Your first task in Stardew Valley is not to hoe a field or plant a crop, but to open a letter. Although you will spend practically all of your time tending to life on a farm, the game begins inside the halls of the oppressive Joja Corporation. The camera pans to your character, beleaguered by life as a corporate drone, seated in one of many identical cubicles. You open a drawer and look at a letter given to you by your grandfather. He instructed you to open it when the burdens of modern life finally became too great. This is not a cutscene. You, the player, have to swing your mouse and click a button to read this letter. It is an important first step in a game about important first steps.
The letter contains the deed to your grandfather’s farm, located in Pelican Town somewhere in the titular valley. If Joja Corporation represents the meaningless grind of twenty-first century employment, your grandfather’s farm is a Fleet Foxian escape from that grind: a fantasy of life in concert with nature, where work is muscular and rewarding, where people find purpose in their work and a wholeness in their spirit. Stardew Valley is not subtle with its themes. There is no way to play this game without understanding its basic equation that corporate life equals bad and natural life equals good.
After a requisite tutorial, you’re left to manage your new estate however you want. Stardew Valley is a sort of simulation game. To sell a crop, you need to raise it from seed to harvest. But Stardew Valley is not a survival game. You don’t need to grow food to eat or make fires for warmth. Your day-to-day comfort is taken for granted; everything else is not. How do you find happiness and meaning? Do you make money, care for animals, explore the wilderness, find love, start a family? There are no traditional antagonists in this game, although Joja Corporation remains an ominous presence even in Pelican Town.
Most players will find themselves in the rhythm of what the Super Nintendo game Harvest Moon introduced twenty years ago: wake up, water your plants, feed your animals, sell crops, and try to romance some handsome townsfolk. We might call Stardew Valley a clone of Harvest Moon, but “clone” seems too mercenary when Stardew Valley is so enamored of what Harvest Moon did in 1996. Rather, Stardew Valley blows out Harvest Moon’s formula, introducing features we expect in games today: character personalization, Minecraft-esque crafting, more areas to explore, and a greater diversity of people and relationships. (Players are free to romance both men and women.) You don’t have to water parsnips or shear sheep if you don’t want to. You can decide for yourself what to accomplish.
For my part, I enjoy that Stardew Valley includes more personalization. I can decorate my house, build my farm out, and pursue different relationships. I have little interest in exploring the depths of the crafting system or spending hours mining rare resources. When I first played Harvest Moon, I wanted to reach its limits: buy the most expensive upgrades to my farm and complete the long work of wooing a woman and having a baby. Weeks or months of in-game time could pass in a few real-world hours. Considering how popular Stardew Valley has been, no doubt many players are trying to discover its limits as well. But players like me also appreciate a game we can play for a few minutes, maybe only progressing one or two virtual days. I find satisfaction in finishing a few small tasks, going to festivals, and maybe finding some small surprise in Pelican Town. I’ll play Stardew Valley for the same reason I’ll read before going to bed: to reorient myself to the good things in life.
Whatever goals you choose to pursue, none are met overnight. Crops take time to grow. Money takes time to raise. Relationships take time to form. Nearly every goal in the game requires daily work. Many video games are composed of discrete objectives, tasks that can be completed and forgotten in minutes or seconds. In Stardew Valley, you wander down long paths. Taking your first step means you move that much farther away from another path you might have taken. Buying potatoes means you can’t buy kale. Dancing with Harvey means you can’t dance with Leah. Time, in fact, is Stardew Valley’s only scarce resource. Days progress at a steady clip, and there are never quite enough minutes to do everything you want. The game world, at first vast, shrinks as you dedicate yourself to one goal instead of another.
Busy work occupies so much of our lives that, as we grow older, we often become skeptical of games that seem to offer nothing but. Stardew Valley is a game about the small tasks of life, of watering plants, going to the store, checking your mail, and opening letters. But there is a difference between arbitrary busy work and the work that make up the projects of our lives. Important work builds on itself, and busywork just passes time. Stardew Valley does not judge how you spend your days; what you consider trifling, I might consider fulfilling. The game only asks you to decide: where do you want to go, and how will you get there? What is important to you, and what do you do because the Joja Corporations of the world tell you to?
Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.