How often do you play a number of games in the same genre, and wish that there was a way to combine the best features of them into one title?
How often do you sit down and think “man, I’d love the way the shotgun sounds from Game X, but I like the reloading animation from Game Y?”
How great would it be if you felt like a developer played all of the genre games that are considered awesome, wrote down the little mechanics that made them tick, then mashed them all together That’d be pretty great, right?
For fans of Harvest Moon/Song of Seasons/Rune Factory, that fantasy has pretty much come true with Stardew Valley.
As a farming life simulator, Stardew Valley doesn’t exactly mess with a formula: you’re given a run-down farm and challenged to make it something awesome. However, the freedom that you’re given to do so is where the game shines: there are literally dozens of ways to specialize and make money, and each one of them feels fleshed out in a way that rewards your investment.
Want to farm vegetables? There are ways to automate that.
Want to raise bees? There are flower mechanics to influence the sale price ofhoney.
Want to fish? Well, you can haul up treasure and hunt for legendary fish while using different kinds of bait and tackle.
Want to slay monsters? You can craft different weapons, status effect rings, and armor to survive longer in dungeons.
Want to just settle down, flirt a little with someone of the same or opposite sex? You’ve got ten guys and ladies (five and five) to choose from, each with different story paths, conversation options and gifts they like.
If you’re a fan of Harvest Moon, this should feel like a no-brainer, but what makes Stardew feel special is that it feels like the developer made a list of all the things that annoyed him and fixed them.
For instance, when putting vegetables or items in a shipping bin, previous games were limited on how much you could carry, and the time it took to go into your bag, select an item, and throw it into the bin.
This could be a pretty time-consuming exercise, especially in older games limited by technology. However, in Stardew, you can scroll through backpack items with a scroll wheel and throw them into a bin as long as it’s on the screen. This means there’s less time spent moving back and forth and more time actually doing the fun part of the game; y’know, the farming.
This is one of the many mechanics that are hard to recognize when they’re done right unless you’ve played other games in the genre enough to see how they’re limited. However, this isn’t the only thing that makes this game awesome: it’s implementation of mechanics from similar games adds so much extra game time that it essentially inflates things that you can do without it feeling weird or out of place.
For instance, Stardew Valley borrows crafting mechnics from Minecraft or Terraria, allowing you to make things out of raw or processed materials you have in your inventory. If you’ve played either of those games, the mechanics are familiar and it fits into the function of making things for your farm in a logical way.
If you’ve played any of the Animal Crossing games, you’ll know that collecting is a big part of them. In Stardew, you can fill up a museum or improve the town through submitting “bundles” of items found in each season. While some Harvest Moon games might have Small, Medium or Large fish, Stardew has a full roster of them, letting you hunt different ones in different weather/season conditions.
This, of course, is all on top of the normal kind of farming game a fan can expect; it means that you’re constantly surprised at different stuff you can do, because it’s all viable, and it rarely forces you away from choices. Sure, I can choose a fishing perk opposite another that makes crab fishing easier, but that’s not going to stop me from doing it. Hell, I can solely focus on making mayonnaise as my chief income: Stardew Valley is not about to judge.
In the current gaming climate, where content can be locked behind microtransactions or multiple layers of DLC, it’s refreshing to find a game that has so much to do without trying to nickle and dime you at every turn. To see a developer respect such a classic game type while updating its mechanics is exactly what I want more of: it smooths out the experience without removing character, depth or fun.
(On a side note, this is exactly the opposite of what Nintendo seems to be doing to the Paper Mario franchise. You’ll still have a servicable game without the RPG elements or partner personalities, but it won’t have the same things that draw in a hardcore audience.)
Of course, the problem with this kind of strategy is that if you have a wide ocean of things to do, parts of it are going to be a bit shallow. Combat is a simple “hey, you swing, and does your weapon hit a hurtbox? If so, you do damage,” and post-marriage life apparently removes any semblance of personality from your husband/wife.
There’s also the issue of the sprites looking like RPG Maker 2000 generated characters, which is probably my least favourite thing; I can deal with cuteish designs a-la Animal Crossing, but when the simple look of having glasses on my face means I’m resigning to look at a terrible mashup of pixels, I’m a little less than impressed.
However, the good thing about this kind of indie game is that the modding community has already started, and many things (like the character portraits that some people dislike) are already being replaced with subjectively better versions. You want fishing to be easier? There’s a mod for that. Harder? Sure, it’s your funeral.
The developer also seems to be committed to changing different facets of the game, like fixing post-marriage life and introducing co-op (!) gameplay that could severely change how the genre is played. I’m interested to see how the series holds up over the long term, and am hoping for things like custom seasons, expansions and festivals.
Essentially, it’s another problem with the genre fixed: eventually these types of games become a bit repetitive and same-y once you’ve made friends with all the people and married all the suitors. Like Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas before it, mods are going to extend the life of Stardew Valley immensely and let it be whatever its players want it to be.
That’s the whole point of these games: we’re attracted to them because we’re allowed to play them however we want, on our own terms. We’re allowed to make mistakes, focus on being money-hungry bee barons, or spread our wings as social butterflies and woo the person of our dreams.
It’s all about what we value in these virtual lives — seeing how our decisions affect the future without the risk of our own real money or time is what keeps us playing “just one more day.”
In games like Stardew Valley, progression is more detailed than games like The Sims, where there’s no deeper reaction to what we do: there, relationships are a series of hugs, jokes, and kisses until they move in, and happiness is a matter of filling meters.
On the flip side, farming life games aren’t as rigid as visual novels or traditional RPGs, where we’re essentially on rails, and there’s no time to slow down and take a step away from the crisis at hand. Here, we’re allowed to change gears, approach a new day with different goals, and grow at our own pace.
Perhaps that’s something we’d like more out of life outside the game, as well.
Matt Demers writes about video games and eSports on a freelance basis, while improving his Dota 2 career for BetterDota. You can follow him on Twitter, Twitch, Facebook and YouTube. If you’d like to support his work with money, you can become his patron on Patreon.