Stardew Valley

My feelings towards Stardew Valley are complicated. It’s a game that I always felt was enjoyable, but which never really stuck with me. I started it up numerous times, only for my interest to peter out after a season or 2. In fact, I had over 100 hours in the game spread across 2 systems, and never even made it to the second year. This time, I was going to sit down and actually keep at it. I was going to “finish” Stardew Valley.

The initial premise of the game is that of an escapist fantasy. Your character is a mere wage-slave, toiling away at an unfulfilling job day after day. That is, until you remember a letter given to you by your grandfather. Upon opening it, you learn that you are to inherit a farmstead in rural Pelican Town, situated in the picturesque Stardew Valley. You’ve just been handed an escape from late-stage capitalism and it only cost you the life of a single grandfather. What a steal!

Or so it seemed, at least.

Upon arrival in Pelican Town, it’s revealed that your farm is actually in shambles. Everything is overgrown and dilapidated. It’ll take a lot of work to fix up your farm, let alone making it actually profitable.

Pelican Town itself has also seen better days, it turns out. While more personal and authentic than the drudgery of the city, problems exist here as well. Pollution, inequality, and a loss of the village’s identity make up the most pressing concerns. Rivers are filled with trash and the arrival of a big chain supermarket has upended the local economy. The community is fractured, its people disheartened, and so the town wiles away. The now-abandoned community center standing as a stark reminder of what the town lost.

You have opportunities to help the town recapture its old glory. Fix up what was broken, mend old wounds, and inspire your fellow townsfolk to take action. You could also choose to thrust Pelican Town into the future. Get rid of the shackles of nostalgia and embrace the efficiency of modern capitalism. Or don’t fret about it at all and just make sure that your little corner of Stardew Valley is thriving.

While there is a lot more to it, Stardew Valley is mainly a farming sim. You clean up the old farm, plant crops, and tend to them until they’re all grown. You harvest your goods, buy more seeds with the profit, and the cycle stars anew. Expanding your farm is both therapeutic and cathartic. It feels great to watch your little farmstead grow and become ever-more efficient. You started with a tiny patch of parsnips that made a meager profit after some days, but a year down the line you might be bringing in 15-25k a day as different patches become ripe for harvesting on different days, supplemented by other money-making ventures.

The daily hustle of watering crops and harvesting is nice and cozy, but with investments you can automate a lot of it. With the time freed up, you can do so much more. You can fish in the local waters, forage, or take on quests for the townsfolk. You can even delve into the monster-infested mines to uncover minerals and become a capable fighter. There are a bunch of activities, all of them (financially) rewarding and fun to undertake. And all of them utilize skills that you can level up and equipment you can upgrade, which creates a tangible sense of progression.

In my game, I focused on wines and pickled fruits a lot. I planted a lot of seeds that yield harvest repeatedly, as opposed to needing to be replaced after being grown. The most profitable crops I sold directly, while all the average ones I’d take to a shed filled with kegs and barrels. After a few days of aging, they’d be ready and far more profitable than the base crop. Later down the line I gained access to casks, which allowed me to age my wines (and cheeses) even further. It took some patience, but an aged wine could easily double the sell price of even the most mediocre base products.

I also had a supply of beehives surrounding patches of flowers. In spring and summer, I was really more of a beekeeper than an actual farmer.

Various events serve to break up the daily rhythm of farming. Rainy days free up all the time that would go into watering crops, so you can instead go adventuring in the mines or aim to catch rare fish that only appear in bad weather. Town festivals and random events give you fun one-off diversions. And, of course, there are townsfolk to meet and interact with.

There almost 40 characters in and around Pelican Town, most of which you can foster a relationship with. You exchange pleasantries or have earnest conversations, which steadily build up towards a friendship. Gifts help boost this along, though you may want to figure out what gifts people actually like first. Once you reach certain thresholds in the relationship, unique cutscenes can be viewed that progress a villager’s arc or reveal more of their story.

The characters feel human, if I am permitted such a cheesy statement. They have hopes and dreams—well-written personalities with actual flaws. Some of them seem perfectly normal on the surface, but reveal hidden layers as your get to know them. Others seem like complete assholes when you first meet them and won’t ease up unless you’re willing to put in serious work.

Shane is a good example of the latter. He’s a belligerent alcoholic who usually yells at you whenever you try to start up a conversation. If you’re willing to commit to it and befriend him, you eventually learn about what’s going on in his life. His anxieties and the reasons for why he craves the solace alcohol brings him. His arc is fascinating and maybe even relatable for some. And Shane is far from the only character whose story and personality may personally resonate with players.

For a comedic example on the other end of the spectrum, take Pierre. At first seeming like the sympathetic proprietor of a local family business, many in the game’s fandom have grown to resent him. Many interactions betray that he may be neither the kind-hearted merchant nor the affable family man he presents himself to be. Most irksome of all being the frequent instances where he resells your produce while claiming he grew it himself. No matter how unfeasible those claims may be.

There are no shortages of theories floating around that argue different interpretations on Pierre. Some claiming that he may be an overly-conservative father who mistreats his wife and daughter. Others claiming that he’d love to be as powerful and corrupting as the big chain supermarket, given the chance. Regardless of your stance on the man, it’s clear that he has his secrets. And no, I am not just talking about his “stash”.

A downside to these characters is that interacting with them feels shallow. It’s an objective on your checklist, rather than something that feels intrinsically fun to do. You make sure to greet everyone every day so that their relationship meters don’t deteriorate. They give you one of a handful of lines, then resume whatever their script demands they do. These lines soon start to repeat over and over again, so after a while you don’t even read them anymore. You just interact with them for the points. As a result, there is also no reason to ever speak with someone again after maxing out the relationship.

This is emblematic of the game’s biggest flaw, in my opinion: the objectives you can set for yourself are rarely actually worthwhile. There are specific objectives in the game like completing all the bundles or filling up the museum, but there are also plenty of targets you can set for yourself. Stuff like getting married or maxing out relationships. Working towards either of these is kind of exciting; it gives purpose to your day-to-day farming. But when you finally get there, the reward for your hard work feels empty. Instead of feeling like you succeeded, it feels more like you lost something.

That’s the reason for why I kept dropping out of the game. I’d set goals for myself and reach those, only to be left so disappointed that I didn’t feel like setting any new goals.

Take the community center. To restore it, you need to complete bundles that have you collecting hundreds of items covering every playstyle in the game. You have to catch rare fish, hand over your best harvest, and slay a variety of monsters, among many other tasks. It’s a monolithic effort. When you eventually pull it all off and restore the community center to its former glory, your reward is… nothing. You can’t do anything in or with the building at all. The only change is that townsfolk will sometimes visit the community center to sit around and also do nothing.

Or how about marriage? You put in all that effort and marry your favorite character, just so they can sit around in your house doing basically nothing. You can have kids together, which never grow up and don’t do anything either. In fact, the game doesn’t even really address this. After getting married and having kids, I still had townsfolk ask me if I was thinking of ever starting a family. Penny, please, you were AT the wedding.

The same thing happens with the characters. You build up those relationships and watch their cutscenes, until their stories just stop dead in their tracks. Characters arcs feel incomplete and—given how well-written the characters are—this feels immensely unsatisfying. There are plenty of examples of loose threads. Far too many to name them all, though Kent is perhaps the best example.

Kent is haunted by PTSD and is struggling to reconnect with the community since returning home from war. He’s a fascinating character and someone that I went out of my way to befriend. However, there’s no way to address his trauma. It’s not even addressed outside of 1 cutscene and some throwaway lines. No way to get him a job or help mediate in the relationship between him and his sons. No matter how long you interact with Kent, nothing ever changes.

This issue even extends to the game’s actual ending. You put in all that effort to restore the farm, just to get 3 lines of non-specific dialogue before returning to the grind. You can then keep playing the game forever, with the already-incomplete storylines and character arcs remaining frozen in stasis no matter how many years pass.

Dedicated players can keep playing and improving their farm for as long as they want. Post-game there is plenty still to work towards and complete. You could keep working until you’re fabulously rich or go the aesthetic route by making your farm as nice as possible. Personally… I kinda got tired of the game midway through year 2. The gameplay had become too familiar and I had already maxed out every relationship in the game by then. It got repetitive and the repeated disappointments had made me wary of of devoting any further time to side-quests and collections.

Still, by that time I had already spent 60 fantastic hour on the game, of what would turn out to be a 72-hour run. Stardew Valley is addicting and has an amazing amount of content, all of which you can explore alone or with a group of friends. And if improving your farm is enough of a draw to keep you playing, then you’re looking at hundreds of hours of gameplay. I have my complaints, but there’s no denying that Stardew Valley is a landmark game against which all future farming sims will be compared.

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