Art animal

Melbourne Fringe Festival 2020: 'Animal Crossing' Edition

Nintendo's blockbuster game is playing digital host to Australia's annual independent arts festival.

In some ways Animal Crossing is a perfect metaphor for 2020, given that is all about isolating on your very own deserted island. While that might sound cynical, Animal Crossing’s attraction is also its strong social element, allowing players to visit each other’s islands virtually. The game has been a solace to the thousands of people worldwide who have used it as a virtual meeting place.

It has even caught the attention of event organizers as a platform to keep their live shows going. And now, Animal Crossing is all set to host a Fringe Festival.

In a first-of-its-kind experiment, the latest version of the popular Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH) will be the stage for a gala performance at the Melbourne Fringe Festival 2020. This will take place on a dedicated virtual island on ACNH, as part of a 12-hour live-streamed gala on November 28.

The lead producer of the Livestream Gala, Creatrix Tiara — known for the internationally touring stage show Queer Lady Magician, the queer, feminist, stage magic show — admits that it’s a “total experiment,” but “to be able to do it not just as a bunch of fans who work who spend one day playing, but also to have the backing of Melbourne Fringe, and [to collaborate with] a whole lot of other amazing Melbourne and international artists in this piece of art and creativity is also very significant.”

Things have changed — but not that much.The AGE/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

ACNH was the thread by which Tiara hung on to sanity during the lockdown. Having had to quarantine since their return to Melbourne from the US, they connect with their friends on the game. “Literally the first day I was allowed out of my house, I went … and bought a Switch Lite just to play Animal Crossing.” Reconnecting with their friends and using the voice chat made a bulb go off in their head: was it possible to do a show on Animal Crossing with your player character performing using the chat function? They did a trial — and also heard about other people doing game shows, stand-up comedy, and the like — and decided to apply for a Melbourne Fringe grant that was available to artists of color. “Honestly, I just wrote a 15-minute application. I did not think it would go anywhere.”

ACNH was the thread by which Tiara hung on to sanity.

It was Tiara’s “half-joke tweet musing about the idea of a festival on Animal Crossing” that got Melbourne-based composer, sound designer, and livestream producer Maize Wallin interested, and later signed on, as a collaborator. “Tiara and I have known each other for a few years through the Melbourne indie game development community,” Maize says. “We tested some work of them doing Queer Lady Magician and it just scaled from there.”

On November 28, the virtual ACNH Fringe Festival will run from 10AM to 10PM Melbourne time, featuring artists from Australia and beyond, ending with a gala variety show in the evening. The line-up (which stood at 16 performers when Input spoke to Tiara) will have stand-up comedians Samantha Serna and Sunanda Sachatrakul, actor and disability advocate Jess Cochran, cosplayer Jenni de Gille, community organizers from Slutwalk Melbourne, as well as the international Animal Crossing musical sensation, K.K. Slider. Viewers will be able to attend via the Melbourne Fringe online platform as well as follow the action on Twitch.

The festival is intended to be interactive through the chat functions and Tiara says, “We might have times during the day where we open up the island to other players... but we have to be careful about audience management.” Even if you don’t play on the island, they add, there are still ways to engage, like performances that will require audience input and can be managed via chat.

“We've added to artists’ repertoire of tools, rather than replaced anything.”

One of the fallouts of Covid-19 has been finding new spaces to interact, perform, and collaborate from, and a Fringe Festival on a game platform is probably one of the “new normals” that will endure even after the pandemic is under control. "I think it’s great that more artists and audiences have thought about virtual possibilities, especially with finding new audiences, and circumventing middle managers like exploitative record labels,” says Maize. “I think that we've added to artists’ repertoire of tools, rather than replaced anything.”

In a sense, feels Tiara, performance arts may have been changed forever, forcing the industry into a much-needed upgrade. “I don’t want to downplay grievances. Some people spend years and years on the stage and now suddenly have their careers or their livelihoods just chopped... But it will be an opportunity to be like a chrysalis... and come out as a beautiful butterfly.”