Who ever said internet friends aren't real friends? Taryn Imwalle and Savannah Czyzewicz first met by visiting each others' "islands" on Nintendo's "Animal Crossing" in 2020. Three years later, they finally came face-to-face — when one went to the other's wedding.
Imwalle, 31, and Czyzewicz, 28, both lost their jobs during COVID-19's first lockdown in 2020, and both turned to "Animal Crossing" to occupy their new swaths of time. The game series is known for its relaxing nature, offering users an escape into a gentle, cozy (and fictional) world.
"I didn't have any responsibilities," Czyzewicz tells TODAY.com. "I literally played 'Animal Crossing' for 24 hours a day. That's all I did, it was great."
"Animal Crossing: New Horizons," which released in March 2020, took over the video game world as much of the world was stuck indoors. In the game, players tend to their own islands, encountering various animal neighbors and competing tasks, all while making their home uniquely theirs.
Players can visit each others' islands through "dodo codes," and either trade goods or simply show off.
Imwalle, who lives in Ohio, and Czyzewicz, who lives in Arizona, met on the "Animal Crossing" Reddit group, which now boasts more than 2 million members. In one of the group's many threads, players trade dodo codes — think of it as instant teleportation.
"We just clicked and the conversation never stopped," Czyzewicz says. "We're both very loud and dramatic. And we both have very vibrant personalities, and we both really love to complain."
"So I think it was just kind of that shared experience of playing 'Animal Crossing' every day, but also we both got laid off. We were in the same place mentally and that drove conversation as well," she continues.
The two started to play the game together over FaceTime. During those conversations, they found they went from casual internet friends to actual close friends.
"Being completely isolated from everybody, except for the people you were quarantining with, it was just a very unique situation," Imwalle tells TODAY.com. "I honestly don't know if we would have befriended each other in the same way had it been normal times."
"Because we both loved the game and still love the game so much, I think we probably would still have been friends," Czyzewicz replies.
After more than three years of texting, calling and lots of "Animal Crossing" trading, the two were finally able to meet in person in 2023 when Imwalle flew out to attend Czyzewicz's wedding in San Diego, California.
"It was the craziest thing," Czyzewicz says. "But at the same time, it felt like I have known Taryn for my whole life."
"I just remember like texting her, 'I'm really nervous about meeting you in person,'" Imwalle says. "Sav said the same thing and I was like, 'Oh thank God. I'm not alone in my anxiety.' There's a different element to meeting somebody in person versus talking every day over the phone and on the internet."
The two friends weren't the only ones questioning their plan to make the switch from online to IRL relationship ... at a wedding. Czyzewicz says her mom was convinced Imwalle wouldn't show up, but after they met and hit it off at the wedding she quickly invited Imwalle back to California.
Czyzewicz's and Imwalle's partners weren't sold on the idea either. But Czyzewicz pointed out her husband also had an online friend at the wedding, and Imwalle says she and her husband first met online — so how different was it?
"It's funny because I never thought anything of it," Czyzewicz says. "Because all my husband's friends don't live in the same state anymore. So that's all they do, is talk online. To me it wasn't anything weird but to a lot of people that's so weird. It's not normal and not something that most people do. But the internet just has has a way about itself."
"Animal Crossing" as a means for bringing people together makes sense, they say. The game is built around forming new relationships — whether stuck inside or not.
“It’s also the nature of the game, because the game is about building relationships and it’s about developing a space in which your character coexists with these animals,” Imwalle says. “And so it’s about friendship, and the community reflects that too.”
As the two friends have since been re-employed following lockdown, they have had less time to spend on "Animal Crossing." Still, they speak virtually almost every day.
"I had the connection with you that I have with my closest friends, because you are one of my closest friends now," Imwalle says. "Just that feeling when you meet that you have known them for a long time. It's just an instant, almost karmic connection. It's this feeling like you have known them your whole life."