Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on March 20, 2020 right as the forewarned pandemic became our daily, stay-at-home, reality. I’d been a longtime fan of the Animal Crossing franchise and had been looking forward to this installment. The game is all about designing a utopia. For me, sheltering in place with my cats just a stone’s throw from the outbreak’s hot zone in New York City, afraid of invisible particles sneaking in through the mail, looking up ‘make your own hand sanitizer’ recipes, the timing was particularly perfect. 

The game is all about designing a utopia.

As with any game I enjoy, from the more hardcore Call of Duty or God of War to casual Clash of Clans and Cooking Fever, the soundscape is incredibly critical to my experience. This is where New Horizons first started to give me my first escape from quarantine. The sonic goodness of New Horizons makes it more than a game. It makes it my daily therapy. I often find myself practicing the deep breathing of mindful meditation while playing and feeling lifted by the tropical jazz.

No matter what the Animal Crossing day brings, the soundscape changes accordingly. Stormy weather days are made enjoyable through the soundtrack’s breezy vibe. Some of the early morning tracks offer a bit of a sleepy vibe which helps my ears warm up for the day. Afternoon tracks offer a tropical jazz element while early evening gives me funk to get me across the finish line at the end of the day. I’m not knowledgeable about the middle of the night tracks because my only experience has been during brief sessions with the sound turned off and the screen dim  to sell turnips on my Australian fiancée’s island before getting back to sleep.

Emotional side of Kong – when platform games moved beyond entertainment

I find Kazumi Totaka’s non-diegetic background music goes beyond a simple horizontal score. There are loops for different locations in the game world and, if you upgrade Resident Services, you can enjoy a different background music theme every hour in the game. To accompany the horizontal score, a vertical layer system removes percussion from the background music when it rains allowing the rain to stand out in the environment. This technique creates a truly immersive experience. 

I really enjoy building my island to bring comfort to my visitors and also a bit of flair. While there are plenty of graphical elements to add flair to your island, background music and strategically placed sound emitters in the world can shape visitors’ aural perception.  

The island’s tune is a great way to mold a visitors experience and tie in your island theme. As a big fan of JAWS, I went for the very unoriginal island name of Amity. When you arrive you will hear the oscillation between E and F which represents a shark on the prowl in the film score. However, I wanted to keep the island somewhat friendly for visitors so I left out the D note, AKA: the bite (I decided to leave the biting to the scorpions in the game). To change your island tune head over to Isabelle in Resident Services and select the option to “Change island tune”. You may have to fiddle with the tune maker for a bit to get the sound as you desire. It’s worth taking the time to create a unique tune since it plays during other gameplay moments such as as well. 

In addition to the very fitting background music, you can strategically position music players around the island to diegetically introduce the tunes of K. K. Slider. The sound emitting from these music players attenuate as characters move to and from them. When you stand directly in front of the speaker the sound has more high end presence. As you move behind the speaker, the sound becomes more muffled making it the perfect way to compliment thematic elements around the island.

K. K. Slider

It’s important to note that the choice of music player shouldn’t be solely based on visual aesthetics as different stereos offer varying levels of sound fidelity. A simple radio might be all you need to create a fading impression of a theme in an island cafe but it won’t be enough for an island nightclub or party setting where you need more bass and louder output. 

K. K. Slider tunes can be purchased via the Nook shopping feature but the more interesting way is by requesting music when the Jack Russell Terrier is performing. There are several songs that can only be obtained via request. Setting up music players often entices residents to sing along with the current song. Musical instruments placed in close proximity to music players will harmonize with the current music track. I love this bonus! Let’s not forget the default spoken language on the islands, Check out Blipsounds Youtube channel for a video which breaks down their idea of how Animalese is created and integrated into the game.

While there is so much to the music in the game, the sound design also plays a huge part in completing the soundscape. Every island offers residents a welcoming soundscape through diegetic elements such as a breeze in the trees, an insect buzzing, the rushing sounds of a waterfall and attenuation of the background music by the shore to give the calming waves center stage.

The music in the game, the sound design also plays a huge part.

Just like music players, items such as water fountains and popcorn machines placed around the island emit sound diegetically in the game space offering players a chance to shape these basic soundscapes into their own sonic brand. If you prefer a brassy environment, the placement of animated objects and music players in the world can certainly offer a less calming island experience.  

Gina Zdanowicz

I could go on about all the tiny sonic details in the game but my island, and my cats, are calling me back. You can visit Amity through Luna’s Dreaming Service at the dream address DA-0245-7621-2218. It’s a modest island with a NYC pizza cafe, an Ice Bar within a hidden room (thanks to my southern hemisphere trips), a Zen garden complete with an infinity pool, a Tiki bar on the beach and more importantly a Foley / Sound studio.

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Gina Zdanowicz

Sonic Storyteller; Founder of Serial Lab Sound; Game Scoring Professor at Berklee; Game Audio Author.