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An Ode to Stardew Valley

Disclaimer: I will be spoiling some story moments and gameplay elements of Stardew Valley, so if you would like to continue to go into it blind, please look elsewhere. That being said, I don’t believe that having a few elements revealed will affect enjoyment of a game with thousands of secrets.

Four years, five free content updates, three hundred hours of playtime, ten million copies, and two words that pierce fear into whoever owns the Harvest Moon trademark at the current hour, representing one of the most beautifully constructed knock-offs in gaming history: Stardew Valley. The year is 2020 and the farming, friendship, mining, finding, simulation masterpiece has already graced the market for as long as its development time leading up to a glorious release on February 26th, 2016--the day that Story of Seasons/Harvest Moon would pass the point of no return into irrelevancy, trembling in its mediocrity as the new king of farming fun would take its rightful throne. The story of the game’s cultivation is pretty widespread, so while I’ll spare you the details here, if you’re in the dark on whatever a valley of stardew could possibly be, I recommend looking into it if you’re intrigued and confused.

I rarely get lost in the games I play. I certainly play my share of enthralling masterpieces, recently witnessing the majesty of Outer Wilds, Dragon Quest XI, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, NieR: Automata, and others, thoroughly enjoying almost every second of them, but there is an undeniable feeling of magnetism within Stardew Valley that draws you into its visually simple world that no other game can replicate. I enjoy wandering around the worlds of great games, trying to take in the atmosphere and emotion on display. But however much the word “immersion” is thrown around, I know I’m playing a video game, and nothing will probably ever change that. And yet, playing Stardew Valley presents a joyous, next-level connection. A connection to a farm, to a town, to some crops, that while I know comprise a video game about a seemingly silly farm, means so much to myself and the players that have been enthralled by Stardew Valley. I can get “lost” in Stardew Valley’s world every single time I touch it, because it instantly pulls you in with its spectrum of emotion and intrigue that while may be matched by other games, simply creates a nearly perfect package that deserves to call itself a video game, and a passion-fueled work of art at that.

Spring - Introduction

Great news, your grandpa is dead, you’re stuck in a dead-end job, and life is certainly not better with Joja. Luckily for you, only two and a half of those things are true. On his deathbed, grandpa left you a note to open once fully crushed by the burden of the modern day:

If you're reading this, you must be in dire need of a change. The same thing happened to me, long ago. I'd lost sight of what mattered most in life... real connections with other people and nature. So I dropped everything and moved to the  place I truly belong.

Concerned Ape

Grandpa's note

I adore this introduction into the world of Stardew because it’s such a simple premise that hits deep for many, establishing an immediate emotional connection, and sets up the expectations for the rest of the game--everything is just a simple little farming game on the surface, but it isn’t afraid to get profound. This exposition leads right into the game and the foundation of Stardew Valley’s beautiful gameplay loop: the farm. After a bus ride straight out of the offices of Joja Corporation after being inspired to escape, you arrive at Pelican Town at the heart of Stardew Valley. The first instance of music in the game leads the new farmer into the upcoming peaceful adventure:

 

If this is your first exposure to the music of Stardew, I doubt this melody means anything to you, yet it gives such a perfect understanding of the feeling that the rest of the game wants you to be digested by. It portrays instant, pure nostalgic bliss.

After a quick introduction to a couple of characters with some direction on where to venture, the world is truly your oyster. Stepping outside of the farmhouse on the first morning of spring begins the upbeat serenade of one of Stardew’s spring themes as the valley comes alive:

A farm in the spring with some players around fishing ponds.

Concerned Ape

Even a simple farm can be beautiful

The farmhouse yielded some seeds, so unless the farmer is out of their mind, it is time to plant the first parsnips. This forces the player to learn about clearing rocks, sticks, and leaves with each of their tools. After the plants are adequately planted, the small energy meter is running low, so perhaps it would be a good idea to check out the town that the mayor mentioned on arrival.

Even the first ten minutes of Stardew is what I would consider genius game design. There is no feeling of being lost, but nothing is holding the player’s hand. While the quest directs the player to throw down their seeds and start meeting the townspeople, it is completely optional; the farmer could run out of their house straight to a river and fish to their heart’s content--even “completing” the game without ever using the watering can. This open-ended nature is nothing new, but it shines above many other games with the absurdly compact world. If you have played Stardew Valley, you must be well aware that the odds are you haven’t even witnessed half of what the game has to offer. But let’s go back to the next step of the first day, meeting the NPCs residing within Pelican Town.

Stary sky event with Maru

Concerned Ape

A lot of effort is on display in the character events

Friendship mechanics are nothing new, Stardew pulls the system almost exactly from Harvest Moon. But it’s not the mechanic of raising a meter of hearts that makes the NPCs feel so real, it’s the design of said characters. Every single one of the 40+ villagers has a unique style, personality, and routine that makes them identifiable, and feel tangibly relatable. You could show any player a few colors from a character’s design and a name would be spoken in seconds. Same goes for dialogue, take any snippet of their unique lines and its immediately obvious which character would speak it because the writing is so, so deliciously good. There is no crossover of tropes, no unintentionally annoying personalities, and many completely fresh ideas. But it goes even further than meeting the characters upfront, these people are complex. Seriously, authentically complex. There’s a rude blonde girl, a grumpy old man, and a depressed alcoholic, all just basic tropes that you could find in a low-budget Disney Channel original movie. Yet, after time spent developing bonds passes, they become a total sweetheart that wants to learn about farming, a jolly ol’ fellow who just wants to share his stories, and a chicken-modifying family man. Each of the villagers have their own realistic story that can be discovered, and that discovery is so incredibly rewarding, not too dissimilar from learning to understand real people and their own existence. You don’t have to ever discover that the boy kid character acts out because he misses his father who left to join the war against the Ferngill Republic, but golly does it feel good if you do.

On the second day of being a farmer, the routine begins to plant its roots. After stepping outside of the humble cabin for the second time, yesterday’s parsnips lie waiting to be watered. They are not ready to be harvested, but the game has yielded its first evidence of progress by showing the sprouted seeds. At this point in the early spring, exploring the valley becomes alluring. Everyone has a different path here, but I personally stumbled towards the north where the carpenter, Linus’s tent, and several blocked off paths await. These blocked paths set up some of the first mysteries because none of the tools currently available can get through them. Are they permanent? Are you missing something? All the farmer can do is wait and walk away, with these paths lingering in the back of the mind. This area holds one integral pillar of the game, the mining. The only open path early on is to the mining cave, which the game funnels you into through this gating. For the typical player, caving is going to be instantly familiar because it functions similarly to Minecraft or Terraria, and that’s a great thing. Stardew’s mining mechanics of walking around, clicking on rocks and ores, and fighting monsters fit right into its overall feel by making mining relaxing while having a layer of excitement for those who want it.

A mine with a lot of monsters

Concerned Ape

There is typical, action game-like difficulty to be found

I can’t talk about every mystery within Stardew Valley, but it must be known how much there really is to discover, and how well it sets up the intrigue. There’s a locked sewer, a weird wizard, some decaying buildings with legible notes, a suspiciously large log in a lake, all within a single forest that you’ll walk through almost every day. It uses little mysteries throughout the dense world to create a story that slowly unravels within the environment itself and between characters that makes the farming feel important, and gives motivation to keep going onto another day. With this, alongside the mining, farming, fishing, and chilling there is absolutely no shortage of things to do, to discover, to advance, even if individual moments can feel that way. So while there are hundreds of options to spend time on, it doesn’t reach the point of overwhelming with the right planning, and even feels empowering to lock down and execute a planned routine. Looking at it this way, it becomes very easy to understand how Stardew feels so relaxing. It truly takes the occupied mind away from our world into another one of pure magic.

Summer - Discovery, and developing familiarity

 

By the time summer brings its heat, farmers will have gotten a grasp on the loop of a season with tending crops, increasing friendships, and deciding on what to do with each day. But the largest of all of the early discoveries, which sits at the very center of the explorable world, is the community center--a building that the overarching plot and progression revolves around.

Four famers standing around a giant melon

Concerned Ape

We were pretty proud of our melon

As much as the farmer wanted to escape the Joja mega corporation, Pelican Town bore its mark regardless with a large Walmart-like warehouse competing with the local store owner. It is shown through the characters how much it devastates the town. Many of the families can hardly afford to support Pierre’s market and have no choice but to take advantage of JojaMart. Shane has no option but to work endlessly for Joja, degrading his worth. Not only does this hurt the local economy, but the corporation also wants to take over the community by turning the community center into an industrial factory. In a sense, the farmer is the chosen hero, the Link of this world, because it is in their hands to use their farm for the greater good. While it is an available path to let JojaMart and its manager Morris win, presenting and ethical choice for the farmer, the obvious option is to fight back.

Residing inside the community center are the ethereal creatures known as Juminos. Their undeniable adorability is juxtaposed with a feeling of eeriness; these little apple-shaped spirits are what define Stardew, at least to me, not only because they are part of the game’s largest mysteries, but also because they are the backbone of the primary progression system, the community center bundles. These bundles are fantastic because they give the farmer a major goal to constantly work towards, be it collecting each season’s distinct crops, figuring out how to catch the rarer fish, or forcing them to save money in the vault, everything in the center continues the subtle teaching in the world. At the hope of sounding like a broken record, it’s genius game design. The mining and crop bundles show the player that it’s okay to stockpile items, the foraging bundles lets them know that there’s more to find beyond the backyard, and the vault bundles teach even the most shortsighted spenders that saving is always better in the long run. Beyond just being great for progression, the bundles even have a major pay-off for their completion which is built to be immensely satisfying after spending multiple in-game years with Pelican Town’s residents.

All the others made it back, except me...

Concerned Ape

Reminds me of a certain game with dragons in it...

While the discoveries of Juminos comprise a large part of understanding the world, Stardew’s worldbuilding runs much deeper, and after a couple seasons it begins its warm, comforting hug around the player that expands its various systems and stories throughout. Extending friendships and talking to characters slowly reveal how everyone is interconnected. Lost books and hidden messages provide in-game information about vague mechanics and hint towards solving many mysteries. Each of the daily discoveries interplay consistently to comfortably expand upon everything at a pace that is approachable. For a game that appears as basic and cute on the surface as Stardew Valley, it achieves such a beautiful balance of letting out information while keeping the mysterious worldbuilding as a motivation to keep on farming the land.

An ocean-side image with jellyfish glowing in the water

Concerned Ape

Dance of the Moonlight Jellies

Fall - Charm, and imbuing nostalgia

 

I like video games, and sometimes, especially, Nintendo games. This means I have to talk about how charming a game is. And oh man oh my, Stardew Valley might be one of the most charmingly delightful games to ever grace the industry. I’ve already touched on the characters, but it cannot be understated how lovable they are; every single player will find somebody to connect to. The animations are a guilty pleasure. Similar to another indie, maybe you’ve heard of it, Undertale, a lot of the animation design in Stardew is basic, with cartoonishly expressive faces and simple sprite movement that are all reinforced by charming sound effects. And finally, the overall presentation is so colorful, varied, and refined that it makes the semi-retro artstyle feel like a deliberate decision to contribute to the cozy, familiar feeling rather than a monetary limitation.

Every season has a distinct color palette that, when combined with the music, somehow pinpoints that precise feeling of being in that season, that feeling of nostalgia that we have for days gone of seeing the flowers blooming in the early spring, the excitement of chilling out in the summer months, the playful, melancholy fun of autumn celebrations, and the crisp, dead air of the snow-blanketed winter. The execution is simply beautiful. Even back in 2016 when I first played Stardew Valley, I was awestruck with how perfectly the presentation captures the unique atmosphere of each season as if it were real. Again, this is where I see myself lost in this video game. While I might know I’m playing a farming sim on my PC in the middle of winter, if I’m at the peak of Stardew’s spring, it might as well be April outside.

A farm in the fall

Concerned Ape

Most crops are iconic for each season

Winter - Post-launch support

 

Ongoing games have become the expected norm over the course of the current generation, for both good and bad reasons. The bad side is the increase in rushed games as expectations, deadlines, and development difficulty have collided catastrophically during the HD era, which led to post-release DLC and microtransactions somehow reaching acceptance as a route to make a game complete later, rather than sooner, for a price. This bad side is optional, as you can steer yourself away from such games. On the other end is the good that has come from gaming in an internet-rich world, a complete game can get support post-launch to take suggestions from the players and improve an already great experience. Great developers do this, No Man’s Sky, *Splatoon, Minecraft, and countless others are worthy examples--it makes the games better, more worthwhile purchases. And as you can probably expect, Stardew is in the “good” category.

Ever since launch, the game has received numerous content updates that expanded upon characters, items, areas, and the like, keeping on expanding the already-complex game. Almost all of it was done as a response to the community--two marriage candidates were added post-launch, Shane and Emily, and they were voted into inclusion by players. Countless quality of life features, one of my top 50 types of features, were implemented over the years to refine Stardew into the smoothest possible experience. Even some major game changers were added at fan request, in 2018 full, cooperative multiplayer was implemented to make the experience even more enjoyable with friends. Almost every update greatly expanded the endgame, adding more and more things to do and places to see, making every Stardew Valley journey even more deep and motivated.

And it was all free.

A train passing with presents inside

Concerned Ape

It's the little details that add up

Spring, Again - Inevitable conclusion

Stardew runs on an infinite cycle of the seasons, ending whenever the player chooses to. There is a suggested end after two years that ties a neat little bow on the introductory premise, but the game will always run at the speed and length that the player decides is right for them. The community center can be completed in the first year, but it probably won’t be; toppling onto the top-notch game design, most players will complete the community center in the second year, before the ending that I alluded to. I have played through the first two years at least four times by now, and each time I gained a deeper appreciation of everything buried within, between the characters that I adore so much, the cutscenes that are a delightful surprise each and every time, and that familiar, friendly presence that is exuded from the world within that, through expert game design, maintains an underlying feeling of trust with the journey.

 

If it’s somehow not obvious by now, I love Stardew Valley, even on a deeper level than I love most great games. It is no extravagant journey, no philosophically-enlightened tale, and certainly not a game for everyone. And yet, it is a mile-deep, masterpiece of media nonetheless that will always have a special place in my heart for its emotionally-rich journey that has endured over the past years to continue to reach more and more people, pulling them in for the cozy farming, and making long term fans for its masterful execution of almost every mechanic and aspect of its presentation. Recently the developer and mastermind behind every pixel, Concerned Ape, announced that the game shipped over ten million copies worldwide, three of which being mine. That is no small feat, for any video game. Most AAA titles could only dream of reaching that mark and affecting that many people. And yet, most of those AAA, big-budget releases wouldn’t care about the players’ experience that they got some money from, those numbers would just be inspiring a game company to milk the series even harder for the next time. Stardew Valley is the textbook indie success story for the ages. One man made this work of art and influenced ten million people, inspiring them for the better. Stardew’s themes of reconnection with nature, the power of bonds between friends and family, and the melancholic passage of life are elegant, heartwarming, and simply timeless, and the world is better off for having a game like it reach such success.

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