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Funny To A Point – God Help Me, I Can't Stop Playing Stardew Valley

by Jeff Marchiafava on Jan 13, 2017 at 09:00 AM

The end of the year always offers a huge opportunity for G.I. editors – once we've finished arguing over our Top 50 list and sent the issue off to the printers, we abandon the office for Christmas and don't come back until our calendars are officially obsolete. Like any well-adjusted person, I spend the majority of my holiday break with my family video games, tackling the great big pile of shame that I've built up over the year. Doom, Dark Souls III, and Overwatch* were just a few of the unfinished games I was looking forward to playing while waiting for 2016 to finally die. Then Stardew Valley came along and blew those plans all to hell.

Forgoing a stack of triple-A games for 10 straight days of Stardew Valley might sound like the gaming equivalent of kids chucking their new toys aside on Christmas morning to play with the empty cardboard boxes instead. However, beneath Stardew Valley's simple 16-bit graphics lies a devilishly addictive simulator. Like literally addictive. Like, I can't stop playing it. Or thinking about it. I need help.

If you haven't heard of Stardew Valley, here's a quick explainer: It's Harvest Moon.

What, you haven't heard of Harvest Moon either? Sheesh. Fine, here's another explainer: It's a simulation game where you get up and do chores on a farm all day.

I'm not sure what it is or how it operates, but video games have a magical quality that can make even the most mundane tasks entertaining. Take for instance the recent survival-game fad, an entire genre devoted to emulating the struggles of early man, where players wander around harsh environments in their underwear, beating each other with rocks and pooping everywhere. Sure, there's excitement to be had in being chased through a jungle by dinosaurs, but I'm pretty sure our cavemen ancestors didn't find their continual quest to not die from everything quite as fun as gamers do. The same is undoubtedly true for anyone who has real-world farming experience, which Stardew Valley presents as a cutesy, carefree affair.

I started Stardew Valley a few days before our holiday break, and even though it's basically the embodiment of an old Simpsons gag, I was instantly and inexplicably hooked by the farming grind. Like every Harvest Moon, you start the game by inheriting a rundown farm in the titular valley (the one difference being that you don't wake up with amnesia, as only Japanese games are contractually obligated to start that way). After meeting a few of your kooky neighbors and learning about the villainous scourge that is JojaMart, you're thrown right into yardwork, which at this point entails clearing out a plot of land so you can get to the real work.

The farm you inherit is a real craphole in the beginning. Thanks for nothing, grandpa!

There were few things I hated more as a kid than yardwork, and Stardew Valley pretty much covers all the most detestable outdoor duties from my childhood. Before you can plant anything, you'll need to dig up rocks, break down and collect sticks, and cut the grass (granted you at least get to use a scythe in Stardew Valley, which probably would have made cutting the grass more appealing as kid – at least until I sliced one of my siblings in half).

While adulthood has endowed me with a certain appreciation for mowing the lawn (it gets me out of the house and is one less day I have to do real exercise), Stardew Valley elevates these chores into a kind of zen-like cleansing ritual; each tap of the button effortlessly erases one more square of clutter from your life, at the cost of a small sliver from your stamina bar (a way better gauge for physical exertion than the sweat stains emanating from my armpits). Deciding how you want to lay everything out on your farm scratches a similar itch as building a castle to your exact specifications in Minecraft – only I don't give up and wander off after blocking out the first couple rows of crops.

Setting up your farm exactly the way you want it is part of the fun...if you have OCD.

Once you're happy with the small plot you've carved out, you can plant the seeds you bought from Weiner Pierre's General Store and water them, one seed at a time (you're gonna want to upgrade that watering can as soon as possible). With the chores done for the day, you can get to the truly exciting activities, like picking up seashells on the beach, engaging other villagers in pleasant small talk, and renovating the community center. Just make sure you're home and in bed by midnight, otherwise you'll be tired in the morning!

If you're wondering what the hell is wrong with me, join the club (my wife is the founding member and president, FYI). However, I will say that part of Stardew Valley's appeal lies in its sheer volume of items and activities. Once you've sold your first few parsnip crops, you can invest in a barn and buy a cow, or get a coop for raising chickens (well, maybe not, based on the price those lousy dirt vegetables get you...stinkin' parsnips). If you'd rather eat a cow than milk one, you can make extra cash by spelunking in the mines for precious ore or catching some fish in Stardew Valley's many rivers and lakes. Your first house upgrade lets you experiment with the dozens of cooking recipes you learn from watching T.V., providing stamina-replenishing meals or just a higher selling price. You can even play some arcade games at Stardew Valley's bar, which are about as fun as the kind of arcade games you'd find in a real bar (i.e., not).

You can also get crabs. *rimshot*

Stardew Valley features tons of other rabbit holes to lose yourself in, but the real magic lies in the fact that there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything. A strict day/night cycle leaves you scrambling to make the most out of every day – it's just like real life, except I don't mind waking up at 6:00 a.m. to go to work (also, I pass out in caves less often in real life. I'm not saying never, but less often for sure...).

If you're like me (and for your sake I hope you're not), you deal with Stardew Valley's time crunch by planning out what you'll do the following day right before you go to bed; what activities you want to pursue, what items you'll need to bring along, and what you can safely store for later. You end each day by dumping whatever you want to sell in the magic drop-box outside your house (good lord, how can I get one of these in real life?), then hopping in bed to save your game.

Playing out "just one more day" is a hopelessly enticing prospect, as you constantly jump between interests ("It's raining today! Time to go fishing!"). Each day only takes 15 minutes or so, but they rack up quickly – suddenly a festival is on the horizon, spurring you on for another hour of late-night gaming. Then a new season comes along with the promise of new seeds and surprises. Before you know it, you're trudging to bed at 6:00 a.m. (real-world time!) while still thinking about the half-grown crop of pumpkins you're sitting on, and those shiny gold tool upgrades you're going to buy with the profits. All the while you're collecting and crafting items to fill bundles at the community center, which renovate the building (the closest thing you have to a story arc) and ply you with rewards that only make you want to play even more.

Another exciting feature? Checking the daily weather report!

Stardew Valley may not be the most realistic farming sim on the market, but it is a realistic enough life sim to hold up an unflattering mirror to some of my real-life problems and compulsions. First and foremost: hoarding. If I had a gold coin for every item I jammed in a trunk instead of selling it, I'd be richer than the greedy crapbag who owns JojaMart. In fact, my most-crafted item in the game is storage chests – and that's not even a joke!

Even worse, all of my stashed items are meticulously categorized according to my OCD needs. Refrigerator space is reserved for fish, eggs, and dairy (so they won't spoil...even though there's no spoiling mechanic in the game), plus prepared meals and frozen vegetables that you forage during winter (they probably have to stay cold too, right?).

Chest number two contains all the silver- and gold-star fruits and veggies I've grown and not sold for some inexplicable reason – because hey, maybe my future love interest will demand three dozen potatoes before she agrees to marry me!

Chest number three contains tree seeds (enough to grow my own forest), gifted seeds (which I've deemed unimportant enough to not plant but still important enough to hold onto forever), and flowers. I also shove my jams, mayonnaise, honey, and other jarred items in here, because they have to go somewhere.

Chest number four (seriously, there are a lot of chests, so get comfortable) contains all my resources: wood, stone, coal, tree sap, copper, silver, and gold (in both ore and bar form), bat wings (not sure why I initially considered them a resource, but here we are), and about two dozen other resource types that I have way too much of.

Not even Bruce Wayne needs that many bat wings...

Chest five is devoted to obsolete tools, weapons, fishing bobbers, and clothing. Funny side note: I actually tried to sell my duplicate clothing items once, only to find out that your magic drop-box won't take them. So looks like I will continue being the proud owner of six pairs of winter boots that look like they were stolen off of an elf that froze to death.

Still going: Chest six is miscellaneous crap that doesn't fit anywhere else, and chest seven contains my most expensive possessions (including a full line-up of items to win the fall festival's grange competition every year – suck on that, Pierre!). If you're thinking that the miscellaneous chest should come after the expensive-item chest, you're absolutely right, and it annoys me every time I have to open one of them up (one of these days I'll get around to reorganizing everything – I might even clean up my real house too!).

Another real-life character flaw Stardew Valley has made me painfully aware of? I suck at socializing! A good villager in Stardew Valley will make the rounds every day, talking to their fellow citizens and giving them gifts to discover their likes and dislikes. A lazier villager will simply look up said information on the Stardew wiki, and save the gift-giving for each NPC's birthday when it nets you bonus friendship points. I'm a sizable step below even that: most of the time when I remember it's someone's birthday, I'll just hand over whatever random crap I'm carrying at the time. In hindsight, I can see how a raw fish isn't a great birthday gift for a potential love interest, but in my defense, Tiger Trouts are kind of rare(ish)! The truth is I care way less about my relationship level with Stardew Valley's eligible bachelorettes than my relationship level with my cow (the first day she squirted out a large milk I knew she was the one).**

I swear this is a picture of me milking my cow, not making love to it.

That said, it's nice playing a Harvest Moon-type game where the characters aren't bogged down by dumb JRPG clichés. From the loveably lame Mayor Lewis (whose idea of a wild night includes putting a coin in the tavern's jukebox) to Penny's alcoholic trailer trash mom, Pam (who someone actually hired to be the town's bus driver), every character has their own quirks and surprises, and is worth getting to know. Well, except for Shane, the grumpy loser who works as a stockboy at JojaMart and probably thinks Dane Cook is hilarious.***

And that's the best thing about Stardew Valley: It never stops surprising you, with one totally mundane milestone after another. I was thrilled when I harvested my first big crop of blueberries, which propelled me from poor dirt farmer to the Mister Monopoly guy overnight. Seriously, no one has been that excited about blueberries before, unless they have some kind of sick Violet Beauregarde fetish.

Just when you think you've got a handle on your schedule, a new tool or item unlocks: a preserves jar lets you make your own pickled vegetables and jellies; a recycling machine lets you turn the trash you catch while fishing into useful items (I knew I didn't throw away that garbage for a reason!); a slime press lets slime, for some perverted reason. Sprinklers, scarecrows, bee houses, cheese presses, looms – the list goes on and on. Hell, I'm one clump of wool and a duck egg away from unlocking my own greenhouse, and the suspense is killing me!

You still want action? Fine, there are enemy-filled mines that seemingly go on forever. Happy?

I won't blame you if don't "get" Stardew Valley – my hopeless addiction hasn't blinded me to how absurd the game sounds, especially when described by a total fanatic like myself. I'm surprised myself by how taken I am with the game, but I love that a simple indie sim can still dethrone the biggest triple-A blockbusters for my gaming time once and a while. So if this description hasn't sounded like a complete waste of time, I highly recommend you check it out. I've already spent countless hours**** building up my dumb little farm, and I don't think I'll be stopping anytime soon. Even if I wanted to.

*By "finish" Overwatch, I mean play it until I don't want to anymore. Which will never happen. (back to top)
**That said, if I had to pick a romantic interest at this point, it would probably be Maru – but only to spite her jerk dad who told me to leave her alone. (back to top)
***So much for that resolution. (back to top)
****The number of hours I've played Stardew Valley is literally countless as I've fallen asleep numerous times while playing the game, rendering my save file counter inaccurate. Thankfully, even in a quasi-narcoleptic state I've still managed to open a menu to stop the in-game days from progressing, so I haven't woken up on a desolated farm 10 years in the future...yet. (back to top)

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