Saturday, 4 March 2017

Stardew Valley: Farming Fantasy

Stardew Valley begins with a letter from your grandfather, but more importantly it begins by contrasting modern city life with the rural idyll. Right from the opening cinematic, it paints modern living as soulless, boring, unfulfilling and almost unnatural. By contrast, Stardew valley is bright, colourful and full of opportunity.

Of course you ditch your city life and move into the country. Of course you want to take on the responsibility of your grandfather's farm. The pull of that romantic ideal of the village farmer is almost too enticing, a place where everyone knows everyone's name, a perfect community where everyone has their role to play.

To a certain extent, this holds true. The game does present you with a rural paradise, where you can quickly earn money either by farming, foraging, fishing or mining. There are very few consequences for you either. While supplies might be expensive at first, you'll quickly find out what you need and what you can do without. You learn to optimise your farm and your routine in order to maximise your output, whatever that might be.

While you live your life in the sunshine, there are still a few clouds hovering overhead. As you play and as you meet the other people in Pelican Town, you begin to see that not everyone has run away to the country, and not everyone is happy with their position here. It prevents the game becoming too saccharine, and (at least in some cases) provides the player with ways of making people's lives better (because player engagement is important).

One of those shadows is the lurking menace of JoJa Co., the reminder provided of your old city life, and the encroachment of modern urban living on your pleasant countryside retreat. This corporate behemoth has set up a supermarket on the outskirts of the town, and provides cheap convenience as opposed to the local shopping experience of Pierre's in the town centre.

Thankfully it doesn't overdo it, and while the moustache-twirling nature of their implied villainy can be seen (mainly through their local manager, Morris), they never overwhelm the structure of the game, and are quite easy to ignore (after all, JoJa Co. is exactly the sort of thing you're escaping from, right?).

As an aside, I spent several years living in a small rural village, and while I wish it were something like Pelican Town, the reality is that modern living isn't rubbish. There are wonderful things about living in more remote areas, farming can be a rewarding profession, and small towns can be friendly and welcoming. Urban areas provide different wonders, progress and modern life has provided me with a much better life than I would have found staying where I had been previously. I moved to a city to further my education, and I moved to a different city for a job in a growing and high-tech industry. The fantasy of moving to a small farm is a great and enjoyable one, but the reality is different, much like the reality of city life versus the negative image presented in the game.

But enough of reality! This is a game about fantasy, and it presents the player with numerous opportunities to indulge themselves. At first it can feel a bit daunting, and I was (as I'm sure many are) drawn towards the farming aspect. There's so much to explore that the farming holds you back at first, because tending your crops takes a lot of time and effort. Your energy is sapped for every action (shown as a vertical bar in the bottom right of the screen), and farming takes a lot for a delayed reward.

Fishing on the other hand is more immediately profitable. It's a simple, but tricky to master, arcade element, reeling them in, and some fish will be beyond your ability until later on. Foraging requires exploration and a little shaking of trees or bushes, so is a good way to begin. There's a lot less pressure, but there's also a lot less reward (excepting certain times of the year, where some fruits become plentiful).

Mining is almost a separate game unto itself. The mines are on the far side of the map, and each level is filled with rocks and monsters. The ladder down to the next level appears randomly, so sometimes you have to clear most of the rocks and monsters before it appears. There's plenty of reward to doing this though, from rare minerals to stocking up your copper, iron and gold ores.

I chose to try everything, with mixed results. There never seems to be enough time in the day, and between dealing with your farm and talking to various people around town, you have to pick and choose day by day. I like that variety though, and rainy days in particular are a benefit (or a fully working sprinkler system).

You also get quests as you progress. Each day there might be a notice outside Pierre's shop to find an item for someone, or you might get a letter asking for help with something more important. Other times you might want to help out people by just chatting with them, or gifting them items you think might make them a little bit happier. Visiting people's houses sometimes gives you a bit more interaction too, providing you with an insight into your fellow villagers' lives and concerns.

At it's best, it can be such a relaxing experience. It's quite unlike the vast majority of games that I've played (and I never played Harvest Moon, it's inspiration). While there are time-limited elements, and there's a certain pressure to get things done within the time available per day, there's so few penalties for failure that it's a game of slow but constant reward. It's charms are a wonderful escape from reality, and after completing my first year in the game, I am hopeful for many more.

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