Unlike most who played Stardew Valley right from launch day, I hadn’t been following it’s progression over the past four years at all. It came up in my Steam queue as a suggested title, and I bought it on a whim. Looks cute, has farming, supports indie development? Sure, why not.
200 hours later:
what is sleep? what is food?
There’s a few reasons why SDV sucked me, and so many others (it’s currently 3rd on the Steam top seller list) in. One major one for me is I don’t know when to quit sometimes and SDV capitalizes on that – not in a malicious way, but the mechanics of saving are tied directly to going to bed at the end of the day. You fall into your little pixel bed at the end of a long day, get a progress update on your farm’s productivity, and the game saves. Before logging out, however, the cheery 6AM music entices you to just check your mail. Maybe see if that chicken hatched? All of the sudden it’s 10PM in-game, and another hour of your life is gone.
The simple tasks – farming, brewing, raising livestock, mining for ore and treasures, fishing – are compelling enough to keep players on their own. But it wasn’t until I started investing in the community that the game really got its hooks into my tender heart.
Part of the vision for Stardew Valley involves romance and marriage. There are eight eligible partners living in Pelican Town for your character to woo – four female, four male. They’re not gender-locked, so you can marry someone of any gender and raise children with them. But you can raise your friendship with everyone in town, regardless of whether they’re marriage candidates or not:
As you can see, my closest friend here is Linus – a man who wears leaves and lives in a tent outside of town. When you talk to him, he says things like “Are you here to ridicule me?” or “Please don’t knock down my tent anymore.” Mayor Lewis needs to have a talk with his townspeople about common decency. Part of the reason why my friendship with Linus is so high is convenience; he lives right outside the mine where I spent most of my time in the early game leveling up skills and treasure hunting. It was easy to always talk to him or give him gifts (see also: Dwarf, the dwarf). But the other part was that Linus’ dialogue was so REAL and AWFUL. From the sounds of it, Linus has been part of Pelican Town for years, and people still harass him and knock down his house. You move in yesterday and people are cautious but at least still friendly and polite. And this is only the beginning.
There’s Shane, who hates his life working for the soulless Joja Mart corporation, and spends his time off work drinking to forget:
After a certain friendship level with Shane, he invites you to have a beer with him while he tells you about the pit of despair he feels trapped in, and can’t climb out of.
Or Kent, who tells you about his time as a POW in the war, happening somewhere outside your idyllic village, if you give him sashimi as a gift. Who hates popcorn now because popping it gives him nightmares of gunfire. I’m guessing there’s a vacancy in Pelican Town for a counselor.
It’s not all grim – Linus teaches you how to make quality fish bait, and Jodi and Kent invite you to eat with their family and make you feel at home. But Stardew Valley does something many games with dating sim features don’t – it doesn’t revolve around the player. You can’t date everyone in town – some folks are already married, some are too old or young, or just plain not interested. People go to war and come back, attend school, or aren’t home every time you stop by. They do their groceries, or go fishing, or teach children. If you don’t make an effort to maintain your friendships with people, over time, they decay.
It’s really hard for me to put into words why this game hits so hard. It might be the incongruity of peppy farm sim with People Have Problems. In that way, it’s similar to Undertale, where you’re laughing the same time as saying “ow, my feeling”. It’s a game you’re proud about bringing home to your mom. For the developer, that’s practically literal, by the way – SDV was fully developed by one guy over four years. He’s also the game’s only support staff, now that it’s launched, which is a heavy burden when you compare it to the staffing at Ubisoft for the Division, for example (Steam’s no. 1 top seller currently).
As a babby designer, it’s great as both a success story and a cautionary tale – you can make a great game solo, but it requires years of your life. Is the trade-off worth it? If you make it to launch but fall apart afterwards, what then? Etc. I’ll be following the story of the developer as well as enjoying the game for a long time to come. I’m particularly looking forward to the multiplayer option so I can bombard friends with void eggs and slime babies.