The Animal Crossing soundtrack is an unlikely lullaby for a nervous world

Michael Andor Brodeur

THE WASHINGTON POST – Right now, millions of households and headphones around the globe are filled with the music of one of the world’s most popular and influential composers.

Over the past month, homebound listeners have spent hundreds of hours immersed in his latest work – a suite of never-ending melodies – but most of them don’t even know his name. They consume his music the same way one breathes air, with an unceasing and unconscious appetite.

As a composer for video games, Kazumi Totaka’s music is more likely to be heard in living rooms than in concert halls. And even then, like most video-game music, it’s instinctually relegated by listeners to the background, where it belongs – somewhere behind all the explosions.

“When I first joined the company,” he wrote in a recent email, “The manager of the sound section at the time told me, ‘The music is too loud. It should be quieter’ while play-testing a game. This was a huge shock for me at the time. I couldn’t believe a composer would say their own music should be quieter!”

But Totaka, 52, the mastermind behind the music of Nintendo’s long-running Animal Crossing game series, has found an enthusiastic and quite literal captive audience for his newest creation – a blissful 24-hour lullaby that’s helping countless players weather countless hours of forced downtime. For millions, it’s become the strangely soothing soundtrack to the pandemic.

Video game composer Kazumi Totaka is behind those soothing Animal Crossing melodies. PHOTO: NINTENDO

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the eighth title and the fifth main-series installment of the franchise, which Totaka has scored since 2001. Released worldwide on March 20, the latest iteration of the life-simulation game skyrocketed to record-breaking sales in Japan, moving 1.88 million physical copies within three days, and 2.8 million within 10 – to say nothing of direct downloads.

Nintendo has yet to disclose the game’s sales in the United States (US), but analysts are already referring to Animal Crossing as what’s known in the biz as a “system seller” – meaning demand for the game has retailers trying and failing to keep Nintendo’s popular Switch system in stock.

This, plus the recent surge of AC-related tweets, Twitch streams, subreddits, Slack channels and memes, reflects the explosive popularity of New Horizons as well as a widespread desire among Americans to escape from their quarantined realities into the game’s boundless atlas of fantasy islands.

In extraordinary times like these, it’s easy to understand why.

With its menagerie of adorable anthropomorphic neighbours, its stubbornly sunshiny aesthetic (even when it rains) and its strangely seductive mimicry of everyday life, the Animal Crossing experience is an irresistible mix of distraction, diversion and what sure feels like productivity. Its endless to-do list of tiny tasks can offer solace for a workforce caught in indefinite limbo, and its expansive cast of relatable critters (or ersatz co-workers) can feel something like a social life.

Animal Crossing is meant to be ordinary,” Totaka said. “It presents a mostly regular, everyday world. That’s why I try to call to mind the actual experiences you find during everyday life, and the more inconsequential thoughts and feelings that come up in ordinary, non-dramatic daily life.’”

In other words, Totaka’s music is inspired by the fantasy of normalcy, which makes it perfectly timed for whatever this is.

Players spend their days on their respective islands picking fruit, catching fish, mining and harvesting resources, trading them for goods and services, taking out loans (and sometimes plucking money bags from trees), decorating their homes and filling them with stuff, and investing in the stalk market (not a typo, it’s based on turnips).

It’s days and weeks of mindless work, and somehow it’s incredibly relaxing. Indeed, the sense of stability that attends the attentive daily maintenance of one’s vision for the future is part of the reason Animal Crossing has been so warmly embraced as a collective time-waster in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

It’s an island overgrown with trees, weeds and flowers, yes; but it’s also a single bonsai.

Totaka has been a composer and sound director for Nintendo since 1992, starting with the 8-bit handheld Game Boy system (X) and progressing to the Super NES (Mario Paint), the Nintendo 64 (Yoshi’s Story), the GameCube (Luigi’s Mansion), the Wii (Wii Sports) and, now, the Switch. He’s penned (or programmed) some of the most memorable video-game themes in the genre’s songbook, and his work has grown more sophisticated in parallel with the lineage of chips and consoles he’s composed for – with each system incrementally broadening the sonic possibilities, bit by literal bit.

But Totaka has also developed a recognisable sound of his own, beyond the goofy 19-note melody he’s slyly hidden like an Easter egg in dozens of titles. His menu music for the Wii system emerged from its console as something of a cultural touchstone, inspiring interpretations from jazz bands and drag queens alike. And in Animal Crossing games, his jazzy, breezy, kitschy style slows its roll into light, languid meditations that loop as naturally as the waves on the shore. You could – as our household has – listen to them all day, and find them lingering long after you’ve turned out the lights.

And because days on your island are synchronised to days on your couch (right down to the angles and hues of the sunlight), Totaka’s score changes and adapts as the hours pass. At 5am, the themes stretch and yawn as though rising from bed; by noon they’re buzzing like bees through rays of tropical jazz; 5pm rolls in with a funky, happy-hour swagger that, as the kids say, slaps; around 10pm Totaka’s firefly figures start darkening and tuckering out and if you’re still playing at 3am, the music seems to furrow its brow and ask when you’re going to call it a day.

Often, Totaka’s arrangements feel like an extension of the weather. When it rains, the drums drop out and a plonking marimba takes over for the bass. (“We thought about what music would enhance the sound of the rain rather than trying to create an arrangement to represent rain,” Totaka said.) And because the game also syncs with your local seasons, winter arrives there when it does here, greeted by glockenspiels and spare sleigh bells. And like the weather, sometimes the music sits front and centre, setting the stage for the action, if you can call it that.

Other times, it’s barely there, gently shaping your island experience like a sea breeze shifting pixels of sand.

“We didn’t want to tell the whole story with music,” Totaka said. “Rather, we put the highest importance on composing music that shaped the space between the sounds.”

This means Totaka’s now-trademark palette of bossa-tinted guitars, curlicuing synths, dew-damp hand-drums and lush horns are seamlessly incorporated into the island’s own virtual/natural soundtrack of distant crickets and crackling campfires. The crunch of autumn grass or fresh snow under your avatar’s feet, the splash and thrash of a caught fish, and the ever present hiss of the surf all become part of the music.

Totaka even makes an appearance of sorts in Animal Crossing as an alter ego: a musically versatile, guitar-slinging dog named K K Slider, whose 96 genre-spanning singles – ranging from blues to house to études to K-pop – dominate the radios and record players of the game’s universe. (Put in enough time on your island and K K eventually scores a regular Saturday night gig in its town square.)

The score has been an instant hit among fans and newbs alike, inspiring dozens of YouTube homages, and edits that allow the loops to cycle for hours at a time. It’s music that can make just about anywhere feel like an island getaway – even your locked-down apartment.

The lapping waves, the looping melodies, the cycling songs, the changing seasons – they all contribute to the calming rhythms of Animal Crossing, each loose enough to relax in and tight enough to rely on. But just as important to Totaka as setting the scene is making room for silence – an escape from the noise.

“Sometimes,” he said, “the lack of music is key”.