When the time comes to look back on the events of 2020, the games media may have to scrabble around for high points.
They exist, of course -- every year features brilliant people achieving brilliant things -- but in 2020 it was difficult to stand out from the very real problems affecting not just this industry, but the world at large. Good things may come from this period of stress and self-examination, but this year will likely be remembered as one defined by crisis.
But I have one to offer, to get the ball rolling on that slew of "Best of 2020" articles: Animal Talking, a pure-hearted innovation that offered comfort and relief to a great many people, and one deeply rooted in the upheaval caused by COVID-19.
For those that don't know, Animal Talking is a virtual talk show started by Gary Whitta, the one-time games journalist who is now a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and based entirely in Nintendo's Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It has a set entirely composed of in-game items from the Switch exclusive, with both host and guests represented by the game's ever-so-cute character models.
"Animal Crossing was the tonic we needed when everyone was locked at home and feeling miserable"
"I didn't start out intending to make anything of note," Whitta said to our very own Rebekah Valentine, in an interview during GamesIndustry.biz's Changing Channels event last week. "It was really just a hobby... When Animal Crossing came along, I was playing it anyway. It came along at the right time and it was the tonic we needed when everyone was locked at home and feeling miserable."
Animal Crossing: New Horizons launched on March 21, with the global COVID-19 lockdown rapidly approaching its peak. It sold 12 million units within two weeks, rivalling the entire lifetime sales of the previous entry in the series, New Leaf. The game was clearly a phenomenon, Whitta admitted, but the idea of creating a virtual TV show was little more than a happy accident.
"And that's really all it was," he added. "It wasn't like 'Let's make a talk show.' It was 'Can I just recreate the set?' Just as a model, to see if we could get close with the items Animal Crossing provided."
With an enthusiastic Twitch audience cheering him on, Whitta assembled a facsimile of a classic US television talk show set -- the desk, the couch, the band, a few artfully paced ferns, the skyline of a city at night emblazoned across the back. The first 'episode' of Animal Talking was simply Whitta talking to a friend, the actress Naomi Kyle, incorporating all of the conversational tropes used by Letterman, Fallon, Kimmel and Conan.
"It was really fun, and the audience really enjoyed it, and I really enjoyed doing it," he continued. "I think we're all sick of looking at each other over Zoom screens. We're trying to find different ways to connect, and bringing people together in the virtual space of Animal Crossing... something about that combination captured people's imaginations."
"Particularly now, during the pandemic, we are the only talk show in the world that actually looks like one"
According to Whitta, what started as a joke between friends evolved into a full-blown hobby project around the fourth episode, when coverage of Animal Talking started to appear in some of the biggest names in the entertainment media: Variety, Newsweek, the Hollywood Reporter, on and on. From there, requests from interested celebrities began to roll in, and the show took on a life of its own.
Animal Talking now has more than 20 episodes across two "seasons," with a guest list that would be the envy of many of established TV talk shows: from games industry luminaries like Tim Schafer, Cory Barlog and Phil Spencer, to legitimate eglobal superstars like Brie Larson, Selena Gomez, Elijah Wood and Sting.
"I would say that more than half the guests we've had on season two are people that approached us," Whitta said. "They want to do the show. Any talk show is going to struggle to book celebrities like Brie Larson and Selena Gomez, but they really wanted to do it."
Whitta added: "Particularly now, during the pandemic, we are the only talk show in the world that actually looks like one. All of the big boys -- Kimmel and Colbert, Fallon and Conan -- they're all doing their shows from their basements because they can't go to their sets.
"The metaverse allows us to do this magic where we can put a guest on a real set, with a desk and a couch and a band, and all the trappings, fixtures and fittings that make it feel like a real talk show... This metaverse thing -- I'm really starting to understand why it could be so miraculous."
"This metaverse thing -- I'm really starting to understand why it could be so miraculous"
The fact that Animal Talking can now attract top-tier celebrities belies the fact that it remains an improvised endeavour -- as Whitta put it, "a hobby that spiralled wildly out of control." Everything from booking guests to clearing licensed music to creating avatars for celebrities that don't have Animal Crossing is handled by Whitta and a team of three volunteers. Revenue from Twitch and YouTube monetisation is "literally a few hundred bucks" and far short of anything that could be considered a profit. That has been fine with the world in lockdown, but it may not be sustainable in the longer term.
There is also the game itself. Whitta is unrestrained in his admiration for both Nintendo and Animal Crossing, but if it was fairly simple to create a convincing set out of the game's myriad items, simulating an actual talk show was obviously never a part of its design document.
"We're constantly pushing up against the restraints and the limitations of the game. Certainly, it has allowed us to do wonderful things... but we have long since passed the point where my ambition for what I would like the show to be has exceeded what's possible Animal Crossing. We live with the world Animal Crossing gives us. I can't modify it in any way.
"Every now and then Nintendo does something that happens to be a big help to us... 'Please let me have characters hold objects, because I would love to allow my musical guests to hold the instrument you can hear them playing.'"
Whitta admitted to having a wishlist of changes that would allow Animal Talking to evolve and become ever better, but that is not evidence of any relationship with Nintendo. Indeed, he could only guess that the Japanese publisher is okay with the show existing at all, because its profile is now too big to ignore and no cease-and-desist letter has landed on his doorstep. Yet.
"Nintendo has, in the past, been a bit prickly about people doing things with their platform -- even simple stuff like streaming their games," he said. "One of the reasons we don't have any corporate sponsorship on the show -- and believe me, I've had plenty of people approach me -- is first that I don't want to do it... As soon as it becomes 'This is Animal Talking brought to you by Doritos,' it's over. Then the fun goes away.
"As soon as it becomes 'This is Animal Talking brought to you by Doritos,' it's over"
"But it's also when Nintendo would come down on us like a ton of bricks. As soon as we start to actively monetise the show, slapping brands across their platform, I think they'd have an issue with that. We're never going in that direction."
The fact that Whitta was so open about his ambitions for Animal Talking proves that he isn't done with the idea just yet. However, he also admitted that that the amount of work involved in the early days of the show -- when as many as three episodes a week would go out, with multiple guests on each -- was more than he could handle.
"That almost killed me," Whitta said of the 15-episode first season.
The second season has a more reasonable cadence, with just one episode per week, but Whitta admitted that even a single broadcast might be too much now that the film industry is starting to wake up. There will be a Halloween Special, he said, and the US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a much touted future guest that will guarantee a new episode, but otherwise he's got one eye on an extended break.
"I think I'm at a point where I'm gonna take a little hiatus from it -- in terms of weekly shows for the rest of the year, I might be done.
"The two or three hours that I'm actually doing the show, I love it. When we're actually on the air, and I'm talking with our guests and having fun, I love it. But the 15 to 20 hours I have to put in before that, with sound checks and previews and animation and technical issues and booking guests and clearing music, that's not fun for me.
"I always said that if we got to the point where the show was more stress than it was fun to do, I'd stop doing it. We're right at that point now -- 50/50 stress and fun, and I don't want that equation to fall out of balance.
"Animal Talking will continue through the end of the year, but probably on a less regular basis, and we'll see where we are after that. I don't know that it can last forever. Animal Crossing won't be in the zeitgeist forever; it's just super popular right now... My appetite for the show hasn't waned, and I still really enjoy doing it. I just need to find a way to do it that doesn't stress me out and kill me every week."
You can watch the full interview with Gary Whitta in the video below, and you can see the rest of Changing Channels sessions on our YouTube channel.