About a month ago, I picked up a Nintendo Switch, Super Mario Odyssey, and Breath of the Wild and (rightly) assumed that this would keep my whole attention for the foreseeable future. What I didn’t get right was that it wasn’t Princess Zelda or stomping goombas that stole my attention. Instead, I caught a bug in Pelican Town, and just couldn’t shake it.
For those that have never seen it, Stardew Valley is the spiritual successor of Harvest Moon or Story of Seasons (same game), which is an agricultural simulation role playing game. Though there is a loose story, it’s largely driven by the daily tasks of maintaining a small farm, including milking your cows, maintaining soil for seasonal crops, and other literal chores. All the while, you can also build relationships with the town and all 30 of its citizens. In other words, you can live the life of a small farmer and escape the drudgery of the rat race – a sentiment shared by your protagonist.
Still with me? Good. I don’t think there’s a way for me to describe anything exciting that happens in Pelican Town. It’s fairly idyllic that way – no death, disease, or crime. There isn’t a central conflict or story, and yet, Stardew Valley was the most downloaded game for the Switch in 2017.
Last year, Gamasutra published an article about the making of Stardew Valley. It’s absolutely worth a read, but in summary, it details the 15-hour a day grind by Eric Barone to create his passion project – an homage to and improvement on his favorite game, Harvest Moon. I believe Barone’s obsession translated into gameplay, and caused the explosion of downloads.
“Barone dreamed of creating the ultimate apotheosis of Harvest Moon—a game that was equally soothing and idyllic, but vaster and more ambitious than anything Natsume ever dreamed of.”
The first piece that I believe is critical to the success of RPGs and their ilk is player agency. The core gameplay mechanic is running your farm, which includes designing and maintaining the farm of your dreams – literally. There is no timeline, and few objectives – all of which are entirely optional. You can play the game at your pace, and with minimal direction from the game, you won’t even have to feel bad by comparing yourself to artificial timelines.
I made a lot of mistakes. I planted the wrong crops, at the wrong times, and wasted hours of gameplay and thousands of in-game dollars, but I learned. Over time, Nine-Oh-Farm (#DTWD) slowly grew into a powerhouse. Our mistakes and their fixes weave this complex story of a farm we made with our own two hands. Everything on my farm is a mixture of pride, frustration, growth, and failure – in a word, love. When I read about Barone’s process, his cycle of extreme perfectionism, burning out, and then diving back in head-first, I couldn’t help but relate in some small way.
The real world is hard, and anecdotally, many people struggled with 2017. I think the surprising popularity of a game like Stardew Valley isn’t really that surprising. It’s the perfect escape. In the course of an afternoon, players can build something, and reap its rewards – no patience required. All of this exists in a world that’s, on its face, idyllic, where every action has a consequence and an opportunity. Can you imagine a world where nothing wholly negative happens? An escape to Pelican Town gives players that option, where they can control their plots and their relationships.
While player agency and escapism are important, they can only go so far. The part that makes this game stand alone is its emotional honesty, and how you can interact with the townsfolk of Pelican Town. On their surface, non-player characters seem to be in control, with simple problems and simple desires – very much in line with the idyllic town itself. However, as you get to know each character, you’ll learn that, like us, these characters are anything but simple, and deal with relatable, complicated issues. This kind of experience seems to be one that we only get to see with small, indie developers that put a bit of themselves into each character they make. Their emotions are raw, and tempered only by trust – an important element in both gameplay and the real world.
Despite their 32-bit exterior, real humanity leaks through the world and characters of Stardew Valley. Against the backdrop of a farming simulator, Eric Barone built a place where players can find whatever it is that they’re looking for, whether its escape, engagement, or simply to create a place to call their own. Devoid of shock, thrill, or conflict, I may never understand why this game is fun, but I do know with absolute certainty why I keep coming back.