When I first noticed TikTokers effusing about something called Disney Dreamlight Valley, I imagined it was your standard gem-matching mobile game, complete with in-app purchases and the occasional uncanny valley Elsa cheering you on from the sidelines. But throughout September, TikTok continued to feed me more and more videos of people claiming to be “addicted” to a game that had “taken over their life”. Someone, somewhere called it “Disney Animal Crossing” and with that, I was off to see a mouse about a house.
Available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, Xbox, and PC, Gameloft’s Disney Dreamlight Valley is a simulation adventure that owes Tom Nook-levels of debt to everyone’s favourite pandemic play, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In both games, you obtain a home in a strange land and start fishing, digging, breaking rocks, picking flowers, growing crops and crafting to make it as idyllic as possible for new residents. In Disney’s offering, these residents are Goofy, WALL·E and Ursula. Dreamlight even rips off ACNH’s rewards programme, rebranding “Nook miles” to “Dreamlight duties”, though it gives it a notably more adult – or at least, Disney adult – interface.
The whole thing would be a shameless copy, if not for the fact that Dreamlight dramatically improves on some of the annoying things about Animal Crossing by getting rid of time constraints and adding a compelling narrative about collective amnesia. “The forgetting” has destroyed a valley where Disney characters once lived harmoniously (question: did Moana freak out when she saw Scrooge McDuck for the first time?). It’s up to you to clean up the valley, find the missing residents and restore peace.
I sunk six unthinking hours into Dreamlight before I remembered my real world responsibilities – it’s just as compulsive as the TikTokers say. It is the kind of game that etches itself on to your eyelids, so that when you turn it off and look at the dirty dishes in your kitchen sink, you can’t help but see them as a side-quest. And there’s something about growing virtual vegetables that scratches a primordial itch – evolutionary psychologists should study it. I want to know why watering 10 carrots and selling them to Goofy makes me feel so alive.
Perhaps economists should study Dreamlight Valley, too. Playing it, I’m constantly reminded of Disney’s ruthless capitalism – this is a game where you can obtain a Minnie Mouse backpack and T-shirts featuring the brand’s iconic castle, conveniently very much like the ones available in real-life Disney stores. Goofy’s home in the game has Nordic-style dining chairs emblazoned with silhouettes of Mickey Mouse’s head – echoing a recent explosion in Disney homeware. Real or virtual, it’s Mickey’s world, and we just live in it.
Truthfully, the sheer amount of stuff in Dreamlight can be overwhelming (it’s daunting and a little disturbing to be told you’ve only acquired 8 of 973 possible furniture sets). The game’s multistep quests are also frustrating, demanding that you do everything in a precise order. (For example, if you go ahead and bake the crackers Mickey asked for without first talking to him, leading him to your house, and talking to him again, your quest won’t be fulfilled.) But even these criticisms reveal just how endless the game is.
There’s so much to do and see and it’s very difficult to get bored. Let me wash Remy the rat’s dirty dishes with a watering can! Let me craft a trellis arch out of sticks! Let me advertise Scrooge McDuck’s store by wearing a T-shirt with his face on it and let me eat seven apples in a row so I don’t die of exhaustion! This is living – or at least, simulation living. We’re firmly in cosy season. This is Disney Dreamlight Valley’s time.
Of course, I want – like anyone who played The Sims in the year 2000 – to be mean to Mickey, to stir up trouble, sling a few insults and give him something to really say “gosh” and “aw, gee!” about. Short of moving his house to the farthest corner of the valley and surrounding it with ugly furniture, it seems unlikely that I can cause much upset. Unlike on Animal Crossing, I can’t even “accidentally” hit anyone on the head with a bug net in order to passive-aggressively encourage them to move away from my island.
Does this – plus my cynicism about Disney capitalism and suspicion of anything seemingly organically promoted on TikTok – mean that I will put the game down? Absolutely not. I am in its thrall; it is compulsive. Even as I write these words I’m compelled to go back. The Disney stuff is the least of the game’s appeal – I don’t really care about Merlin and Moana, and I would happily build a fire of pixels to burn all of Dreamlight’s ugly clothing. But I could dig, craft, fish and cook for ever. This is no throwaway mobile game, and it will render me immobile for the foreseeable future.