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SYFY WIRE Animal Crossing

The paradoxes of time travel in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

By Khee Hoon Chan
Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The affairs of time travel, as penned by science fiction writer H.G. Wells in his novella The Time Machine, didn't seem like a complex endeavor. His eponymous machine, which was made of "brass, ebony, ivory, and translucent glimmering quartz," looked like a mechanical contraption you could cobble together in real life, if you only had the right tools. To travel thousands of years into the future, all the Time Traveller needed, in his story, was to pull the right levers and twist the correct knobs on his machine.

Just as the classic sci-fi tale, taking a time-warping trip in Animal Crossing: New Horizons feels relatively straightforward. There really are no convoluted hacks: Just head to your system menu, tweak the "date and time" settings, and choose the date and time you wish to travel to. This is probably the closest we'll get to experiencing all the wonders of time travel, a phenomenon now accessible to the masses thanks to New Horizons. Go forth and earn your ill-gotten bells.

By time-traveling, players can partake in a variety of shenanigans: gaming the turnip stalk market, catching out-of-season fish and insects, or cross-breeding hybrid flowers in the blink of an eye. However, irresponsible time-traveling does have consequences. Your fruits can rot in minutes. Some villagers will feel neglected and leave your island — almost as if they've ceased to exist due to your venture across time. Your house will see unwanted guests in the form of cockroaches, and your island can quickly get infested with weeds, which brings down your island rating. While its effects are considerably mild in the grand scheme of things, these occurrences carry some parallels with good old-fashioned and more consequential time-traveling exploits in the sci-fi genre.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

These time-traveling consequences of New Horizons carry shades of the butterfly effect, wherein a small change can lead to seismic transformations in unforeseen ways. Jump ahead too far in an attempt to catch a valuable off-season critter and you might find that your stockpile of valuable turnips has rotted, rendering it worthless. However dreary it feels to lose millions of bells in one fell swoop, mishaps in New Horizons don't end up irreversibly altering the island, unlike those in fiction such as "A Sound of Thunder," by author Ray Bradbury. In this short story, the world has experienced subtle but substantial changes when one hunter accidentally steps on a butterfly while traveling to the distant past; even the spoken English used in alternative universes, for instance, has differed slightly from the hunter's present-day version.

Some Animal Crossing players time-travel to re-experience past festive events, like the dreadfully memorable Bunny Day event, which saw many players excavating hundreds of Easter eggs to craft exclusive Bunny Day goodies for the Easter Bunny, Zipper. A staple of sci-fi, this is referred to as time-travel tourism, in which travelers would make excursions to the past or future to witness or relive pivotal events they may never get to experience otherwise. One such quintessential tale is L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall, a 1939 novel that details the alternate reality an archaeologist lives in after he's transported back in time to visit Rome in 535 A.D.

New Horizons is radically different from past Animal Crossing titles in that future events don't exist — at least, not yet. In real life, this is because festive seasons like Halloween or Christmas can only be experienced after Nintendo releases an online update, adding those holiday events to the game. Developers had suggested that this is intentional, as they wanted to subtly discourage time travel to extend the game's longevity. If you wanted to see what the rascally Tom Nook has in store for the island during Halloween, the only option is to wait patiently till October arrives; for now, Oct. 31 will look like any other ordinary day, even after time-traveling to this date.

On the other hand, while many sci-fi fictions weave tales of travelers making big leaps into the future, some also propose that the future isn't technically set in stone, instead of lingering as an amorphous concept that's either highly susceptible to change from past events, or is capable of producing multiple realities when the fabric of time is altered. The latter is the case for Stephen King's 11/23/63: English teacher Jake witnesses the shifting — and the very cataclysmic — events of the future when he attempts to foil the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The new future that Jake experiences is drastically different from the one he knew from his original timeline and is one of the many "time strings" he creates when he changes the past.

As with the events of 11/23/63, the lack of festive events in New Horizons could be interpreted as the developers simply creating a new strand of the future — different from the ones that players can see now from time-traveling.

Star Trek Animal Crossing

Even without changing the Switch's internal clock to time travel, Animal Crossing still toys with classic time-traveling tropes. Take the multiverse, for instance — the idea that our reality exists alongside parallel universes. How else can you explain the existence of multiple Tom Nooks and his children, all greeting you like a friendly new stranger whenever you visit a new island? In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Parallels," the Klingon lieutenant commander Worf experiences something similar. Worf is returning from shore leave when he abruptly experiences a quantum fissure, a spatial anomaly that causes a tear in his universe's space-time continuum. When he passes through multiple realities — a phenomenon that disproves the linearity of time in that universe: that it can only be traversed forward and back — he finds one in which he is unexpectedly married to counselor Deanna Troi.

You don't have to explicitly tweak your system and travel across time to witness this in New Horizons, but the game does imply this is happening; after all, you'll end up meeting multiple iterations of familiar Animal Crossing characters even when traveling across islands.

Perhaps what's most memorable about time travel is how it disorientates and muddies the line between cause and effect, giving rise to its inherently illogical contradictions and all its complexities. This is best encapsulated in the grandfather paradox, in which an impossible scenario is described: What happens when you go back in time to kill your grandfather? Due to the limitations of the New Horizons' game design — we obviously won't be able to travel that far back in time to get rid of Blathers' grandfather, for instance — we can't really explore the boundaries of this theory.

But, even if New Horizons won't allow players to interact with an NPC's grandfather, the game is riddled with time-travel inconsistencies of a similar nature. There are examples of time-traveling causal loop paradoxes — when a future event is caused by a past event, which in turn is actually the result of a future event. For instance, perhaps our favorite dog villager, Biskit, is selling you the same shirt that you gave him earlier when you had traveled back in time. Where has the shirt materialized from? No one knows, but no one really spends hours pondering this enigma, either. These quirks are simply accepted as the nature of video games. Most players would just suspend belief and accept even unbelievable circumstances.

Rather than let players grapple with the heady complexities of time travel — this is first and foremost a game about the tranquility of building your own place from scratch — New Horizons instead gently disincentivizes players who try to pursue get-rich-fast schemes via time travel. You can lose Nook Miles for time-traveling days ahead, suffer from terrible bed hair, or see your mailbox packed so tightly with spam that you can't receive new letters and gifts. Other than adding a wrinkle in the paradox of time travel, New Horizons favors patience and diligence over quick riches. At the very least, you won't run into the thorny issue of erasing yourself from history while time-traveling on your remote island.