A few hours in
“But Jarenth,” I hear you start up, “only 17 hours? That’s not all that much, is it?” And under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be. But consider this: because of the review timing issues I had last week, I didn’t really get a chance to start playing Stardew Valley until Wednesday. And given that I have about three hours to play games on most week nights…
To put this in a different perspective: I don’t usually spend all that much time with my Indie Wonderland games. I tend to not need to! I put five hours into SUPERHOT last week. The Flame In The Flood before that, six hours. Recursion Deluxe, 25 minutes. Road Not Taken, two hours. Crashlands, four hours. And so on, and so forth…
In the context of my late start and busy weekend, and taking my usual patterns into account, ’17 hours’ means that for the last four days, Stardew Valley has eaten all the free time I could muster. Hell, I’m writing this review on Sunday, and I’m already trying to convince myself that it’s okay to take a little break. ‘We’re already more than halfway through the whole thing! You can stop writing to play a little. We can always wrap it up later tonight! Or maybe even tomorrow.’
It’s safe to say that Stardew Valley has its hooks in me. Like I predicted, I’m not even all that far into it yet: partway through fall of the first year, I’m just kind of casually trundling along the progression curve. I don’t make all that much money, I don’t have any animals or fruit trees yet, I’m not married or even engaged, I haven’t fixed up even one complete set of bundles, I haven’t cleared the bottom of the mines… But so help me, I’m planning on doing all of that. I don’t know if I actually will: time and work and Indie Wonderland obligations make fools of us all, and in the back of my mind I can already feel a certain repetition fatigue starting to set in. But I’m planning on doing it, at the very least. The intention is there. The spirit is willing, even if the flesh isn’t always capable of staying up until 3:00 AM.
But you’re not me, are you? You’re probably not me. So saying that I spent a significant portion of my time of life on BlueNin farm in and by itself isn’t a super convincing critical pitch. Time spent in and by itself is never a great metric. Stardew Valley clearly works for me, and it works for other people, but would it work for you?
What kind of player does Stardew Valley appeal to? Who is Stardew Valley even for?
Who is Stardew Valley for? On the one hand, it’s an incredibly bright and colourful and approachable game. It looks great, it sounds great, it’s easy to play, and there’s almost no pressure from any angle. Maybe this is a game for the casual ‘farming’ enthusiast? But there’s also a lot of room for self-imposed technical challenge: crop rotations and activity schedules and getting the absolute most out of your limited energy each day. So maybe process optimizers will enjoy that part of it? And, lest we forget, this game is absolutely packed with content. So much to see and to do and to achieve and to unlock… Will those of you that enjoy getting every last knick-knack have a good time in the valley?
Let’s tackle these one by one.
As the entire last page has hopefully made clear, Stardew Valley is a fantasy farming life and small town simulator in the vein of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing. And when I say ‘fantasy farming life simulator’, the emphasis is on fantasy, not on simulator. Stardew Valley is an incredibly romanticized caricature of agricultural life; I’m tempted to describe it as the inveterate city kid’s daydream of ‘what living on the farm would be like’.
Consider: in Stardew Valley, you somehow, through non-defined processes, come into ownership of your own farm. Your grandfather ‘gives you the deed’, and that’s it. There are no costs or problems involved, money issues or legal trouble about inheritance. Of course there aren’t; that’s not what the game cares about.
And your farm is immediately Perfect And Eternal. Nothing ever pressures or threatens it, or you. No mortgage or rent means your ownership of the farm is never threatened; you simply own the place, end of. And, in spite of Robin the carpenter’s earlier ribbing, it’s a pretty solid place. The house never needs maintenance and never breaks down: it doesn’t freeze in winter, it doesn’t heat in summer, it doesn’t leak in the endless showers of fall. Your gas and electricity connections are always free and never run out.
For that matter, you never need any maintenance, either. Despite you technically being a food farmer, and despite the inclusion of a whole fancy cooking mechanic, you don’t actually need to eat. And while work drains your energy, and may even make you ‘exhausted’, you never really get hurt or tired or sick. You can spend the whole day fishing in the ocean rain without so much as a sniffle.
And rounding out the trio, your farming is just as fantasy fool-proof as your farm and you. Here we have an ecosystem where crops grow not in a matter of seasons, but in a matter of days: wheat grows from seed to stem to golden crop in half a week. And this always goes perfectly, and according to prediction. No blights wipe out your whole crop. No sudden unseasonal drops in temperature freeze your budding plants. The summer rainstorms are violent enough to power a dozen lightning rods, but the wind will never blow away your corn stalks. The only allusion Stardew Valley ever makes to the risks involved in farming is when wild crows sometimes eat your planted seeds… Unless, of course, you build one of the perfectly-effective scarecrows to keep them out 100% of the time.
Aside from the crows, and the changing of the seasons, failure is non-existent. Even if you forget to water your crops, or feed your animals, all that happens is that that delays them. Your cows won’t starve and your grapes won’t wither; they’ll just hold in place, until such time as you remember them.
Note that these aren’t complaints! I appreciate they probably sound like directionless grumbling, but that’s not the case. Stardew Valley is totally fine being this way. All I want to do is point out that this game is a farming fantasy, not a farming simulation. It has about as much connection to real farming as Rocket League has to real football. Or real Formula 1 racing. Which is to say, the world would be objectively better if things worked this way.
But this lack of pressure makes Stardew Valley an incredibly approachable, freeform game. You don’t have to do anything, so you can do everything. You wanna do some casual farming? Go ahead. You want to fish all day every day? Water’s right over there. You want to build the perfect stone path through your territory? It’s yours. You just want to forage for berries and then share those with the homeless person outside of town? Good choice, he’s basically the best character to be nice to.
Nothing in Stardew Valley forces you forward. Obviously, if you want to get a giant farm and unlock all the buildings and get married, you’re going to need to work for it. This is still a farming fantasy, after all: The Virtues Of Hard Work and whatnot. But if you want to spend all summer sitting at the beach… well, you get the idea. Go for it. Exist in this world in whatever intensity you want.
And oh my Steve, what a beautiful world it is. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating again and again: This. Game. Is. Gorgeous. The character designs, the world layout, the pixel art. When you look at any sprite for long enough, you’ll see that they actually breathe; when’s the last time you’ve seen that much loving attention to detail? And particular praise needs to go towards the shifting colour palettes associated with the seasons, meaning this crisp fall day…
…is different from this summer evening…
…is different still from this late spring night.
The visual design is great, the sound design is pretty good, even the writing is fairly okay and sometimes chuckle-worthy. It’s just… this whole world is a delight to exist in.
So, if this is the kind of thing you like? Hanging out in a beautiful, fun, low-pressure farming fantasy world? Stardew Valley has that sort of thing in spades.
Do note that lack of pressure doesn’t necessarily mean lack of guidance. Stardew Valley is pretty free-form, but it does take the player by the hand a little every now and again. Characters will mail you with simple quests, ‘get me a melon’ or ‘find my axe’ or ‘reach a low level in the mines’, in order to give you something to work towards. Entirely optional, of course. You can also take on even smaller quests from the job board outside the general store: these ones are timed, and can be failed, just without any consequence.
The biggest thing Stardew Valley has that could be seen as an actual game-spanning ‘storyline quest’ is the community center. Inhabited by magical forest fairies, you can work to ‘restore’ the center before the dastardly JoJa Corporation buys the plot and turns it into a warehouse. Which is to say, they’ll do that if you become a member, so there’s still no pressure. You help the fairies by collecting and crafting and growing a variety of fancy items; doing so unlocks more and more of the world map and reward you with fancy items, in turn.
Stardew Valley is an easy, gentle game, but don’t mistake ‘easy’ for ‘simple. Even if you just want to hang out in Pelican Town and have fun adventures, you’ll probably find yourself at the mercy of Friend Wiki fairly quickly. The game isn’t always very straightforward about critical details: which person likes what as a gift, which fish can you catch when and where and how, when can you expect to find iron and gold and diamonds, how do you unlock access to new areas? The information is usually in the game… it’s just hidden behind random luck, like talking to the right person at the right time, or watching the right TV channel. But other things, like knowing which squares are protected by a single scarecrow or figuring out why can’t use bait on a bamboo fishing pole…
And herein also lies the game’s more ‘hardcore’ appeal, I think. It’s possible to play Stardew Valley super low-key, but it’s also possible to play Stardew Valley as a driven process optimizer. I’m talking getting the most value out of your farming routine, planting your crops in optimal spread patterns, only dealing each season with those products that yield the most return on investment. I’m talking about grinding your way to Calico Desert as quickly as possible. Powering your way to the bottom of the mine so you can get the best possible tools before summer ends. Getting married as quickly as possible so you can get your spouse’s farming bonuses.
Stardew Valley is obviously no Factorio. No game is Factorio, save maybe Factorio. But if you enjoy tinkering with systems for maximal efficiency, there’s still a lot to like here. Every season has its own crops, with different incubation times and replanting ratios, and even restrictions on movement and seed returns. Different kinds of fertilizer have different bonus effects. Different animals yield different products, which can be turned into different quality artisanal goods. And with only a limited amount of surface space for your farm, there’s some real interesting planning with regard to what you put where, and how you can spread out scarecrows and wells to minimize walking time.
It’s… a style of play I don’t always understand, I’ll be honest. I don’t really need that kind of stress in my life. But if you Google for something like ‘cool Stardew Valley farms’, the results don’t lie: some people make amazing, practical, well-oiled farm machines. Without using actual farming machines, even.
And, you know. I won’t lie: I do derive some fun from being able to hit certain milestones before the game quite thinks I should be there. ‘If you haven’t upgraded your watering can yet, do it before Fall,’ the letter reads, as I shake my upgraded watering can — mine since early Summer.
This is also what leads people to say Stardew Valley can be frustrating or repetitive and boring, I think.
The system optimizer’s mindset often feels strange to me. I’m not one myself, so it’s hard to work myself into that point of view. And even though I have a bunch of friends who play games from this perspective, it’s still… I find it hard to get. I accept that it exists, and I understand some of the drive: it’s fun to Do Things Right, and it’s fun to make the success numbers go up!
But in Stardew Valley, yes, doing things ‘the optimal way’ is going to involve a lot of identical grinding. Once you’ve figured out a good crop layout, every morning where it doesn’t rain is going to start with watering your fields. And maybe harvesting from your animals. And once that’s done, depending on the day of the week, you’ll probably want to go talk to everyone. Maybe give them gifts, too. Stardew Valley‘s social interaction system is one of those strange numerically systemized ones, where ‘more interaction’ always leads to ‘better friendship’. And since every friend eventually starts sending you gifts and recipes, the ‘optimal’ thing to do is to be pals with everyone. You get a little dollop of Friendship Points every first time each day you talk to someone, but you lose a (much smaller) amount every time you don’t; as a result, the best and quickest way to become friends with everyone is to talk to everyone, all the time. Give them gifts, too. You can give every person two gifts a week, resetting on Sunday. So load your inventory up with gems and foodstuffs and the peculiar items everybody likes best…
This goes even more strongly if you’re a completionist. If you’re a completionist, Stardew Valley will destroy you. There is so much to do in this game, at all times. Crops to plant, and items to forage, and people to talk to and woo, and monsters to fight, and fish to catch, and paths to unlock… and only so much time each day and so much energy to do it in and with. If you look at Stardew Valley‘s mod scene, you’ll notice a lot of repetition around this theme. Many mods try to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of your strict time and energy pressure: more time in each day, slower time progression, freezing time whenever you’re indoors… many of the more popular mods work in this area. Those, and mods that replace animals with Pokémon, and mods that give all ‘single’ women character larger breasts. That’s kind of the Stardew Valley mod trifecta.
The thing is that, even though Stardew Valley is large and expansive, I don’t actually think it’s ‘built for’ this kind of power play. Much the opposite, in fact: the game makes clear on several occasions that it expects you to play at least several in-game years. The ‘intended’ experience, I think, is much more of a slow burn. With you, the new character, slowly accommodating to and finding your home in Pelican Town. And slowly expanding and growing. And running into new items and options and possibilities year after year. I don’t know if you’re ‘supposed’ to have animals before the first year is up. And I don’t think you’re ‘supposed’ to marry someone until well into the second year. And many of the bundle bundles are almost impossible to complete before winter by design.
It’s probably possible to power your way through all these milestones inside a single year. I’m fairly certain my process optimizer friends would be able to do it, might even have done it. But doing so means railing against the boundaries of Stardew Valley‘s ‘fun’. This game is chock full of different things to do and fancy paths to take. If you elect to do one of them over and over again, for optimal outcomes, it’s probably going to get a little boring. You already notice this if you talk to people over and over: it turns out most villagers don’t have all that much interesting stuff to say. And, obviously, the rote mechanical repetition of caring for crops and animals can start to chafe.
This is not to say Stardew Valley never gets boring even if you do muck around most of the time. While it’s in no way mandatory, the game strongly incentivizes following its time-based opportunity systems for maximum profit. There’s so much cool stuff you can do with money, and resources, and high-level friends. Did you know there’s a casino in the desert that may or may not be run by aliens? Yours to go to if you cough up the $42.500 needed to fix the bus! House upgrades are expensive, buildings are expensive, courtship is expensive, and all these neat toys are all that much easier to get to if you play the farming game as close to optimal as you can cleave. It’s almost the nature of the gaming system.
But if you don’t stop to smell the flowers every now and again, how will you ever find the hidden wizard?
I’m not married yet, did I tell you?
When I played the original Harvest Moon, drink, I played the romance like a zero-sum game. Any day not spent talking to my crush was a day wasted. I know most people played it like that, almost everybody. But when I noticed myself doing a similar thing in Stardew Valley, I made the conscious decision to steer away from it. It felt kind of weird, to be this hyper-focused schmoozing robot. So, instead, I tried a more organic approach: hanging out and being nice to people I actually want to hang out with.
I’m not married yet. I do hang out with Maru a lot, because I like her and she makes cool robots, and I made sure to get her something nice for her birthday. I just got the option to buy the fancy Relationship Starting Bouquet, so that’s going pretty well. But I also make sure to talk to her parents, Robin and Demetrius, and hang out with her brother Sebastian every now and again. I share fruits and forest forage with Leah, who I know likes that sort of thing. I hang out with Willy whenever I go fishing, and I support Pierre’s little shop whenever I can. I’ve made it my mission to get George to warm up to me, because I worry he might get lonely too. I play games with Abigail. I try to say hi to Clint every so often. I share food with Linus whenever I find myself up the mountain, which is often. And Shane might come across as a grumpy asshole, but that’s just because he works a shitty retail job in a supermarket everybody grudgingly hates. He could really use a friend, I think.
At some point, I’ll probably run out of things to do and enjoy in Stardew Valley. I’m already noticing some of the borders here and there. But I’m in no hurry to explore this possibility space fully. If I can get a chicken coop together before next spring, that’d be lovely! I’d love to have some chickens. But there’s enough to do in the meantime. I just hope the waters don’t freeze over, I’d love to still be able to fish when the snows fall.
Have I even mentioned the fishing? It’s such a lovely mini-game. Simple, sure: you keep a bar in a certain place until a fish bites. But all the same, it has a surprising amount of character. Each fish has its own action pattern, with some fish being active and some fish being passive, and some fish throwing you off by changing up and down… it’s gotten to the point where I can tell myself ‘ah, this feels like a bullhead’ or ‘this is definitely a sturgeon’, and I’ll be right more often than not.
Random-sounding thing? Yes, sure, but also, no. The fishing minigame is almost a microcosm of whether or not you’ll enjoy Stardew Valley for long. On the one hand, it’s a silly, grind-y minigame, one that you’ll probably do dozens of times if you want to catch particular fish. On the other hand, it has a charm and character all its own, and finding new waters to fish and new stuff to drag up can be a delight. Like the mine lake on level 20 and its ghost fish.
Which one catches your eye first? The fact that it’s cool and particular and the mechanics match the narrative gameplay? Or the fact that it’s always the same, and you’ll have to do it dozens of times to get the ‘best results’?
I mean, I’ll be honest: if what I’ve written and shown here appeals to you even a little, in whatever way, you’ll probably get your time and money’s worth out of Stardew Valley. This game is a marvelously put-together masterpiece, a paragon of the Harvest Moon/Animal Crossing schools that shows it really understands what makes these experiences work. It’s really good, you guys. The fact that it was all made by one person just adds baffling icing to the shockingly impressive cake.
If you absolutely have to be the best at what you do, you might run out of patience with Stardew Valley‘s strict timing rules and occasional weird control mishap — I’ve lost count of how many times I accidentally broke down my furnace when trying to get the copper out of it. And while it’s far from unique, the game’s look-it-up-in-the-wiki style of information dispensing is totally something you can ding it for. But if — like me — you’re content to simply exist in this space, on your own terms, I think Pelican City and Insert-Name-Here Farm might be your home away from home for quite a long time.
Jarenth has pumpkins to harvest. Share pictures of your undoubtedly more impressive farms on Twitter or Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?