Whereas triple-A games seemed to dominate the market in years past, this generation has experienced a shift in the paradigm; independent gaming is becoming a new mainstream, and the developers have been putting out some increasingly quality content. One such developer, ConcernedApe, and publisher Chucklefish dropped a major bomb in the form of a charming little 16-bit farming simulator, Stardew Valley. It seems simple enough on the surface and in the first few minutes of play, yet it blossoms into something far, far deeper. The mechanics are engaging, clean, and surprisingly intricate. This deceptively unassuming jaunt through a wholesome, delightful little town is at once familiar and altogether new.
What Makes It Great?
The opening scenes immediately remind one of games like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon; the player character (generated at the whims of the player) is dropped in an overgrown plot of farmland next to Pelican Town, the home of the game’s diverse cast and poignant plot, and given a simple task: grow. The decision as to how this is done, however, is entirely one’s own. A literal cornucopia of crops and produce are available for cultivation and profit, and the manner in which this underfoot cash-cow is milked is limited only by the imagination. Orchard? Specialty farming? Irrigation systems? Livestock? Unearthing long-dead kernels from fields plowed in centuries immemorable and pulling life from their shriveled husks to produce a flowering bridge between eons? Tulips? It’s all there, and ripe for the picking (pun intended).
And so complex; the farming system, like almost every other facet of the game, is heavily influenced by a calendar-based seasonal clock – exactly 28 days per season, complete with birthdays for each inhabitant and seasonal celebrations. Each season determines the kind of farm that the player can produce – corn maze, vineyard, or a frozen root garden, for instance. The passing of time also affects the availability of certain items, like foraged goods, fish, or the elusive Rarecrow, as well as the availability of certain areas. The calendar also has a big play in the player’s relationship with Pelican Town’s many inhabitants; as with real life, the cast members of Stardew are touched when their birthdays are remembered – so interactions with them on those days are especially meaningful. The fishing mechanic is also a fun way to pass the time and make some spare cash. It’s a straightforward minigame, but the catch can change significantly depending on when and where it’s done, as well as with what gear. It takes some energy, but it’s something of a lucrative pastime when there’s nothing else to do. However, like with the rest of the game, the time of year and even the time of day have a significant effect on how productive fishing is; it’s best to plan accordingly. Part of the fun of Stardew is using the calendar to explore just how much the seasons differ and finding ways to exploit and capitalize on it.
The combat system (which sets this game apart from titles like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing) is another fun part of exploring Stardew. It functions somewhat like a basic floor-by-floor dungeon crawler – fairly easy at the top, and then further down the loot gets better, the monsters get tougher, and stronger gear is needed to proceed. Without giving too much away, though, there are two ways to play the dungeon-mine system; The first has a checkpoint-like system every few floors to save progress and return home with any hard-won loot and then later return to delve deeper. The second is a bit more rogue-like, and a much greater challenge; it’ll be worth it to dig as deep as possible. What mysteries lie beneath Stardew Valley? There’s only one way to find out.
Perhaps the most intriguing facet of this multifaceted experience is the storyline. While it does take a backseat to the actual gameplay, it’s still very meaningful. The player’s job in the game is perhaps the most important (while optional) job in the game – rebuild the community, spiff up the town, and unite its people. Because the game is an open-ended sandbox, of course there are different ways of pursuing this; this, however, has some pretty relevant themes associated with it, with some real-world implications regarding corporatizing local governments and the importance of small businesses to communities that are threatened by the mobilization of big chains. Could one expect anything else from a small, independently-owned game developer? The player is given a choice in how the community is rebuilt and, whereas the outcome only varies slightly, the choice is still a philosophical consideration between what is good and what is easy.
Why Do We Love It?
Stardew Valley is following a trend that clings to pop culture’s love of nostalgia (Wonderballs are back, Blade Runner has a sequel, Bruno Mars shot a music video on the set of In Living Color, that movie Pixels) but it does so without reverting to played-out tropes that makes some of these nostalgic pieces so repetitive (“only 90’s kids will remember” memes, Smurf films, bringing back those eyesore windbreakers, that movie Pixels). It has a charming and familiar vibe, using a 16-bit graphics engine despite the readily-available ability to create the same game with much higher definition; it’s a moot point, however, because Stardew Valley simply wouldn’t be the same with more curves and less pixels. The overall design is homey and comforting, hitting that nostalgia nerve head-on. Everything about the game seems familiar; however, the reason it works so well is because the games bones are a lot bigger than its 16-bit design gives it credit for, and the game relies on ingenuity and variance to make a name for itself. Developers looking to cash in on the nostalgia craze should take note.
Stardew Valley is a solid piece of work. It’s engaging, it’s interesting, and it’s rewarding. The art is attractive without becoming a focal point, and the game mechanics are varied and complex without requiring an inordinate amount of play time to understand. There is somewhat of a learning curve with the calendar, and the game’s controls take some time getting used to (especially for those relying on a game controller as their main instrument). With how deep the game is it might be difficult to remember every bit of information; fortunately, there’s already a wiki or two devoted to cataloging the ins and outs of the game. Overall, Stardew Valley is a great addition to anyone’s lineup, and the success of this title bodes well for the ever-growing independent gaming market.