At Home in the Valley

I’ve found a lot of value recently in calm, quiet places I can escape to for a while to relax. College is great, but it’s also essentially like living at school all the time, so I have a bad habit of getting wrapped up in my schoolwork constantly if I don’t have a good place to calm down and distract myself.

I’ve found a lot of these places, and I want to talk about one of them today. Stardew Valley.

I downloaded this game some time ago, started playing, and immediately grew bored and quit. The thing about this game is it doesn’t really give you a lot of direction. Basically you just start out with a dilapidated plot of farmland gifted to you by your deceased grandfather and besides learning how to use the basic tools, you’re mostly left to figure out your own goals and path throughout the game.

And back a year or so ago when I first tried out this game, that wasn’t very appealing to me. But ever since I picked it up about a month or so ago, this quality of the gameplay has suddenly become really appealing to me… and I wanted to explore why.

First of all I wanna give a shoutout to this video by Polygon. I’ve talked on a few occasions about how important the McElroys are to me, so I was interested to watch what Griffin found so appealing about the game that had lost my interest so quickly.

What I noticed right away was Griffin’s insistence that Justin just start setting his own goals. While the game itself provided some smaller goals for a bit of a reward, Griffin encouraged Justin to save up for a bigger backpack instead of worrying himself too much about what small things the game gave him to do.

And having played this game for a while, Griffin is absolutely right. This game is all about setting your own goals.

On first glance, Stardew Valley can come off a little intimidating. There are just so many things to do. You can farm, raise animals and sell their products, mine, fish, and forage for profit. On top of that, there’s cleaning up and developing your farm, fostering relationships with the many villagers, taking part in town holidays, learning recipes and cooking them, and restoring the broken down community center. With all those things to do and with very little direction from the game itself, I can understand why the game would be too overwhelming for a new person just starting out.

Plus, to make matters worse, your character has a limited amount of time and energy to work towards these things each day. But it’s this aspect of the game, I think, that trains the player to start playing the game in the way it’s meant to be played. Because you have such limited time and energy to do all these things, players are forced to make their own personal goals and priorities. And that is where Stardew Valley truly starts to shine.

Because even with all the tasks I mentioned, Stardew Valley is unique because most of them are relatively approachable right off the bat. Sure, there’s a bit of a curve in the beginning where your lack of funds makes things difficult, but many of the tasks and goals lend to each other as you complete them.

For example, when I started out the game I spent most of my time farming and clearing out the sticks, rocks, grass, and trees covering my farmland. The farming helped me not only to grow my income, but also gave me lots of products I could gift to villagers to improve our relationship, as well as pieces I needed to begin the restoration of the community center (which calls for creating “bundles” of certain items, which gives the player rewards and restores parts of the town to unlock more locations). In addition, clearing the farm gives you lots of wood and stone, which the player can then turn around and use to build coops, barns, silos, and other buildings for raising animals.

So just by making the decision in early game to work on farming and cleaning up the farm, I am given ample resources to start on so many other tasks! It’s brilliant, and really rewards players for working toward their goals. And it’s that brilliant mechanic, I think, that has worked so well for me in my current life.

Because in college I’m stuck in a rut where all of my decisions feel simultaneously vital and also don’t seem to bear any kind of fruit. I’m being asked to make so many decisions that I’m being told will make or break my future, but I have no idea what that future will be, or whether I’ll be happy then, or anything, really.

Silly as it sounds, Stardew Valley simulates the same sort of experience of having all of your choices mean something with very little in the way of clear direction… while also letting you reap the positives of your hard work and decisions. And that’s a really… nice thing to retreat to. It’s encouraging.

Add to that the cute and calming atmosphere created by the art direction and sound work and you might be able to understand why Stardew Valley has become my escape of choice these days. It’s a great game and I’d highly recommend it.

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