#StillNotOverIt: Stardew Valley
What’s not to love about this gentle farming game?
You turn on your Nintendo Switch. It is approximately two o’clock in the afternoon. Stardew Valley is already paused for you on the home screen, so you decide to fire it back up again, just to see where you left off. You look up from the game a few seconds later. It is approximately two o’clock…in the morning. Farming game of my heart, you have done it again.
Despite being a pixelated, lower-effort graphics game with a single developer, Stardew Valley has consistently been one of the best-selling games in the Nintendo Switch eShop since its release. Considering it was released almost exactly five years ago, in late February of 2016, this is an incredible feat. People still want to play this game, especially after the latest version 1.5 patch which added nearly countless quality-of-life improvements and a whole new area of the map. Even though the game has such a simple premise – it’s really just a lower-budget Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons – it is so beloved that, among many people I know, the excitement behind the phrase “I can finally stack multiple preserves jars” is easily understood.
So, what is it doing so correctly? Why do games like Stardew Valley feel timeless when games that are much higher-budget and more anticipated in the life sim genre (like Animal Crossing: New Horizons) have more or less fallen out of the spotlight at this point? I’m here to offer a few guesses. These are, in general, I think, the great qualities of a farming or life simulation game like Stardew Valley. They are qualities that people should keep in mind when making games like this (and many more recent indie games, like Littlewood and Calico, are already catching on to the trend.)
First, customization is key – but more than that is freedom of direction. In Stardew Valley, not only can you customize your farm – naming your animals, deciding where your buildings go, choosing from multiple different types of farming terrain – but you are not pigeonholed into doing any of these things in any particular order. Most of the farming life is something you have to figure out for yourself, and multiple farming paths (e.g., will you have more skill with animals or with crops?) mean that no two players’ farms are going to look the same. While games like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon are huge in customization as well, there is generally a prescribed order to them, and after a while the virtual to-do list runs dry, and the game loses its luster. Stardew Valley avoids this by giving the player the ability to literally design the entire layout of their farm, as well as imagine the kind of things they want to produce. This is a lot like the approach of the (also wildly successful) re-imagined play style in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which removed the sequential, one-path direction of some of the other games. It turns out that people like having their options open, especially in games that should be immersive for the player.
Second, well-developed and realistic characters will always improve a life sim. In the Harvest Moon games I grew up with, there were usually one or two characters in the farming town who were a little grittier than the rest of them, but as a rule of thumb, the people you were surrounded with were very simple. The first character I married in a Harvest Moon game, Celia from A Wonderful Life on the GameCube, was the virtual love of my life and everything, but, admittedly, she had about the depth of a piece of paper. Even if you felt invested in characters like her, the games gave you only the smallest glimpse possible at their motivations and past, to the degree that they didn’t really feel like real people at all.
Stardew Valley is different. Penny, the other virtual love of my life, is similar to Celia from my youth in many ways, but this time she has a life around her that feels more real. Developer ConcernedApe takes some real risks in the game by looking at really difficult issues in characters’ lives, like Penny’s single mother struggling with substance use. Shane, another romanceable character in the game, has his own addictions, and his crises of mental health are something the player character actually bears witness to. Other issues in the Valley are strained marriages, PTSD from military combat, giving up on career dreams, homelessness, and the relationship gossip that so often plagues small towns. The instinct might be to avoid topics like this in a game where life is supposed to be soothing and idyllic, but taking the plunge and exploring them actually creates more tangible bonds between the player and their virtual life. I care about these town residents, and I always find myself wishing they had more cutscenes—that’s the biggest thing I think could really be improved (apart from your children in Stardew Valley never growing up or saying a single word to you…that’s something that could’ve been done better, but with a single developer, I can let it slide).
Lastly, and I really can’t stress this improvement upon fast-farming games and life sims enough: Stardew Valley lets you be gay. As I wrote in a previous article about gender and video games, games can be an important first point of contact for young people about experimenting with the type of person they want to grow into. In games that involve romance and marriage, like Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon, the same principle applies when it comes to people seeing themselves in relationships. For the longest time, players of these games who wanted to romance someone of the same gender would have to either play as the opposite gender and compromise their own character customization or play as their gender and compromise their romance experience. It’s an unfair way that heteronormativity builds an unavoidable punishment into the game.
In Stardew Valley, though, any player of any gender can romance any of the bachelors or bachelorettes. Not only that, but with the new 1.5 update, the player can change their gender and appearance any time. These are features that are actually incredibly easy to add from a design standpoint (often, separating the play experience by gender requires more work), but are so often squashed because of the developers’ prejudices. The effect of just letting go of that bias is enormous and attracted thousands of new players to Stardew Valley so that they could finally live a virtual farming life as themselves.
These three things are, along with many other smaller boons, the elements of Stardew Valley that make it great. The game is available not just for Nintendo Switch, but also for PC (on Steam), iPad and iPhone, and Xbox, so if you haven’t given it a try yet, it is more than worth the price. With different kinds of farms to play and adjustments to difficulty, even a full playthrough of your farming life won’t be enough – you’ll want to do it all over again.