Stardew Valley is a work of art. Crafted with care by its sole creator over the course of several years, it is a game which reminds us of what can be done when we set our mind to something.
At its core, Stardew Valley is a farming simulator. You, an overworked corporate drone who comes to inherit your grandfather’s old farm, grow crops, sell said crops, and otherwise gather resources (such as wood, stone, minerals, etc.) to craft various devices to produce artisanal goods. That is not all, however, since as with any farming simulator worth its salt, you are able to build structures on your farm to house animals, animals which then can be reared so as to commoditize; collect eggs from chickens to make mayo, wool from sheep and rabbits to create cloth, and milk from cows and goats to make cheese. Though it sounds simple, it is fun if you are of the farming fancy.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the other elements in the game. Though Stardew Valley is primarily a farming simulator, there also is a romantic component as well as a combat component. One can also forage for resources, mine for minerals, and fish for rare game. Playing the game, therefore is a hybrid experience. You can pick and choose what you want to focus on and what your path in the game will be centered toward.
One of the satisfying factoids about Stardew Valley is that it makes you feel accomplished. It is a slow beginning, in other words. You start the game with very little and must make your own way by gradually collecting resources, finding recipes, and incrementally gaining the favor of the townspeople. You can be a couple dozen hours in and still feel as though you have only scratched the surface; this is because at that point in the game, you have only just scratched the surface. Between fishing, mining, cutting down trees, planting and tending to crops, interacting with the locals, and building up your farm bit by bit, while also needing to balance your sleeping schedule to the game’s clock, will quickly deplete your ability to do much in the way during any single day. So, when you finally do get your feet off the ground and start amassing some serious funds, when you are able to look at your farm and take pride in what you’ve built, that is because you are at the end-game content and have put in the effort needed to make your farm prosperous.
Some aspects of the game play include: two separate mines to explore, each with their own enemies to battle and loot to nab; a series of sexually-inclusive partner to romance and marry (meaning, whether you play as a male or female, you are able to marry any of the eligible bachelors and bachelorettes, regardless of what you select); an elaborate series of friendships to develop, each of which helps not only flesh out those people as individuals, but also adds to the wider story of the game’s universe; a community center to restore by collecting various items, something which, after each restoration, grants a new perk to the town, anything from giving you a greenhouse to a quick travel system; various spots to fish which, depending on the season, will feature new creatures to hunt; several collections to complete and artifacts to find which, if donated to the local museum, grant special bonuses which come in handy; structures to build and animals to buy; and, of course, a lively set of season dependent crops to plant, harvest, prepare, and sell. Stardew Valley’s strong suit is that everything is interconnected. No matter what you do, you are making progress. The mechanics of the game encourage you to try new things and to explore an the end result is a surprising fusion of adventure and home-spun nicety.
But, even with its jolly and quaint graphics, wonderful soundtrack, and delightful sprits and gameplay, there is a downside to Stardew Valley—it gets repetitive fast and once you burn through the initial content, there is not much to draw you back in. All though this is completely understandable since only a single person worked on this game, it still nonetheless will display its limitations. Much of the gameplay resides in the gradual build up and subsequent beautification of your farm, of collecting resources, crafting items, and the rest in order to gain funds and complete collections. Once you reach a certain point, this falls to the wayside. When you become unburdened by money, a lack of resources, and when you find yourself a significant other… you quickly find that there is little to do in the game; harvesting crops, mining, and prettying up your land will only keep your attention for so long.
Additionally, though there is a point, as I just mentioned, where you feel accomplished for building a functional and wealthy farm, once you complete the end-game content, you notice something: that you lack that sense of accomplishment. The game simply goes on. It is almost like an MMO: you play for the sake of playing, only in Stardew Valley there is, as of right now, little chance of timely expansion packs. So, you are mired in this gameplay without end—because there is no real story—and so find that despite having nothing really to do in the game, and yet feeling like the content is complete, the game is not over, per se, since there is always more crops to harvest and the like. Obviously, the sum feeling one gets is that you played and played for no payoff; at least in a JRPG, remember, there is the satisfaction of an epic encounter and a conclusion to a story, or the challenge of facing post-game secret bosses. Nothing like that exists in Stardew Valley. You build your farm, collect resources, garner friendships, then… that is it. The harvesting goes on but without a framework of advancement.
The other issue I take with Stardew Valley is its romanticisation of rural life and its sentimentality on contemporary society. As someone raised in the semi-rural outskirts, I can sympathize with the positive aspects of such living; the issue that I find problematic, though, is less the elevation of said positives and more the way it is juxtaposed against its take on corporate power. Simply said, it is a kind of small-capitalist thinking: you, as a corporate drone, wish to break free of the bit capitalists only so you can start your life anew as a small capitalist, where the wholesome bonds of community and libertarian ideology bind you together and heal old wounds. It posits an overcoming of alienation via recourse to progressive values but one still fundamentally tethered to the capitalist mode of production.
What the game will not depict, or cannot directly talk about in the very least, is the violent underbelly of capitalism: how when you sell a part of your livestock, they are, likely, being sent to the slaughterhouse (when you select ‘sell’ where else would your animals be sent to?); that the histories of conflict within this Realist Magickal world have had a deep impact on its species and clearly have traumatic scars brought about by territorial and imperialist claims (see: the conflict between the Dwarves and Shadow People); how alienation exists even in this rural paradise, despite the attempt to cover it up as a better solution, an alienation less extreme then the urban-corporate variety (see: Sebastian’s friendship arc); the economic terrorism of capitalism as a system, as a mode pf production which forces people to lay down their lives in the pursuit of bread (see: the Mariner presence as a possible ghost of a dead fisherman and Clint’s musings on ‘how did [he] end up in this town?’). And, others.
You could view Stardew Valley, therefore, as a kind of ironic parody of contemporary Western society. We could talk of how the machinations of capitalism are alive and well in all aspects of life and that recourse to ‘healing in the rural’ only assuages minor facets of the deep existential and alienating pain felt by workers. Or, we could take a much harsher view of it, and condemn it as reactionary propaganda. I am not going to take a side in the affair, mostly because I feel an initial review is not the place to outline a grand theory, but also because, though I played for around 93 hours, I do not feel as though I know enough about the game’s universe to settle the affair. For the future? Perhaps. But, in the interim, Stardew Valley, for but a merely fifteen dollars, is an experience ripe for anyone tired of the yearly sequels of the big developers and who pine for something different. It has its faults, as any creation, but for what you are getting for the price you are getting it at, it cannot be beat.