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18 March 2016

The happy place: why Stardew Valley is so much more than a parsnip empire

Worryingly, my character turned into a paranoid recluse, scuttling into town only briefly to buy seeds before returning to his ramshackle farmhouse, his dog and his ever expanding patch of parsnips.

By Phil Hartup

I can’t remember exactly what the first videogame character I killed was. It might have been one of those weird space invader type things* in a game called Hornets on the Dragon 32 my uncle gave me when I was little. Since then I’ve killed everything that walked or crawled in a videogame: people, monsters, the hopes and dreams of my flatmate’s Derby County side in a League Cup final penalty shootout. Without an enemy, without an opponent, I tend to feel lost.

So in approaching Stardew Valley I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. For a game that for all intents and purposes feels designed to be a giant comfort zone, it was a step outside mine. The game deposits you in a rundown farm next to an idyllic little town, gives you a few pointers on how to get started and then leaves you to it. The world has a cutesy visual style reminiscent of classic Nintendo adventure games coupled to an infectiously cheerful soundtrack complete the picture, and is fullof nice people, being nice to each other. Nothing bad will happen here.

The quest journal told me that I should try to meet everybody, but chasing them all down in the town felt like a chore, and I had a field to clear up and parsnips to grow. Your time in the game is broken up into day-length chunks – your character wakes up early every morning with a full energy bar that is eroded by work and replenished by food. In those early days I often found that I’d run out of energy by lunchtime, so nonplussed by the idea of eating potential profits I’d return to bed by noon. Sometimes a neighbour would drop by with words of wisdom or offers of help. Since the game gives you money in return for items left in a box overnight there seemed at first to be no need to interact with the townspeople beyond this.

The flexibility and freedom in Stardew Valley is without a doubt its greatest strength. It is one of those games that gives you so much autonomy that it ends up becoming more of a roleplaying game than anything else. Your avatar in the game adopts a personality through your actions. Are they helpful and neighbourly? Are they looking for love? Or are they driven to explore the many mysteries of the village? Worryingly, my character seemed to have become a paranoid recluse, scuttling into town only briefly to buy seeds before returning to his ramshackle farmhouse, his dog and his ever expanding patch of parsnips.

I’m not sure if my character eventually embracing life in Stardew Valley was down to me deciding that I needed to see more of what the game had to offer or if on some deeper psychological level the game got it hooks into me. Maybe I just felt the little guy needed to get out into the world. Having finally met everybody in the town and attended a few festivals I was starting to feel more at home with the game and less like I’d just arrived in Twin Peaks or that island in The Wicker Man. This was the moment that the game really opened up and it became clear that Stardew Valley does not reach its peak at a parsnip empire. This game has depth, story and opportunities to take mind expanding substances with wizards.

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The simple feedback loop of doing an uncomplicated task and being rewarded for it is something that I tend to view with distrust in a game. It can become powerfully compulsive and it can turn something quite mediocre into a black hole of joyless hours. Stardew Valley manages to evade this because the simple tasks of chores on the farm remain just one aspect of a larger and much more interesting whole. Surprisingly, for a game of this genre there is even some combat thrown in, with a mine on the edge of town containing rare ore and a few monsters trying to stop you getting at it. It’s optional of course, everything is optional.

Playing a game like Stardew Valley isn’t rewarding in the sense most commonly associated with games, you don’t beat Stardew Valley and you don’t complete it. There is no pushback from the game in this regard, no real resistance. You might master its various mini-games and work out the optimal farming patterns but it’s not like doing this is a competition. Stardew Valley is that rarest of beasts, a game without any intense challenge that still manages to feel rewarding.

Stardew Valley still has elements in common with other games, but the thing it reminds me most of is the TV series The Joy of Painting. It doesn’t demand perfection, it doesn’t demand anything, it just wants you to enjoy its happy little trees.

*Thinking back on it, they might have been supposed to be hornets. That would make sense.