A Dewdrop in the Valley
Well, we’re back. And just in time for the holidays! So expect us to be gone just as quickly!
To be clear, I’m blaming Kait entirely for this. There’s no reason for her not to still be doing her book reviews. It’s not like she has anything better to do! I know this because I see her every evening doing her damn farming.
And that very farming is what I am going to discuss today.
It’s the end of the year and for many hobbies this means crowning a Product of the Year award! It’s an entirely arbitrary, consumerist endeavor used more for social signalling amongst fellow hobbists than to serve as some objective measure of quality and worth. But I’ll be damned if I don’t participate!
So we’re going to talk about the Games of the Year. Specifically, we’re going to talk about my Game of the Year! Because narcissism is next to godliness – or something. But this is a rather short discussion since I don’t actually purchase that many games in a year anymore. When I was younger and more carefree, I had the time to partake in multiple new releases and enjoy what the market had to offer. Now that I’m old, I simply don’t have the time. Thus, most of my purchases are well researched and games I’m pretty certain I’m going to like. This would mean that hidden gems have about zero chance of winning my nomination. And as a dyed in the wool RPG and strategy enthusiast, I have very refined and developed tastes in what I like. This year has had some very notable releases in those genres. We’re talking about the new Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Dark Souls III. It’s also been the year of Firaxis with such lauded titles as Xcom 2 and Civilization VI. And even with my brief forays into the shooting genre, it’s hard to ignore heavy contenders like the rebooted Doom or Blizzard’s Overwatch – which has the distinct of being the company’s newest intellectual property in 30 years!
Now, let’s talk about farming simulators!
Let’s give some context. I’ve never been interested in farming. Seems like a whole lot of sweating in dirt for a boring payoff. Has anyone ever gotten excited about pulling out a stalk of celery? Farming is one of those things you do because it needs to be done. It shares this glorious distinction along with garbage collecting and dispensing rectal suppositories. Course, if anything has become abundantly clear over time, what I like isn’t necessarily a shared, universal trait. My sister loves farming. It gives her a sense of accomplishment. She looks being sore, dirty and having all her efforts wither on vines, be eaten by bugs or just grow into mutant and misshapen lumps. She’s peered longingly at the hundreds of dollars listings for Farming Simulator on Steam. She’s dreamed about buying her own John Deer tractor.
In short, she is weird.
However, Derek is also weird. So when a little title called
Harvest Moon 2016: The Reharvesting Stardew Valley released, I kept a finger to its pulse. Derek said it was amazing. Adam went ahead and purchased it. I dog sat for a weekend in Brantford. The conclusion amongst all of us was that Stardew Valley wasn’t that bad. So I pulled the trigger and bought it for Kait on her birthday because I’d just returned from glorious globetrotting and had no other idea what to get her to top a pair of sushi socks.
Kait was hesitant of course. Put anything new in front of her and she seizes and passes out like a fainting goat. Which, if you’re reading this Concerned Ape, then I just thought of a suggestion for new content in your next patch!
However, Stardew Valley was a gift and Kait couldn’t ignore it. She was obligated to give it a try. And then a second try. And a third. A week later she’d logged in 40 hours and was complaining about how far she’d fallen behind in her work. Well, that’s a lie. She wasn’t complaining. She was simply hoping no one would mention it while she was logging more hours into Stardew Valley. It appears my attempts to finally introduce my sister to the joys of the video game medium had finally paid off.
I was curious, naturally. You can’t have someone sequestered away in the corner of the house shut off from the world for so long without piquing some inherent interest. What was so glorious about this stupid farming game? I had naturally given it a try before purchase since my judgment of Kait’s interests are absolute. The (in game) week I played was fine. You inherit a little plot of land that’s overrun with weeds, seeds and harvest leaves. The game is pretty simple. In the full sense of the word. The villagers make clear that Stardew Valley is a laid back place. There aren’t any pressing concerns. You just take as long as you need to grow your crops and shove them in your magic box. Life will just take care of itself. You can, of course, engage in the little community. Some folk try to run their quaint little businesses that will sell you wallpaper or tool upgrades so you don’t tucker yourself out with watering by midday. They have their own little insipid greetings when you talk to them – which you will because there’s not a whole lot happening in the valley. And, as is with every game with shoehorned RPG mechanics, most villagers have their own little personal problems that require your gentle assistance.
But when I say little, I really mean little. Take Leah – perhaps the most appealing bachelorette in Pelican Town – for example. Besides being a starving artists (which we can quite sympathize with), she struggles with how to sell her art. You can suggest to her that she can sell it online or hold a gallery. And that’s it. Later, if you’ve given her enough radishes so she doesn’t starve in her little log cabin, then you’ll find out that she’s found some interested buyer that is purchasing every single one of her pieces and now she doesn’t have to worry about paying her electricity bill. Mind you, I hadn’t gotten around to being friends with Leah until the second year so it’s anyone’s guess how she was paying those bills earlier! But it’s Stardew Valley and you’re really encouraged to not stress about those things. Just go, pet your cows a little more so maybe tomorrow you can squeeze out some gold star milk from them.
And that’s really Stardew Valley’s modus operandi. It provides simple little distractions all along the way. Want to play an old arcade game! Head to the saloon in the evening and hone your skills on the straightforward but still adequately made Journey of the Prairie King. Or pop down into the mines which act as a simple dungeon crawler where you battle bouncing slimes and loot through periodic treasure chests for ores which you can smelt down to ingots and use in the simple crafting system. Then there’s a simple fishing game to tide you over on rainy days when you’re spared from tending your sprawling field of beets and can relax by the riverside getting more and more anxious that you’re not going to capture that damn catfish before the season runs out. And boy, would it be nice to catch that catfish so you can finish the aquarium in the community centre this year because why not have a simple collecting side quest to focus your efforts throughout the year?
This might sound a little condescending but while I had intended for Stardew Valley to operate as a gateway drug to the greater gaming medium, I started to get sucked into its systems myself. There is something relaxing about not worrying over failure. You can botch any of these smaller game systems and it isn’t really an issue. Gave a villager something they detest on their birthday? Don’t worry, you have two opportunities each week to find what they do love and just spam that until you’ve filled their heart meters. It’s not like you have to pay attention to those that already love you already. And even if those fish keep breaking your line you have the opportunity to straight out purchase them from the travelling merchant whenever she rolls through the woods – assuming you’re willing to pay her inflated prices of course.
Stardew Valley is no roguelike. You’re not expected to die over and over again and learn from your mistakes so you can come back to your farm on a new “life” with the knowledge gained from before to improve your output. You will try to improve, mind you, but that’s mostly because accumulating massive amounts of liquid capital is the capitalist dream rather than it being a necessary. The game devolves into the “can I do this?” question by the end rather than anything else.
And this is where I get to point out all the flaws of the game I’m holding up as being really awesome.
Stardew Valley is shallow. It’s hard for it not to be seeing that it’s both Concerned Ape’s first game and designed specifically to be so. Personally, I’d like more stake in the game. I want there to be some pressure for my efforts. You’re told (if you find it) that the spirit of your dearly departed grandfather will come back after two years of work to judge your progress. And so I went through the game trying to accomplish the goals I thought I’d be judged on by this appraising poltergeist. Then, when my time was up, all I got was four lit candles on his tombstone and a crummy purple statue behind it. No breakdown of my performance. No evaluation on my progress. Just some silly decoration and a vague “sense” of having done better than my sister. To say it was a bit of a let down would be an understatement. Due to its laid back nature, there’s little feeling of accomplishment in Stardew Valley. And that’s simply because you don’t really overcome anything. You’re given the illusion of a time pressure – you have only so many hours in the day to do your work and you only have two years to do it – but in actuality it doesn’t really matter. If you don’t get things done today, there’s always tomorrow to get them. If you forget to water your plants they don’t start to die. They just sort of sit around in stasis until you do remember.
To follow on this, there’s not a whole lot that changes between years either. Which is a shame because the first year of Stardew Valley is actually quite gripping. You feel the (imagined) weight of your decisions as you plot out what you can do each day with your limited stamina and meager funds while also eager to rush out and participate with all the festivals and events held in town. You’re trying desperately to squeeze in gifts into your budgets hoping to win the hearts of some bachelor or bachelorette before the flower dance. You’re getting a grip on the different growth cycles of your plants. And you’re enjoying the developing plots of the villagers. Unfortunately, the second year kind of peels away the veil. Almost immediately you find that things are pretty much the same. The calendar has all the same birthdays and events. The price of seeds remains static. There’s a very marginal change in Pierre’s stock but that’s about it. One new villager comes to the town but that’s about it. And once you max out friendship bars you realize that there’s really nothing left to the villagers as their dialogue then loops.
Now, I have no problem that the game is essentially “endless.” Being able to play after the two year mark is quite fine and dandy with me. What I would have liked, though, is if the game had a better focus on that two year time period. Make grandpa’s judgmental a bit more impactful. Have a breakdown of your progress. Have some achievements to strive for on a second play through now that you’ve got an idea of how the systems work and can start following specific strategies. Also, expanding villager chatter at least for the second year’s festivals would go a long way to keeping the illusion that they’re people alive a little longer. Having some unexpected changes in the second year would be great too. A new village is a good idea if they actually shook up the valley in some way. And there’s lots of options you can take. The governor, for example, muses about building a cottage in the valley. It would be wonderful if that idea was realized in the second year. Have the governor move in and perhaps contest Mayor Lewis for his mayorship (or something) while living there. We get earthquakes and natural disasters in the first year to open up new portions of the map – why can’t these events extend to the second as well?
Finally, I’d really like if there were some sort of tax system put in place. The actual flow of the game is rather interesting once you’ve got a handle on the systems and can start looking at the design itself. Stardew Valley is arbitrarily broken into four “seasons” that each run 28 days each. This sort of abstraction for the passage of time is fine considering many crops grow in 4 days so simply viewing a single in game day as being four actual days makes things more believable. However, what you’ll find is that at the start of the month you have the most amount of work. The change in season is dramatically over night – so you have to retill your soil, plant new seeds, cut down new wild growth and find out the dates of new birthdays and events all in those first few days of the month. But the end of the month is relatively relaxed. If your crops don’t go to the final day then you’re left with spare time to simply wander about and harvest and stragglers remaining. What I would have liked to see instead is that at the end of each season you have a certain “tax” amount that Mayor Lewis will come to collect. This can be based on a percentage of expected earnings from the average player throughout the season. Thus, when you’re getting near the end of the month, you need to now budget your books and ensure you’ll have enough capital left to cover the payments coming due. This might require hurrying out to do some last minute fishing or mining in order to make up the difference if you spent the month fretting away most of your capital on gifts to woo your love.
Granted, to keep with Stardew Valley’s low punishment system, I wouldn’t have anything catastrophic occur if you fail to make these payments. Perhaps a one time warning in the first year for the first offence would suffice. After that, I’d have the penalty be a reduction in hearts for everyone in the village. You can even have some one off comments from them about how they see you as a freeloader or scammer unwilling to help keep the community afloat.
And I really think those two changes – the taxes and more indepth judgment from grandpa – would have gone a long way to making Stardew Valley really gripping. The writing criticism is more of a pipe dream since it’s clear the one man developer team already has a lot on his plate and writing isn’t particularly a strength of his nor a focus. But those game elements would really create a sense of accomplishment for the player.
Otherwise, there’s a reason that Stardew Valley beat out those other mentions I made earlier. Oeverwatch may be far more designed than Stardew Valley but the frustration of its team dependent gameplay and awful online infrastructure just don’t compete to the joys of a bountiful fall harvest. Darkest Dungeon’s end game grind is so long and tedious that being able to sit back in the evening and simply relax with a day of fishing is far more enticing. And let’s not downplay Stardew Valley’s fishing. This is perhaps the first time a video game has a fishing mechanic that not only do I not loathe it but actually chose the farm dedicated to it! And Xcom 2 is really fantastic. Top notch, even. But while I can spend hours customizing my soldiers and adding all the flair to them only to watch aghast as they’re reduced to little more than protoplasmic goo at the hands of an angry muton, I still think about my little stray cat – Masamewne – who I make sure to pet every morning before rolling up my sleeves and getting down in the dirt with my bare hands.