In Acrossing the Miles, the Beat’s intrepid Animal Crossing travel reporter Avery Kaplan will leave her home base on Dharma Island to soar across the Dodo skies and visit the finest creators in comics on their respective virtual islands. In today’s entry, she visits Aatmaja Pandya on the island of Mezzaluna!
On Thursday, August 6th, I boarded a plane at Dharma Airport and headed to Mezzaluna Island, the home of cartoonist Aatmaja Pandya.
The sun had nearly set as the Dodo Airlines plane made its final approach to Mezzaluna.
Aatmaja greeted me at the gate, and told me that this was her favorite time of day to play.
“I played the first three months super often at this time of day,” said Aatmaja. “Because the lighting and the music is my favorite.”
The first stop on our tour of Mezzaluna was the Beach On Which to Vibe.
Aatmaja revealed that in order to cultivate the aesthetic of the Beach On Which to Vibe, she had sacrificed functionality, a theme that would be repeated elsewhere on Mezzaluna.
“This is very poorly designed because I always forget how to get into the DJ Booth,” Aatmaja told me. “You have to crawl around and get to the DJ Booth here.”
Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the vibe.
Bryant Park Crossing
“This is my thing that I went crazy making during my first quarantine months,” announced Aatmaja when we arrived at the next portion of the tour. “I created Bryant Park in New York, but in Animal Crossing.”
Aatmaja explained that Bryant Park is one of the locations that she missed most during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A lot of my friends work in Midtown, so it was a place where we would meet just to hang out,” she told me. “And I miss it so much that I created it Animal Crossing.”
Aatmaja took a moment to point out a particular baby chair to me.
“Oh, the baby chair! Which squeaks,” said Aatmaja. “You know, because the mom is reading the book and ignoring the baby. So the baby is going to escape on the tricycle. That’s my narrative!”
Speaking of narratives, I couldn’t help but ask Aatmaja about Check Your Texts, her young adult graphic novel coming from Random House Graphic in 2022.
“It’s a book about all the stuff I really like in stories,” Aatmaja explained. “Which is animal friendships, processing grief and loss and understanding that closure isn’t real, and how do you learn to live after the worst thing has happened to you? That’s the big overarching theme of it. And friendship, and the way the dynamic between friends can change and stuff because of trauma that happens. Yeah, it sounds very serious, and it is kind of a depressing book, but I love depressing stuff, and I also want to make it funny, so kind of a morbidly funny book that is secretly about some really deep shit.”
The Mezzaluna Able Sisters and Nook’s Cranny are located in the island’s Midtown district, which is anchored by a very nice plaza.
Nearby is the Mezzaluna Museum, which features a carefully curated aesthetically pleasing outdoor area out front, incorporating playground equipment and science exhibits.
However, there were also some more sinister areas around Mezzaluna, including Godzilla Death Roulette.
“You have a 15% chance,” said Aatmaja as I spun the wheel. Unfortunately, my luck did not hold.
“Oh no! I’m sorry, you have to fight Godzilla,” Aatmaja said. “Here, I’ll ring the gong.”
Fortunately, I was able to escape his atomic breath.
As we headed toward the residential area of Mezzaluna, Aatmaja explained her philosophy in laying out the island.
She said that she understood why other players might heavily develop their respective islands, but she cultivated a different aesthetic philosophy.
“I personally am a huge fan of islands that have their sidewalks and stuff paved, I get why they do it,” she said. “But I’m big into pretending its all natural.”
“I mean, when we all first got the game and were marveling at how pretty it was, I would just sit here for hours, watching the sunset,” Aatmaja told me. “They did such a good job with it.”
Aatmaja said that she couldn’t help but marvel at the craftsmanship evident in the game.
“I admire it because you really didn’t need to make it this good, but you did it just because you could,” she said. “It’s kind of unreal, honestly, how much its driven sales of the Switch and just the game in particular.”
We also ran into Whitney, and while Aatmaja said Whitney was very nice, there is another Snooty-type villager who has won her over.
“I actually prefer the other snooty villager more,” said Aatmaja. “I have Velma, that cute lesbian goat. But Whitney is one of those really rare villagers who even in really old games seemed really special, so she’s a treasure.”
Next, we headed across the river and into the upper part of the island.
Our first stop was Aatmaja’s private beach.
“This is my Dad beach, where I go to grill and listen to tapes like a grumpy old man,” said Aatmaja.
As I watched, Aatmaja impressed me by catching a huge eel – it was thiiiiis big!
“I have this weird skinny peninsula of land, I didn’t know what to do with it so I put all my fruit trees here,” Aatmaja explained. “I kind of wish I had more space to make an orchard but I also don’t have the patience to harvest an orchard every three days. So it’s probably for the best.”
Aatmaja had several nicely arranged areas around the northern part of the island. Once we had toured these, we headed to visit the only villager Aatmaja allows to live on the upper part of Mezzaluna, Velma. Unfortunately, tragedy struck.
“Oh my god! Velma! Velma got sick while I wasn’t around,” cried Aatmaja.
“Well… now everything is extra sad,” said Aatmaja. “There’s the roses I planted for Velma, there’s the well I put out for Velma…”
But had we really heard the last of Velma?
The House of Aatmaja
Next we visited Aatmaja’s house. She chose to have her residence located in a remote area of the island, surrounded by a not-inconsiderably sized yard.
Aatmaja’s yard is filled with pink heart-shaped pathways and some very nice landscaping.
“I was greedy and I hogged all the Lily of the Valleys for my yard,” she confessed
“My Animal Crossing philosophy is always make the house I wish I could have, so I go very realistic,” explained Aatmaja. “Here’s the living room, that’s the corner where I put video games.”
Aatmaja went for a very distinct aesthetic for her kitchen.
“I was going for boujee YouTuber,” she said. “All your carefully tended plants that are definitely not thriving…”
Next, we visited her bathroom.
“This is my pride and joy, the automatic toilet,” said Aatmaja. “Love this thing!”
Unfortunately, several of the items in the bathroom were unusable due to their close proximity to other items.
“I’m one of those people who prefers the aesthetic to the functionality,” Aatmaja said.
In the bedroom, we got a glimpse of the currently sick in bed Velma thanks to a poster on the wall.
“Hi, Velma. I’m sorry you’re sick, Velma,” Aatmaja said to the Velma poster. “Velma I’m sorry I didn’t take better care of you.”
While Aatmaja doesn’t have a cat in real life, she did have underlying reasoning for the cat furniture in her bedroom.
“The lucky cat is my cat, and I play Go with it every night,” Aatmaja told me. “It’s nefarious and intelligent, my almost human companion. And that’s why the room is half for me and half for it.”
Is the Go Cat fact or fiction? I’ll leave it to our readers to decide – but I did ask Aatmaja how the process of making nonfiction comics differs from making fictional comics.
“Pretty much anything nonfiction I make comes from journaling,” said Aatmaja. “So I’ll journal, and write and write and write for a stretch of time, months to a year. And then when I think I’ve reached a point where I want to move on from that feeling, then I’ll condense it and edit it and turn that into a nonfiction comic. I don’t always post them, either, sometimes it’s nice to process all that stuff and have it on paper and then let it go.”
While there were some similarities in her process for creating fiction, there were some distinctions, as well.
“Fiction is kind of the same, I do write a lot for each draft and then edit it all together but definitely a lot more of it happens in my head,” explained Aatmaja. “You know, I visualize it more, and then just piece it together on paper after the pieces have fit mentally, rather than as writing.”
After she had finished introducing me to the Go Cat, Aatmaja gave me a choice.
“The upstairs and downstairs are my pet projects,” she said. “Do you want to see the scary one or the cute one?”
Perhaps predictably, I chose “cute.” Upstairs, Aatmaja has crafted a space that pays homage to the anime K-On!
“It’s about high school girls who play in a band in their high school, and it’s a very iconic anime,” Aatmaja told me. “I am a huge fan so I recreated their music room in here, and I got the color of all their instruments correct and they have a turtle in the show, so I put a turtle in here. I am so proud of this room! And it’s barely functional – I can barely move – but it’s perfect, and that’s all that matters!”
Aatmaja’s basement has a decidedly more creepy vibe.
“I was trying to recreate Sephiroth’s basement room from Final Fantasy VII, the Nibelheim room, that was the goal here,” Aatmaja explained. “I love this room. The funniest thing is K.K. Dirge is almost eerily like the evil Sephiroth song in cadence and in rhythm.”
Music is an important part of Aatmaja’s enthusiasm for video games, a fact I first gleaned when reading her comic “Hang in There Peach” for Chainmail Bikini, the anthology of women in gaming curated by Hazel Newlevant. I asked Aatmaja to tell me more about what video game music meant to her.
“I love video game music, I’m very sensitive and cry-y when I listen to music, especially in recent years,” she said. “So some of my old favorites, I’m still really fond of: I love the Paper Mario soundtrack, I love the Chrono Trigger soundtrack. Because I did recently play Final Fantasy VII I’ve been listening to that a lot, and some of the pieces from that are really great.”
Aatmaja said that music had been a big part of her Animal Crossing experience, and that the theme for the first entry in the series she played, Wild World on Nintendo DS, was drilled into her brain in a way a lot of other music wasn’t. While playing New Leaf, she would even go so far as to schedule her gaming for 7 P.M., during the hour when her favorite song on that game’s soundtrack would play.
However, one series had music that had an especially strong influence on Aatmaja.
“I mean, the Zelda games were probably the most influential,” said Aatmaja. “Not the soundtrack, because a lot of Zelda tracks are just sort of weird ambient noise, but certain songs from the Zelda soundtrack are really, really near and dear to me. They make me cry just listening to them. ‘The Clock Town Theme’ from Majora’s Mask? Real tearjerker for me, that’s one of my favorite games ever.”
Aatmaja told me that Majora’s Mask was her favorite game in the Zelda series.
“Kind of retroactively, I realized the way I wrote Check Your Texts the way I did was because I was processing some grief in my own life, but also because I love the kind of story they tell in Majora’s Mask,” she told me. “Which is so much about how present loss and sadness is in your everyday life, and futilely trying to fix it. They’re not going to remember you, so you have to do it just because it’s the right thing to do, and not because it makes you feel good.”
Back to the Beach On Which to Vibe
From there, we headed back toward the Beach on Which to Vibe, a nice place to meet up with your friends. Aatmaja told me that Animal Crossing has always been an experience she enjoyed taking part in with others.
“Every Animal Crossing I’ve ever played, I’ve played with a close friend, or more than one, often,” she told me. “It was my high school best friend (whose still a very close friend of mine) during Wild World, it was my college friends, who I’m also still very close with, in college, that was New Leaf. And right now it’s like my adult communities, and it’s like suddenly so many more people than I’ve ever played with at once.”
Nevertheless, Aatmaja said she was missing comic conventions.
“Yes, I am missing cons a lot,” said Aatmaja. “One of my favorite things about conventions is you get to meet the people who read your comics and it reminds you why you sit alone in a room for ten hours a day drawing. You know, because you are connecting to real people, and they care about what you do.”
Aatmaja shared a particular story of con antics with me before I headed back to Dharma Island.
“At SPX, I roomed with three good friends of mine individually who did not know each other super well,” Aatmaja said. “At least I think, they would have to say for themselves whether that was true. But I was little worried: would they get along, will they like each other? So I went out to a party and then I came back to the room at probably one in the morning, drunk. And I walked in and they were all tucked into bed together watching Ghost Hunters on TV in total silence. And I was like, ‘Wow, I am so happy I could cry!’ It was so cute. And I just got into bed and watched Ghost Hunters with them, I could not think of a better way to end the night.”
Be sure and follow Aatmaja on Twitter to keep up with all of her latest projects, and please come back soon for more Acrossing the Miles.