Wednesday, March 2, 2016. One of my friends sent me a text message about an indie game called Stardew Valley. He claimed that I’d like it if I’d ever been into Harvest Moon. I did like those games, but it had been a long time since I’d even thought about the efficient operation of my virtual farm. Somewhere my digital crops remained frozen in time, uncultivated for a decade or more.
For a while, I had been quite obsessed with the game. It’s abbreviated gameplay loop. It’s subtle, yet satisfying sense of progression. It’s blissful eschewal of a classical conflict. I always meant to revisit the series, but no single entry in the franchise appeared to take compelling strides forward with the formula. Perhaps the time was right to return to video game agriculture once again.
So I jumped into the game to do some casual tinkering between other games, but no…
Stardew Valley grabbed ahold of me so thoroughly and so quickly that I had no chance of resisting it. I lost a month’s-worth of Saturdays (and more than a few weeknights) while I planted and harvested my crops, a day’s worth of backbreaking labor reduced to 15 minutes’ worth of button pressing. I never broke a sweat, and yet I felt some sense of satisfaction in the cultivation of my virtual soil.
But I wasn’t the only person to find themselves helplessly enamored with Stardew Valley. For a short time, the game was the internet’s darling. It was the subject of much positive discussion on forums and podcasts and blogs. The fact that such an iconoclastic game could be at the top of the sales charts came as a surprise to me. How could an indie game about farming and making friends be more notable than this season’s big-budget shooter?
I think there are a few factors at play here. First, I think there is something deep inside of a person that attracts them to the idea of owning a plot of land and working that land to produce something that has the ability to sustain life. A peaceable life.
Beneath that is a second concept, but it is subtle. In the opening scene of the game, you meet the protagonist in his cubicle at Joja Headquarters. In his desk, he has a letter from his deceased grandfather inviting him to take over his farm. There is a clear implication that the main character is dissatisfied with the grind and decides to leave it all behind in favor of a simpler—and hopefully more meaningful—existence. But this concept is never revisited. There is no heavy handed statement about the evils of corporate America. Instead, you’re presented with a choice, you can support the supermarket or you can support the smaller general store. And neither of these options are presented as wrong.
Perhaps this points to the real victory in Stardew Valley. The game offers you a choice. You can play a relaxed farming simulation, or you can play the newest big budget blockbuster. You can support small business, or you can side with the massive corporation. Any decision is valid, but at least you have an option.
What a time to be alive!