I never really planned to write about Stardew Valley.
The game itself is such a pleasant escape, such a nice little time sink that I thought I should avoid mixing it up with work. But the game is interesting enough on an aesthetic and formal level that I felt compelled to say something about it. And, what’s more, I’ve sunk so many hours into it at this point that my internalized work ethic guilt I’ve inherited from my stern Dutch forebears would eat me alive.
Anyway, Stardew Valley! The game is fascinating in large part because it marries a sense of retro-gaming and a real feeling of contemporaneity. The retro-gaming part is fairly easy to explain — the game is rendered in pretty standard circa-Super-Nintendo pixel graphics. The colors are simple, the shading techniques, attack animations, and even the music are indexically referencing the games of the mid to late nineties, particularly (I think) Harvest Moon, the surprisingly popular SNES farming sim.
(not my picture, largely because I was too focused on farming to take screenshots)
The contemporary quality is a bit harder to pin down. There are certain cues that are hard to imagine making it past the dev stage in 1995, like the ability to marry and court men and women in game, despite your character’s gender. There’s also a fairly prominent anti-corporate storyline, as your character leaves their job as a cog in a massive, faceless call-center in the city to move to Stardew Valley to take over your recently-deceased grandfather’s farm. Anti-corporate sentiment — outside of, like, cartoonishly evil corporations or Final Fantasy games — remains rare in popular media pre-Occupy, so this absolutely marks Stardew Valley as a game of its moment.
But the real mark of the contemporary in Stardew is, like many of the games I’ve covered here, a self-reflexivity about its status as a videogame. To risk an unforgivable play on words, vegetables and animals aren’t the main focus of farming in Stardew Valley: items, treasures, rare drops — the “farming” of these is the main action of the game. Admittedly, there’s no multi-player element, and the game is deeply forgiving of its player (there’s old school gaming here, but it isn’t Dark Souls-esque in this way), so the item farming here doesn’t quite mirror the repetitive high-stress farming that happens in MMOs like World of Warcraft, Destiny, or The Division. If those games reflect or resemble the never-ending work day of late capitalism — as a friend once said of quitting EVE Online “I was sick of leaving my job and coming home to my second job” — Stardew self-consciously refigures its own logic of acquisition to a slower paced grind. And it does this by returning to nature.
This is not nearly as idealistic as it sounds, so don’t worry we’re not going to get transcendental here. But Stardew absolutely lives its form through its premise, tying your farming, fishing, and even light combat actions to the seasons, your character’s need for sleep, and the daily weather. Not only do you need to make sure that your crops are watered, your animals are fed, and your crops are harvested, you also need to make sure you’re keeping in touch with villagers in town, who have particularized likes and dislikes, favors you can do them, and even set, recurring birthdays. Added to this balance is an energy bar that goes down when your character fishes, farms, mines, fights, etc, as well as a clock that counts down the hours in the day. If the bar runs out or the clock hits 2 AM and your character isn’t in bed, they collapse and wake up at home the next day with a bill from the clinic.
Add in days of the week, time sensitive quests, specific growth times for crops, and the ability and demand to expand your farm to make money, and the game takes on a kind of frenzied quality. But only for a bit. As I began, I felt stressed out, knowing that I couldn’t possibly fit everything in the day that I needed to. Compounding this, Stardew amplifies personal qualities good and bad. I often feel pressure to maintain personal relationships and make people happy, so I’m pretty good at remembering birthdays in game. I am a terrible time manager, so I often find myself nowhere near home at 1:50 AM in game, rushing back futilely before I collapse. For that first week, I felt like I was at another job.
But the game is patient and persistent in its rhythms, and after a bit, I took on the quality of the day itself. Is it 2 PM? Well I’m not going to be able to get some things done, so I’ll go fishing. Tomorrow’s another day. Can I finish this errand in time? If so, great. If not, no worries. There’s no way to die in Stardew, and while you can disappoint people, you can’t really ruin relationships or screw up one time chances at things. Maybe there’s a rare item somewhere I lost my chance at because I wasn’t at the right place on the right day, that’s certainly possible. But the game itself won’t stop on that dime, and neither will I — you can play Stardew as a completionist, I’m sure (and I do check the Farmer’s Almanac of the internet when I’m missing a fish or crop I absolutely want), but I don’t think the game imagines you will.
In other words, Stardew Valley is deeply interested in restrictions to its player. There’s no “right way” to play the game — you could never farm a crop and the game wouldn’t stop you from fishing or mining or whatever for the whole day. Your choices motivate the game, but unlike other games where those choices feel constantly freighted with meaning and determine “good” or “bad” endings or game outcomes, Stardew has the cyclical promise of nature: there’s another day, another season. Don’t worry. When the seasons end, your crops die, but that’s your opportunity to cut away, retill soil, and plant again. New fish populate the streams, and new events happen in town. And if you happen to regret missing something in, say, Summer? It’ll come again next year.
Stardew continues until you want it to end. And that’s idyllic, because of course, there’s no perfect cycle. But the Edenic nature of the small town, racially diverse (well, okay, not that diverse), and sexually and socially open, but quaint is threatened by outside corporatism. Even inside the town, the Joja Corporation (who you used to work for!) threatens the Community Center and the local stores. But it’s easily superceded through patient farming and socialization. Obviously a fantasy for the real world, but a quite clever way to think about the lonely pleasures of item farming in the digital world.
To be able to cultivate (har har har) your own discreet set of relationships, interests, and job prospects is both the ultimate dream of late capitalism and the absolutely impossible carrot at the end of the stick. But Stardew at once provides a way to accomplish this virtually while, more importantly, drawing out a very formally embedded critique of the limits of our contemporary moment as well. This may be the ultimate contemporary mark of the game: through no real, concrete internal content (no one throws a brick through a Starbucks window or anything), the game casts a very critical eye on the plausibility of the American dream of self-sufficiency as such.
“How wonderful it would be,” Stardew seems to say, “if only it wasn’t just simulated.” But at least it is simulated. And tomorrow, as Stardew will remind you again and again, is another day.