Stardew Valley was originally released in early 2016. As fans keep creating unofficial expansion packs and the thriving streamer community for this game continuously grows a result, the quaint but addictive farming RPG is going to remain a talking point for some time yet. Pressure's on Concerned Ape to release official expansion packs with more content, drops, skills, and game world expansions for Pelican Town although he's dropped hints that there's a sequel in the works.
So I'll be clear: there isn't a whole lot I can say about this game that hasn't already been said millions of times with respect to the different things you can do with it. As a narrative designer and someone who loves narrative-heavy games to death, the collection of interwoven narratives is definitely one of the most endearing factors in Stardew Valley. Countless conversations on Twitter and YouTube abound about how the narrative just felt too real to them and there's millions of jokes about system failure upon dating every single person that sparked ire from the polyamorous community. But as much as I love rich game narratives (and this one certainly doesn't disappoint!), it's crucial to examine this game from a design point of view and why people love it so much.
It's not just that it's fun and fairly open-ended. Stardew Valley is a rare example of avoiding both decision fatigue and the negative aspects of grind. Those two concepts stand on their own as well as together. Here's how.
Crops, Farm Animals, Combat, Romance, and Even More! Oh My
That heading doesn't even cover ALL that there is to Stardew Valley. You also got fishing, unfolding the general story, unfolding different characters' stories, cooking, crafting...this list isn't even conclusive of all the things you can do in the game!
To the uninitiated, that sounds completely overwhelming. What makes both small and large games pretty successful is that they tend to stick to just 3-4 different mechanics, if not one or two for something like a visual novel or adventure game, and then excel like hell at them. Think about how when you go to one of those diners or delis that have 80,000 different types of food on the menu and you know a vast majority of it will be mediocre at best, but it'll be just one cuisine or dish that keeps people coming back. Then compare that to a place where just one type of food like pizza or Indian food is their wheelhouse so it's most of the menu that has people abuzz. Stardew Valley somehow attained the best of both concepts in that some people play it expressly for the narrative and romance aspects while other players are drawn to sheer number of ways you can play this game.
At face value, there's a magnanimous amount of content in Stardew Valley. But why does it work without overwhelming the player? It's paced very well.
You don't really have time limits for the most part. There's two types of quests that go in your journal, the story-driven quests then the optional quests that give you heart points with the other characters upon successful completion. The former don't expire so you can finish them at your own pace, even over several years in game time if you really wanted to. The latter give you just two days to finish them but are completely optional.
You're given things to strive for such as that bigger backpack to carry more stuff, a bigger house, leveling up various friendships, unlocking more parts of the map, and so much more. There's also the smaller things you unlock over time like cooking and crafting recipes and filling up Gunther's collection with the stuff you dig up or find inside geodes. By always giving the player something new to explore, try out, or aspire to, they're both having fun with something they're familiar with while seeing the possibilities if they keep on playing. Your skills also level up as you keep on doing certain things like growing crops, mining rocks, and go fishing that open up different paths that build on the original skills. For instance, you can build preserves jars to make pickles or jams out of your crops and the artisan path that opens up upon leveling up your farming skills can make you mega bucks on those.
Because there's only so much you can do in one day and that's available to pursue at once, the player isn't hit over the head with that feeling of decision fatigue that can make them up and quit. So many games just heighten that feeling of too many burners going at once, but not Stardew Valley. It's like a slow cooker that knows when to go on high and when to sit there on the "keep warm" setting. Good pacing is the best way to mitigate decision fatigue that comes from having way too many options available all at once: first by not opening all of them up right away, then by making your earlier options less lucrative and/or appealing.
Good Grind vs. Bad Grind
Grinding sort of goes hand-in-hand with decision fatigue in that it if done right, it can enhance gameplay or completely ruin it. Josh Bycer ran a great piece on Gamasutra about how grind totally undermines your game's core design where he defines "grind" as "the period of time in a game when the player’s ability to progress is reduced to a few set options, and everything else will not move them forward." Stardew Valley's pacing is what saves its vast amount of content from inflicting decision fatigue on the player. It's the game's lack of harsh time limits, as well as barriers to progress, that prevent the bad kind of grind. But there's also room for the good kind of grind if the player so desires.
The kind of grind that kills good game design would be a situation where the player can't progress because they're out of quests for their level and/or are not tough enough to beat the next major obstacle, so they're stuck grinding on lower-level quests or monster hunting that nets little or no experience points. Getting enough money for a coveted item or to unlock the next part of the game can also entail grinding, like if there's a dungeon that respawns monsters who frequently have lucrative drops. But depending on the game's design and core gameplay loops, it can enhance the gameplay by giving the player something fun to do or it can be the bad form of grind that makes the game feel like a chore.
The core gameplay loop of Stardew Valley is that you're running this farm where you make money off of things that you farm, make, mine, or find. Growing your crops and raising the animals then eventually getting machines for artisanal goods can serve as a form of grinding. Same goes for fishing and hitting the mines. These types of grind can be enjoyable. Some people really like to grind on combat or treasure hunting to reach their own goal or the next part of the game. But grind can also just make a game intensely boring if you're totally stuck somewhere and can't make progress.
How does Stardew Valley subvert that? A couple ways, one of which is that the sheer amount of content keeps you from knowing whether grinding is even required or not. For the storyline quests, there can be some grinding present whether or not you know it yet. I discovered the skull key pretty early in the game and didn't find a use for it until I completed a certain set of community center bundles (won't give away spoilers for those who haven't played.) That didn't feel like grinding because it added to the excitement of finding more of the game world to unlock. Ditto for some of the challenges that involved leveling up my farming and fishing abilities where it just wasn't obvious that was what I had to do. Since there was so much else to do and explore, both optional and storyline-related for the big picture or pursuing friendship and romance, those parts of the game unfolded without it feeling like grinding. Or overwhelm.
Grinding is mostly referred to for combat but it can also apply to friendship mechanics in a lot of games where unfortunately, it's largely transactional. But much like real life? When it comes to building friendships in Pelican Town, you can lose points if you go for way too long without any contact with the person you were trying to level up. You're also limited to giving each NPC gifts twice a week (once a day for your spouse upon marriage) so you're not sleigh-riding into a relationship with that person or opening up more of their narrative straight away. The good kind of grind comes into play again because you can definitely spend a whole week on just tracking down everyone and giving them gifts, but that limitation is well-executed for this reason because you're not overloaded with information. You're left with wanting more of the narrative but without feeling cheated out of it. Then the bad kind of grind is also eliminated by both the randomly-generated quests on the board outside Pierre's shop and giving the NPC a gift they love on their birthday so you can speed up attaining more points with them that unlock more special events and quests.
What ultimately makes it succeed with respect to grind is that there's plenty of opportunities for good grinding, but you virtually never feel like there's a specific obstacle you can't get past. Even if you have to wait a few weeks in game time to build up a relationship, there's so many more things you can do that aren't repetitive and boring. There's always new quests or someone you didn't even think to speak to yet that can make things interesting. And that's BEFORE we even give the fan-made mods a try that add to the colossal amount of game content!
Pacing is ultimately what helps curb decision fatigue, but so does eliminating bad grind while bolstering the good kind of grind. That's how Stardew Valley captured so many hearts with virtually no rage-quitting.