character model for all human villagers, allowing all hair and facial options to be available at the player’s disposal. Want to create a male-presenting character with long, feminine eyelashes? New Horizons allows for that, the opposite, and everything in-between. However, the game still forces the player to choose a “style” (not gender!) of either “boy” or “girl”, but this has no bearing on the game. In fact, I have yet to discover why Nintendo included this at all, given its de-emphasizing of gender. It doesn’t appear on the player’s “passport”, which allows other players to see another’s title, comment, picture, and local fruit.
By utilizing a singular character model, every interaction with the player’s NPC (non-playable character) animal villagers is decidedly un-gendered. This is markedly different from other games, even in the Nintendo family, such as the Fire Emblem franchise, in which the character’s entire base of interaction changes if the character chooses to play as a male rather than a female. New Horizons rejects this model, suggesting that player-NPC interactions can be the same regardless of gender; in this way, one can confidently earn the same friendship of an animal villager as male, female, nonbinary, genderqueer, or gender-nonconforming.
Nintendo Animal Crossing: New Horizons – Nintendo Switch (Amazon)
Consequently, the NPCs (in the English localization, which is the only version I’ve played so far) refer to the player-character with gender neutral pronouns at all times. This is most notable when visiting other real-life players, as villagers in their towns inquire about their Resident Representative, asking about “them”. Even when NPCs talk about other NPCs, they often use gender neutral pronouns. Most of the time, there is no way to tell an animal villager’s gender based solely on their hobbies, aesthetic choices (I gave Rodeo a dress and he loved it and immediately wore it), or mannerisms. The only giveaway is the character’s “archetype”, carried over from the game’s previous installments; uchi villagers are always female, while smug villagers are male. However, all villagers work out, sing in the plaza, craft tools and furniture, etc. The game allows player interaction with all aspects of the game at all times, and no gender has any particular advantage or difference when playing through the game.
Thinking about this type of gender neutral gameplay, I’m reminded of Undertale, in which the player-character is a child named Frisk whose gender is never disclosed. Similarly, the NPCs throughout the game refer to them as — well, “them” — and dialogue is never gendered. The player is even given the option to flirt with certain characters, who respond to the player-character’s action without regard to their gender, perceived or otherwise. It simply is not present in the narrative.
Another strength of gender neutrality comes from the child protagonist; the child player-character inhabits a prepubescent space before concrete gender roles and identifiers. Breasts and facial hair are not usually developed by this point, so game designers have more presumed freedom to express genderless qualities. It seems New Horizons has taken a page from Toby Fox’s Undertale (2016), allowing the player the full Animal Crossing experience through the child player-character — without the pressure of conforming to a certain identity in order to play the game.
Animal Crossing has always valued unique identity expression by its players, emphasizing the individual’s journey in a new town with new villagers and potential friends, but with New Horizons, the game has finally offered players the space to truly express those identities, however fluid they may be.