Stardew Valley appears at first blush an unlikely candidate to be a smash hit release in 2016 amidst AAA crowd pleaser shooters like The Division and new instalments in stalwart franchises like Street Fighter V and Far Cry Primal. However, this independently developed farming focused life sim, with very little fanfare rocketed to the top ten in both Steam sales and concurrent users within the first fortnight of its release.
What sets Stardew Valley apart from the mindless busywork of contemporaries like Farmville and the banal realism of Farming Simulator is in its inspiration as a spiritual successor to the original Harvest Moon, released on the SNES in 1996. Going beyond pure throwback nostalgia, the world of Stardew Valley evokes the style of its precursor visually and mechanically, an interpretation of the idea re-imagined and interpreted for a new time and place.
The game is rendered in charmingly dated pixel art, painting a seasonally diverse world with a palette of eye catching colours, placing the player in an intriguing world that harkens back to a simpler time which is both thematically appropriate and again, evocative of a type of experience which has fallen out of favour in modern gaming, particularly on Steam, where brutally obtuse simulations loom large.
Stardew Valley in contrast is a game that has a rare soulfulness, thanks largely to it being the passion project of developer Eric Barone, who single handedly created the game whole cloth over a four year period in order to familiarise himself with coding in C#. Eschewing the multiplayer antics, mindbending complexity and long term grind that is typical of other games in this vein, Barone instead crafts a relaxing, freeform experience in which the player is free to min max crops for pure profit, experiment with no care for rigid efficiency or do anything in between without serious consequences. There is no forced direction, and most any play style is viable, further contributing to the relaxing, individualistic nature inherent to the experience.
Starting out with a small homestead, a huge plot of unkempt land and a vast town filled with varied inhabitants surrounded by beaches mountains rivers lakes and forests, Stardew Valley avoids what could have been a daunting learning curve with a unique combination of variety and simplicity. The townspeople can be schmoozed, bartered with or wooed, the rivers and seas can be fished for produce and the mines and forests can be spelunked and reconnoitred for resources. While this is a diverse and extensive list of options to explore, doing so is only as difficult as making the choice and prioritising the energy and time you have at your disposal to do them.
You start with a number of tools, but using them is so intuitive that there’s no need for tutorialisation. Use your hoe on the ground to prep it for seeds, water them with the watering can, chop trees down with the axe and so on. Assessing how best to use your limited time and energy, what crops to buy, where to plant them, what upgrades to get, these are the areas of the game which present a learning curve. The strategic element requires thought and effort, actually enacting that strategy though is simple in execution, and all the better for it.
It’s this variety that poses the games only real fault. With such a breadth of options to explore, some of them feel a little shallow. Combat in the mines is trivial, and dedicated players will quickly reach their end and visit only to grind resources without the opportunity to progress further. Conversely, the mechanics of the fishing minigame are unexpectedly tricky and poorly explained. A little perseverance and some upgrades to your equipment mostly address that issue, but the difficulty is an incongruity amidst the easygoing pace of everything else and is the rare case where more hands on direction might have been appreciated.
As previously mentioned, the town is populated by a variety of inhabitants who can be spoken with, given gifts and in some cases even married. The townspeople are well differentiated and each has a nice character portrait accompanying their dialogue. Said dialogue however does seem a little thin, and while the interaction serves to enrich the Animal Crossing like life sim aspect of things, you don’t seem to get a whole lot of insight into the individuals, and the interaction boils down to a lengthy process of giving gifts to curry favour for little to no tangible reward.
The core loop of playing Stardew Valley is thoroughly engrossing. As the game is broken up into days and seasons, you’ll find a routine within that framework, likely planting crops early, spending your mornings watering them and your afternoons catching fish or mining ore. As time goes on you harvest your crops, invest your income, gather unique items to craft or unlock additions to your farming arsenal while planning your next addition to the farm. The many hats you’ll likely wear in your time with Stardew Valley keeps things varied, but keeping track of what you need and the numerous little goals and milestones and challenges can be unwieldy. A farmers almanac of sorts, collating these sorts of goals into one place and offering guidance on how to use certain tools or items would have went a long way towards making progress more structured and manageable.
My few grievances with the game are minimal, and on the whole the tuneful music, low stakes freeform design and myriad ways to progress make for an experience that is both a wonderfully calming exercise in mindfulness and an oddly engaging quest for progression. Each step forward on the calendar feels meaningful, each new upgrade acquired and piece of farm machinery built useful, each and every crop harvested and sold a reassuring reward for a job well done.
Challenges which require a particular assortment of crops to be cultured or specific resources to be gathered give you sub goals to aim for, accompanied with worthwhile and often game changing rewards for completing them. Tasks like these help to provide some direction, while the changing seasons bring with them a new visual palette for the environments as well as numerous gameplay changes such as the need to adapt to newly in season crops.
The core gameplay loop here is so solid and well conceived that it has to be commended. Every action taken feels like progression, and because of this there’s an ever present urge to push forward into the next day to harvest more crops or gather more resources in order to work towards whatever your next big goal is. The character creator is surprisingly robust and the degree of customisation on offer for your avatar and property helps foster a connection to the world, and thus makes forging a life of agriculture more personal and enriches the experience overall.
Stardew Valley is a dense, captivating experience that is nonetheless an easygoing one all the same. Less a simulation and more of an expectation realised. What it lacks in difficulty it more than makes up for with charm, variety and freedom.
Playing Stardew Valley is knowing what it is to live the good life.