Stardew Valley is the surprise hit of 2016. Within 12 days of launch, it sold roughly 425,000 copies making its talented solo-creator Eric Barone a sudden millionaire by estimate. It’s meant to be a relaxing farm simulation role-playing game with a heavy Harvest Moon influence. Friends lulled me into playing it with sweet whispers of its meditative and calming powers, that it was a massage for soul and mind.
Instead of finding a good massage I felt like I’d found a bad ureteroscopy. It was one of the most stressful gaming experiences I’ve had this year, but it’s all my fault.
I knew I was starting to get in over my head when a cat turned up in the morning to live with me. I think it’s meant to be a sweet and adorable moment, but all I could think was this little furry bastard was another spanner in the works of my super-efficient country life dreams. I was already spinning too many plates in an ever increasing daily To-Do list. At this rate of burden on my finances and time I’d always live in a shack, a small shitty shack in the country.
Reflecting this new threat to my farming existence I tried to name the cat Chariman Meow, but as this was too long I settled in calling it Meowist. No time to dwell, as I’d accumulated 50 crops that needed tending on a daily basis. My Cauliflowers had been growing for 11 days and would be ripe to pick and sell for a big profit that could be re-invested tomorrow. I walked up to the first one, got my watering can ready and instead accidentally swung a pickaxe and destroyed it.
I stood for a moment dumb founded, before slamming ALT+F4 to quit the game. Then for the first time in my life I uninstalled a game not out of boredom but because, really, it had broken me. A single lost Cauliflower hadn’t caused this much emotional turmoil since the last Brassicaphile convention.
Having never played Harvest Moon back in the 90’s, I lack grounding for something like Stardew Valley. Most of my gaming time recently has been taken up with competitive multiplayer games like DOTA 2 and CS: GO, or intense single player experiences like XCOM 2. There’s really one common theme across my gaming repertoire of late; that if you don’t use your time well then when it comes to the late game, you’re going to be more fucked than a sperm bank’s communal fleshlight.
Stardew Valley starts with inheriting your Grandad’s old farm and you leaving your soul-crushing job at the game’s vague antagonist corporation, Joja. Only once you get to the farm you find it’s more crap-laden than the hall space at Crufts after a mass laxative spiking incident. Clearing out all the stones, trees and overgrown grass on the farm takes time and energy, and as you only have a limited energy bar and a ingame clock to contend with a whole day spent toiling away can often feel like very little was achieved.
Ontop of this the game starts to breadcrumb numerous trails to all the things you can do in it, often in the form of pleasant messages and gifts in your mailbox each morning. As the only things I’ve ever received in the real life mail from friends is 10kg of hot chocolate and a toothbrush, this is a novelty in of itself. Nice though these quests might be, I was soon losing head space to keep track of all the things I should be doing. Having mentally mapped out how much space could be cleared, where to explore and what needed to be bought & planted the next day it was soon tossed aside each time I woke up to a new letter.
A message came through saying that the mines had opened up. When checking it out, I was handed a sword and told to clear my way down to level 5. I was now playing a lite dungeon crawler RPG, fighting monsters and huffing the only thing I had in my inventory at that point for health; foraged dandelions. I don’t know where this fitted into my owning a farm. Having grown up in the Yorkshire countryside, my theory is you’re not allowed to be a full farmer till you’ve taken up a weapon and killed the shit out of something small and slightly edible. Probably. It might not have to be edible, I’m not sure.
As things were starting to get truly overwhelming a Wizard told me I needed to save nature, then I collapsed from exhaustion next to a pond and somebody robbed me in my sleep. It was now at the stage where I felt there were too many elements introduced for me to master even one effectively let alone several. Not knowing what skills or crops would be needed to pass later challenges, who I should’ve met or when I’d have to do so as the calendar marched ever forwards. All this culminated in my destroyed Cauliflower breakdown. I was beset by stressful challenges and micromanaging where others had described relaxation and gaming therapy. I tapped out.
Having retreated to a game of DOTA and a beer to calm me down, it nagged me that Stardew Valley didn’t click with me. Talking to friends about it again, they were having the time of their lives setting up sprinklers, naming baby cows and harvesting turnips. I’d not been so eluded by the benefits of getting into green crops that zoned out all my friends since secondary school. Mentioning how worked up trying to keep on top of everything had made me, it was a comment from a friend that made me consider that maybe I’d been trying to make the game click on entirely the wrong terms.
“You know it doesn’t matter if you miss something right dude? It just rolls around again the next year, it’s always going to be there. Like, you don’t have to do everything. Just take it at your own pace”. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that it didn’t matter about missing events, that the game had no grand set win or fail state. There was no need to get to the top of all the vocations as quick as possible. If I couldn’t socialise with a game nor master then beat it, what was the point of it?
In my crazy juggling of tasks, fishing had really struck a chord with me when playing the game. Testing myself, I cautiously reinstalled it (thankfully it’s a small download) and decided bollocks to everything going on, I’m going to get my rod out and play with myself tonight. It’s a strangely satisfying minigame, fishing in Stardew, and it’s all I did for 2 hours apart from a little light watering of my remaining cauliflowers. A daily walk to whatever bit of water I wanted, then spending the day calmly getting better at reeling fish in. It was the most relaxed I’d felt for weeks with a game, allowing myself to take this time to do not very much at all but appreciate the charming atmosphere.
That’s when I truly ‘got’ Stardew Valley’s appeal. It really is a magical zen space where you become one with nature, cordon it off then dig it up and sell it. The hints of new areas and things to do are just that, hints. Not secret or urgent content you need to unlock, merely new space there for when you feel ready for a change. No high scores, no competition, nowhere you need to press on to be just a sweet open story and carving out a space just for yourself.
After getting my rod all fishy I eventually put it and my tackle away, then picked up my hoe again and took a relaxed approach to the rest of the game. Rather than focusing on a singular task I was playing on whims. One day I might decide to chop down trees, the other I could try and win people over by giving them week-old Spaghetti. Soon I was managing all sorts at once, but destroying a Cauliflower or two didn’t matter at all because at last, I was at ease.
I had to unlearn every gaming instinct I’d unknowingly built up over the years on how to approach a game when it came to Stardew Valley. Here was a title that didn’t ask you to ‘game’ it in making it break to your will & skill, merely that you play it. It’s not stopped me seeking and enjoying challenge in new games mind. What it has done is made me pause and consider having a more malleable mindset to appreciating experiences outside my comfort zone, on their own terms. That’s the beauty of play that games can bring out which, if it wasn’t for some gentle coaxing by friends, I might have entirely missed out upon in Stardew due to my usual approach.