After two years in Stardew Valley, I still don’t know why it’s fun.

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.

Old Dog, New Tricks – Thimbleweed Park Review

In the mid-1990s, like you, I experimented with point-and-click adventure games. They came into existence right when stories in games began to mature, but budgets for indie games hadn’t. These were the kinds of games my parents bought to keep me occupied for days at a time over the summer.

My first was “The Curse of Monkey Island,” but before that, I’d cut my gaming teeth on strategy games and shooters. So to me, being handed a text-based adventure seemed like the video game equivalent of socks, and it was in the “wear them once” spirit that I fired it up. Two things happened: I truly struggled with a game for the first time, and I realized that video games could have personality.

I was hooked.

I’ve tried a few other text-based and point-and-click adventures since, and while they were fun in their own right, none captured me like that series. For nearly two decades, I thought those kinds of games were behind me. The studio was refocused to licensed games, its designers moved on, and the legend of Monkey Island was all but relegated to history. Then, along comes Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s “Thimbleweed Park.”

The story begins with a murder, and you control the two chief investigators – both of which are conspicuously shrouded in mystery. On top of that, the town of Thimbleweed Park is reminiscent of a shadowy Twin Peaks or Cabot Cove, where any normal person would assume these kinds of grisly murders happen all the time.

Over time, you’ll uncover the comically tragic stories of three more playable characters, whose lives are brought together by a visitor’s murder. Each has a unique personality, ranging from a chipper, nerdy, aspiring game designer to a sardonic, has-been insult comic. You’ll get to know each individually, as the game allows you to switch between them at-will.

This feature is a fun way to solve puzzles – using their size, knowledge, or the fact that they’re not trapped in a sewer to your advantage. The most difficult part of point-and-click adventure games is that you’re at the mercy of the game designer when it comes to advancing through each puzzle. It’s easy (in other games) to get stuck in a location without the item you need, or not knowing where or what to do next. Fortunately, Thimbleweed Park was designed by experts who assuage those fears almost immediately in the first of many breaches of the fourth wall.

These moments of self-awareness give the game a certain charm that is inextricably tied to LucasArts (and formerly LucasArts) games, and in a game driven by text, makes it worth playing.

The puzzles feel more fluid since Monkey Island and the ability to switch characters, and (at the very least) explore the map quicker was a huge quality-of-life change. Adventuring with Guybrush Threepwood felt cumbersome, and I found myself trying to pick up every single thing in every single screen so that I wouldn’t have to come back and find pieces later. Thimbleweed Park’s freedom of movement kept the animations charming, rather than annoying.

Artistically, Thimbleweed Park delivered on several levels. Although you can’t gush over gorgeous landscapes due to the constraints of 16-bit animation, it is beautifully executed for the form, and fit the 1987 setting for the game. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I love pixelated games, and its creators share my enthusiasm,

“We like big pixels. Huge ones. Pixels that have their own Zip Codes. Pixels a family of six could live inside of and still have room for Uncle Pete when he drops in unexpectedly on his way to the coast.

We had a lot of fun building Maniac Mansion, there was a charm and simplicity to the art that let the game design shine and your imagination run wild.

We want Thimbleweed Park to be like an undiscovered classic LucasArts’ adventure game you’d never played before. A game discovered in a dusty old desk that puts a smile on your face and sends a wave of nostalgia through you in the same way it does for us.”

For “an undiscovered classic LucasArts’ adventure game,” they nailed it. This game scratched an itch I thought I’d have to live with forever, and based on the success of the Kickstarter and (hopefully) the game itself, will keep the point-and-click adventure genre alive.

Thimbleweed Park is available for:

Mac • Windows • Linux • Xbox One• PS4 • iOS • Switch