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I Lived a Rent-Free Escapist Fantasy in the 'Stardew Valley' Farming Game

The Steam hit invites you to inherit a cottage and plough some fields. But balls to that—I'm playing as the most chilled person who's ever lived.

by Mathew Jones
Mar 16 2016, 5:35pm

Yeah, I could fix this bridge, but that does sound like a lot of effort.

On my second day in town, I'm invited to check out the local saloon. A beer costs 80 percent of all the money I have in the world. I laugh. Isn't cheaper booze supposed to be the main perk of moving away from your dead-end job in the city?

I worry, too, about the content of conversation I'd have with any of the patrons. "You're the new boy in town, right? You've just moved into the old farm, haven't you? How are your crops coming in?"

"Oh, I've barely done anything yet," I'd say, evasively. "Y'know, just settling in at the minute. Lot of unpacking to do!" I'm terrified. Let's say I bring someone home. It takes just one look in the field outside to know I've completely mugged off the whole point of being here.

Stardew Valley is an independently developed farming-life game, a Harvest Moon for what people in suits are going to call the "Minecraft Generation." This PC-only release has seen nearly half a million sales, well within a month of its launch at the end of February. Over 12,000 people are watching streams of it on Twitch at the time of writing. For comparison, only half that number is watching the high-def version of Battle Royale that is The Culling, released a week later. Basically, Stardew Valley is a Big Deal.

Um, OK

In theory, players are supposed to spend their time in the game farming and watering crops, talking to the townsfolk, figuratively and literally planting roots in the community. Stardew Valley has a growing reputation that, although it contains a multitude of side activities, it's never necessary to do anything that doesn't catch your attention. Don't want to go adventuring down in the titular valley's mines? Don't like fishing? That's totally fine: You make your own fun.

And my fun involved deciding against the farming part of this farming game. Yeah, it's the core of the game's content, but I just didn't fancy it. If Stardew Valley supposedly offers an escapist fantasy of living rent-free in a cottage, out in the country, in a property bequeathed to you by a passing relative, the last thing I'd want to do in that dream scenario is work hard and toil away in a field. In fact, as the game contains an energy gauge, an exhaustion level, that depletes whenever the character being controlled performs a strenuous activity, I figured I'd attempt to play Stardew Valley as the most unfettered person who's ever lived. You grab a hoe; I'll be playing the role of a lad on a course of prescription-grade chillaxatives.

Still, I figured I needed to have goals nonetheless. I wanted to have an active social life, which I would want for real if I had the benefit of time and no bills. Making friends in Stardew Valley involves talking to people in town and giving them gifts, interactions made difficult without a regular source of income or tradable goods.

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The three methods available to me for presents were as follows: picking up stuff already growing out of the ground; completing the few errands I was able to for a cash reward, then exchanging that at the local store for something physical; and going through people's trash cans to grab whatever usable "rubbish" they'd thrown out. Jumping into bins is unrestricted, but results in a disgusted reaction from anyone who sees it happening. I wasn't looking to get that kind of reputation. I performed these heists like I was stealing from the till at my day job, which is of course something I absolutely don't do.

My days meant drifting around town looking for flowers and checking the beach for the occasional nice shell. I got lucky once, finding a massive patch of wild-growing spring onions. I wandered the town handing out some to anyone I passed. Turns out that very few people are interested in a fresh face with their hands full of scallions.

What, so you can rip me off with your hiked-up bar prices? No thanks, Emily.

I seemed to get on best with Linus, an older guy living in a tent north of town. I gave him a flower any time I saw him. He seemed really happy about whatever I handed over. I liked him immediately; he appreciated the gift I'm giving them as a symbol of our friendship, rather than it needing to have any practical purpose. Coming back to the spring onion thing for a second: Has nobody else in this town made an omelette? Or a stir-fry? There's no way either one of the two easiest meals you'll ever make won't benefit from the inclusion of a spring onion. If this feature gets any comments, I want them all to be about your opinions on this matter, and this matter alone.

Anyway, I eventually needed some money—I wanted a larger backpack. I couldn't possibly bring myself to cut down any trees, meaning I couldn't easily get enough wood to make a chest for keeping all my things in. I had to carry all of my unused tools around as dead weight, limiting the amount of other things that I could lug around. This meant that one some days, rainy ones where I didn't easily run into anybody, I had to sell potential gifts, just to make room. The backpack cost 2,000 gold coins. Saving that amount took nine days of prowling around, grabbing literally everything I could that could earn me a few coins.

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Maybe it's just superstition, but because Stardew Valley lets you check your fortune for the day on the TV, I started chucking that into my daily routine like it was The Jeremy Kyle Show and I was a freelance video game writer. On days where bad luck was prophesied, I really did find fewer things out in the world. As it's only possible to give gifts to people twice a week, once that was done I started just going back to bed immediately on unlucky days, to wait until the week started again.

I suppose that is a sweet camera.

Despite being something of a shut-in, I think my character has inadvertently become incredibly cool. Imagine meeting someone who spends his days picking wildflowers to sell, his only source of income, but he'd gladly hand them out as a gift to anyone who'd like them. He's also incredibly superstitious and sometimes doesn't leave the house all day. You'd probably have a great time hanging out with that guy, if you were sat with them at a wedding. Probably.

Not farming has limited my interaction with this game's world severely but, also and unexpectedly, quite wonderfully, too. Stardew Valley is still entertaining to me in much the same way that a lot of other slow-paced slices of life are. My favorite game that I've played this year is The Long Dark, which is about fending off death in a Canadian winter by scavenging whatever you can. My version of Stardew Valley is sort of the absolute opposite to that situation. I had worried that it might skew overly capitalist, and just be a game about trying to minimize your efforts and maximize your profit margin over all else. But I think there's something here regardless of your interest level in ruling through the early days of an agricultural MegaCorp. So if you don't want to farm, go ahead—with hundreds of thousands of other players pulling up cauliflowers and parsnips anyway, it's not like the people of Stardew are going unfed.

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