Pixel Harvest

I usually grab a selection of the best indie games each year, during the Steam Winter sale. Last year, the certified standout was Stardew Valley, an 8bit farming throwback to Super Nintendo RPGs of yore. The amazing and endearing thing about the game, beside the fact that all the programming, writing, pixel art and music was done by one guy, was the good natured charm of the game. There weren’t any dark world-ending villains forcing along a ham-fisted plot. Sure, there’s a little bit of sword slashing, but for the most part, you clear out a patch of land to plant crops, tend to animals, and wile away the hours fishing.

I’m by no means a completionist, but I spent a full year (four seasons) of gametime, growing my meager crops, renovating the cultural center in the middle of town, and catching some record-setting fish. It’s an addictive game, but not purely due the mining/crafting/exploring mechanics, like Minecraft or Terarria. Stardew borrows heavily from the elements of those games, but it’s an evolution of the genre. The biggest change is the clock. Your player grows weary in the evening, and must return to bed at midnight or soon after. If not, you’ll pass out from exhaustion, lose some of your hard-earned cash, and start the next day tired. Instead, if you follow the wise motto “early to bed, early to rise”, you’ll be bursting with energy and productivity. On top of the hourly clock is the march of days on the calendar. Each season is only thirty days. With a change of the seasons comes new weather, new town festivities, new crops to plant and harvest.

Instead of a simple day/night cycle, which passes unceasingly on in the other *craft games, the hard delineation of days and seasons gives a narrative arc to all the crafting and building. There’s only so much you can accomplish in a day. I started thinking of my days being dedicated to certain tasks. A day to clear the dense brush on the back 40, or till the soil, or forage for rare mushrooms in the woods, or spelunk deep into the slime-infested mines. If it was raining, I didn’t have to spend the half hour watering my crops and could rush directly to the mines, unless I was after the rare early-morning catch down on the shore. The townspeople also abide by regular schedules (includes store hours, and happy-hours in the bar). Most stores are closed on Saturday, so you’ll need to do your shopping before the weekend.

In the mid game, once you’ve hewn out your farm and are establishing a routine, there’s a joy to the game. You’ll see your crops blossom, and can bring your prize harvest to the various fairs. Townspeople will send you letters, and you can do errands for them and bring them gifts. You’ll learn their quirks and traits. There’s the jock and the goth and the skater and the science nerd. The cranky old couple, the perky school teacher. The uniqueness and charm of these characters is amazing, crafted with only a few lines of dialog and minimal pixel art.

The thing about all video games is that eventually the “game” part rears its head. Stardew Valley is absolutely lovely, but to truly complete the game you have to mine, farm and fish dozens of rare items. A sprawling farm entails an endless retinue of chores, from milking the cows, repairing the fence, to replanting seeds. I found myself starting up a play session only to race around, mass clicking a screenful of charming devices, watching them whirl and spit out yet more items.

It made me ponder the nature of work, and entertainment, and fun. I was spending my leisure time to play a game that was simulating work. Given, there were lots of charming touches, and all the messy unknowables and chaos of reality were ironed over. But it was still a nested tier of systems to master. All the charming NPCs were just state machines that had predilections for certain consumables. It made me wonder about why I played games. Was the game truly about escaping the daily grind, as illustrated in the opening cinematic, to revel in the freedom of the simple farming life? Or was it just a daily grind of another color?

Don’t get me wrong, Stardew Valley is an instant classic, a game that will stand the test of time. I was enthralled with the pixel-perfect little town, the planting and fishing and mining. Sometimes that life is better when its abstract memory, the wind gently rustling the leaves, birdsong in the air, and there’s not a grid of 64 yams to harvest click.

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