This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
I haven’t played video games since I owned a Sega Mega Drive back in the ’90s. Somewhere along the line, I transformed from a sweaty, nervous 6 year old failing to stop Sonic from drowning in Chemical Plant Zone, to a sweaty, nervous thirty-something failing to do anything ever. Video games had never really entered into my adult life. I had other things to worry about, like “I can’t have eaten all those biscuits already!?” and “Why are my teeth doing that weird thing?”
That’s not to say I didn’t want to be a gamer. I always envied people who were able to become so utterly absorbed in game worlds. I’d had various unsuccessful attempts at mastering controllers with more than three buttons. No current gen games could hold my attention for more than five minutes, mostly because growing seventeen extra fingers in order to save Generic Space Princess™ from Generic Threat™ was too much effort. I’d always get bored and go eat a Pot Noodle instead.
And then my boyfriend bought me Stardew Valley, and everything changed.
For those of you who don’t know, Stardew Valley is an indie farming/dating sim created by Eric Barone under the name ConcernedApe. Inspired by the Harvest Moon games of old, Stardew Valley sees the player inheriting their grandfather’s old, run down farm, which they bring back to life, while making friends with the residents of nearby Pelican Town.
I started the game up. It was mid-evening when I started playing, and when I next checked the clock a fortnight had passed and I’d racked up 100 hours without even noticing. Things like eating and sleeping had become minor annoyances, to be dealt with as quickly as possible so I could get back to my farm. I started to view Stardew Valley as a world rather than a game, and I found myself wanting to spend all my time there. Even with no objectives, just hanging out in the game was enough for me.
Stardew was a revelation: it made me fall in love with video games again.
Because I suck at organizing the clutter in my head, the best thing to do is take you through some of the things that made me fall in love with this wonderful game.
Everybody needs good neighbors…
Every character in Stardew Valley has their own unique personality, and all have hidden depths and secrets. The farmer only begins to scratch the surface of the interpersonal dramas at play once they start to befriend the villagers, by talking, running errands, and giving gifts.
Take my current love interest Shane. (At first I was blinded by Elliott’s lovely hair, but eventually I got on the Shane Train.) When the player first meets Shane, he tells you, in no uncertain terms, to piss right off:
But persevere and you begin to uncover his story bit by bit. Because I’m trying to stay as spoiler-free as possible, let’s just say that there’s an explanation for his initial rejection of you. Similarly, when you first meet Haley, she’s a shallow valley girl type. If there was an option for “punch Haley in the head until her head bleeds,” I suspect many people would have taken it early on.
But like Shane, Haley has hidden depths. Could her spoiled princess facade be hiding a warm, nature-loving side?
Not all character arcs are of the “misunderstood soul” type. Getting to know some characters results in the opposite effect, particularly once you get to witness their interactions with each other. Dysfunctional families, clandestine relationships, and embarrassing secrets are rife in Pelican Town, and you never know where the next Jeremy Kyle popcorn moment is going to come from. For a bunch of pixels, they get up to a hell of a lot of stuff.
Perhaps most importantly, Stardew Valley teaches us this: if someone doesn’t like you, simply throw mayonnaise at them until they do.
We are living in a material world…
At the heart of Stardew Valley is the story of the run-down community center, a building which is coveted by Joja Corp, owners of the convenient but evil supermarket JojaMart. If the Mayor agrees to the purchase, the community center will become a JojaMart warehouse, and the supermarket will thrive. The Mayor is all but ready to make this deal with Joja Corp. After all, no one uses the community center these days, and it’s become an eyesore. No one can possibly restore it to its former glory, can they?
As the player, you have the option to pursue the community center story, but you also have the option to enable the deal with Joja Corp. Both story options have benefits for the player, but lead to very different outcomes. You have to decide whether to side with big business, or with the little guy. And let me tell you – this isn’t always as clear cut as it sounds.
I’ve been through the desert on a bus with no name…
“But Stardew Valley is just a farming game!”
Ho ho, excuse me while I piss myself. It is no such thing.
This is the most difficult part to keep spoiler-free, but I’ll try my best by keeping it short.
Secrets. So many secrets. So much hidden stuff. So many unlockables. Stardew Valley is a Pass the Parcel prize wrapped in at least 70 layers of wrapping paper.
Some of the game’s secrets are so obscure that fans had to explore the game’s code to uncover them. And, maddeningly, there are still unexplained things in the game to this day. These may or may not be explained in the next update, due early this year. However, fans will no doubt be too busy uncovering the new batch of secrets promised by ConcernedApe on Twitter:
If you like secrets in games, buy Stardew Valley and dig dig dig. You won’t be disappointed. Stardew Valley makes The Da Vinci Code look like the Screwfix Direct catalog.
“Press any key (where’s the any key?)”
I mentioned above that I haven’t played video games since I was a small, snot-filled child. This is because I’m bad at them.
So many modern games seem to me like dick waving competitions, where plot and overall experience are sacrificed in order to answer the question “Who can press the most buttons at once?” I realize this is a subjective thing, but I’ll bet my hobnobs that I’m not the only one who feels like this.
Stardew‘s controls are, well, easy. I mean this in the best possible way: the parts that should be easy – such as getting your character to do anything but die – are easy, but that’s not to say the game isn’t intricate and complex. Not everyone wants to have to do a 17-button combo in order to move, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want a challenge. We just don’t want to waste time and patience trying to get the hang of the most basic moves.
The challenge in Stardew comes in the form of preparation and planning, of slowly building up your knowledge and resources, of learning secrets, and building up relationships. There is a combat element to the game, but this takes a retro “run and hit” approach, rather that “run, hit, run, press L1, press bkgckrbut7rbechgygebj, press L1 again, bring up your weird skill wheel thing, then press all buttons at once just because” approach.
And if one particular aspect of gameplay isn’t your thing, there are always ways around it. Most things can be acquired by multiple means, so you’re never locked out of the game just because you don’t enjoy one aspect of it. The focus of the game is on having fun and playing at your own pace. It’s one of the most inclusive games around, with something for everyone. Want to spend your time murdering monsters? Have at it. Want to spend all your time following Shane around? That’s groovy, too. (I do not do that.)
There are multiple gameplay elements in Stardew, and you’re encouraged to dabble in all of them, go nuts trying to max out one skill, or simply spend all your time writing “Screw Flanders” around your farm with your hoe. The joy of Stardew is that it doesn’t really matter.
Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I eat…
I rarely play Stardew for more than five minutes without something making me giggle. Some things are straight-up jokes (a quest to retrieve lost underpants), some are Easter eggs (displaying said underpants at the town fair), and some are what I would describe as “accidentally-on-purpose mistakes.” By “mistakes,” I mean that the AI is programmed in such a way as to occasionally give you nonsensical and sometimes downright rude dialogue. For players, this is part of the game’s charm.
For example, it was a running joke (sadly patched now to the best of my knowledge) that when you gave Abigail an amethyst, this was her response:
Completing a quest for the local carpenter? Best do it when she’s out of bed.
And if you have a dirty mind (and you do), you might enjoy perusing the daily “Help Wanted” board:
The game is packed with tiny details that are often missed on your first playthrough, meaning you only get some of the laughs on your second, third, or fourth playthrough. Enemies stop attacking you to have sex, the local blacksmith makes an arse of himself, and JojaMart is filled with appealing sounding products like “taco sauce for babies” and “powdered butter.”
This is not a “comedy game” by any means. It just happens to be effortlessly funny, and the jokes give an extra layer to an already joyous experience.
Where everybody knows your username…
When people love Stardew Valley, they LOVE Stardew Valley. The game and its creator have an army of loyal fans that swap tips, jokes, and stories of how the game has affected their lives (one fan bought a farm in real life after playing Stardew, another was inspired to write a love letter to his long-time crush). People post their cosplay photos and hand-knitted characters, always greeted with hearty congratulations from the other players.
As wonderful as the game is, it’s made twice as wonderful by the fan community. A special mention here must go to the the Stardew Valley Reddit. So often in fandom, elements of competitiveness and snide superiority tend to creep in, but not so with this group. On there I’ve found nothing but encouragement and friendly chat, even when someone posts the “super cucumber” joke for the hundredth time. Of course we take the piss, but always in a nice way. We’re all united in our love for the game (and our agreement that Clint must be shunned and pelted with rocks). I know the moderators play a big part in the atmosphere, but I suspect it’s also that Stardew is a game that brings people together. Fans of this game are kind and accommodating – no problem is too small, no question is too stupid, no headcanon is too ridiculous. Which is just as well, because I’ve been meaning to post my theories about why the Mayor needed that truffle oil…
A couple of things before I sign off:
– This game was made by one man. ONE MAN. While he was working a part time job. Not only did he code the entire game, he also created all the artwork, and wrote the music. And you thought finding a crisp that looked a bit like Jeff Stelling was an achievement.
– A free update is being released this year, featuring multiplayer and new single player content. This is despite the fact that fans would gladly offer money and any spare limbs/kids they happen to have lying around. Considering the game has never been priced at much above $20, Stardew Valley is the dictionary definition of “labor of love.” And not a loot box in sight.
– One last thing: Stardew Valley seems to appeal to those of us with depression and anxiety. It’s a calming, whimsical world, where hard work is rewarded, and life is fair. That sentence doesn’t do justice to the importance of this particular point (which I hope to elaborate on in a future article), but for those of us who’ve been helped by the game and its wonderful community, it’s something that’s worth saying. Eric, if you ever read this – thank you for making this game.
If you haven’t started your farm yet, what are you waiting for? Go play Stardew Valley, but don’t come running to me when you stop doing literally everything else in your life. And hands off Shane, he’s my husband.
Stardew Valley is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, with a PS Vita release coming soon.