It’s been a long time since I stayed up until 4 AM playing a video game. The onset of both college and post-college life meant that I would rather spend my fairly limited time doing many other things. I just couldn’t afford to ruin the next day by spending the time I would be sleeping on playing a game. In order to convince me otherwise, a game would have to be playable in an unlimited number of discrete increments, such that I would always want to play one more. Additionally, it would have to be non-competitive so I wouldn’t give in after losing a game. Growth and achievement are must-haves. Taking all that and tossing in pleasing visuals and sound, in an endlessly rich world, gets us to a fairly strict set of requirements.
Fortunately, I have just the thing.
Recommended to me a while back, I picked up Stardew Valley during the past Steam winter sale, and finally had a chance to open it a couple weeks ago. Since then, for better or for worse, I have been completely hooked.
If I had ever played a Harvest Moon title, I would probably say the game is reminiscent of Harvest Moon. Having not, it feels like a wonderful amalgamation of Animal Crossing and Minecraft, with some of the good parts of Farmville. The game is divided into days, each of which take about a half hour (though this can be highly variable). Each day you wake up promptly at 6 AM and have until 1 AM the next morning to do whatever you want, whether that’s planting, watering, and harvesting your crops, fishing in the rivers, lakes, and ocean, talking to villagers, or any number of other activities. Your path forward is entirely up to you.
And yet, the wide range of choice leads to a frustrating conclusion. Upon initially opening up the game, I made it to the first summer before giving up. In a game about open-ended cultivation and exploration, I nevertheless felt like I was doing it wrong. Over the course of that first spring, I had realized so many things I hadn’t been doing or did wrong. I didn’t know that all your crops withered at the end of each season unless they specifically are marked to carry over. I didn’t know that you could build a chest until I had already thrown away tons of useful material. I didn’t know that because of weekly gifting limits, you have to start early to become friends with the villagers.
Thus, after the first month, I started the game over.
On take two, I made it to day 13 of the first spring before giving up. I once again felt that I wasn’t doing it right. There were many days in which I didn’t get done what I thought I had to accomplish. On one day I even ran out of energy and collapsed in the mine, which is never a good sign. With so many successive days of perceived failure, I didn’t have it in me to continue.
So I started over. Again.
On my third play I finally nailed everything for the first spring. I went into the Egg festival with tons of money for strawberry seeds. I blitzed the mine up to level 40 to start gathering iron for sprinklers. I made a bunch of tree tappers to gather pine resin for fertilizer. Finally, I felt like I was hitting or even exceeding all of my goals. With more and more sprinklers, I had to water fewer and fewer crops each morning, leaving me with more time and more energy to do other productive things with the rest of the day. Summer came, and I spent my accrued fortune on as many blueberries as I could support. I’m now at Summer 4, year 1.
And I feel a little bit lost.
In my relentless drive to perfect my first month, I set myself up for failure following it. I did it; I hit my goal, I made every day count. But now what? Should I set another extremely distant goal and replay over and over until I hit it? It’s not quite that I don’t want to give up on my progress again, but that I don’t know what I should even be aiming for in the first place. What is the point of playing Stardew Valley?
In this way, Stardew Valley feels less like a video game and more like, well, life. There’s not really a “point” of playing the game. The closest thing the game provides to a singular main goal is repairing the community center, but that feels more like a way of marking your progress than your motivation to progress. When I finally decide to stop playing, I don’t think I’ll feel completed. Though I don’t know what the “end” of the game has in store for me, I don’t think it will feel like a fitting, all-inclusive conclusion.
And yet, isn’t that life? Living out one more day, reaching another little goal you’ve set for yourself, and making new friends along the way? Perhaps the all-consuming search for perfect and complete meaning isn’t the right way to play, nor the right way to live. Stardew Valley does not give a reason to farm, to fish, or to explore. Aside from an initial hint, it doesn’t even force you to meet all of your neighbors.
But then, it doesn’t have to. The world is so rich in color, in sound, and in personality. Blades of grass and flowering bushes dance everywhere you go. The music shuffles to match the season and the weather, as well as to punctuate key scenes and days. Each and every townsperson has a completely independent schedule that varies by day of the week, season of the year, and current weather condition. Additionally, all have exceedingly deep personalities that change and reveal themselves as the player gets to know them. I’ve never seen this much attention to detail in a game not for the purposes of game mechanics, but purely to create an amazingly rich world in which to play.
One day while I was farming away, I heard a train whistle. Immediately thereafter a notification popped up on the bottom of my screen, saying, “A train is passing through Sundew Valley.” Did that have any significance? I don’t know! In any other game, I would answer yes, beyond a doubt. But in Sundew Valley I’m not so certain. Maybe it didn’t have any meaning. Maybe, just as in real life, sometimes trains pass through your town, blowing their far-off whistles while traveling to far-off lands. As the sound fades, maybe you return to your prior activity, or maybe you start a new one. Maybe it had significance to you, and maybe it didn’t. Did it mean something? No one can say for sure. That’s just life.