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 I 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.
Stardew Valley starts with the player's character at a desk at Joja Corp, an Amazon-like conglomerate with vaguely nefarious capitalist overtones. The player's character miserably sits at a desk in a fluorescent-lit office, sighing their days away UNTIL they remember that they were bequeathed a farm from their recently-deceased grandfather, who told them (in his dying breath) to please go to the farm to find peace and quiet. Bolstered by this, the player's character leaves their job in the city and relocates to the sleepy seaside village of Pelican Town, where they are promptly put in charge of their grandfather's farm, now overrun with weeds, boulders, and an encroaching forest.
The purpose of the game is to create a successful farm. Though, surely, one could do that by farming produce alone, there are lots of ways to turn a profit: a player can fish in the many lakes in rivers, mine ore in the caves, go into animal husbandry, craft tools to make artisanal products, or some variation of all of these.
Stardew Valley is heavily influenced by fellow farm simulator (and standard-bearer for the genre) Harvest Moon. Most every review of Stardew contains some form of the sentence, "Stardew Valley pays homage to the Harvest Moon franchise, while fixing many of its less successful elements." I have literally only played a few hours of Harvest Moon: A Wonderful LIfe in middle school on my Gamecube after renting the disc from Blockbuster. (Ahhhh. Those were the days, my friend.) The only thing I remember was how tedious watering was. Turns out: that seems to be a central element to any farm simulation gameplay, because that certainly was a fair bit of my early Stardew experience.
That tediousness is sort of central to the game: the most important element of Stardew Valley is time management. You have a certain number of hours to complete all your daily farm tasks, and the first "year" of in-game play is mostly setting yourself up to automate the more time-intensive parts of the farming process. I spent a huge amount of time accumulating resources to craft sprinklers, upgrade my tools, and get everything set so that I could spend less time caring for crops and livestock, and spend more time doing the things I wanted to do (befriending villagers, fishing, and exploring the mines in the far part of town).
Stardew Valley perfectly balances difficult/long-term tasks with easy/short-term tasks. For example, one of the in-game elements is checking the TV every day to see what tomorrow's weather is going to be. While playing, if I knew the next day in-game was going to be rainy, I could prep myself "today" for what I was going to do "tomorrow." I knew I wanted to try and get deeper in the mines, but that took time and energy (which were valuable resources on sunny days when crops needed to be watered.) So, I could take care of my "sunny day" tasks and rest easy knowing I could wake up the next day to head towards the mines.
Stardew Valley thus mimics aspects of my own life. At work, I keep a detailed to-do list. On days when I am able to cross everything off, I get a little hit of dopamine. I feel like I've done something good, that I am deserving of a reward. Stardew Valley is that over and over and over again: it's to-do lists are endless, and they just keep refreshing. (And to show I'm not the only one who did this: though my Stardew to-do list was in my head, but some reviewers made actual, physical lists while playing.)
Becoming a success
Unlike, say, The Witness, I had no intention of not consulting the internet when it came to playing Stardew Valley. At the first available opportunity, I dove into the Stardew Valley wiki to figure out tips and tricks for keeping the farm rolling. I would check my phone to see what fish were available when. I consulted lists of each villager's favorite gifts to speed up the friendship process. Eventually, I wandered over to the Stardew Valley subreddit to see what folks were talking about there.
Mostly, people posted images of their farms in immaculate shape. Whereas my farm is a sprawling mess of plots, with vegetables growing all over the place, these posted farms were beautiful. They were well-oiled machines, where someone had obviously taken the time to figure out the perfect placement for everything (perhaps using one of the mapping programs specifically made for Stardew). These farms were downright aesthetically pleasing.
People also posted tips for making jsut an absurd amount of in-game money. "Focus just on making wine!" one person advised. "Grow a bunch of beets and make them all into sugar!" another recommended. People promised millions and millions in returns once operations were fully rolling.
I didn't feel that it was "cheating," to look at these sources, but rather "finding opportunities to optimize time & energy."
Maybe that was just me. Maybe other folks walked into the game blind and played it that way.
However, the only thing I can talk about with games is my reaction to it. Whenever I approach a game, some part of me asks: what does this tell me about me? What does this tell me about the world? What am I seeing in how other people react to it?
And, the more I think about it, Stardew Valley seems to show Katamari Damacy levels of capitalism critique. Remember Katamari Damacy?
OUt of the (Capitalist) frying pan and into the (Capitalist) Fire
If you've never played Katamari Damacy before, it's a thoroughly charming game (with a stellar soundtrack) where, at its most basic, your characters rolls around a little ball. You can roll over small items, which attach to your ball. As you continue to roll, you can collect increasingly large objects, until you have katamari the size of whole worlds.
In a 2009 speech at the Game Developers Conference, creator Keita Takahashi clarified the meaning of his otherwise innocent-seeming and light-hearted game:
“In [Katamari Damacy], I wanted to show an ironic point of view about the consumption-based society," he revealed. "But I wanted to make more objects -- if it were empty, I would feel empty or lonely. But when these objects are rolled up and absorbed by the Katamari, they’re gone. Then I felt empty.”
“I feel the same way about disposable society. I think I could successfully express my cynical stance toward consumption society with Katamari, but still, I felt empty when the objects were rolled up.”
I recommend reading the above while listening to the soundtrack for some A++ cognitive dissonance (especially when being joyfully shouted at: "TIME TO ROLL. DO YOUR BEST").
Takahashi effectively trolled the gaming industry by creating a beloved and twee game that, at its core, laughed at the people playing it. Why were they so focused on creating ever-larger katamari? Didn't they know that the collection of objects was hollow and pointless?
Stardew Valley feels like it's (accidentally or intentionally) making a similar point.
Making grandfather proud
I'm currently in my second in-game year in Stardew Valley. I've grossed over a million dollars in profits and, for all intents and purposes, am living a comfortable farming life. I want for nothing. I buy pizza whenever I want at the pub. My farm is a mess, but it does its job. Or, rather, I do mine.
It wasn't until I started writing this review that I wondered to myself, "Is it possible for the farm to fail?" And I think the answer is, "no." It's possible not to grow anything. It's possible not to turn a profit. It's possible not to do anything at all in the game, and it's not like you're going to fail. So: why does it feel that way? Why do I (and, apparently a whole subreddit full of people) spend so much time and energy to plan and plot out this farm until we're making as much money as we can per square foot of land?
I think it's because we assumed that was the task: to not only have a farm, but to have the BEST and MOST EFFECTIVE farm there was.
It wasn't until I starting writing this review that I revisted the start of the game and my character's grandfather's plea to find peace and quiet on this farm. To use it as an escape from the daily grind of city life. To use it as an escape from the glow of a computer screen.
Goodness knows that the trappings of capitalism in the real world are already hard enough to shake. I already feel the gut instinct to make as much money as possible in real life (because, of course, more money creates a fleeting feeling of comfort). I already base my self-worth on how much I can complete on a certain day; my productivity is the thing I cling to as a marker of my value. I am a good worker so I am a good person.
It would seem that I'm replicating/playing out all these same neuroses while I play Stardew Valley. I mean, to go back to the central point of my character's grandfather's dying wish, it's not like I'm spending less time staring at a computer screen. I mean, I've logged 60 hours playing this game, seeking to accumulate money, and thoroughly ignoring moments of possible peace & serenity in favor of a self-generated goal to get. more. stuff.
Stardew Valley doesn't have to be a capitalism simulator; I just made it that way.
So, in light of all this, I've started to play the game differently in the past few days. Sure, I still have some to-dos, but they're only things I want to do. I plant my favorite crops. I spend more time with the villagers (who are all broken people in some regard or another, but who open up as our relationships deepen). I go visit Sandy in the desert. I spend more time fishing. I might be losing money or not making as much as I might otherwise, but I'm trying to move slower in the game. I move slower and hope that this will teach me to move slower in the real world.
I want that reminder to seep out into my life, and I want to use that to remember that the system that we're in is malleable, that it is something of our own creation. Like Ursula Le Guin said, "We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings."
Maybe I'll start over, and I'll play while listening to the Katamari Damacy soundtrack. It's about time I get another song stuck in my head.