My favorite game of 2016 is the farming simulator Stardew Valley. Created by sole developer Concerned Ape, it’s a throwback to the old Harvest Moon series. Just like in that series you will be planting crops, raising animals, and interacting with villagers. What made Stardew Valley one of the most memorable games I’ve played is its variety of gameplay, routine building, and relaxed attitude.
Besides the farming activities mentioned above, there are many other things to do. Collecting materials and crafting is a major one. This requires you to cut down trees, forage, and mine. While there are some rocks scattered throughout the world for stone, if you want to acquire ores you need to delve into the mines. This is a large dungeon with multiple levels and its own Zelda style combat system.
If that sounds too dangerous you can spend time in town and get to know the villagers. Each person has their own distinct personality. Talk to them, give them gifts and hang out with them. The villagers of this game are a little more realistic and interesting than the usual RPG NPC. One of my favorite experiences was getting to know the shop keeper’s daughter Abigail. After a while she invited me to hang out and play video games, which had its own entire Robotron styled mini-game. This game exists in the saloon as well, but when you play with Abigail it adds a co-op player to help you out.
Each system has its own set of goals. For farming the goal is primarily to make more money to make your farm larger and more efficient. Dungeon delving encourages you to go deeper, and fight specific types of monsters. Social interactions can eventually lead to marriage.
Goals are accomplished over time, only so much can be done in a day. Crops take time to grow, chickens take time to lay eggs, there is a limited number of hours in a day. Pursuing one goal each day isn’t an efficient use of time. It’s best to spend some time every day working toward multiple goals.
In the early stages, I’d wake up each day, water the plants, feed the chickens, then head into the mines for ore. Eventually I acquired enough supplies to build sprinklers for my crops. This freed up some time for me, and I was able to expand my farm. The farming mechanic’s loop of routine, automation, and expansion is extremely addictive. My farm gets bigger, I obtain more money, and am able to do more things.
My farm eventually transitioned from primarily crops into more of a ranch. I started with chickens, then worked my way up to a barn filled with cows and goats. The eggs would be processed into mayonnaise, and milk is turned into cheese. One of my friends who also played at the same time as me focused on crops, then bought kegs to turn them into beer and wine. Another friend focused on gathering materials and crafting to make money. Each farm is unique to the player who made it.
While there are lots of goals to work towards, few not very pressing. Time always moves forward, certain crops can only be grown during certain seasons, and there are a few events and festivals throughout the year. But if you miss out on these you can always try again the next year. On the other hand, things like the community center, marriage, and dungeon progression can be done on your own time. This lack of pressure emphasizes games relaxing tone.
This tone is further enhanced through the visuals and sound. Graphics are old school pixel graphics. Music is light and relaxing chiptune music. Combined they have an SNES era aesthetic that creates a sense of nostalgia.
Above all else, what stood out to me most while playing Stardew Valley was the attention to detail that went into all aspects of the game. Eric Barone (aka ConcernedApe) spent four years creating each art asset, writing every piece of music, and coding all aspects of the gameplay. It was a labor of love and it shows.