Look, I just… I just didn’t ‘get’ Stardew Valley, OK? I tried guys, I really did. I tried for you. I made my farm, I planted my parsnips, I chatted up my neighbors, and I spent just about every second wishing I was doing literally anything else in the world.
Let’s rewind. Stardew Valley is the long-awaited debut game from indie developer Eric Barone, pitched as a spiritual successor to the Harvest Moon franchise, a throwback, retro-inspired farming simulator for the sort of people who start salivating at the sound of the words ‘farming simulator’.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’m not one of those people. I don’t farm. I have never farmed. More importantly, I have no desire to farm – or pretend to. As far as I’m concerned, a farming sim is in roughly the same territory as an accounting sim or a watching-paint-dry sim. It’s the polar opposite of fun.
But, boundaries are there to be pushed, comfort zones to be exited post-haste, so I thought I’d give Stardew Valley the benefit of the doubt. I mean, more than 500,000 people have bought the thing, its Steam ratings are through the roof, and even other critics seem to like it. There must be something here, right?
Fuck that noise.
As I boot things up, we’re off to a promising start. The character creation tool is robust enough to let me create Domette, a bearded female farmer with demonic eyes, bone-white skin, and a deep-V t-shirt. Fuck gender norms, etc. etc. I take comfort knowing that the game allows gay relationships as you progress, and look forward to Domette’s patriarchy-trampling future.
Scepticism firmly checked, off we go. I’m ready to farm. Let’s till some soil or something. Not so fast! I’ve got an intro cinematic to watch first. I have to watch my grandpa intone some rubbish from his deathbed about how unrelentingly depressing modern society is, how I’ll probably just want to pack it all in and live in a farm. Then I have to watch Domette suffer through the unrelenting depression of modern society. Then decide to pack it all in and live on a farm. Then get a bus so that she can get to her farm. Then meet the mayor of this crummy little town and oh god can I please just start fucking farming already?
Torturous and heavy-handed as it was, that intro carried with it a vital lesson about the game ahead: it’s as slow as some sort of really, really slow thing I can’t think of right now. The first thing I get to do is plant some parsnip seeds. Yay, farming! Except they’ll take four in-game days to grow. Now, I get that this is dramatically faster than parsnips likely grow in the real world, but it’s still about an hour of my life just to wait for some virtual veg. And what do I do with them once they arrive? I sell them. For gold. To buy more seeds. To plant. To grow more parsnips. To sell. For gold. To buy seeds. To plant. To grow. To sell.
We have a word for this. It’s called ‘grind’. Normally it’s the filler part of a game, the time sink designed to keep you going, feeding your addiction, playing on compulsion between the big, exciting, expensive bits. But in good ol’ Stardew Valley, the grind is the game. I can grind to grow crops. I can grind to fish. I can grind mobs in the mines. I can grind to collect stuff for some strange forest sprites. I can grind to fill the museum. I can grind to upgrade my house. Everything is grind, just clicking, clicking, clicking, in the pursuit of nothing at all.
The game quickly begins to remind me of Skyrim. Not the expansive world, the visceral combat, the limitless options drawing out ahead. No, it reminded me of the time I spent four straight hours doing nothing but craft armor. There was no joy in it, no engagement, nothing but mindless work, time wasted that I’ll never get back. That was the last time I ever played Skyrim, and I’ve not looked back since. But the drudgery and boredom that I felt in the last hour or so of that game is what I’ve felt in every minute of Stardew Valley.
Maybe for some this is a fantasy. Perhaps the earnest repetition of pretending to live in a rural idyll, while actually hunched over a brightly lit computer monitor at 4am, is the escape they need. I cannot begin to fathom how dull and repetitive your day-to-day life must be to find relief in the monotony of plant, grow, rinse, repeat, and I hope to whatever’s up there that I never find out. I’ve got other shit to be getting on with guys! There are more master-works of cinema, literature, music, and, yes, gaming, than I could get through in my lifetime, so why in the ever loving fuck would I spent my time worrying about whether or not I watered my virtual cauliflowers today?
I’ve tried to describe Stardew Valley to friends over the week that I’ve been playing it, tried to explain to them what the game is, how it works, why on earth I’m doing this to myself. And every time, without fail, I find myself getting angrier and angrier as I talk, physically shaking with rage and frustration that I’ve already lost so many hours of my life to it. I’m a guy who plays videogames for his job, but this is the first time that it’s ever really felt like work.
I know I’m miles away from the critical consensus on this one, that it’s not much more than a speck on the 8-bit horizon from where I’m standing. Clearly a lot of people out there love Stardew Valley – I even know some of these strange beings. I can’t help but feel that they must live in some kind of nightmare world, devoid of joy and excitement, able to find happiness only in the accomplishment of mundane, rote tasks. I will never understand them. Presumably they will never understand me.
But they’re still stuck playing a fucking farming sim.