“Who even plays farming games, anyway?” I might’ve asked, back before I transcended the limits of such parochial, bourgeois genre prescriptions. So, like, three weeks ago. “Farming games are totally lame-o.”
And, I mean, they should be. And most of them probably are. It’s chores, but a game, but still chores. But not Stardew Valley. Which is also about chores, but so much more, and yesterday I married Sebastian in the town square and we’re going to make babies as soon as I’ve saved up for my next house upgrade so I’m going to raid Skull Cavern for some gems and ores to sell because the asshole crows ate my potato cash crop or maybe I forgot to water them properly and okay, it’s mostly chores, but I’m out of the soul-sucking corporate grind so whatever.
In Stardew Valley, you – a city kid with inchoate dreams of something more than this – inherit a farm from your grandpa. A “farm” only in the technical sense of the word that it’s zoned for agricultural purposes. It’s a dilapidated plot of dirt, crammed with weeds and rubble, on the outskirts of Pelican Town, a rustic borough populated by the sort of pretentious provincial snobs who don’t appreciate generous gifts of rocks. I learned that the hard way, and Pam still doesn’t like me much. Pam’s trailer trash and an alcoholic, though.
At first, I was mostly occupied with fixing up the place and planting things. It’s repetitive drudge work, and for the first two hours or so of playing, I couldn’t even decide if I liked the game. And then, somehow, I realised it was almost three in the morning and I had this list of stuff I absolutely had to finish before bed. “Just one more day”, I promised myself, because Stardew Valley only saves once every in-game day, but also because I needed to chop more wood to build a coop so I could get chickens, and then chop even more wood to convert it to a bigger coop so I could get ducks. I still don’t have ducks because I got distracted by fishing and mining and creeping on the misanthropic goth programmer living in his mom’s basement, but I did build a barn and get cows, and then converted it to a bigger barn to get goats. Look at me, mom. I’ve got goats.
I think perhaps what’s most compelling about Stardew Valley is that, in contrast with most “conventional” contemporary games, it’s about investment and outcomes that aren’t immediate or even obvious. The game doesn’t have a tutorial or a structured, linear narrative, and instead, it’s entirely up to the player to discover what’s what through an emotional process of awkward faux pas and dead parsnips and no date at the Flower Dance, and tomorrow will be even better, I know it.