The Stardew Valley (2016) Review

Or, how I learned to abandon my existing life as an office worker for a simple life spent tending to crops and livestock. Published on Sun, Sep 08, 2019. Written by Michael Bassili.

Spoilers ahead. There’s not really a story in Stardew Valley, but if you were interested in playing through it blind, I’d avoid this feature. I also talk about a few other games throughout, so here’s what gets spoiled:

If that’s all okay to you, I present my thoughts on Stardew Valley! Is it good? Is it bad? Let’s find out!

I: Emphases On Artisans

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. — Albert Camus

Right off the bat, Stardew Valley (2016) broadcasts its intentions to the player: you are to abandon your life as an office slave in favour of a life of farming, herding, and simple town living. And, it really does frame it that way. The first scene in the game is the player character slaving away in a dark cubicle, surrounded by dozens of other office workers doing the same. Your grandfather dies, and leaves you his farm. Sick of life in an office, the player character leaves their job and moves out to the town of Stardew Valley, a place oddly reminiscent of Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls. From there, it’s really up to you.

You can choose to dedicate yourself to planting and cultivating various vegetables and fruit. After you amass some money, you can make an effort to shift towards a more livestock-oriented business, managing chickens and pigs. Or, you can use animals to produce complex foodstuffs like mayonnaise. It’s really up to you! There’s loads to do in Stardew Valley, so long as you’re hoping to do it all yourself.

Fig.1 A fresh farm, yet to be cleared

You’re never given the option to hire a farm hand, so you’re going to get used to all the labour yourself. You can eventually streamline operations by using tech like sprinklers to water your crops, but livestock like cows and pigs require daily pets and a fresh supply of food. Your life becomes one of routine, hard work, and artisanal creations. You sell what you produce for a direct profit; you mingle with the townspeople, improving relations and fostering community; you learn to live off the land. But, most importantly: the player character establishes themselves as community-driven farmers with close ties to their small town.

Viewing the game under this lens facilitates talking about the big-baddie of Stardew Valley: Joja Corporation. They were your previous employers, and they have a superstore-style warehouse East of Pierre’s shop. They sell seeds at a higher price than Pierre’s general store, and are typically antagonistic to the townsfolk of Stardew Valley. And, while the game tries to suggest that it’s better to support local shops than the large corporations (e.g. Pierre’s shop is closed Wednesday, so you need to choose whether to buy from Joja Mart or wait it out for Pierre’s to open), it never fully dedicates itself to the idea.

II: Conflicting Intentions

Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. — Joseph Campbell

The game makes it a point to show that the Joja Corporation is the less-than-ideal organization when compared to more home-grown organizations like Stardew’s own Pierre. Your character explicitly leaves a job at the Joja Corporation for a farming position in the town. The Joja Mart manager Morris antagonizes Pierre by offering coupons to patrons who were shopping at Pierre’s General Store. If you choose to pay for a Joja Membership, the town’s beloved community center is town down and replaced with a Joja Warehouse instead.

But, in my opinion, the game never fully devotes its narrative and mechanics to this conflict, whether that’s due to the developer’s intentions to keep both options valid, or not. For example, Pierre’s seed prices are mostly cheaper than those at Joja Mart, financially incentivising purchases from Pierre’s General Store. The game’s narrative tells you that the Joja Corporation is antagonistic, but the game never forces the player to really consider where their money goes. If you, as a player, personally side with Pierre and the townsfolk of Stardew, then you can just ignore Joja Mart entirely since they’re more expensive anyways. It’s not hard to imagine a build of the game where buying from Joja Mart was financially incentivised with mild discounts to force the player to deliberately choose to spend more in order to support the local shop. This would also be more “realistic” in terms of gameplay; WalMart is usually the cheaper option for things like gum, but buying from the local convenience store supports your neighbourhood economy, at the cost of financially penalizing yourself. These are the kinds of internal decisions that are usually made when one tries to buy gum in their city. Should they save a few cents while padding the pockets of transnational corporations, or should they spend a little more to keep local businesses open? It’s a tough call. On one hand, actors in a local market should be open to choosing who they buy product from, whether that be from an expensive local organization, or a slightly cheaper mega-corporation. In a simulation, where actors try to save the most money, the local guys would eventually go out of business. They’d be replaced by their equivalent of Joja Mart, resulting in a loss for the local economy.

Fig.2 Joja offices, a prison

Stuff like this interests me because I constantly have to decide whether to buy bubble tea from the local tea shop owner, or buy slightly cheaper tea from a franchise. The franchise might just be one instance of many bubble tea locations around the globe, and its success threatens the local tea shop. I know the local tea vendor personally, so it hurts me emotionally to buy from the soulless franchise. But, it hurts me financially to buy from my local tea vendor, as the franchise has the means to sell their tea at a slightly cheaper price (about $4.50 from the franchise verses $5.15 from the local tea vendor).

So, when I play a game that resembles my daily challenges, it sparks my interest. Sadly, Stardew Valley never quite hits this mark. I’ll always buy from Pierre because it’s financially illogical to buy from Joja Mart. When Pierre’s is closed, I’ll have to do a cost-benefit analysis on whether it’s financially sound to wait a day before buying more seeds or whether it’s better to buy from Joja Mart this one Wednesday. On the surface, you’d think that Wednesdays (when Pierre’s is closed) would surface this conflict, therefore engaging the player at least once a week. In reality, once you become settled into routine (about a few weeks into moving into Stardew), you can just pre-buy tomorrow’s seeds from Pierre, deciding to forage, fish, or mine on Tuesday instead of planting new seeds.

It’s at this stage that Stardew Valley stops asking tough questions to the player through its mechanics, beginning instead to ask through the narrative. Morris may arrive brandishing coupons to Joja Mart, and you’re left standing in Pierre’s, considering whether to literally turn your back on your fellow townsmen in favour of cheap seeds sold by the Joja Corporation. Those kinds of decisions are less interesting to me because they don’t influence gameplay organically. They sacrifice the moment-to-moment interactions with these kinds of micro-conflicts for a larger narrative conflict that forces you to break from your routine in order to make a small decision regarding your seed provider.

III: Memorable Mechanics

The best things in life make you sweaty. — Edgar Allan Poe

The most memorable interactions with a game are those that influence the player through its mechanics, and not solely its narrative. Games like BioShock (2007) have narrative conflicts that are shown to the player in cinematics and scripted set-pieces, and they work about as well as a cinematic or a scripted set-piece can. They don’t hold a candle to games that interweave conflicts and decisions organically into the gameplay itself.

One excellent example can be found in This War Of Mine (2014). For those unfamiliar, This War Of Mine sees the player character trying to scavenge and survive as a civilian in a bloody armed conflict by means of gathering survivors and fortifying your shelter. Unlike most games with this theme, This War Of Mine sees you playing as a civilian rather than an armed combatant. And, that means the conflicts you’ll come across are much less intense and structured.

There’s an infamous house in that game where an old married couple are sat talking in their living room. You and your group might be hungry or low on supplies, so you can make the decision to break into their home and rob them of their supplies, passing your resource troubles onto an old married couple.

This works on a lot of levels. First, this is completely optional. You’re incentivised to rob them because they are defenceless, easy to kill if need be, and apparently full of resources. You can rationalize the robbery if you want; they’re old, and they probably won’t last long anyways. The war will get them eventually, so these supplies are going to become free eventually. Might as well get them while they’re guaranteed. There’s also no cutscene for this interaction. It’s just like any other building you come across in the city. You interact with it the same way you interact with every other building. You’re not taken out of the experience of play in order to decide what to do with the old married couple. Your decision is made through gameplay, not through menu interactions or alien mechanics. The player has the same mechanics they’ve had since the beginning of the game. The conflict arises in your head, not explicitly in the game. If you choose to rob them, they’ll plead and beg for you to leave them be. Your own human reaction to their appeals is what drives the experience. The game doesn’t flash a popup that says: “If you choose to rob the old married couple, you’ll be leaving them for dead.” You need to put two-and-two together and decide if you can justify killing two defenceless people in their own homes in order to feed you and your people.

Having to make those decisions in your own mind set this apart from other, similar decisions in other games. You’re not shown a problem, you’re forced to address the problem from the position of an actor on the ground. You’re an entity in an active decision whose actions will have both obvious and non-obvious consequences to the game world. And, you’ll have to live with those consequences for the rest of your playthrough. This War Of Mine successfully engages the player in committing atrocities in the name of personal survival, and that is cool.

IV: Is It Really That Hard

To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life. — Robert Louis Stevenson

Player actors have to balance experiencing difficulty and receiving rewards. I’d argue the appeal of horror games (coming from a man who’s never completed one) is that you’re put in situations of impossible stress and anxiety only for some kind of cathartic release. Resident Evil 2 (1998, 2019) does this perfectly.

That whole game, you’re dodging zombies and hiding from large mutants wearing trench coats. That entire time, you’re being taught how to avoid confrontation and how to play smart. By Resident Evil 2’s halfway-point, you’ve gotten pretty good at playing conservatively; you might’ve gotten a bit better at ammo management and movement; you might’ve found that it’s actually better to stun zombies instead of flat-out killing them since it optimizes for resources and time.

But, then you reach the Sewers. You’re given much more ammo than you’re used to on the surface, and you’re made to plow through hoards of mutants. This is reward, catharsis. You played cautiously this entire time, and now you finally get to unload on creatures that would’ve had you hiding before. As a player, you’ve been rewarded for your prior playstyle. That’s good game design!

So, back to Stardew Valley. I don’t think that game really challenged its players in any meaningful way. And, I guess that’s fine. It’s trying to do that Animal Crossing thing where you passively interact with your environment, planting seeds, milking cows, romancing the townsfolk. I’d actually argue that Stardew Valley does pulls it off better than Animal Crossing too. Unlike Animal Crossing, Stardew’s day-night cycle takes a few minutes; you don’t have to wait 24 in-person hours in order to progress one day in the game. I think that makes Stardew Valley a game where your progress is much more defined and linear that Animal Crossing. It also means that your “challenges” are mostly self-imposed. Can I finish clearing that alcove? How much time would it take for me to find that missing axe? If I eat some dandelions, would I be able to finish cutting down these trees?

Fig.3 Mining deep underground

Unlike Resident Evil 2, Stardew Valley draws from our natural human inclination of self-improvement. We all try to get better, regardless of one’s intensity. Everyone learns new things, experiments with new mechanics, plays with new toys. And, Stardew Valley uses this to its advantage. It offers structured goals in the form of the community center, but the routine challenges are almost entirely self-imposed. That brings this game closer to Minecraft (2009) than anything structured. But, unlike Minecraft, there’s a narrative in Stardew. Townspeople have stories that involve you; your grandpa’s farm plays host to a bunch of explicit interactions with the townspeople. Where Minecraft tries to be more of a creative tool, Stardew sees its players expressing themselves with their farms and interactions with the townspeople. It’s more structured than Minecraft but less structured than something like Animal Crossing. Maybe it’s like the Harvest Moon games…

Fig.4 Derelict community center

The benefit of this structure is that Stardew becomes this farming simulator which takes periodic breaks to be a town citizen simulator. That lends the game a lot of good pacing, and it helps the gameplay extend as long as it does. Minecraft sees you interrupting your mining for some farming, or vice versa. These breaks in gameplay segments stops the monotony from rearing its head, keeping the game investing tens of hours later.

V: Creative Tools And Immersive Places

I believe that I am not responsible for the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of life, but that I am responsible for what I do with the life I’ve got. — Hermann Hesse

My biggest praise towards Stardew Valley is that it made me feel that I was an integrated member of its virtual community. Events happen regularly and encourage the player to mingle with the townsfolk; you can resell items directly to some townspeople which fosters a sense of community, compared to simply placing items in the bin and waking up to payment; the town bulletin board lists locals’ needs and announcements. It’s possible that some return from their hard day’s work only to put in a week’s work of effort into their life in Stardew. Effort has been taken to ensure that your interactions with the world and its inhabitants is organic and mutually beneficial. Unlike most other games featuring townspeople, like Skyrim (2011), Stardew Valley’s NPC interactions feel natural and substantial.

Fig.5 The fisherman's shop

That might be due to how the NPC schedules work. Townspeople have their own personal routines and will execute them throughout the day. Meeting up with Abigail in the afternoon isn’t as easy as going to her home and interacting with her stationary sprite. You have to search the town for this individual who’s going about their day as per usual. Moreover, the townspeople’s schedules change every season. This prevents NPC interactions from becoming routine interactions; you have to hunt these people down because, for all intents and purposes, these people are just living their lives. Like you.

V.I: Framing Play

Playing Stardew without the Wiki open in the background is an exercise of patience and intentionality. You need to reframe the game world in terms of a sandbox with other active agents instead of a play space boasting moving parts. In this context, the game becomes much more enjoyable.

If you approach the game from the lens of a typical game, one might develop frustrations towards the NPCs who seem to be in all the wrong places all the time. Finding people might become a frustration to you, who insisted on hunting Abigail down this instant to give her a chocolate cake. And, I’m not sure that’s how the game was intended to be played, because when you approach your in-game days from a more “opportunistic” frame of mind, it becomes exponentially more enjoyable. An ideal day could begin with some light farming and cleaning of your land before heading out foraging for the afternoon. Along the way, you go fishing and catch a few pufferfish, one of Abigail’s favourites. You walk over to Pierre’s shop to buy some sunflower seeds before he closes, and you spot Abigail across the street. You rush over and give her one of your plump pufferfish and she thanks you. You buy your seeds and return home, planting some flowers just before the sun sets and you settle into bed with your cat.

Fig.6 Rugged outdoorsmanship

When you frame your time with the game as a sort of natural, free-flowing traversal of the game space, I found that I was able to accept the game for what it was: a virtual farming and life simulation. It helps that there’s not really an end-game for Stardew Valley. At the start of your third year, your dead ghost grandpa pays you a visit and judges you, like something out of the bible. If he finds you sufficient, you get a little gift. Unlike some other games (e.g. the Harvest Moon games), your time with Stardew Valley doesn’t end with this third year. It’s framed as a sort of personal closure with your dead grandpa rather than the end of your time on the farm. Relative to the play area, this judgement doesn’t act as any sort of ending at all. The people of Stardew Valley continue their daily routines, and so do you. Your life, just like in real-life, has its edges defined by you. No one else.

V.II: Granting Meaning To Mechanics

Nobody placed you on this world (I think, I mean who’s sure, really). You need to make your own meanings out of your environment, and that means you need to define what success is to you personally. Do you want to get some sort of higher education in order to settle down as a doctor in a busy metropolitan area? Or, do you want to start your own small shop in a rural town up North? Neither choice is good or bad, just like people aren’t good or bad. Everyone has a different view on what life means to them, so you need to assess what a “good” life means to you relative to your value system.

Fig.7 Fishing before bed

Stardew Valley extends this digitally; there’s not really a “good” way to live your life out in town. Financially, there are several optimal farming strategies you can apply to maximize earnings, but you can do that in real-life too. Is that what you hold in high regard? Does your value system raise monetary earnings more than, say, courting Abigail, starting a family, helping out the community? What does it mean to you? At the end of the day, we’ll all die. We’ll rest back into ourselves and think back to the decisions we made. The kid you bullied in school. The girl you flipped off in traffic. The smile you gave to your barista. The friend you married. The house you found in your dream town. This is life. These are the building blocks to your life, and everyone will evaluate these decisions and events differently. We’ll label some of those memories as “bad” and others “good” based on how we were raised and who we grew up to be. It’s pleasant that Stardew Valley takes a similar approach to its gameplay.

V.III: Narrative Meaning

It’s unfortunate, then, that Stardew Valley doesn’t extend this acceptance to office work. As an office-drone myself, I’m not offended. Rather, I’m curious why the game simultaneously praises individuality in agriculture and dismisses office labour. Besides buying a JoJa membership and demolishing the community center, replacing it with a warehouse, there’s rarely a time where you can choose a office-bound life.

Fig.8 Grandpa knew I hated office work

Obviously, it’s unrealistic to ask for anything more that agriculture in a farming sim, and I think the game would’ve suffered had that been an option. But, I thought it worth mentioning. As it stands, Stardew Valley isn’t pernicious and it isn’t malicious. I doesn’t carry contempt for office labour. Instead, it chooses to focus on the flexibility in the field of agriculture, which is very okay!

VI: Personal Growth, Final Thoughts

The secret to life is meaningless unless you discover it yourself. — W. Somerset Maugham

I think Stardew Valley is a very good agriculture simulator dressed up with all the trappings of small, rural town life. It doesn’t ask much of the player: live your life and enjoy yourself. What you do with those instructions differs. You could follow my lead, investing on livestock and building up friendships with my favourite townsfolk. Or, you can go a different route, becoming an expert fisherman or a thorough miner. All lives are valid and worth, speaking both to real-life and the game world. Speak to anyone who’s played Stardew Valley and they’ll probably tell you of their life in the small town. The type of economy they built; the people they fell in love with; the memories they made with the townsfolk. Everyone leaves Stardew Valley pleased.

Fig.9 Small farm, a quiet life

So, I’d recommend Stardew Valley. I think it helped me rethink the way I perceive my life and the decisions that comprise it. On top of informing my personal philosophies on life, death, and existence, it’s also a very well-built farming simulator. It gives you all the tools but little guidance. You build the life you want in the game. And, maybe, you’ll leave Stardew Valley with a desire to reshape your own life. Maybe you’ll move up into the Canadian North and start a fishing business. Perhaps you’ll leave for the West, renting a studio apartment and biking to your office job. Either way, I guarantee you it will be a great life.

Appendix I: How To Play

As always, I recommend getting this game DRM-free off GOG. You can also grab a copy of Stardew Valley on Steam. This game is modern (unlike the now-archaic Deus Ex (2000)), so it runs on pretty much everything as of the time of writing.

The game costs about CAD$17 and it’s absolutely a good value; there’s nobody on earth who would say otherwise. Have fun, and give Abigail my regards.

4161 Words
23 Minutes To Read
Posted on 08/09/2019

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