In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s nothing quite as unsettling as staring into the void of a wide open island. The life sim lets you terraform your getaway town however you’d like, but having that much freedom can paradoxically work against the player.
What should you make? It’s a question big enough to incite paralysis. But, let’s say you get past that initial hurdle and form an idea in your head. Maybe you start erecting some cliffs and digging some waterways, and, oh snap! As you fiddle with testy landscaping tools, it becomes clear that this idea is going to take way longer than you thought.
It’s easy to get frustrated midway through landscaping, especially if you make the mistake of comparing your humble creation to the incredible Animal Crossing achievements that go viral on social media. Even if you avoid FOMO, there’s still the tedium of collecting all the raw materials and ordering the right furniture items to make your vision come to life.
Perhaps this is why folks flock to YouTube videos of “speed builds,” where diligent Animal Crossing architects showcase the making of elaborate constructions in fast-paced videos. The videos are quick because they are set to double speed, sometimes more, depending on the length of the footage. Such videos, which sometimes feature voice over commentary breaking down the larger design process, get hundreds of thousands of views on the platform. Usually, the comments are full of people commiserating over their own terraforming woes, whether that’s attempting to make anything while suffering Joy-Con drift or having to confront the terrible reality of an unorganized island.
“My island just has random shit scattered around my house,” a commenter wrote on a video of a 5 star island that has racked up 1.1 million views. What’s curious is that the upload in question isn’t some polished production where the creator effortlessly executes. You usually can watch as the island representative backtracks, opens the menu and forgets what they were doing, and sometimes even gives up on whatever they were just working on. Ideas are attempted and then redone over and over again.
“I absolutely allow myself to make mistakes and change my mind,” YouTuber froggycrossing, who recently uploaded a terraforming project for a cat villager, told Polygon over email.
“I think viewers can appreciate the mistakes in speed builds,” she continued. “It shows that you’re not a ‘perfect’ player who terraforms perfectly every time.”
Probably it helps that hours of footage can be condensed into mere minutes, so time-consuming mistakes or dalliances aren’t taxing to watch. Viewers are comforted in knowing that their stumbles and terraforming anxieties are completely normal, while creators get to take stock of their own tendencies.
“It’s a really good way for creators to get to know themselves and understand any repetitions or flaws in their processes,” says Sofie Way, a Twitch streamer who likes to package multiple broadcasts of specific Animal Crossing projects into condensed YouTube speed builds.
Part of the appeal, beyond finding design inspirations, is that watching something come together from nothing is oddly gratifying. In an email, YouTuber Vanessa Kwok likened the appeal of speed builds to that of watching home renovations on TV.
“It is very pleasing and satisfying to the eye to see a before and after, including the process, of a customization,” Kwok says. “Whether it be a home renovation on HGTV channel or a speed build on ACNH Youtube, it is interesting to see the process of how something is created and decorated.”
Some may even find it calming to watch an Animal Crossing speed build, because the videos are often uploaded with chill music or lo-fi tunes. It’s especially soothing to behold in 2020, when the mere act of existing amid the coronavirus pandemic can feel strenuous. For folks staying indoors and socially distancing, the doldrums of the day-to-day can make time feel like it collapses into itself. The unbearable slowness of a single day is only replaced by the shock of realizing how many months have passed like this. Under these conditions, planning ahead — much less being “productive” — can sometimes be impossible. If that’s true in real life, it’s doubly true in a video game.
And make no mistake: Terraforming is work. You can, theoretically, spend time putting in that work. Many people do. Or you can chase the same molecule of serotonin watching someone else do it in your stead.
“The terraforming is, frankly, very slow, so speeding up into a more bite-sized video is more fun to watch,” froggycrossing said.