Stardew Valley, the 2016 video game by ConcernedApe, has been on my radar for a while now. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much more than a retro farming game. Think Harvest Moon. And while farming is a popular genre, it was never one I’ve ventured into. But mentions of Stardew Valley continued to crop up (see what I did there). Everywhere I turned, people raved about it. I wondered if there wasn’t something there for me?
On a slow weekend afternoon, I decided to try out Stardew Valley for myself. I’m so glad I did. It didn’t take long for me to get sucked into the joyful world and finally understand what everyone was talking about. It is like happiness disguised as a video game.
Welcome to Stardew Valley
The premise of Stardew Valley is simple: You find yourself weary of the day-to-day monotony of office life. You open an old letter from your grandfather to learn he has left you his farm. Leaving your cubicle behind, you start a farm, tend to the land, and start a new, more fulfilling life.
One thing I love about Stardew Valley is how it is retro without being reductive. The game is pixel art with old-school music, but never does it feel like you are playing an old game. There is certainly a feeling of nostalgia while playing, but never does it feel like a trip to an older world. Quite the opposite: it is a breath of fresh air.
Your main goal throughout the game is, of course, creating and maintaining your farm. There are all the things you would expect, such as land management, crafting, and buying/selling products from NPCs. There is enough to the farming aspect for a whole game. But Stardew Valley has so many lovely detours that add and enrich the entire experience.
There is an entire village to become familiar with and relationships to build. Mines to the north are waiting to be delved. The Community Center is waiting to reveal itself by unlocking side quests. The world itself is full of mysteries to be uncovered and new areas to explore. For those who are uninterested in these things, there is little consequence. But the game rewards curious adventurers.
Low Stress Enjoyment
I don’t have time to play a lot of video games these days. And even when I do have time, I find it difficult to really sink myself into some of the noteworthy ones out there. I love games like Skyrim andThe Witcher 3, but I long for the days when I could log hour after hour to reach a deeper investment. Instead, most games don’t get much more than a cursory glance.
I have also found that the last thing I need in my life is more stress. It’s not that amazing games can’t be frustrating or stressful in a good way, but it simply isn’t what I’m looking for right now. Sometimes games can be so big and all encompassing, just opening a mini-map can be overwhelming. How am I going to find time to do all of this stuff?
Stardew Valley really finds the perfect middle ground. You have tons of activities you can do any given day, but if you don’t get to them, no biggie, there is always tomorrow. The quests are designed in a way that helps you grow as a player and learn new skills. Very few quests have any time commitment whatsoever and even those that do won’t punish you. The biggest stresses in the game are keeping crows out of your farm and baking an excellent dish for a party.
Even the combat-oriented part of the game, adventuring into the mines, doesn’t put a huge burden on you. You can’t die, instead you merely lose your progress (and some gold) and are sent back to the beginning. The mines offer up challenge and reward, but certainly not some Dark Souls type experience.
The game is wonderfully addicting without consuming your life. You aren’t missing anything good or bad by not playing (an annoying attribute of some games today). As long as you have 10-15 minutes free, you can jump in and work the land and make some progress. But if you do happen to find the time, you can easily play hours on end by immersing yourself in the world.
Joy of Life
What I love most about Stardew Valley is that, ultimately, the game is about being happy. There is of course some irony about playing a video game about going outside and building relationships (versus actually doing those things), but that doesn’t matter. The game is downright inspiring.
Every aspect of Stardew Valley is packed with joy and happiness. As the player, you are trying to live a fulfilling life and be a positive force in the world. The characters are goofy, but not to the point of parody. There is an ominous force, the Joja Corporation, but they are more of the mustache twirling evil than something dark and sinister. The world is beautiful and ready to be explored but also just as enjoyable to stay on your farm and work.
Some might roll their eyes at the simplistic optimism of the game. But for those looking for a true happy place to escape, I can’t think of anywhere better than Stardew Valley.