Electron Dance
16May/188

Play to Death

I don’t like Stardew Valley (ConcernedApe, 2016). There, I said it.

Which is interesting, considering I have never played it.

Seasoned followers of Electron Dance know I steer away from games that are set on devouring both time and player. It is for eminently practical reasons; I’m not going to be able to generate a diverse weekly output if I play one game for six months. Yes, I know I’ve been writing about puzzle games all year, still your tongue. Nonetheless, I will submit occasionally and let in a little Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017).

Stardew fever passed me by. I wasn’t familiar with its obvious forebears like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing. Whereas first-person shooters are dedicated to the role of the gun in making things right, these titles are about small villages where everyone knows each other, the staple of JRPGs since the first one evolved from the primordial bitmap slime.

But what both games really have in common is length. We might worry about the AAA trend towards what Thomas Welsh termed the “mono-game” in which one game is designed to usurp all of your free time for months (Skyrim, anyone?) but the Japanese got there first. Let us not forget the original virtual pet Tamagotchi, released in 1996, which required love and attention every day lest your pet pixels die. Unlike the Tamagotchi, these games do not demand you set aside space in your daily schedule, but the total run time can be in the hundreds of hours. If you find them compelling, you can easily stay immersed in their worlds for months.

I bought Stardew Valley but not for myself. I thought its gentle, open-ended nature might make it a hit with the children and it wouldn’t have a need for controller dexterity, which was holding them back with other kid favourites Terraria (Re-Logic, 2011) and Minecraft (Mojang, 2009). But it was my wife, who still enjoys Minecraft after all these years, who first became hooked. Initially, she found the whole package delightful.

I shy away from games that have an upgrade loop in their DNA. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Plant some seeds, water the flowers every day, sell flowers for cash, buy more expensive seeds, water the flowers every day, sell expensive flowers, buy a sprinkler… and so on. I have a deep-seated fear that the only difference between a clicker and these loops is a feigning of player agency. I’d be the first to attest that chasing agency is a fool’s game, being a big fan of secret box games such as Bernband (Tom van den Boogaart, 2014). Agency is not the be-all and end-all. But the comforting zen embrace of these grinding loops can be fleeting. One moment it's zen, the next it's busy work. Even my love for Subnautica (Unknown Worlds, 2018) has been tested, which too often collapses into rock hunting, a little too No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016) for my liking.

My wife’s demeanour towards Stardew began to darken after she had sunk tens of hours into it. Much of her game time was actually frittered away in the various wikis, mining for advice on how to complete all those Stardew Valley objectives and sidequests. It was only possible to achieve certain goals through reading the wiki because you were never going to figure out all this stuff alone. For example, players needed to snag every fish at least once, but only the wiki would enlighten you as to the location and time of year each fish could be obtained - and bear in mind fishing is one of the most obnoxious tasks in Stardew. And sometimes to make progress the player had to wait for randomness to go their way, such as digging, so much digging, to collect all the artifacts.

Stardew Valley had become work.

A similar thing happened to us when we played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2004). Our hype for that game, after the perfection of Vice City, was off the chart. Not just a couple of islands but a whole state, wow! My wife played it first... and she soon warned me it did not live up to our insane expectations. San Andreas had focused on keeping the player busy with micromanagement. Go to the gym. Keep eating. Entertain “needy girlfriends”. What… what the hell was all this?

I always wanted to take on an Ocean Temple in Minecraft, one of the most difficult challenges because Minecraft makes it impossible to mine through them. Players must swim through a temple’s underwater corridors and fight what lurks within. But to take one on you need to be able see through the gloom of the sea and survive without oxygen. To pull this off, players needed the pearls of wisdom that are only formed within the oyster of a collaborative wiki. This is not the play experience you signed up for, one where you spend your time reading user-written guides. This is completionist play.

The life of the completionist is a very special hell. You do not merely play the game, you play it to death. You rush past the point where frustration and joy are in balance on the scales of satisfaction and tear headlong into grief and hatred. You hate the game for putting you through this; you hate yourself for letting it happen. My wife and I are prone to this form of addiction, attracted to the most abusive videogame relationships. Towards the end of her Stardew experience, I asked her, if she could go back in time and tell herself not to start the game, would she? After a pensive pause, she said: “Yes”.

The design of Stardew bears some responsibility as it hands out checklists like sweets. Still, many of us cannot engage with a game as perhaps was intended: as a means to pass some time. Instead of becoming invested in a personal, unique playthrough, we must traverse all parallel timelines and experience all random events. We must deconstruct these products we have paid for, ransack them for every drop of content and meaning. We justify the time spent with them by spending more time with them, a videogame twist on the sunk cost fallacy. And in doing so, we kill the game and replace it with work. It becomes the very thing many of us are trying to escape from.

My son has been doing the same, poring through Stardew Valley wikis and Reddit threads. I can’t help feeling that this misses the point. Wasn’t it about the farm and the community rather than a checklist? All I hear is tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. My daughter, however, has the right idea. Every few weeks, she’ll spend an hour with Stardew Valley, do a bit of crop work, talk to some people and maybe work on a sidequest. I envy her.

And that is why I will not play Stardew Valley. I’ve seen two out of three players in our home become obsessed with hollowing out its content. And I’m pretty sure which side of the fence I would fall.

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  1. Perhaps I should have mentioned that Stardew Valley has six tabs of collectibles/achievements in the UI. When my wife showed me this last night, my jaw dropped. Some of those tabs also have multiple pages.

  2. Two days ago I found the Achievements pages in Dream Quest. You can pursue these or you get points for each run that you can spend to fob off the chore of doing them. Each achievement gives you extras to make the game easier or unlocks new classes and cards.

    This seems like such a great compromise. Getting that unlock is a grind, but you’re kind of grinding no matter how you play, so why not recognise that and let you buy off those achievements you can’t be bothered with. I haven’t killed 5 dragons, and don’t care to, but I now get a free treasure chest each level because I thought, “sod that”, and bought it with my points (these points aren’t available to buy with money, it’s not like that but I see how it could be).

  3. Got a story for you.

    I rarely go in for completionism, but when I do, I go all in. I recently 100 percented The Witness. Well, almost. It was my second play through, but I’d forgotten most of the puzzle mechanics. It took ages, and I got reeeal twitchy over the “challenge” cave.

    I busted my brain over it all, all the main puzzles, the challenge, all the environmental puzzles, all the videos and all the audio-logs, and then went through the secret area, watched the final video (I love the passage where it transitions, with the rotoscope(?) env maps), and, emerging, breathed a sigh of contentment.

    Now, the internet had told me that the way to know when you have completed everything is that the automatic name of your saved game will say “523, +135 +6”. On my way to quit, I took a peek. Mine said, “522, +135 +6”. It was one of those little scattered pads that teach you what the triangle symbols do – I suddenly remembered ignoring it, having already figured out triangles. My momentous task was incomplete!

    Feeling irrationally anxious, I hovered over the resume option, before taking a deep breath, quitting the game, and quietly, calmly and contently uninstalling it for good. Witnessed.

  4. “but when I do, I go all in” – didn’t mean that to sound like a brag! I meant more like, I sometimes get a bit obsessive, in a not so good way, but maybe I’m over it now. :)

  5. Love this, love your writing. Grateful to have your dad-with-limited-time-to-play-games perspective.

  6. Steed

    The one problem, of course, is the R33L GA3MARS lobby: we should not forget what happened when a six-year old interview given by BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler was unearthed in which she suggested combat should be skippable for those who want story rather than combat. I think some people think frustration and grind and tears are part and parcel of what it means to be a game. I wonder if compromises such as that you’ve commented would be welcome in the wider world…?

    Naturally, there’s the other side of it, what the achievements feel like if there’s an alternate less-skilled path. But maybe we’d all get used to it after a couple of years, like the way we can’t go back to three lives and you’re done mate.

    (unless you’re playing a roguelike)

    MrBehemoth

    First up, I read your “I go all in” in exactly the right way. I understand obsession :)

    Let me tell you my story, which is – despite making a Oscar-nominated film about The Witness – I did not 100% it. I could not be bothered with some of the trickier env puzzles, like those inside the mountain. I’d had all the fun I wanted and I was at that stage of “wiki up the solutions” because it was all about looking and finding. That was not fun. And cheating? What was the point? The Witness wasn’t the kind of game to reward you for that level of obsession. I’d already checked online, full of people thinking there must be an extra extra ending, some secret they haven’t uncovered yet. That can’t be it, right? Say it’s not so, Blow.

    So I’m with you. I’m better at letting go of obsessions these days because my life just doesn’t give me the space for them. But it’s all too easy, with something like Stardew, to go way past the point of no return before I can say: nope, I’m not doing that. Too late man. Hours you aren’t getting back.

    BMillions

    Hello! Thank you for saying so. The only problem is I don’t have time to write AND game :)

  7. Dream Quest has a great achievement design! I finally got all of the achievements a few months ago, and yes, more then a couple were bought with the points you accumulate from the attempts. So now that it’s “done” I can play a round occasionally for fun, but I don’t feel any obligation to “earn” the more luck-based achievements that I bought past (get down to 0 cards, have an obscenely large amount of mana, win as a priest etc) to feel like the game is complete. The achievements page is fully filled in – what more could I want?

    I’m having trouble putting together a unified theory of collections, hidden packages, achievements, and other secrets and their various attributes: in-game rewards or none, can buy past them or not (in game currency or real money?), do the toughest ones require skill or perseverance far beyond what the rest of the game requires? I know there are several categories:
    1. Games w/ “completion task” that I like and work away at till I get all the goodies – even if wiki’s need to be consulted (VVVVVV, Dream Quest, Terraria, Burnout Paradise);
    2. Completion tasks that make me say “that’s fine – glad it’s there for people who like this game a little more than me” and kinda respect, even though I won’t be “completing” the game (most games I guess? Maybe like Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy, or any of the N games after the first one);
    3. Completion tasks that kind of piss me off because of how arbitrary or excessive they are (FF 12 and its legendary weapons + some spear for which you had to intentionally avoid opening chests comes to mind, probably Souls games, but I haven’t gone down that rabbit hole)
    4. Completion tasks that are dumb and seem like extraordinary time sucks and who has time for that? (Ubisoft, I made a category just for you!)

    Writing those categories out, it’s weird how fluid they are. FF12 is a bad version of this, but I did all the challenges and got all the stuff and even made up my own challenges for FF6 and FF7. I’m nodding my head about stardew valley, but I grind through Terraria again every couple big patches and love it. I know time, and age, and “i’ve seen this before” have something to do with how that shakes out, but it also seems like there’s something about the actual design that can really make completion tasks seem much more malign. Maybe part of it is about how much the act of chasing the completion tasks departs from the typical game verbs that attracted you in the first place.

  8. Hi Dan, sorry for the late reply, I’ve spending more time playing games and working on the A Field of Flowers over the past few days.

    I suspect there isn’t a “unified theory” as such because there are so many different types of people and what they like is pretty different. And a lot of these systems sit on unstable equilibria; they could so easily flip between obnoxious and satisfying. I do have a habit of skipping over achievements like “get 3 kills in a row using an old glove” – but there’s something about the achievements which are apparently within your grasp, that you think you can pull off like “find 10 old mittens” even though they could be anywhere on a map which could take you three days straight to explore.

    And my worry always if I tried to mandate the right/wrong way about something like this is that you inadvertently kill off rough diamond design, which isn’t perfect but more interesting than something that isn’t perfect? Still chasing down achievements via wiki feels like a crappy place to be, you know.


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