Anthony "Tony" Magestro--or known on the field of battle as Metzge--is an avid writer, gamer, and entrepreneur. When he's not writing, gaming, or entrepreneuring, he enjoys cooking, trippy movies, and trying to be awesome to varying degrees of success. Feel free to check out his LinkedIn page, especially if you need freelance help with content writing or digital marketing. Or just like to network, that's fine too.
Maybe I’m just bad at paying attention, but I feel like Stardew Valley came out of nowhere. I only saw it on Steam, not hearing a thing about the new RPG farming simulator until a few days before its release. Now, it’s all I seem to hear about in all my newsfeeds – not that I’m complaining. Developed by one-man powerhouse ConcernedApe and published by Chucklefish (the same fish that brought us Starbound), Stardew Valley is often likened as Harvest Moon‘s spiritual successor. That comparison only scratches the surface.
If you’ve managed to avoid all the hype, let me fill you in on the story so far. The game starts with your grandfather sick in bed, entrusting you with a sealed envelope. In his final breaths, he warns you not to open it until you “feel crushed by the burden of modern life.” Fast forward a couple of years and you find yourself stuck in a dead-end corporate job. Sick of slaving away at your desk, you finally open the envelope. Inside, you find a deed to your grandfather’s old farm and letter of encouragement to start over. Packing up your life, you hop on a bus and make your way to your Stardew Valley. Greeted by Robin, the town carpenter, she leads you to your new home. As you can imagine, it’s a little worse for wear.
It’s up to you to rebuild your grandfather’s farm, starting with nothing but a few tools and a handful of seeds. How you rebuild is up to you.
A Great Escape
I got right to work on the first day. I cleared some land immediately around my house and began to till a few plots for those seeds. Normally I get bored quickly with crafting-based games, especially if I’m by myself. There’s only so many rocks I can collect or trees to cut down before I lose interest, regardless of how many cool recipes and blueprints there might be. But there’s something satisfying about starting with virtually nothing and turning things around through hard work and elbow grease. Well… at least, for your avatar. As I went about my chores the following few days, I soon learned that Grandpa was right: this was refreshing.
There’s more to Stardew Valley than just farming, though. With an intricate crafting system, you can process raw materials into decorative objects like cobblestone or wooden walkways, or useful equipment like scarecrows to protect your crops or a furnaces to melt down the various ores you stumble across. After a while, you can even cook food from the crops and various flowers, herbs, and seeds you find as you explore Pelican Town nearby and the surrounding countryside.
I think what surprised me the most was the amount of depth that’s gone into the game’s universe. Each of the townspeople have their own schedules and even birthdays, with opportunities to befriend and romance them if you’d want. If you don’t want to schmooze, you can always go fishing, delve into monster-infested mines and go exploring, or make nice with the local wizard. Seasons pass, featuring festivals and varied weather that you can use to your advantage. For example, you don’t need to worry about watering your crops when it rains – or at all, really, if it’s winter. If you have a hard time figuring out what to do, your handy journal will keep track of your quests and point you in the right direction. The game also features a sort of Pokédex of vegetables that shows all the various crops and objects you can find, assuring Stardew Valley‘s success by preying on gamerkind’s rampant OCD.
There is a level of strategy underneath Stardew Valley‘s retro veneer I wasn’t expecting either. Timing is very important to being successful, from planning crop rotations to making sure those damned fish don’t get away. For anyone who’s played the accompanying mini-game, I apologize if your blood pressure’s risen at the mere mention. Not that it’s bad. Those fish are just slippery. I also learned the hard way that any crops that aren’t ready for harvest by the time the seasons shift (once every four in-game weeks) will just end up as plant corpses the next morning. It was especially brutal since I was down to 200-some coins and thought I could still reap what was already planted. Clearly I don’t make a good farmer.
When summer rolled around, I made sure to pay attention to the growth and harvest times for the next set of produce: tomatoes and red peppers that take a week and some change to grow, but will be reharvestable throughout the season. While I waited for that, I filled in my day with tending to my two chickens, fishing, and exploring the mine in search of copper and iron ore. If I could smelt a few bars out of those metals, I could then make a few sprinklers to take care of watering my plants for me. As a one-man farming army, I’ll need all the help I can get. By automating some of my chores, I’ll be able to focus on other higher priority tasks. Like picking wildflowers and wooing the locals, hoping someone will dance with me at the Flower Festival next year.
It’s The Little Things
Now I realize that Stardew Valley isn’t the first of its kind and, with Early Access, given its wide success, I doubt it’ll be the last. But what makes this game stand out in a crowd of other life or farming simulators is all the attention to the little details. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to spend a day just walking around, people watching: NPCs go about their business, greeting each other and running their errands. Shops have their own hours and when people need errands taken care of, they’ll post them outside Pierre’s General Store for you to make some extra cash. How much you decide to participate in being a member of the community is left up to you.
The human element aside, the valley itself feels like it’s alive with its beautiful 64-bit-esque pixel art and weather and seasonal effects. On some mornings, cherry blossom petals will dance in the spring wind, or the shadows of clouds will crawl across the grass on a warm summer’s day. Even the rain storms are calming, the drops pattering against the roof of your cabin as you watch TV, knowing you don’t have to water your plants that day.
Certainly, ConcernedApe has capitalized on the nostalgia factor, but what makes Stardew Valley so good is that it builds on what made Harvest Moon so successful before it instead of just lazily cloning it. By taking the aesthetic and the core mechanics of the original inspiration and adding in some new modern mechanics that didn’t exist back in the day (in this case, what’s been learned with games like Starbound, Terraria, and even a dash of Minecraft), much like our farm, developers now are breathing new life into once-beloved titles. And given the others who’ve followed similar paths – Stygian Software‘s Underrail and Obsidian Entertainment‘s Pillars of Eternity, to name two of my personal “newstalgia” favorites – and their hugely positive reception, it’s clearly a business model that’s working. Don’t believe me? Look at television and movies lately and tell me how this new fascination of recycling media we once loved with new technology isn’t a thing. Spoiler alert: it is. And boy is it great.
Since we’re on the topic of little things, there are a few features that need smoothing over – namely the game’s UI and interacting with shopkeepers. While the controls themselves are pretty intuitive (left-click to use, right-click to inspect, WASD to move, numbers correspond with inventory quick slots), it’s sometimes difficult to tell which tile you’re interacting with. There’s been times where I’ll water the wrong tile or dig crops up on accident and while I’m spelunking, it’s hard to get the angle just right with your sword sometimes when enemies come at you diagonally and you can only face in cardinal directions. A little highlighting (akin to when you’re placing objects in the world) can go a long way and, as far as combat’s concerned, why not go two for two on nostalgia points and look to Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for some inspiration on retro-RPG swordplay. Wait… no… that might be dangerous – it’s already difficult enough for me to step outside with the game as it is.
Coming back to sell off some of my loot’s a pain in the ass though when dealing with shopkeepers (if you can find someone to take your crap, that is). While the buy/sell screen is pretty straightforward, the lack of a confirmation screen (especially for selling) has seen me buy a bunch of new seeds or food (for HP and energy) only to accidentally sell them back for less because of a misclick. With how many times Pierre’s swindled me in this fashion, selling me his wares only to buy them back for a fraction without my intent, I wouldn’t mind if Joja (a megastore in the game not unlike Wal-Mart that just opened up down the road) bought him out. Though while we’re on the matter of economic questions, why Joja’s goods are actually more expensive than Pierre’s despite the chain’s antagonism, attempting to “undercut” the competition, I don’t rightly understand. But again, these things aren’t game breaking, they just break the flow I get into while tilling my fields and plotting my agrarian future.
At the end of the day, Stardew Valley truly is the best place to pack up and move to if you’re looking to get away from it all. Though the game uses this as a vehicle to tell its story, I can’t help but feel some sort of meta message underneath all the pixels and parsnips, addressing its fans directly rather than their virtual selves. This game came out at a time where I personally felt defeated with the woes of modern life. Hell, I even got a letter from my in-game mom complete with cookies and telling me she missed me now that I’ve moved away.
Now, having found myself (mind you, in meatspace, not the game) 2,000 miles from home, I can see that the game’s nostalgic charm is less about how it looks, and more about how it makes its players feel.
All I know it’s good to be home.
Even if Robin’s a judgmental bitch.