I’ve written many times over about my rather addictive personality when it comes to TV and movies, but the video game Stardew Valley certainly holds a special place in the pantheon for me, in that I became so obsessed with it so quickly I began to dream about it while simultaneously becoming physically sick. Only my first BoJack Horseman watch through as well as the first season of Jane the Virgin has caused me to so strongly physically react. But I just couldn’t stop. Stardew Valley, a game originally pitched to me as a soothing farming simulator, quickly took over my life. In the first 72 hours I owned it I think I played for something approaching 30 hours. Growing my farm was so much fun and so neccessary I just couldn’t put it down, and even at work or in bed I was planning out in my head what crops I would next plant, what seeds I could afford, what buildings I would construct, and how much lumber I would need to build said buildings.
When you get deep enough into a game, and when you love something enough, you begin to rework it a little, press on the minor points that could be improved. I was frustrated, for example, that people still greeted me as a newcomer to town even after I’d been there for a year interacting with them every day. It bothered me that my wife if anything lost personality when I married her. But most of all it bothered me how quickly trees grew back.
When I started the game I was exceedingly careful in the trees I cut down, afraid if I decimated a forest too entirely I would no longer have wood to build structures later in the game. I also studiously collected the acorns that trees dropped and planted them elsewhere, to help boost the forest I was harvesting from. I didn’t need to be so cautious. Trees erupted from the ground no matter what I did, and would grow in just a few in game days. I could harvest as much as I wanted with no penalty, and there would always be enough wood to further expand my farm. I didn’t, in short, have to learn to live with nature. I just had to earn money.
Before anyone goes and accuses me of putting my own political/social spin on a game that doesn’t necessarily have those things… it does! The game begins with your dying Grandpa bequeathing you his farm, prompting you to quit your job at the soulless Joja Company. When you arrive in the Valley Joja is there too, but it’s made pretty clear you shouldn’t ally with them (though it is an option). Soulless, money-greedy corporations are immediately pitched as the villains of the game (and, to throw my own political/social spin in there: rightly so that the corporations are the villains – they are in real life). The dissonance begins as soon as your own farm begins to take off and you begin to really rake in the dough. You gave up your job at a soulless money-greedy company to start your own soulless money-greedy company. So… what? Is it an argument for Mom & Pop shops?
A quick google search revealed I was far from the first to strike upon these weird opposing viewpoints presented as one concentrated viewpoint. Stardew Valley claims to promote community and peaceful exploration of and self-discovery, but its only measure of progress is the amount of money you’ve raked in (again, you’re relationships with the townsfolk only evolve marginally before becoming static). If you refuse to side with the Joja Corporation in town you’re able to revitalize the derelict Community Center, but again the way to do it is by moving good and products, and quite literally occasionally pouring cash into it.
So, what’s the fix? Games do need some sense of progression and progress, and the build up of your farm is an obvious and frankly, immensely enjoyable, metric. But that is sheer capitalism, sheer commodity, and what’s more is most certainly what made a ostensibly peaceful and soothing gaming experience so intense for me. What other options are there? As I mentioned above, the relationships could evolve further. It’s something I pined for, but not something I wanted as desperately as conservation.
When you abandon the evil Joja Co. you need something to set you apart, and as a farmer a stewardship of the land would be just about the perfect thing. Instead of abusing the town and the environment for all their worth, stripping them for the most cash you can muster without consequence, a better game would be one in which you need to learn to live with the land. Set aside the social message, which I can argue later – it would also make for a better game. Thematically it would help set you apart from the Joja Co. you just left instead of setting you on a parallel path. Mechanically, most importantly, it would help make the game more diverse. Once you get over the initial hurdle of making your first few thousand G (in game currencies) the game settles into a pretty obvious and easy progression. You make money, buy seeds/animals, harvest, process, sell, buy more seed/animals, etc. Quite frankly stripping the land without regard for the consequences is easy. It’s why companies do it in the real world (there are of course environmental consequences for behaving without regard for the environment in the real world, but companies behave as if there aren’t). To make those consequences felt within Stardew Valley would make a more dynamic experience. Let’s say you get to year two and you’re getting close to that second barn but you realize, to your horror, you’ve accidentally destroyed the forest to the south where you typically get your wood. Take some time off and plant new trees. Make sure they grow. Be more careful next time. It would add an ebb and flow to progress in the later game and encourage finding a middle ground.
The building blocks are already there. Your animals can overeat a field and destroy it, causing them to go hungry. It’s a great mechanic and added excitement to my days: how do I build fences that allow for fields to take turns growing and feeding livestock? How do I deal with my hungry cows? It made me feel like I was more engaged with both the game and the world, and added a variable I knew would never go away entirely: I add another cow, suddenly I have to rework the whole equation. Finally, to argue the political/social point: we already know humans are good at using and abusing the environment. Why not make a game where we attempt the opposite, more challenging, more rewarding, approach?