All of the Charm, None of the Dirt: Rural Life in Stardew Valley

Sometimes real life is maddeningly unpredictable. In Stardew Valley, my responsibilities are simple and clearly laid out; there’s little guesswork or misfortune.
Publish date:
April 11, 2016
video games, fun

A few of you who frequent the comment section have heard me talk about the computer game Stardew Valley recently. I’m a very on-and-off, casual gamer, and Stardew Valley has captured my heart like few other games have. Created over the course of four years by a single person, it’s an homage to the old Harvest Moon games, but delightful enough that you don’t need any nostalgia to enjoy it.

Stardew Valley is simple enough for casual gamers to pick up with ease, tame enough that kids can play it, and yet so charming that it’s hard to put down. You run a lovely little farm in a quaint village in the countryside. It’s full of wonderful surprises but more than that, it offers a comforting routine.

Sometimes real life is maddeningly unpredictable. The washer breaks down on laundry night. A traffic jam makes you late for work. That new recipe that looked great online turns out to be a dud and goes straight into the trash. None of these annoyances are the end of the world, but some days they add up into a mountain of frustration.

It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, the fact that things will probably be okay in the end, when there are so many responsibilities and so many things that make them harder than they need to be.

In Stardew Valley, my responsibilities are simple and clearly laid out; there’s little guesswork or misfortune. I plant my crops and I know how many days until harvest. I feed and hug my animals every day — and yes, your animals need to be “hugged” (clicked on) every day to reach maximum happiness. If I don’t want to go to the festival or clear out all the trees on my farm or catch yet another fish for Willie (the local fisherman), I don’t have to. The festival will happen again next year, the trees can be cleared out later with few consequences, and Willie will always have a fishing quest for me if I change my mind later.

Stardew Valley does include combat, for those of us who like to play the brave adventurer, but it's much simpler than combat in most games. Literally all you have to do is swing your sword, and the hardest part is remembering to switch between your pickaxe (to break up rocks and find valuable ore) and your weapon. It also has a fishing mini game, which feels impossible at first but gets easier with a bit of practice.

Fortunately, Stardew Valley's design lets you pick and choose what you want to do with your rural life. If you don't want to enter the mines or if you loathe fishing, sure, you'll miss out on some cool loot, but the game is still playable. If you don't like farming much, you can forage in the woods for wild flowers and vegetables, chop down trees, and run errands. If you love the cute livestock, you can spend your time caring for them and increase your investments by turning milk into cheese and eggs into mayonnaise. I've even heard of players who devoted their farms exclusively to flowers and beehives.

For me, I'm more interested in growing giant pumpkins and hugging my cows than in going into town every day to chat with my neighbors, but I do appreciate the game's interpersonal options. All of your fellow townsfolk have their own routines, and their dialogue gives them each a distinct personality. Marriage is completely optional, but if you want to woo a spouse you have ten romantic options — all of whom are accessible regardless of your own character's gender.

For anyone who played Nintendo games a decade or so ago, Stardew Valley will immediately remind you of Harvest Moon. The basic premise is identical, after all: you have a farm, and it’s up to you to plant crops and care for animals to make your small rural business thrive. It also has a few elements similar to Animal Crossing, namely the foraging and getting to know your neighbors, but it’s not linked to real time like Animal Crossing is — which means you can put it down for weeks or binge for hours at a time. I’ve also heard that Stardew Valley has similarities to both Rune Factory and Minecraft, but I haven’t played either of those myself.

Stardew Valley is a fun and surprisingly charming game that’s reminded me how much I love gaming. You don’t have to pick up a gun and shoot aliens or devote all of your free time to it. It’s just a calming, enjoyable, and cute pastime that allows you to escape into an idyllic world for a few hours at the end of a long and all-too-real-life day.