In many ways, Trader Francis’ seems like a typical tiki bar. There are bamboo stools and lanterns. Tiki torches, of course. The laidback owner wears a Hawaiian shirt and an Indiana Jones hat and welcomes you from behind his bar. But other elements seem slightly askew: A mounted wooly mammoth skull hangs on one wall; a complete skeleton lingers in another corner. The floor is made completely of sand. Also, an anthropomorphic raccoon dressed in boardshorts might just wander in as you pick up your cocktail. That’s because Trader Francis’ is not real, but a user-designed tiki bar on the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
“The first weekend [it came out] we were sitting around, drinking tiki drinks, playing the game,” says Cliff Lungaretti, a tech producer who lives in Brooklyn. “Our character was laying in a hammock on the beach. That led to, ‘We should design a tiki bar.’”
Quarantined since March 15, Lungaretti and his wife Mary Frances (for whom the bar is named), have been passing time with Animal Crossing: New Horizons since its release on March 20. The latest installment in the simulated-life video game series, Animal Crossing became an immediate sensation and, like Tiger King and Fetch the Bolt Cutters, a pop cultural pandemic touchstone.
Like The Sims, the game really has no “point” beyond designing your own private island within a larger network of bespoke islands. (Other players can visit you if you “open” your island airport.) The ability to customize has, of course, led to players recreating the places they most miss in the real world—namely, tiki bars.
“This is exactly how I’ve been building my island,” says Regina Belmonte, who lives in the Philippines, where there is currently an alcohol ban. “Miss pizza, build pizzeria. Miss coffee, build café. Miss clubbing, build a club. Miss cocktails by the beach, build a tiki bar.” Her tiki bar isn’t based on one spot in particular, but rather the collective vibe of beachfront tropical bars on Filipino islands Boracay and Siargao. Set on a large rock, her “sunset” tiki bar has Zen cushion chairs and bamboo tables, coconut drinks and a DJ booth.
Trader Francis’, however, is inspired directly by some of Lungaretti’s real-world favorites. Places like Dirty Dick in Paris, Otto’s Shrunken Head in Manhattan, San Francisco’s Last Rites and the Disney-based Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, the latter of which he and Mary Frances had been planning to revisit, prior to shelter-in-place orders.
Likewise, Justine Hamer, a professional 3D artist, patterned her basement tiki bar after some of her favorite haunts in California, notably Tonga Room in San Francisco, Stowaway in Costa Mesa and Twisted Tiki in Orange County (“I’m not one to turn down a Scorpion Bowl,” she says). She created a thatched roof for her stall, set moody lighting, and raided the Animal Crossing Nook Stop—a catalog where islanders can buy everything from clothing to homeware—for any and all “vacation-themed” items. “If only I could find those glass buoys or some fishing nets,” she laments.
By scouring Reddit, Facebook and Instagram, I’ve realized the game must be embedded with hundreds, if not thousands, of user-designed tiki bars. However, it’s not simply a matter of populating a basic bar template; Animal Crossing is rated appropriate for children, so bars and alcoholic drinks aren’t built into the game’s infrastructure. To build a tiki bar requires repurposing—a dark den desk becomes a bar top, bamboo stools become side tables, a wooden vendor stall becomes an al fresco walk-up bar. Lungaretti excavated Trader Francis’ mammoth skull from his island and, rather than donating it to the local museum, stuck it on his wall. For most, their island’s coconut shells are transformed into what look like cocktail vessels.
More skilled users like Hamer, who works in visual design for a living, can render their own elements. Using the Island Designer app allows players to create and upload their own custom designs. For her bar, Hamer painted a blank canvas to appear like a backbar of bottles. (On a popular private Facebook group, Animal Crossing Designers, players share custom designs, like neon signs and Margarita menus, providing unique QR codes for other players to download.)
These workarounds may seem complicated, but one Redditor, who goes by the handle Litleboony, looks at it like an aesthetic escape. She’d been planning a vacation to Montenegro when COVID-19 hit, and so dove into the game, modeling her “little” tiki bar after the beach bars she’s visited in Bali. “Animal Crossing has been a really useful tool to get away from the mundane interior of my own house and imagine that I’m somewhere else, soaking up the atmosphere over a cocktail,” she says.
Perhaps it seems silly—the idea of building a virtual bar only to invite other gamers’ virtual characters over for virtual drinks, but in many ways, it aligns with the well-trodden territory of tiki culture. Tiki has always been about escapism, and those drawn to it have been conjuring up portals to imaginary worlds for decades. The tiki bars of Animal Crossing simply take it one step further: escapism within escapism.