Animal Crossing’s island star system frustrates and limits fans

When artist Hari Conner got their copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there was no question as to what their island would be called: Forest Town. “I’m disabled with a lot of mobility problems, so it’s very rare I can actually be out in nature in real life,” said Conner, whose illustrations often feature lush greenery, in an email to Polygon.

Conner quickly got to work planting trees to make their vision happen. Their friends, who knew about Conner’s love of nature, also contributed to the project by sending over forest-themed flooring and wallpaper. One pal even sent Conner an in-game wheelchair. All was going well with Conner’s theme … until they spoke to Isabelle, keeper of the game’s island rating.

While New Horizons lets you decorate your island however you’d like, behind the scenes, the life simulator is always quietly analyzing your aesthetic choices. The game judges those choices through a five-star rating system, which also gates the unlocking of late-game features like getting K.K. Slider to visit your island. While the game never outright tells you what the rules are for getting a better rating, it does vaguely encourage you to try and fill up your island with decorations from head to toe, while also reminding you to install a variety of different arrangements.

Isabelle’s verdict on Forest Town? Conner should consider getting rid of some trees, she said, because the current setup might be “too rural” for residents to enjoy. The game didn’t care that it was intentional. As far as New Horizons was concerned, the natural splendor of Conner’s island was a problem.

Based on Polygon’s conversations with a few dozen players, Conner isn’t the only one clashing with this system. Fans who check their ratings often find themselves butting heads against New Horizons’ decoration demands, which help give the game structure while also limiting what people do on their islands.

It’s a particular hindrance for anyone looking to retain some of their island’s natural beauty. Jean Ketterling, a runner who is feeling cooped up thanks to social distancing measures that have closed down her routes, was hoping to recreate the look and feel of trails she would normally enjoy. New Horizons didn’t like that.

“Isabelle was like ‘everyone hates your trees and gets lost in the woods,’” Ketterling recalled.

It’s not just a matter of aesthetics for some players. By defining a “good” island, New Horizons also makes a moral judgment of sorts. And sometimes, those judgments go against progressive gardening practices.

Ryan Gott, a player who helps manage pests at a real-world conservatory and botanical garden, was hoping to translate some of his landscaping skills to the game, which meant retaining as much of his island’s native flora as possible. He designed gardens that could encourage pollinators and invertebrates, provided old wood shelters for detritivores, and considered the best layout for waterways.

But Gott found that New Horizons didn’t initially understand his desire to “promote healthy ecological functions,” as he said, and instead diminished his thoughtful approach as yet another case of “too many weeds.”

Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Ryan Gott

New Horizons’ narrow definition of a five-star island doesn’t just reject eco-friendly islands. It also gets in the way of wider player habits and customs. The game dings you for having too much garbage, which makes sense, until you consider what falls under that category.

Turnips, which players buy in bulk every week, will lower your star rating if you drop them outside — something that players often do, because you can’t keep the veggies in storage. Since the game randomizes its DIY recipes, players often find themselves with dupes, but in the spirit of generosity, many fans keep these extras to share with friends via swap meets. Players also like to hold cataloging parties, where pals will come over to pick up and drop items they don’t yet own. These traditions are some of the best the community has to offer … but Isabelle hates all of them, too.

“I have a large trading post on my island,” New Horizons player Elise Toyer told Polygon, “which bumped my star rating down for ‘too many items laying around.’”

Creative players also like to make use of items that the game doesn’t categorize as decorative but can still be used for that purpose. Brigid Christison, for instance, wanted to build an in-game archaeological dig site, and the finishing touch on this concept meant laying down fossils and shells. When fossils aren’t “placed,” they look like bones. Perfect! Well, except for the fact that the game thought Christison was just cluttering up her island.

Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Brigid Christison

Another issue that several players flagged to Polygon is Isabelle’s love for fencing. This is admittedly my biggest personal gripe with the game — every time I check my rating, Isabelle suggests fences. But I don’t want fences. I like running around everywhere, and fences literally stand in the way of that.

The most depressing aspect of the star system is that it inadvertently encourages uniformity. While there are hundreds of items, the Nook Miles store is limited, and the game always tells you to purchase its stock to build out your island. Some players I spoke to said they wanted to make strange islands with no rhyme or reason, but felt that they couldn’t truly experiment or go wild without having the game punish and judge them for it.

“I’m deliberately not looking up how to improve my star rating,” said Twitter user @lyanporto, “but it’s frustrating that even though I love what I’m doing, the game doesn’t value what I value.”

Based on my conversations with players, most people don’t let the star rating get in the way of what they want to do. The system is unobtrusive, and players can ignore it completely (as long as they don’t mind K.K. Slider never showing up). Many fans choose to offset their “bad” choices with more decorations that the game recognizes as “good.” The funny thing is, though, spiffing up your town in the ways New Horizons asks you to doesn’t always result in a more beautiful island.

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Lillian Goulston would know. Earlier this year, the mischievous Animal Crossing player found her island rating plateauing no matter what she did, but rather than giving up, she peeked behind the curtain. Using a guide, she found out exactly how the game rates islands. Broadly speaking, New Horizons likes it when you have furniture spread across the island from a variety of different sources, from shopping to crafting. Goulston decided to game the system.

“I figured out the most resource and space-efficient objects I could craft and buy,” Goulston said. She ended up placing 50 campfires, 20 stone stools, 15 log stakes, and 10 streetlamps across her island. Then, she haphazardly put down cheap fencing in silly formations, because Isabelle is obsessed with fencing. Goulston topped all of this off by tapping into her storage, pulling out stuff that she knew she was never going to use.

“Whenever I needed guidance, I ran back to Isabelle for an island evaluation, following her advice [as] ridiculously as possible,” Goulston said.

She got the coveted five stars and a golden watering can for her trouble. And her island looked horrible.

Implicit in this experiment, Goulston said, is the question of whether a video game can truly judge something as subjective as beauty.

“What I did wasn’t enjoyable, it was tedious,” Goulston said. “A big part of Animal Crossing is in self-expression. A mechanic that incentivizes checklist completion runs counter to the fun of the game.”

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