There’s nothing like a good video game at the end of the day to take your mind off the worries of work and life. To be able to slip into a comfy world where none of your trivial problems can follow is a rare treat. And it’s one that Stardew Valley has been delivering me on a sporadic basis for as long as it’s been around (and now with a Switch release tomorrow, on a sporadic basis wherever I happen to be, too).
Stardew Valley is a strange choice of escape for me. I have no nostalgia for Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing or any sort of farming game, so I don’t get to see its charm through the rose-tinted specs of a genre faithful. And in terms of a relaxing time it’s almost laser-focused on the aspects of games that stress me out. Finite day lengths, resource and energy management, crop rotation, missable events, choice overwhelming, SOCIAL INTERACTIONS. It’s a smorgasbord of red alerts to the dozy post-worker who just needs a warm saline bath to dip his brain in for a few hours recovery.
But the sum of those parts is a game that says “don’t worry about that stuff, you have all the time in the world.” And it’s right. Some of my favorite games have been based on the inexorable march of time (Majora’s Mask, Dead Rising) and the urgency to complete tasks or fail them forever was part of the thrill. Stardew’s approach is open-ended, so you didn’t have a partner at the Flower Dance, there’s always next year.
The game might all be geared around earning money, letting you choose however you want to go about doing that, but it never needs you to have a set amount. There are no seasonal overheads to satisfy, or scripted disasters to fiscally survive. Just go out and fish, or construct elaborate fields of colorful crops, or fight your way through the mines. You’ll get that new kitchen eventually.
Stardew’s the sort of game that I would usually try to min-max, creating efficient schedules to get the most out of my crop timings and finite energy per day. But there’s just something about it that, even this long after its release, I’m not at all bothered about making fast progress. You came here, in the game’s story, to escape the pressures of the big city. And that’s how I’ll keep playing it.
A great deal of that has to come down to the music that more or less forces you into a rural mindset. Each season has its own audible take on what makes the great outdoors relaxing, and lulls you into forgetting whatever hard set plans you had when you sat down to farm. It’s rare in a game with so many choices that I’ll haphazardly split my time among them. Most games with this many side pursuits would clog up your HUD or map with icons reminding you of something to do so you’re never bored. The valley simply leaves it to your whims.
At first I was a little put out by this. The lack of direction, combined with my sometimes long stints between play sessions (it’s hard to find the time these days, isn’t it?) meant I was forever lost with whether to hold onto something in case someone wanted it, or if the community center might need it.
Thankfully the playstyle I adopted of talking to everyone I walk past means I’m almost constantly barraged by helpful tips under the guise of making my rounds in the village on a sunny afternoon. Going for a stroll, meeting someone on my way back from fishing and suddenly remembering that I’ve got a tool that can be upgraded at the blacksmith’s – but figuring I'll get round to it tomorrow. That’s the life I’m looking for.
I said earlier that I stopped worrying about making fast progress and that’s because I realised that everything in this game is progress. You could sit in your yard, water three plants and play with your dog all day and that would still be progress. It’s not to say that you can’t fail, but Stardew’s answer to the classic question of the gaming fail state is to say “that’s fine”.
Without the expectations and risks you’d usually find in dropping your career to take up agriculture, it’s kind of amazing how much you can really get done. Now I have amassed a pretty solid personal collection of all different kinds of crops and food and if I have something someone needs then that’s cool. If not, try me again next year. I’ve got the time.