Exploring Freedom In Harvest Moon

by Joe Juba on Jul 04, 2014 at 03:00 PM

Most people think chores are the pits. In the Harvest Moon series, they comprise the majority of the gameplay. While that may seem like busywork to some players, I couldn’t get enough the first time I picked up Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life. A long to-do list of various tasks around a farm seems restricting at first, but ends up being a relaxing and liberating take on rural life. This makes it a perfect fit for our Fourth of July coverage focusing on freedom in games. 

A Wonderful Life (which was my first foray into the series) isn’t completely unstructured; your goal is to build a happy home and successful farm. However, the ways you spend your days working toward that goal – or neglecting it – are up to you. An accelerated real-time clock ticks away the minutes, giving you limited opportunities to do everything you want to do. Hoe land, plant seeds, water crops, milk cows – these chores need to be done, but players are free to experiment and develop their own routines.

Determining how to approach your menial labor is surprisingly enjoyable, but it’s only a small part of the experience. Like real life, the real fun happens after the work is done. The tiny town in Forget-Me-Not Valley is yours to explore, and it’s full of quirky characters and strange items. It’s reminiscent of the Animal Crossing series in this respect; you to talk to villagers, give presents, and scour the town for respawning goodies. Characters follow set schedules, so you slowly learn where and when to track down specific people.

One of the main reasons to figure out these routines is your love life. Having a prosperous farm is fine, but it’s better when you have someone to share it with. You buy and find various items around the valley, and these can be given to three ladies who live in the valley. You need to balance your chores against your social calls, which means the process is long, and involves tracking down specific objects depending on who you want to woo. However, after winning the affections of that special someone, the two of you get married, move in together, and have a child.

While some of these things are explained, none of the nuances are directly communicated to players. Instead, it’s up to you to leave the farm and explore. You don’t save the world from a slumbering dragon or close any dimensional portals; the point of the game is to take it easy, finish your work, and spend your free time enjoying the clever characters and laid-back atmosphere.

Just because you’re taking it easy doesn’t mean that every choice is correct. This is another thing about A Wonderful Life that I love: It encourages optimization. Sure, you can marry any of the three bachelorettes in the valley, but only one of them gives you a child with objectively superior traits. You can buy a goat, but you quickly learn it is a huge waste of money. You can drink your cow’s milk for sustenance, but that’s one less product you have to sell at the end of the day. Yes, you might be afraid of screwing something up, but the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them is a key part of the appeal.

(Video Source: IndysGameplayVids)