We’re Castin’ our Stardew Valley pods directly into your eyeballs!
Taylor: Welcome to the premiere Cold Takes Wordcast, your go-to source for the up-to-the-past-decade-or-so commentary on games you might have played! For today’s festivities, I’m joined by fellow writers Alayna Cole, Melissa King, Samantha Blackmon, and Joe Köller to weigh in on the cool, collected, relaxed farming, dating, fishing, socializing, and dungeoning sim, Stardew Valley!
Let’s get right to it: one of the things most interesting about this genre is that while it has a lot of common elements with other games of its type – Harvest Moon, Facebook’s Farmville, the more adventurous Rune Factory – it can very rarely be fit into the neat little brackets that retailers like to have for their games. It’s not unadventurous, but it also isn’t an Action-Adventure. It’s not as simulation-y as The Sims or Flight Simulator, but “sim” isn’t a bad title either. So, to kick us off, what kind of descriptor would you give Stardew Valley?
Joe: I’d say if you’re looking to categorize the game it might be best to look towards different media and the rise of adult coloring books and such. It’s probably a meditative relaxation tool, or a mindfulness app, or whatever Apple calls these things in their App Store.
Alayna: Stardew Valley is a tricky thing to categorize, which is probably one of the reasons I love it so much. I definitely agree that it is a relaxation tool, and I use it as such, but if I had to put it in a game genre box, I’d say it’s an adventure sim. Is that too much fence-sitting?
Samantha: If I had to nail it down to a blended genre I think that I would have to go with adventure simulator as well. And because of the way that I have been playing it I think that adventure would definitely be the first of that compound genre for me. Honestly, I’ve been trying to ignore the dating sim part of the game as much as possible. I like what Joe said about it being a meditative tool, because that is exactly the way that I have been using it, lately. The zen like farming and fishing is calming. The dating sim part just puts me on edge.
Melissa: Personally, I just like to categorize it along with the Harvest Moon/Rune Factory series as a farming simulator, but like you folks have been saying, I think it transcends that as well. What’s neat about Stardew Valley is that it isn’t stuck in older conventions like Harvest Moon, so now we can apply new genres and concepts to it! So, perhaps a farming simulator.
Samantha, why does the dating sim part put you on edge?
Samantha: It just feels a little high stakes for me when I am trying to chill out and water plants and clear the farm. When I want to kick back at the end of the night and play for an hour or two, it feels like another person to be responsible for at the end of a hard day of dealing with students, goings on on campus, and parenting. With plants and animals, the feeling is much less intense. Does that make sense?
Joe: It sounds like you are just trying to live that hermit life and get away from social obligations, I also looked for that in the game.
Taylor: It is nice that Stardew Valley isn’t afraid to make multiple play options sustainable. Although things like fishing and relationships aren’t the most robust features – especially when compared to the variety of the mines and the depth of the farming options – there is room for players to find the specific way they want to play. Given that, is there something that speaks to you as a player that Stardew Valley enables? Do you think it does enough to let players play their way?
Alayna: When I started playing Stardew Valley, I was in the middle of teaching my game design students about some key theories, such as the taxonomies that can be used to categorize players. I found it particularly striking how Bartle’s player types – which include achievers, socializers, killers, and explorers – map perfectly onto the ways you can play Stardew Valley.
Achievers are able to focus on farming and collecting, socializers have a relationship system to invest their time in, killers have the mines, and explorers have all of the secret and hidden areas around the map. Of course, you may identify with a number of these player types, not just one, which gives you even more opportunities for finding something in Stardew Valley that speaks to you.
Samantha: If I had to categorize myself, I would definitely fall in the killer-explorer realm, so for me Stardew Valley gave me a chance to focus more on the dungeon exploration than other parts of the game without penalizing me for doing so. It was much like the experience that I had when I began playing Terraria and Minecraft with my daughter.
While Minecraft focused more on building than I was interested in at that moment, the need to not only mine, but engage in intricate battles in order to procure supplies in Terraria made the game more appealing to me. For this same reason, I have spent far more time playing Stardew Valley than I have on any of the versions of Harvest Moon that I have previously played combined.
Melissa: I basically do a little bit of everything, and what I do depends on my mood for that in-game day. I don’t really try to optimize things so I earn as much money as possible, but I do make sure to have enough crops and animals to have a steady income. While I’m not too familiar with Bartle’s theory, I think I’d fit in the achiever category best, although to a limited extent.
I want to get the goals in the game done, but at the same time I don’t want to stress myself out doing it. The way I approach games is somewhere between wanting every achievement and wanting to have a good time, and the same principle applies to Stardew Valley for me.
Taylor: I’m a low-effort kind of person when it comes to completion and mechanical interaction. If it feels like too much work, I’ll put it off until later. So, in Stardew Valley, that meant I only really did basic farming early on, and focused more on fishing since I’m a junkie for fishing mechanics. I didn’t even really get rolling on the farm until I was a level 4 or 5 fisherman. Most of the start-up capital for the farm came in the form of fish.
So, achiever-ish maybe?
Joe: More like achiever-fish.
I took on a completionist style pretty early into the game, like the well conditioned gamer asshole that I secretly am, trying to do a little bit of everything at once. To be honest, I think most of the game’s mechanics are just fancy set dressing for what it’s really about though. I think the game is ultimately about space in a pretty big way.
Most games never really cultivate an intimate relationship between its players and its environments. They either funnel you through these tiny spaces that are immediately replaced with new ones, or they’re so big that you’re never really in the same place for a long time. In both cases it’s because they are deathly afraid we’ll grow bored if there’s not enough visual variety.
There’s a great sense of comfort to becoming familiar with an environment, however, and Stardew Valley is pretty ingenious when it comes to building our relationship to its virtual village. Allowing us to put our stamp on the land is an obvious way to establish that connection, doubly so given the sense of ritual and consistency that the daily obligations of the farm provide.
Beyond that, there are many random and scheduled events that pull us out into the environment, and the structures of the game force us to keep making decisions about how to best move around the village – like a true resident – because they frustrate our tendency to move in a straight line. I can’t go directly to the blacksmith after watering my plants because then I’ll be there an hour early, but I could use that time to make a detour to the beach and pick up sea shells, for instance.
Alayna: Until I married Elliott, I used to forage at the beach and check my crab pots for lobsters while I waited for the stores to open because I had to be there to give him presents anyway. Now he lives with me and I need to find a new technique. On that note, I find the present giving mechanics for relationship development sort of unsettling.
We talked earlier about Samantha’s discomfort with the dating sim side of things in Stardew Valley. I avoided it until towards the end of my second year because of my own uneasiness with how the system works, and only pursued it at all because I am a completionist as well. There aren’t many intricacies in a relationship simulator like this and I feel weird about giving a person a gift twice a week, every week, until they want to marry me.
In the end, I went from dating Elliott to marrying him so quickly that he was awkwardly telling me that he liked me “more than friends” after he had already accepted my proposal, all because I gave him a duck feather for his birthday.
Samantha: Yes, that time element just made it more anxiety inducing for me, because I don’t want to have to think about the last time I gave someone a gift in order to advance a relationship. I also am not overly fond of the feeling of buying someone’s affections. Once the semester is over and things are less hectic I may go ahead and just power through the dating sim portion of the game just to say I did it, but I don’t really feel like it.
Taylor: I actually wrote about this not too long ago. The idea of systemic relationships is really unnerving to me. Almost a mechanical analog to the techniques of pick-up artistry. The idea that there is a sequence of things to do, in a certain order, translates the trappings of a relationship into something repeatable, personality or compatibility unnecessary. It’s a really unnerving way to view human relationships, and something I’ve always had trouble with in games like these.
Melissa: This is all super interesting to hear for me, since I’ve played Harvest Moon games since I was a kid, so I didn’t even bat an eye at the dating mechanics, I was just happy I could romance whatever gender I wanted. It’s neat seeing the relationship system I’ve taken for granted all my life dissected like this.
Alayna: The idea of being able to date men and women in Stardew Valley regardless of the player-character’s gender an interesting one for me. My research is in queer representation, so I am always hyper-analytical about those sorts of dating systems and how they are implemented. It’s great to see more unblinking additions of queer relationships in games, but sometimes it takes away from the individual characterization of the NPCs.
It’s something I’ve referred to previously as “playersexuality”. It’s a little hard to believe that all of the single people in town are attracted to me. I’d like to see more instances of games like this where the characters have their own sexualities or just dating preferences in general and if my character’s gender, appearance, or personality doesn’t fit it, then no deal.
Joe: That’s something I’d also love to see in more games. The option to romance characters of any gender is a definite improvement over games that package retrograde politics with their idealized visions of the past, but it also makes that part of the game a little weird. It feels strange and dishonest to completely disregard gender as a category for dating, especially given how the rest of the town consists mainly of hetero couples with kids. Like on the one hand the game pretends to be this post-gender utopia and on the other hand it’s still depicting this tiny, normative community.
I do appreciate the decision to honor player desires above all though, and this issue of playersexuality did make me think about what a truly queer take on the genre would look like. I imagine the change goes beyond who you are allowed to date. The game would probably be set in a commune, dropping the focus on economic advancement in favor of understanding other characters’ needs and contributing to the community around you. Nobody is raising beans yet? I’ll take care of that then. Need somebody to look after your cat while you’re going away? Got it.
Melissa: I think a truly inclusive game would also have to overhaul its concept of gender as well. For instance, I romanced Penny as a woman, and she called me “beautiful,” and while I appreciate the effort to include dialogue specific for same-gender relationships, that sort of language also alienates butch and masculine of center women.
Alayna: And a game that only has binary gender options for your character hasn’t quite hit inclusivity utopia yet either.
Samantha: I have to jump in and say one of the hardest things for me was the apparent age of the NPCs that were romanceable in the game. That might have had something to do with me ignoring the dating sim portion as well. In terms of gender and personality, Maru would have been my choice of romantic interest and I know that a lot of folks installed mods to make her appear older – so she would look less like she could be my daughter in real life – as well as to add some diversity to the other NPCs.
However, I am playing on a Mac via a Wine wrapper so my options/bravery are limited when it comes to screwing around with the game’s files. I needed to play on the laptop so that I could play more often during the day so I didn’t even bother installing it on my Windows machine.
Taylor: There is something of a general flaw with relationships in games like these. They arguably have to be built in the direction of the aforementioned playersexuality, so that no matter a player’s tastes, they can probably find somebody they are interested in. Well, in theory, anyway. That gets harder the more people realize that relationships can mean so many different things other than on a gender or sexual binary.
Given those limitations, do you think Stardew Valley succeeds where it does try to develop characters and relationships? Or is there something goofy here?
Melissa: One thing that Stardew Valley retains from the Harvest Moon series is that there really isn’t much to do after marriage when it comes to relationship mechanics and milestones. When I would play Harvest Moon growing up, it felt like there was a lack of goals to meet after you married your ~tru luv~. In later games they’ve added the feature of gaining extra hearts after marriage, but in the earlier ones it kind of sent the message that there’s no work to put into a relationship after marriage, which is the opposite from the truth.
Joe: Actually, I think most of the “relationship endgame content” for Stardew Valley was patched into the game. It’s a welcome addition, but the belated entry does make it feel like a bit of an afterthought compared to winning somebody’s heart in the first place. It might be because maintaining a relationship isn’t as flashy as romantic conquest, but this is ultimately the same balancing act the game solves beautifully on the side of farm work, where you need to both expand your farm and keep the weeds out of what you already built.
Strange, too, how these advancements were brought about by the ability to retroactively improve areas of a game that are found lacking. I just think it’s hilarious to imagine classic patch note lingo applied to farm work and areas of everyday life. In this latest update, tilling was drastically nerfed! Finally, a much needed buff to potatoes!
Alayna: Eric Barone has done a fantastic job of regularly updating Stardew Valley and improving all sorts of aspects, including the feel of relationships post-marriage, the dialogue between characters – such as that between player and partner or player and in-laws – and the cut scenes that take place as relationships develop. These continual improvements based on the feedback of the community have helped with player immersion and also help players feel listened to.
Melissa: Agreed, it’s nice that post-release patches are available now, it definitely helps developers capture the nuances that they may have overlooked during the original development. Inclusivity is definitely a back and forth process, which is facilitated by patches creating a more equal relationship between developer and player where they can both talk about what they want in a game.
Samantha: I think that this game took a step forward when it came to character creation, it is one of the few games where I can play as a woman and still present as “masculine of center” as Melissa put it earlier. I also liked that I could be a person of color without standing in the sun for several hours a day. I’m still pissed at Animal Crossing: New Leaf for that!
Taylor: To Nintendo’s credit, that’s actually a really neat mechanic, it’s just unfortunate that it’s the only option in the game to achieve darker skin colors. If it happened as a consequence of sun exposure that followed getting to pick your skin color, I’d be more on-board. No fault for the idea, but shame for lacking the foresight to address more cases with their neat idea.
Alayna: I’m a big fan of the freedom in the character creator in Stardew Valley too. I typically play games as an androgynous man when I can, even though this doesn’t reflect my own gender identity, and Stardew Valley really allowed me to do this.
Melissa: It’s also neat that you can change your appearance later on, so if you feel like presenting more feminine/masculine, you can just go ahead and do it in the middle of a playthrough like you would in real life!
Alayna: Totally! I changed my hair for my wedding so that I could look a little more masculine next to the fabulous Elliott.
Melissa: For me, I tried giving my character a slightly more edgy/masculine appearance just to try it out, and even though I opted for a more feminine appearance later, what’s great is that I could try it out in the first place.
Alayna: On a lighter note, it’s also just nice to be able to change your outfit to suit your new hats once you start getting achievements.
Joe: I did enjoy the option to add a bow to my ensemble to make it a little more stylish.
Taylor: Change is something I feel like Stardew Valley manages pretty well, as compared to a lot of its nearest neighbors. The opportunity to do more with little things like outfits, hats, hairstyles is something that gives the player more personal opportunity. And beyond the player, the change of seasons, the available crops, the randomized shops that appear occasionally – they all create more opportunity for change in what would otherwise be a static experience. It’s building onto the blocks Harvest Moon first laid out in its SNES release, but having them expanded naturally is pretty cool.
I do find it fairly fascinating that Stardew Valley builds up on so many borrowed aspects. What it does poorly with it though, I think, is the reliance on money. While it was fine for earlier, more rudimentary games with fewer mechanics in the works, Stardew Valley’s focus on the fiscal actually makes certain aspects of play feel less important, or at least more wasteful since they’re less profitable. It could just be me, though. Does anyone else get the sense that there’s too deep an importance on money?
Melissa: Money is huge in Stardew Valley, for sure, but I don’t find myself minding it too much since the time mechanics feel relatively balanced. If any of you folks have played Harvest Moon: Sunshine Islands, it feels like that game goes at such a lightning pace with so few opportunities to make money that I can barely keep my head above water.
On the other hand, Harvest Moon: Animal Parade features time mechanics that move at a glacial pace, negating its efforts towards a difficulty balance. However, considering that there are a lot of newcomers to farming sims getting this game, how to earn money might be less obvious to some players. Any newcomers to farming sims or Harvest Moon games here? If so, what do you think?
Alayna: I haven’t had a chance to play the Harvest Moon games, for a whole range of reasons, but I noticed how balanced the earning system seemed for the first couple of years in this game. I always had something I was saving up for but it never felt like it took too long for me to reach my goals.
Unfortunately, now that I’m most of the way through my third year, I feel as though the system becomes a little broken. I have more money than I know what to do with and the only real goal left is a statue in the Calico Desert that costs 1,000,000g. I guess you have to run out of worthwhile items to spend money on eventually.
Joe: Some people seem to think money isn’t important enough in the game yet, if you look at things like the taxation mod.
It’s nice to have some sort of metric for getting ahead in the game, but then money only fulfills that purpose vicariously through the seeds, tools, and buildings it gives you access to. I guess the trick is not to let it control you, as in life. I can imagine nothing more miserable than to use the game to build a ruthlessly efficient factory farm, but I still found myself thinking about optimization a lot. It’s interesting that the game gives you the option to play out that narrative of greed on the story side, too.
Taylor: This happened to me in the Harvest Moon games organically as well. Something about the work-reward structure of farms, maybe?
Joe: It’s also something a lot of Minecraft players seem to naturally gravitate towards by building hopelessly crowded pens. Probably a consequence of games being disinterested in simulating any negative long-term consequences of the immediate gains they base their rewards structures on.
Mainly though, I’m curious what an alternative design without money would look like. Maybe it’s the community focused approach I mentioned earlier, maybe it’s an entirely new thing. Reaching new levels of experience was a much bigger motivation for me, so an expanded proficiency system allowing you to slowly learn and master any little task in the game could be a suitable replacement for cash.
Samantha: I wonder if my experience is a bad metric for the role of money because of the fact that I am playing this game with a different goal in mind. While I have previously played farming sims with quest completion in mind, I have taken Stardew Valley on with a much less mercenary bent. I don’t really focus on the achievements or consider completion when I’m playing
For me it is more about a kind of meta-game. I set small goals for myself and work through those in kinds of microbursts. Can I fashion my farm the way I want? Can I explore this part of the map before sundown? As the semester winds down and I am looking for a less meditative experience I am wondering if my style of play may change as well.
Taylor: I can’t imagine there is a way to produce a bad metric for this game. It’s versatile that way.
Melissa: Expanding on community-based achievements would be fun, I think, especially since it ties in so well with the community center route. Perhaps if you decide to rebuild the community center, you’re given more goals related to enhancing the town in a communal manner, and if you opt for the Joja route, you can industrialize/McDonald’s-ize the rest of the town. Kind of like Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s Public Works Projects where you can customize the town to your liking, and it would provide incentive to replay the game.
Taylor: If the game picked up that level of malleability, I wonder if it wouldn’t lose some of its identity as well. Perhaps that’s just me projecting a meditative, adult-coloring-book style reading of it, as was mentioned earlier, but I feel like giving the player too much autonomy in changing the world would actually make it feel a little less farm sim, and a little more something else. Sim Theme Park but for rustic villages, relationships, and aggressive economizing. Sim Village Owners’ Association perhaps?
Alayna: Mostly, the thought of modifying a village like this just gives me flashbacks to Dark Cloud.
Taylor: The game does have something of an opportunity for the player to change the village, now that I think about it. Perhaps as an extension of the playersexuality, the progress of the village is kind of locked by a player-centrism. The player is the town’s only real agent. The village is set in its shape, but getting that shape to its most ideal form is the exclusive responsibility of your farmer.
Alayna: I find it really lovely that the characters in Stardew Valley all have their own routines and personalities because it makes the space feel really alive, but this is fairly superficial in the scheme of things. Any serious decisions that change the course of the village definitely seem to come from the player.
Samantha: For me the only time that the NPCs seem to play any real role in where the game is going is when there is a quest that I need to complete and they are holding me up for some reason or another and even then that doesn’t feel genuine. It’s just too forced.
Taylor: For me, the biggest way the NPCs would influence my day would be in them setting the schedules for the shops. Much of my time in game would be trying to prioritize when to hit things so I wouldn’t run into a closed store. That said, I can’t imagine I’d want things to stay open forever. All things, good and bad, must inevitably draw to a close, and so too must this wordcast.
So, on behalf of our contributors, Joe Köller, Alayna Cole, Samantha Blackmon, Melissa King, and myself, thank you for tuning in! Oh, and welcome to Cold Takes. We promise we’re not always this long winded.
Taylor Hidalgo is a writer, editor, and Features Editor for Haywire. He’s a fan of the sound of language, the sounds of games, and the sound of deadlines looming nearby. He sometimes says things on Twitter and his website, and has a Patreon if that’s your thing.
Alayna Cole is a writer, editor, researcher, developer, and teacher. When she isn’t curled up in a ball and worrying about all of the hats she wears, she works and studies at the University of the Sunshine Coast and freelances for places like PC & Tech Authority, Impulse Gamer, and PlayWrite. Catch her boasting about her work on her website and avoiding her responsibilities on Twitter.
Samantha Blackmon is the founder of Not Your Mama’s Gamer and an Associate Professor at Purdue who teaches Digital Rhetorics and Game Studies. She has been gaming for 40 years and her interests lay in the critique of identity, identity formation, and representation in videogames. She is also currently working on the Invisibility Blues video series.
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