“Jarenth, you should play Stardew Valley!”
One-man-wonderteam ConcernedApe‘s Stardew Valley was by far the most requested review game of the last few weeks. Mostly by virtue of the fact that it was requested at all. And all the articles and thinkpieces I saw coming out about it certainly didn’t harm my interest either.
I was hit with two thoughts in quick succession while doing my bare preliminary research on what Stardew Valley was and what I should expect. The first, based on screenshots and a handful of half-skimmed gameplay overview and diaries, was something that I have to assume is a common refrain in reviews for this game: “Wow, this game looks a lot like a carbon copy of Harvest Moon.”
And the second, right after that: “Sweet. I love Harvest Moon. Been ages since I played some. Let’s roll!”
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, low-medium.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
The first word that comes into mind as Stardew Valley‘s opening crawl sweeps over the (presumably) titular valley is idyllic. Look at this gorgeous bit of nature! Look at these bright lovely colours! Listen to this smooth calming music!
Idyllic, and low in nutritional content. What can I do on this incredibly fancy lovely-looking title screen?
Whenever games decide that easily accessibly options are for squares, I’m always a little disappointed. You realize that some people really need these things, right? Colourblind people, and people that are hard of hearing, and people with particular controls setups. Developers, I know that you think your current game layout is perfect and its Best Possible Self. I really do. I’ve done interface design for a living; I understand how easy it is to hope and think that your one layout works for everyone. But please, just give people some handholds. If you think your game doesn’t need accessibility options, you’re 100% wrong. This holds for all games, everywhere, even the ones that aren’t Stardew Valley.
It turns out that all the depth and creativity that could have gone into options menu was funneled into character creation instead. And then some. We’re talking hair styles, skin colours, fashion decisions, and triple-layered variable-colour sliders for everything I’m allowed to change. There’s some real creative stuff in there: the sheer volume of fancy robot gear I can put on my face alone puts a lot of other character creators to shame. I even get to pick a farm animal! Either a cat, or something that’s not a cat and as such never stood much of a chance. Finally, the palette is rounded out by naming three things: myself, my farm, and my ‘favourite thing’.
And we’re off! A cutscene starts, all bright colours and pixelated edges, as the camera settles on…
“…And for my very special grandson…” I assume I’m the grandson, and that grandpa-Santa is somehow narrating this. Despite looking pretty unconscious. “I want you to have this sealed envelope.” The envelop flies towards the screen as this line appears. Am I… in this room right now?
“No, no, don’t open it yet… have patience. Now, listen close… There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burdens of modern life… and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness. When that happens, my boy, you’ll be ready for this gift. Now, let Grandpa rest…”
Geez, grandpa. Downer, much? But yeah, thanks, though. I appreciate it. I’ll keep this in mind if I’m ever crushed by the burdens of modern life or whatever.
Fade to black. “XX Years later…”
Look at this subtle piece of social commentary. It’s so dedicated to crushing me with the burdens of modern life, it hasn’t even stopped to consider how those cubicles work. How does anyone get into the completely walled-off center ones? How does anyone get out?
Yeah, alright. Looks like grandpa was right after all. All those XX years ago.
Luckily, I apparently keep grandpa’s letter in my office desk drawer. Near to my heart, I guess, and always within arm’s reach until the exact moment I can’t bear this office situation anymore.
“Dear Jarenth,” the letter reads, “If you’re reading this, you must be in dire need of a change. The same thing happened to me, long ago. I’d lost sight of what mattered most in life… real connections with other people and nature. So I dropped everything and moved to the place I truly belong.”
I’m sure you can all see where this is going, huh? It’s time to ditch the horrible gray-scale creeping death of modern life, and return to my roots. Which is to say, return to some roots. One short bus trip later…
…I find myself in Stardew Valley.
A woman greets me as I get off the bus. “Hello! You must be Jarenth.” Don’t ask me how I know this, but I think her name is Robin.
Robin introduces herself as the local carpenter. She’s been sent by Mayor Lewis, an old friend of my grandfather’s, to show me my new farm. Still a bit of a strange idea, that I just own a farm now. But that’s how life goes, I guess. Let’s see what kind of place grandpa left me.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. Except it kind of was, given that Harvest Moon starts in a similar way. But in-character I didn’t expect this dilapidated shack in the middle of garbage wilderness. Do you think… do you think I could get my old job at JoJa back?
An old man with a newsboy cap walks out of the house. That’s Mayor Lewis, then? Grandpa said to say hi if you were still alive! So… hi.
Lewis is the mayor of Pelican Town, a small town a few miles from the farm. Robin lives there too. In fact, everyone who’s anyone in this region lives in or nearby Pelican Town. And given that it’s pretty rare for someone new to move in here, ‘everyone’s been asking about me’. Maybe I should go meet the locals? Maybe tomorrow.
Lewis and Robin talk smack about my house. Lewis calls it ‘rustic’. Robin calls it ‘crusty’.
And that’s it for the introduction! Mayor Lewis suggests I go take a nap, tired as I must be from the long bus trip. Even though it’s still bright daylight out. Today, I get to rest. Tomorrow, the action starts.
And then the screen fades to black automatically. I don’t get a choice in this nap.
Alright then! First day on BlueNin farm, scenic Stardew Valley. Monday the 1st. First of what? I have no idea. Let’s roll.
For the first time since the introduction started, I get a chance to manually stretch my legs. WASD moves my character around. Left and right mouse buttons are various modes of interaction, respectively ‘do a thing’ and ‘look at a thing’. Shift lets me run. I will immediately and forevermore forget about the running. I’m not in a hurry to get anywhere.
There’s a fancy purple-ribboned box on the floor of my house. Was this here when I came in? I open it, to find the gift of… parsnip seeds!
Hey, that gave me a quest in my journal! ‘If you want to become a farmer, start with the basics. Till the soil with a hoe, plant these seeds, and then water them every day until they grow.’
Sure, I could do that. But didn’t Mayor Lewis just now say it’d be nice if I introduced myself to everybody in town?
I briefly futz around in my house. The layout isn’t actually as immutable as years of other games have taught me to assume. I can totally put the chair, and table, and even the scenic tree picture, anywhere I want. Probably the TV and the bed too. But I’m good with this house the way it is. Let’s go meet some locals!
Pelican Town is to the right of BlueNin Farm. I pass the bus stop on my way there. The place is overgrown with wild plants, so I take a few moments to pick some of it up. Daffodils and dandelions and leeks galore! Nature is awesome.
And then, I enter the town proper.
Everyone’s still asleep. Oh yeah, I apparently woke up at like 6:00 AM.
Eventually, after burning some daylight and running around for a bit, I start meeting other people. Like Marnie, the stocky livestock trader whose braid looks like leaves! Or Robin’s scientist husband Demetrius, and their kids, Maru the gadgeteer and Sebastian the greasy-haired basement dweller. Or Penny, the shy redhead whose character portrait doesn’t match her sprite at all.
I can tell I’m probably going to be on good terms with Pierre, the owner of the local store. No reason really, just a hunch. Also, he sells the seeds I need to be in the farming business to begin with.
According to my quest log, about 28 people live in this town. I don’t get to meet all of them. A bunch of them, I just can’t find. Others are hidden away in their bedrooms. And apparently the people of this town don’t just let anyone run around in their private spaces?
I’m not particularly starved for content, though. There is a lot to see in this small town and assorted space. The town itself has about a dozen colourful and varied houses, including a small clinic, a saloon, and even a trailer. Above the town, a dilapidated community center gives way to a mountainous area — that’s mostly blocked off by landslides and rocks right now. There’s a beach to the south, complete with fishing store and distraught writer shack. And to the west, a forest spans across and around a lake.
There is so much to do and find here, in fact, that I don’t even notice the passage of time until the screen slowly darkens. While I’m in the middle of the forest. A forest I’ve never seen before and have no experience in navigating. I’m sure showing my city boy roots here, huh?
A quick look at the map, which — luckily — is brought up when I panic-hammer M, suggests that my farm should be right above the forest. So I just run in a northerly direction for a while. And I’m in luck! As the darkness slowly becomes worse and worse, I stumble across the path up. Which takes me…
…to the absolute southern edge of my plot. Still filled with weeds, logs, and rocks.
Okay. No problem. This is where prior experience pays off. On the top of my screen — on the bottom, before, but apparently it switches position — I see an Equipment Action Bar. Farmer-me comes pre-packaged with a small set of tools: an axe, a hoe, a watering can, a pickaxe, and a scythe. Why does a farmer need a pickaxe, you might be tempted to ask? I don’t know, but with all these goddamn rocks blocking my path, I’m sure glad I have it.
I hack and pick and slice my way up to my house. Some of the stuff I break I actually pick up, like grass fibers and assorted seeds. But my small backpack is already filled to capacity. Hopefully all this wood and stone is nice enough to stay around overnight! And then, finally, as the clock turns midnight and also turns red, I finally reach my bed. Some first day, huh? Met some new people, explored some cool surroundings, was almost lost to the wilderness and the elements immediately.
Can’t wait to see what day two will bring!
Day two’s theme is the hard physical labor I was honestly sort of hoping to just put off into perpetuity. But if I’m going to make this farm a success, the first thing I’ll need is space. And to be honest, all those rocks and logs and wild growths are really messing up the qi flow of this place. It’s time, I think to fix all that. Good thing I had a mandatory crash course in proper tool use just last night!
I chop the trees, and they fall down, splintering into wood and sap. I pulverize the rocks with my pickaxe, shattering them into stone and coal and geodes. The grass and the weeds, I slash with my scythe. It’s hard work, but rewarding: whatever I don’t immediately pick up into my backpack falls on the ground, waiting for me to grab it later.
It is really hard work, though. With every swing of a tool, the energy bar I hadn’t even noticed in the lower right corner drains. I start my work at 6:30 AM; at 12:00 PM, I’m entirely exhausted.
Good thing I brought that leek from earlier!
When I eventually run out of energy again, I decide to spend the rest of my day meeting even more people. Did you know that Old Man George is a grump asshole? Or that Maru works at the clinic on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Or that Willy the fisherman is easily the most generous guy in town?
Or that male model Fabio apparently moved to Pelican Town?
So many people, and I still haven’t met them all.
Rainy day three sees me clear even more space. Initially, I drop all the stuff I find into the big bin on the right of my house. This is the Sell Box: Mayor Lewis comes by every morning before I wake up to sell all this for me. But when leafing through the character menus that apparently show up when you hit Escape, I find there’s a whole crafting system in place! I can use the wood and stone I find to craft fences, and paths, and torches… and a much-needed Minecraft-esque storage chest.
Oh, and another thing I learn is that there are apparently skill trees. Because most of my time is spent chopping down trees and foraging for leeks and flowers, I guess it makes some intuitive sense that I’d get better at that? I just hadn’t expected this to be an actual structured system, including levels and rewards and numeric tool proficiencies.
It takes me until day five to finally get around to planting those parsnip seeds. Not because I necessarily needed that much space! There was just so much to do that I… kind of forgot. Fishing is fun and soothing and pretty immediately rewarding, unless you fish up trash. And did you know you can give gifts to the townspeople? Makes them like me better, if I give something they care about. Not just the ones clearly marked as ‘single’ either. I’ve given Willy the first fish I caught, two days running, just because he’s such a good dude.
Anyway, check out my farm!
I just realized this game might be super dangerous to me. Look at where this review is right now. I’m over 3000 words in, nearly an hour and a half of gameplay, and I can already tell I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s going on. There’s a calendar, with birthdays and special events, that spans all four of the 28-day seasons. Each season has its own seasonal selection of crops, each with different methods of planting and maintaining. I can upgrade my tools with special metals, that I’m probably going to learn how to collect soon enough. I catch different fish depending on whether I fish in the river, or the lake, or the ocean, and during the day or at night. I can upgrade my house and my farm and get a whole bunch of animals. Someone just gave me a cat. There’s a guild of adventurers operating outside of the old mine. Tiny lego-brick-nub-looking fairies live in the old community center.
This game is super dangerous to me, for two reasons. One, I have no idea if I’ll be able to get anywhere near a good complete overview in the time I have to play it. And two, it’s exactly the kind of game that might eat me alive. Am I going to come back on the next page with the revelation that Stardew Valley claimed all of my free time, everywhere, forever?