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. This week, she’s visiting Alison Wilgus for the launch of The Mars Challenge!
On Tuesday, June 16th, I left Dharma Island to visit Cranberry, Alison’s Animal Crossing island, for The Mars Challenge book launch.
Attending The Mars Challenge Launch
The Mars Challenge, a non-fiction graphic novel about the issues that must be overcome in order for humans to successfully complete crewed missions to Mars. It was written by Alison and illustrated by Wyeth Yates.
THE PRESS IS HERE :O pic.twitter.com/STze7jjSzR
— Alison Wilgus (@aliwilgus) June 16, 2020
To celebrate the release of The Mars Challenge, Alison had arranged multiple space-themed zones across Cranberry. However, they did later concede that although the space-themed zones were to celebrate the book launch, the style of decoration was not much of a stretch from their default sense of style: “I was setting up for The Mars Challenge, but I am also just like this.”
— Avery Kaplan (@AveryKaplan6) June 17, 2020
In addition to planetary science-themed areas like the outdoor museum filled with artifact displays and a collection of book-themed clothing, Alison also endeavored to lend verisimilitude to their book launch. They used a custom design to create stacks of The Mars Challenge and collected cardboard boxes in the days before the event.
“I was hoarding cardboard boxes,” they said. “I’ve got a book launch, I’m going to need them for the authentic Comic Con feeling.”
They said that the people who visited Cranberry to participate in The Mars Challenge book launch were eager to take part in the release-themed activities, including piling into the area designed for lectures.
Alison told me that their friends were very enthusiastic about the event, resulting in a surplus of a certain piece of furniture.
“Once they figured out what I was doing, people started mailing me these throwback rockets, so they’re all over the island,” Alison said.
I asked Alison about the genesis of The Mars Challenge, and they told me the book had an interesting origin. In 2013, they were conducting research for a novella about a crewed mission to Mars.
“And while I was doing that, I therefore was on Twitter a lot, yelling about cool stuff that I was learning,” they said. “Calista Brill, one of the editors at First Second, had been vaguely on her own thinking about how they wanted to do some beefy nonfiction books about space.”
When Brill saw Alison’s Tweets, they got together to discuss possible forms the book might take.
“We got lunch and talked about it, and then I sent I think five different proposals for different kinds of space books I could do, which ranged from biographies of individual astronauts to talking about the complex problem of human space flight. Specifically, going to Mars,” they explained. “And clearly, that’s the one that they ended up picking.”
Once the topic for the book had been selected, the long process of research and outlining began.
“For a variety of reasons, Calista ended up passing the book off to Robyn Chapman,” Alison said. “Robyn took over as being the primary editor, and she helped me navigate the temptation to put way too much information into this book.”
Alison explained that it was important not to bring Yates in too soon.
Alison also pointed out that precision in artwork is essential on a nonfiction project like The Mars Challenge, so extreme care was taken in the illustration of the book.
“Teachers and students rely on this to be accurate,” they noted. “So yeah, it was a really long process with a lot of corrections and a lot of notes and a lot of me feeling like a huge pain in the ass, but I feel like we ended up in a good place at the end of the day.”
Return to Cranberry
On June 20th, I returned to Cranberry to allow Alison to give me a tour of their island when they weren’t preoccupied with a book launch.
They were waiting for me beside a sign that read “Technically @ Work,” which is where they sit when they’ve left the game on but are not currently “at the keyboard.” They explained to me that one of their favorite parts of Animal Crossing is designing areas that would be interesting for visitors to Cranberry to explore even if Alison wasn’t currently playing alongside them.
“One thing that’s been really interesting to me as I visit other peoples’ islands is how there’s certain conventions of island setups,” Alison said as they showed me their areas for watering flowers and giving away freebies. They noted that these free giveaway areas were frequently located near the island airport for ease of access, a strategy that had yielded successful results on Cranberry, as well.
“It’s just really nice for me,” they said. “I feel like the flower-watering area and the ‘take my extra sh*t’ area are both just a really great encapsulation of what I like about this game.”
They have noticed a few other island design conventions during their time playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, as well.
“That’s the other big division in Animal Crossing: are you littering your island with turtles?” they said. “It seems to be a very hard binary of either there’s ten million turtles, or there’s zero turtles.”
We visited Apollo the Eagle, one of Alison’s favorite villagers.
“He’s my lovely biker man and I adore him,” they said. “I know he’s popular and whatever, and I might be one of the crowd, but I love him. Also, he wears that pineapple dress all the time!”
Alison told me that Apollo helped them embrace the virtual villagers in the game.
“When I first started playing this game,” they said, “Villagers were fine and everything, but I don’t really understand why people get so obsessed with them. And then Apollo moved to my island and I became completely obsessed with him.”
“I feel like a lot of people want to make their islands look as much like a city as possible,” Alison said. “But I like to kind of maintain the ‘a bunch of people living on an island in the middle of the ocean’ vibe.”
One way that Cranberry maintains its “middle of the ocean” vibe is by having the villager residences clustered along the West coast of the island.
Another way that Alison is maintaining the vibe is by utilizing a moss pattern that was designed by their friend Hannah Krieger.
— Hannah Krieger (@kreeeger) April 20, 2020
“I feel like one of the things I want to do in Animal Crossing is just make things feel a little bit lived-in,” Alison explained.
Near the “Gayliens,” Alison showed me a difficult-to-locate area that looked out across the ocean north of Cranberry.
“My favorite thing to do in this game is to set up little secret fun areas for people to find,” they told me. “It’s fun to visit other peoples’ islands in a big group and all be running around, but I also like to have it so that if somebody comes over by themselves and they’re just looking around, there’s fun stuff to find.”
They’ve also taken advantage of the game’s terraforming feature, building a Legend of Zelda-style waterfall corridor and a valley leading to Redd’s secret beach.
Alison told me that one of the tricks they had picked up for island design was to plant the saplings in locations that would prevent their growth, so the trees remain small and cute.
“I really like figuring out how to use depth in the game,” they said. “Like layering things to add visual interest. It really does feel like set building.”
Island design is a topic of interest for Alison: “I was listening to a story on 99% Invisible about Instagram architecture, and I do feel like there’s a way in which, when you’re setting up stuff in Animal Crossing you simultaneously want it to be fun to walk around in, but you also want to have it positioned such that if somebody wants to take a cool picture, then they can.”
Above Redd’s beach is an area designed for writing on deadline.
“It feels extremely relaxing!” they said. “I’m joking, but I’d love to have that be my writing sensory deprivation room.”
Near Redd’s Valley is the Stonehenge area, where Alison has displayed their space shuttle.
“When I was setting up for The Mars Challenge, Gulliver came over and gave me Stonehenge,” they explained. “And I was like… Well! I’ve been trying to find the perfect place to put my space shuttle, and this is it.”
Additional Areas Around Cranberry
There are plenty more points of interest around Cranberry.
Near the book launch zone, they designed an area to resemble the commissary at the Javits Center, which they identified as a significant development, considering how little love lost they typically have for the convention center.
They have also put a significant amount of effort into gardening.
“I was joking with friends the other day, then only reason to do flower breeding in Animal Crossing was so that you, too, could make a Pride garden,” they laughed. “That’s the goal!”
And atop a mountain is Alison’s radio telescope zone, which includes a cot for work that requires an overnight shift. Perhaps the cot shouldn’t come as a surprise – in fact, Alison told me it was sometimes necessary to make overnight arrangements during the process of researching The Mars Challenge, when they took part in several NASA Socials.
“You have to pay your way to get there, physically,” they said. “And if it’s overnight you have to pay for your own housing. But other than that, you basically show up and if it involves going around they’ll put you on a bus, or they’ll put you into a theater, and it varies from ‘sit in an auditorium for two hours and listen to a Q & A with an astronaut’ to ‘spend two days touring NASA facilities ending with a rocket launch.’”
Alison said they attended a NASA Social at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas that was especially helpful for the development of The Mars Challenge.
“They toured us through a lot of the more astronaut training and care oriented facilities at NASA Johnson,” they recalled. “That included getting to tour around the space station mockup. It’s essentially like a huge hanger that has all of the ISS modules sort of sitting out in as close as possible to their current configuration, so that you can walk around inside of them and see how they are oriented in regards to each other.”
The experience directly informed The Mars Challenge: “In the book there’s a scene where Eleanor and Nadia, the two main characters, are walking around inside that facility at NASA Johnson, and that’s directly taken from my experience in visiting.”
In addition to exploring the ISS modules, Alison’s experience at the NASA Social also included a lecture by Liz Warren, who explained how bed rest studies were utilized to simulate the effects of micro-gravity on the human body.
Warren ended up being especially important to book. “She was one of the fact checkers on The Mars Challenge years later,” Alison revealed. “I only knew and met her from going on this visit to NASA Johnson, so it was really nice to have her then help me out with the book all those years later, and tell me all the things I was getting wrong.”
Visiting Alison’s Abode
As we approach Alison’s house, one thing becomes immediately clear: they are a train guy.
“I am a train guy,” they said. “I got that train set like the first week I was playing the game, and it’s sat in front of my house ever since and I’m never moving it!”
“Really early on in playing this game, a friend of mine said that the thing about Animal Crossing is that peoples’ islands and peoples’ houses are extremely them,” Alison said. “And that is definitely the case with my house.”
Behind their main room, Alison has set up a nice garden.
“I set this up relatively early in the game, and friends would mail me cool plants that I didn’t have yet,” they told me. “Not only do I like this room because it’s genuinely relaxing for me to look at, but also because it is filled with things that I have because friends sent it to me, which just makes me very happy.”
As they showed me their house, Alison explained how they started playing Animal Crossing.
“I was on a conference call with a bunch of people I work with, and somebody was fifteen minutes late so we were killing time,” they explained. “And at one point I was like, ‘Am I the only person on this call who’s under sixty and also not playing Animal Crossing?’”
Later, they discovered that the person on the conference call who was over sixty had in fact also been playing Animal Crossing.
“That was the turning point for me,” Alison admitted.
Their office included stacks of The Mars Challenge (left out in the preparation of the book launch), a Back to the Future poster on the wall, and several objects that reveal Alison’s New England roots. “There’s a lobster model on top of the locker and there’s a hermit crab in my office,” they noted.
Hard at work getting geared up for the Mars Challenge debut. 😎✨ pic.twitter.com/zoJopcq0fP
— Benjamin Alison Wilgus (@BenWilgus) May 25, 2020
Plus, there’s a bunk bed, in case any friends need to spend the night.
“I feel like office doubling as guest room is extremely comics culture,” they said. “‘I have to have a guest room, for when people want to stay with me, for a con!’”
Upstairs is Alison’s bedroom, which includes the autumn version of the train set.
“There’s a fourth train set somewhere,” Alison said. “I’ll have to get all of them, and then I’ll set them out somewhere and be a nerd.”
In the basement, Alison has designed an extremely impressive area to enjoy a cup of tea.
“I remember joking at the time that real luxury in Animal Crossing is having coelacanths as furniture,” they said. Now, they’re living the dream.
In addition to their own house, Alison has also set up a second house on Cranberry for Miles, their pet cat.
“I have been extremely encouraging friends of mine to also set up houses for their cats,” they told me.
The fact that they already have their own primary residence frees Alison up to decorate the second house more unconventionally. In fact, the house has been set up to resemble an art exhibit.
Crossing with Friends
They had a confession for me about Animal Crossing: “I’m deeply sentimental about the friend aspect of this game.”
They told me that one of their favorite memories playing with friends in Animal Crossing took place just a few days before the book launch for The Mars Challenge.
“They all came over and we all took pictures, and we all posed and did the whole panel thing,” Alison said. “They all lined up to pretend like they were lining up for my signing, it was just such an uncomplicatedly nice thing, and just genuinely felt like having a bunch of my friends come and hang out with me before the book coming out.”
“I’m very grateful for that at this particular moment,” they said. “I would have been grateful about that on any moment, but it was especially nice right now.”
CORRECTION: This article originally erroneously stated that Celeste, rather than Gulliver, had given Stonehenge to Alison. The Beat regrets the error.