My interview with Brie Larson starts with a plane ride to an island—her virtual one on Nintendo Switch’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons. On the ride over, we talk on the phone about fruit—our town fruit, specifically. She has pears; I have cherries, which sell for higher on her island than mine.
"Cherries? Wait, are you bringing some? I want cherries!" she exclaims.
"Oh my god, no! I would have grabbed you one. Now I'm flying," I say, immediately filled with low-stakes regret.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out on Friday, with reviewers lauding it as a much-needed form of escapism and stress relief as much of the world quarantines amid the coronavirus pandemic. The game is simple and wholesome: Create a cute human villager to reside on a desert island with adorable animal neighbors. Make bells—the Animal Crossing currency—so you can build up your island and house. Catch bugs, go fishing, and in this version, invite friends to visit your island, then visit theirs in return.
Larson's character is waiting for me outside her town’s airport and giving off serious Coachella vibes in a tie-dye shirt, shorts, and a white flower in her wavy, dirty-blonde hair. “Oh my gosh, you're so cute!" she tells me as my character, dressed in a blue coat, arrives on her Dessert Island ("it's a play on Desert Island," she explains).
Flowers are everywhere, including "trippy" black tulips. "I’m still messing around with plants and different flowers, because it seems like they cross-breed and create different colors," she tells me. She got a few extra days with the game before it was released to the public. "It's interesting to not be able to talk about it or collect any other information—just trial and error. [It's] kind of special, in a way."
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Animal Crossing is not a high-stakes video game. Your house loan with raccoon Tom Nook has zero interest and no deadline for payment, one way the game imposes very little pressure on players. Larson's drawn to the "sweetness" of Animal Crossing, she explains. "I love video games, but I tend to be very competitive. I find this to be a really nice counterbalance to that. It's enjoying your time and making something beautiful and hanging out with friends."
How exactly did Captain Marvel, an Oscar-winning actress, become the franchise’s most joyful ambassador? It started with her tweeting her excitement for the new edition in February. The Nintendo offered her the chance to be a partner for the release. The 30-year-old actress’s love of the franchise goes back decades. "I’ve never lived without a Nintendo console," Larson says. "Even in my earliest baby videos, there was a Nintendo there. My love for it runs deep."
Larson is among the many millennial children, myself included, who grew up playing the original Animal Crossing, which premiered on the Nintendo GameCube in the U.S. in September 2002. "It was such a huge deal," she says. "Me and my sister and my mom created a rule that whoever finished their homework first got to play first, so we would blast through it."
Larson lists her favorite characters with genuine excitement: "I mean, Isabelle [the secretary to your town-mayor character introduced in 2012's Animal Crossing: New Leaf] is just such a legend. Nintendo actually sent me a K.K. Slider [the musician dog included in the original game] t-shirt yesterday, and I'm like come on. It's really deep for me, like in the same category as the Backstreet Boys. K.K. Slider is a mega star for me."
She also has good tips for anyone just starting on the game: "Definitely plant whatever fruit your mom sends you in the mail. That would be key." (Your character's mom will send you non-native fruit in the mail, which sells for more than your town's native fruit. Planting one fruit creates a tree sprout, which grows into a tree that provides three fruit every few days for you to plant, eat, or sell.)
New Horizons lets players use natural resources like iron nuggets to create furniture and useful items via DIY recipes. "Don't spend your iron nuggets right away," Larson warns. "Don't do what I did immediately, build a frying pan. Hold onto them, because they will be useful later." Larson's personal favorite is the wild log bench. "I built a couple of those and placed them around my river so people have places to sit and look at the water. That really sweetens the deal."
Now, Larson is building up her island with friends and family to visit virtually while everyone is socially distancing. But this isn't Larson's only form of self-care as she quarantines, of course. "I've found that the Next Door app is a really amazing resource to check in with your local community and see if there are seniors in your area that need help—that need grocery or medication deliveries or pet food. That's been the most heartwarming part about this. It's about being able to be of service."
And on Animal Crossing itself, there are special little moments that bring Larson joy. "The other day, Tom Nook let me know that there was going to be shooting stars in the sky that night," she tells me sincerely. "So I made sure to go out, and I walked up to the bluffs and one of the beaches and looked at the shooting stars. It was so sweet."
My call with Larson wraps up, and I remain on her island for another minute or two. I contemplate snapping a screenshot of us in the museum together to remember our trip there, or taking a pear home to plant. I decide not to, out of respect for her privacy, and also because I don't need the proof to remember the feeling I had gushing with Larson about a game we both grew up playing…while playing it. My character walks back to the airport and flies home.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is available now on the Nintendo Switch.
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Alyssa Bailey News and Strategy Editor Alyssa Bailey is the news and strategy editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage of celebrities and royals (particularly Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton).