I went into playing Stardew Valley with equal parts skepticism and optimism.
It was an obvious homage to Harvest Moon, and although you can describe the experience of playing a new Harvest Moon game many ways, “novel” should really not be one of them. You somehow inherit a farm (often by ridiculous circumstances), and must forgo the city life to grow your fortune, raise animals, find love, get married and have babies.
Yes, that’s really the goal of the game. It’s tough to explain why exactly you would play a game that mimics the pressures of real life so closely. But then again, The Sims has a rabid following hundreds of thousands of people strong, so I guess it’s not too hard of a sell, and Harvest Moon has always been at least as addictive, if geared towards a different crowd.
The issue with Harvest Moon games isn’t only their lack of originality. It’s also that the characters in the game are boring and one-dimensional. You have the guy who sells seeds/gear, the guy who sells animals, the guy who builds you new stuff, the guy who loves fishing, the guy who for some reason is obsessed with mining stuff… and then four or five people of the opposite gender your age that are obviously just there as marriage fodder. There are also, of course, four or five people of your gender that are stereotypical matches for your already stereotypical marriage candidates. There are also almost never villains. Who needs conflict in a game about turnips?
From there stems the skepticism.
The optimism came from having played Starbound (developed in part by ConcernedApe, the developer of Stardew Valley), and from having followed the development process of Stardew for a couple of years. It was obvious from the get-go that this has always been a labor of love. ConcernedApe would post semi-regular development updates about specific snippets of the game, or its progress as a whole. The overall tone of the updates was one of self-aware frustration, ever in the eternal balancing act of choosing between the desire to perfect his product and his desire to share something beautiful with indie gamers. The experience of the player always seemed to be at the forefront of the development process, and it was clear that he struggled with the decision he made to better the experience of the player by diligently improving his game instead of releasing an ambitious (but flawed) experience to an eagerly receptive audience.
It was a wise decision to wait.
Stardew Valley is a complex, beautiful game. It is so pleasant to look at on the surface that it is easy to miss how shockingly deep it is. The art for the game is full of character. The music of the game displays a wide range of influences, moods and styles. The gameplay is smooth, balanced and well-paced. The characters…
I always know something is really good when I have trouble writing about it. The characters and the writing are phenomenal. This game may not be strictly for adults, but it deals with very adult problems and emotions. The old man in the wheelchair is not merely grouchy; he is bitter and miserable. The drunken mother is not merely played for laughs; she struggles with alcoholism and it damages her family. There is an interracial couple. The blacksmith asks for flowers to put on his father’s grave. Every person has things about them, subtle or obvious, that define them as a character, not merely as an object to be interacted with. The people you interact with like and dislike things, but that’s not because the game is set up to let you know what gifts to give them to win their affection. It’s because real people like and dislike things, for no apparent rhyme or reason. People have had things happen to them before you arrived, because real people have pasts, bad decisions, and pain.
And through all of that, it is still strangely beautiful because you can’t help but feel like you can make a difference by being kind and helpful to these people. You aren’t merely a farmer who seeks profit and participates in holiday celebrations. You’re an active, positive force in the community that, through effort and thoughtfulness, helps to make your town a better place to live.
It’s uncomfortable, in a good way!
Now, for the obligatory “the game has flaws” paragraph. Although it is ambitious and wonderful, it’s a new game, and it does have bugs. There are still some things that are unbalanced, both in being too powerful and in being not powerful enough. Multiplayer is forthcoming, which will of course bring a new host of issues, both technical and artistic in terms of the way the game is played. In spite of that, I feel as if ConcernedApe is an artist with a keen eye and a fine brush, slowly seeing the blemishes and improving upon them. Like all great works of art, it can never be completed, only abandoned.
However, I expect it will not be abandoned until it is very, very great indeed.