Constantly hearing about a particular game, wondering what exactly is the big deal? In our regular series, we delve into the hottest community games and ask the important questions: Why do they generate such a devoted following? Is all this fuss warranted? And if so…are they worth your time?
This week, it’s the turn of farming simulator & RPG Stardew Valley. Taking obvious inspiration from the likes of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, Stardew has been a huge success, selling 1 million copies just two months after launch, and going on to become one of the biggest selling games on Steam since release.
I’m in Grandpa’s room. From his bed, he peers over at me and tells me he wants to give me a gift. I’m understandably relieved when he hands me an envelope. It comes with cryptic instructions: he tells me to open the envelope when I ‘feel crushed by the burden of modern life.' Heavy stuff. Actually, now I think about it, he might have been dying. Honestly, I’m not sure.
Cut to sometime in the future, and I find myself at a desk in a cubicle putting a shift in at one of the Jota Corporation’s business factories. I look around. All is gray. All is faceless. I’m struck by how much my life has become an obvious critique of the futility of the daily grid, a damning appraisal of the soullessness if modern capitalism. Depression strikes. I reach for the desk drawer and the letter within.
I open it, and it’s as if Grandpa is alive again (if he is indeed dead), speaking to me through the note within. He says he’s given me his old farm. Riverside Farm. An apt name, as it resides in a region of Stardew Valley sliced through with rivers (I know this because I chose the region myself on the character creation screen. I also chose the name of the farm).
Following this not-entirely-unexpected revelation, I hop on a bus to the Valley, excited to start afresh within nature’s ever-loving bosom. After being shown to my plot by a couple of prying locals (they’ll learn to mind their own business, don’t you worry about that), I can’t help but feel dismayed. I was never sure whether I was Grandpa’s favorite grandson, but after witnessing the creaking, ramshackle excuse for a farm he’s left me, it seems highly unlikely. The land, too—the very land I’m expected to grow a thriving business from—is a desolate, unkempt waste, scattered with boulders, stumps, and weeds. The front door practically falls off its hinges when I open it, and I picture Gramps laughing at me from beyond the grave (or wherever he is — I really should just give his house a call).
I decide to show Grandpa and make the farm a success. But not until I’ve explored the surrounding land and nearby Pelican Town. I make some acquaintances. A couple of families, the local mayor, and the town’s resident hobo, Linus. I’m undecided about him if I’m honest. He seems friendly enough, though, giving me a playful wink as I say my farewell and head home. On my way back I stop in at the local Jota Megastore for some seeds. It’s just as soulless as my old cubicle, only here there’s a customer service advisor who wants to be my friend. Needless to say, I don’t stay longer than I need to.
The TV back in my derelict farmhouse gives me a promising weather report for tomorrow. I double my resolve and vow to make an early start on clearing some of the scrub and rocks away from my land, ready for planting my newly acquired seeds.
I wake at the crack of dawn and waste no time. The cockerel has barely crowed before I’m hacking down errant trees, breaking up rocks with my pickaxe, and, tilling the soil ready for my seeds. Once I plant them — turnips, beans, potatoes, and of course, because it’s 2017, kale — I give them some water, then stand back and admire my work. I already feel a huge sense of satisfaction from this spot of good honest labor. Maybe Grandpa was onto something after all.
I decide to strike while the iron’s hot, and start to clear some more of my land, this time some of the grassland to the south. But it’s hot, and the exertion is starting to take its toll on my delicate office worker’s body. It’s getting harder to swing my sickle, and harder still to walk. I start to make my way home, tired and sweaty.
A rock offends me. I pull out my pickaxe. Just one last swing—
I wake up in my bed. What? I can hear the rain pummeling on the roof of the farmhouse. I check my mail. There’s a note from Linus. Apparently, he found me passed out not far from my house, and…put me to bed, I guess? He says I might have been robbed. I definitely have less money than I remember, but it occurs to me that it was probably Linus who rifled through my pockets. Man, I hope that’s all he did while I was unconscious. I begin to wonder about Stardew Valley. I’ve sold all my belongings and left my whole life behind to start again here. Can I really it work here?
The Valley may look idyllic, but it ain’t no picnic, and it’s all too easy to doubt yourself, especially over the arduous first few days. The struggle lasts a while. Crop yields are low, and so is the money I earn from them. But slowly, surely, everything starts to fall into place. I grow bigger and better crops. I cook swanky meals to gain favor amongst the plebs in Pelican Town. Before the summer’s over, they’re singing to my tune. There’s always plenty of other stuff to do now, too. Whereas at the start I found myself staring at my crops, willing them to grow, now I’m running little errands for the folk I don’t mind or taking fishing trips out to the coast.
That’s the beauty of living here. It’s a chilled-out corner when you can be as busy as you want. You can potter around, relax, and enjoy a slower pace of life, or push yourself a littler harder and make enough money to rival those corporate shills at Jota if you like. Either way, if the simple, agricultural life doesn’t appeal, then Stardew Valley’s probably not the place for you.
Now excuse me. I’ve got some kale to harvest.
Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.