“An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether this life has any meaning, purpose, or value.”
It’s a question that almost all of us will ask ourselves at some point in our lives, and as such it’s a subject that most players will be able to relate to and an interesting topic to explore in all forms of entertainment. Stardew Valley’s story is about existential crisis, and exploring the outcomes of facing one. Its basis is simple, tired of a mediocre life working a job you don’t enjoy you exercise an option to move to a small village in a fictional location called Stardew Valley. In this small village lies the derelict remains of your late grand fathers old farm, afforded to you through a letter with the instructions only to open it when you find your self facing that existential crisis in life.
Upon your arrival your immediate goal will to become self-sufficient, as your limited funds won’t last you very long unless you can restore the farm and grow some basic crops to provide food and an income. Making use of your limited toolset, you’ll need to clear and prepare the land ready for planting seeds and rearing animals. Your farm will need daily attention whether it be watering the crops or cutting back the weeds but these chores won’t consume more than a few hours a day, well at least not initially. Beyond your daily chores, you can explore the area and through interactions with the environment and locals you will learn to fish, mine and forage. The pacing is well controlled, with each day playing out over around 10-15 minutes of real time and a limited stamina bar preventing you from achieving too much in any one day. Stamina can be replenished through eating, and as you discover more sustainable ways to gather food you’ll be able to achieve a lot more in a single day. As your skills improve, you’ll be able to gather and refine more resource types which are used as part of the crafting system, which allows you to improve your farm further or process produce into items that can be sold for greater profit.
Alongside the farm is the community, which is made up of roughly 30 or so individuals and families. Each has a role to play, and you’ll encounter the majority of them through random interactions and encounters. Each will need your help at some point should you choose to, beit helping the village shop owner to fight off the advances of a global supermarket giant or assisting the mayor to restore the community hall. Through these errands you’ll learn more about each member of the community and what role they play in keeping the village ticking over. The game does little to help track or log important information so it’ll be up to you to remember important information such as ‘Steve works at the mini-mart’, just in case you should need to find and speak to him during working hours. It’s a nice touch, but at times can be frustrating tracking down a particular villager before a certain deadline expires. Ultimately villagers will learn to like or loathe you depending on how you conduct yourself; and this relationship building through social interactions, errands and gift giving is ultimately what will lead to a potential love interest should any of the would be suiters match your tastes.
Progression in the game depends on your approach, but it’s mainly measured through your progress to restoring the farm and the relationships you build with the community. Beyond some initial introductions the game is very hands off, encouraging a trial and error approach to gameplay. I myself particularly enjoy this ‘learning on the job’ approach which feels so much more rewarding as your understanding of each gameplay element develops. Mistakes can be costly although never fatal, feeling much more like a set back that makes you promise to do better next time. I myself lost a large investment of crops because I planted to late in the spring, and as the season transitioned to summer my entire lot was lost. But rather than feeling deflated I had instead understood the importance of the seasons and crop selection, and as such my plan to make build a highly automated runner bean farm would need extensive rethinking. Both successes and failures help to uncover another layer of depth to the game, and you’ll really appreciate the level of detail that the developer has gone to to create a convincing simulation. As far as role playing goes, you can’t help but feel it emulates extremely well how this scenario would play out in reality.
I’m not sure that this game will suit everybody, as it’s portrait of a simpler life won’t match every players expectations nor will it’s slow leisurely pace carry broad appeal. But it does convey a relaxed environment that won’t cause stress and allow you to take a leisurely pace which is exactly what I believe the game is aiming to deliver. I never played the Harvest Moon games myself, and as such the nearest approximation I can make comparison wise is Animal Crossing albeit with the difference that time doesn’t progress if you don’t play. Animal Crossing was a uniquely paced experience designed for small sips at regular intervals, a mental retreat that one could drop in on every now and again. Stardew Valley feels like a similar experience in that it doesn’t really suit bedding down for long play sessions. Consuming the game in 1 or 2 large playback sessions is not the way to play this game, and if you do play it like this you’ll likely get bored rather quickly. It suits a piecemeal approach, with short regular visits to take a break from the fast paced, stressful worlds some other games create. The game is flexible, nudging you gently towards certain goals and it’s your approach to playing the game that will taylor the experience that ultimately you take back from the game.
It’s presented very beautifully, with a graphics and audio style very reminiscent of the 16 bit era it obviously is trying to pay homage to, and in some ways it does reflect back on a period when perhaps things were a lot simpler. There is a lot to this game, far more than can be covered in a review alone. It’s very much a case of feeling that I’m still only just scratching the surface and that it will take several years of in game time to truly explore everything that Stardew Valley has to offer. In the mean time, I just need to avoid having an existential crisis of my own and packing up shop to run a farm in rural Shropshire.
Stardew Valley was provided to us by Xbox via a download code for Xbox One.