In 1999, I got Pokemon Red for Christmas for my gray brick Game Boy (which, at the time, seemed like an appliance that ran due to a sustained act of magic). I dug down into the corner of a couch and started playing. I kept playing. I took a brief break for dinner and then went back to playing. I played for hours and hours and hours. I played for so long that, when I turned off the Game Boy, I could still hear the music playing. "That can't be right," I thought. Even after I double-checked that the Game Boy was off, I could still hear the music. It wasn't coming from the game; it was playing inside my head.
Being eleven years old and never having experienced an auditory hallucination before, I quickly panicked, tears welling up as I realized that the cheery loop of the Pokemon battle theme was something only I could hear. After pacing around the room for a few minutes, I composed myself as much as I could and ran to find my mom. Sobbing, I yelled, “I CAN STILL HEAR THE MUSIC.”
My mom thought it was hilarious.
You would have thought this would be a lesson for me, a reminder that my personality leans towards the obsessive. I would like to believe that I've learned moderation over the decades since that Christmas evening. But I know that's not true; I'm a sucker for a good game cycle.
So, when a friend recommended Stardew Valley--the farming simulator developed by Eric Barone that took Steam by storm last year and is purportedly the gentlest of games--what she didn't know was that it has been on my Steam wishlist for months. I avoided buying it (instead sticking with games that promised a tight 10-hour play-through at the very most), sensing that doing so would toss me in the middle of a time-suck that I wouldn't be able to crawl out of. "I can't go through what I went through with The Sims again," I told myself, like a weathered sailor who has promised never to return to the sea. Squinting into the middle distance, I mumbled, "I can't go back."
But my friend's off-hand suggestion came when my partner just happened to be bored, and that was all I needed to shrug off my gut instinct.
It's been two weeks since I downloaded Stardew Valley. I've played about 60 hours, which averages to about 4 hours a day. Old habits die hard.
And here's the thing: though about 30 of those hours were spent making friends with villagers, figuring out crop price points, and plotting out time management strategies, the other 30 hours were spent in genuine bewilderment about whether or not I like the game. There's almost nothing to it, but I feel continually compelled to play it during any down moment. I think it might just be the most perfect construction of the addicting game loop that I've tried to avoid all my life. And in that way, I think the game might be a critique of itself.