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.