When I was still in elementary school, I went over to a friend’s house to play Harvest Moon. And not to play it like a modern streamer might, where we would create a save together and make decisions together. Nope. We just played one of our already existing saves and talked about the game. This, I can now recognize, was a ridiculous and awkward idea. A farming simulator, with an understated and unfolding personal narrative? Easily one of the worst kinds of games to play with other people. It’s a solo experience, and one that you need to take time to ponder as it happens. That’s what Harvest Moon should be: a quiet experience where you can escape into a small world with a little narrative to help you along the way.
And Stardew Valley delivers that better than any Harvest Moon game has in years. I have, as of this writing, logged nearly 70 hours in Stardew Valley. I have played for one and a half years of in game time, have been married in the game, and have completed all but two of the community center bundles. I will not lie to you, this blog post has been delayed multiple times by my desire to just play more of the game. I’m having to resist the urge now just to play through a day or two, check in on my digital wife and all of my pixel crops and animals. I would go so far as to say that I am mildly addicted to the game, and I want to examine why. Why will I devote 70 hours in a matter of weeks to a farming simulator game, when I also find games like Farmville or Truck Simulator or their ilk so uninteresting? Why did I find the Harvest Moon games so engaging that I was willing to watch a friend play his own version of it, and why am I even more attracted to Stardew Valley?
I expect a large part of it has to do with my personality. I’ve come to realize that I have a particular love for escapism in media. I want to be the superhero with the super strength and super speed, or I want to sail the ocean and live the life of a pirate, or I want to be an adventurer who slays dragons and saves worlds. And sometimes, I want to escape from all of that, and I want to escape from my busy and chaotic life, and I want to live on a farm and settle down into a nice routine. But I don’t just want a simulated farm, I want to live another life entirely. And while it may be rudimentary and awkward in some places, Stardew Valley does that. And it does it more convincingly than old Harvest Moon games did, partially because of more modern design philosophy, and partially because it seems to understand better what players desire from these games.
The villagers who you can befriend and come to understand as characters are key to this puzzle. Without them, Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon are mostly resource management games. Which can be fun on their own, but don’t offer the depth of experience that makes escaping into Stardew Valley so appealing. Each villager has their own little story that you can look into briefly as you befriend them. And each of those stories adds up, until you have the narrative of Stardew Valley and all its inhabitants. It’s not a linear narrative by any means, but it’s a kind of tone, one that allows each interaction to feel like just a drop in the well of the story.
And another key part of this interaction is the marriage option. In most Harvest Moon games you have between 3 and 6 eligible bachelors or bachelorettes who you can befriend and woo, and with whom you can have a generally deeper story than the other villagers, before finally being able to marry them, have them move onto your farm with you, and eventually have kids. Stardew Valley shows up Harvest Moon on this by having 10 eligible marriage candidates, 5 male and 5 female, that a character of any gender can marry. Not only is this good for diversity and reality, it also allows more interesting stories to be told with these characters. And here is where I am torn. One the one hand, the social options, especially the marriage ones, are far too simple. There is no nuance, no player input except for gifts given and a few dialogue options that are, for the most part, irrelevant. This has always been the weak point to me, and definitely where I think a lot of work could be put in that would make the player’s experience so much better for it. But on the other hand, I can’t help but feel like it being so simple is a strength as well. There’s a level of escapism here, in being able to form a simple relationship with a character you might have just latched onto for no particular reason. In my own Stardew Valley game, I married Abigail for instance. Not because her story appealed to me more at the outset, but because she had purple hair and because she liked chocolate cake. Eventually I really liked her story, of feeling like an outsider, and trying to be something more, but that wasn’t the reason I started giving her chocolate cakes weekly. There’s something pleasant about that simplicity that would be lost by increasing the nuance. This isn’t a Mass Effect romance, but maybe it doesn’t have to be.
Something that has a lot of nuance in Stardew Valley that is notably missing in later Harvest Moon entries is the game balance. While I’ve always been a fan of earlier entries like Friends of Mineral Town, in later entries your ability to actually play the game is seriously reduced. Punishing stamina meters, terrible pricing on items, and unforgiving mechanics have been just frequent enough to have turned many off of the series. I remember how incredibly difficult it was to deal with a pregnant cow in A Wonderful Life, or the terror of accidentally dropping an item in Magical Melody, or how it was basically impossible to plant crops in the beginning of Island of Happiness. Stardew Valley has none of these problems. The original inventory limit is a big hindrance, but a worthy one that actually eases the player into the game as opposed to alienating them. It takes a long time for your actions in game to actually become easy as your success grows, but it feels rewarding to have reached that place and almost never frustrating to get there. It also helps that there’s actually quite a bit to do, as Stardew Valley takes a hint from Harvest Moon’s cousin Rune Factory by adding a very light combat and dungeon crawling element that while very shallow provides another layer of exploration and evolving gameplay.
And Stardew Valley takes a lot of other clues from more recent gaming. The crafting system, while a bit cliche in the modern gaming landscape, feels like a good fit for the simple resource management of these games. There was already a kind of element of this with farm building like coops and barns and such, so making a smaller system for things like kegs, furnaces, fences, and fishing bait seems natural. It helps with each of Stardew Valleys various systems, like the aforementioned combat and mining, as well as the farming, foraging, and fishing that are already staples of these games.
It feels amazing to love Harvest Moon again, only now it’s called Stardew Valley. I want Stardew Valley expansions now, I love it so much. I want a sequel with basically the same mechanics but different characters. Hell, I’m so far gone that I’m probably willing to pick up Story of Seasons now that I’ve relearned to love these kinds of games. Because while my real life involves me living in bustling New York and writing blog posts, at least I can escape to my digital farm and live another “mini” life. Because hey, if I’m going to unwind, it might as well involve growing parsnips.