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When a Game Becomes a Troubling Psychological Self-Portrait

Or, How My Girlfriend Turned 'Stardew Valley' into Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'.

by Rob Zacny
Feb 19 2018, 4:37pm

Screenshot courtesy of Chucklefish

A few weeks ago, when she got sick with the flu, my partner started playing Stardew Valley. “I need a soft, sweet game,” she said, and she’d been pretty taken with what she’d seen over my shoulder as I went about my routines of feeding chickens, tending gardens, and giving gifts to friends. So she gave it a try.

This weekend she announced, in a tone heavy with regret and shame, “I think I have brought industrial farming to Stardew Valley.” I glanced at her laptop to see what she was talking about and felt like Neo as Morpheus showed him the vast human battery-farms beneath the blotted-out sky. Within Stardew’s cute, 16-bit pixel art, she had created a terrifying machine in which her character was the pivotal cog. She had more money in her first year than I had ever seen in the game. Her character, she admitted, routinely passed out somewhere within Stardew Valley as she dropped from exhaustion. It was, she said, more cost effective to eat the medical costs in order to hit her daily production targets.

“Uh, so… who are you friends with in Stardew Valley?”

She looked sheepish. “No one really. I have so much to do! But once I get the good sprinklers and don’t have to water my farm anymore, then I’ll start talking to some of these people.

“I don’t think I’m really getting the point of this game,” she admitted. “I find it kind of stressful… but satisying.”

A lot of games let us paint unwitting self-portraits. In her “Jeff Bezos Comes to Stardew” interpretation of the game, I could see the traits that drove my partner to a great GPA in college and eventually a doctorate, and the ones that nearly derailed her in graduate school. The mania to hit goals set solely by herself, to defer everything to reach some endpoint where Real Life could begin... it was all familiar from our actual lives, replicated here inside a game intended as a kind of pastoral idyll. So too was her attachment and protectiveness toward animals, and maybe even a slight preference for four-legged friends over the more complicated and mercurial two-legged peers.

On the other hand, her farm worked, where mine is still a ramshackle shitshow: everything is hoarded and little actually built. Everything is bottlenecked until cash crops are finished, and then there’s a brief flurry of big-spending followed by a swift descent back into penury. I have good relationships with a few people I understand, but to most of the town I’m likely notorious for giving people random trash that I think they might like (they hardly ever do).

It’s a weird and slightly uncomfortable thing to play a game, completely naive about what you’re doing or what you’re meant to be doing, and find that you’ve once again you’ve found a new place to leave your likeness.

What’s a game that made you suddenly hyper self-conscious, or surprised you with how it reflected your personality?

Let me know in today’s open thread!

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Stardew Valley