The Social Situation in Stardew Valley
Stardew Valley is an incredible game not only for its gameplay but for the sociological impact it has within its choices. If you’re into video games, especially of this genre, you need to ignore this review and just go pick it up for $15 on Steam right now. Seriously, don’t spoil yourself. This post contains spoilers for the game, obviously. However, I’ll try to give as few spoilers as possible, so expect some details to be rather vague.
Stardew Valley is an indie farming simulation game completely developed by Eric Barone, under the online alias of ConcernedApe. Let me first start off by saying it’s incredible that this game was completely designed and created by one man. The designer? Eric Barone. The programmer? Eric Barone. The artist? Eric Barone. The composer? Eric Barone. This wasn’t a team effort at all, this incredibly soothing (and apparently ridiculously addictive!) game was created by a single person.
Released on February 26th, 2016, Stardew Valley has managed to create a rather strong fanbase within the first month or so of its launch on Steam. Primarily inspired and heavily rooted in the Harvest Moon series, the game focuses around the player’s life in a small, farming community in which the game gets its name from. The player inherits his grandfathers farm, which is initially overrun with nature and is restrictive in what can actually be accomplished. As the player works hard to clear the fields and grow crops, the farm becomes more and more productive.But, farming isn’t the only thing to do in this wonderful indie game. From fishing to mining to doing quests for the plethora of interesting and unique characters, there’s always something to do in Stardew Valley.
Now, originally looking at online videos of the game, it seemed as if the game was rather one-dimensional. Oh, it’s a generic living simulator. You wake up in the morning, do your job, and wander around a town with some rather uninteresting non-player characters — there goes the scene girl, the pompous athletic kid, the pathetic drunk, the hippie child, and your typical fisherman’s character. However, as time goes on, the characters begin to open up to the player, becoming much more than the cardboard cutouts of unoriginal descriptions. After completing a multitude of quests and giving the characters presents, storylines begin to open up and the player begins to actually have interests within them all.
As for the aspect of “living simulator”, the game does its absolute best to shadow the mundane tasks of living as a farmer. It succeeds! From a mysterious dwarf-creature speaking in some Hobbit-Star-Trek language in the mines to a mystical wizard and an interesting mechanic within the abandoned town hall, Stardew Valley is by no means your typical farming village.
But, the main reason I’ve decided to review this game is for the societal meaning behind the bulk of the plot. Stardew Valley has an incredible story line when it comes down to institution vs individuality. The entire plot starts with an intriguing cut-scene that showcases the player as an unhappy employee living a routine, almost oppressive life at a big box store chain known as JojaMart. He then suddenly decides to go to Pelican Town, within Stardew Valley, a place where his life could be reset from all its problems.
However, once the player begins exploring Stardew Valley on his or her first day, there happens to be a JojaMart — which seems like a slight middle finger towards Amazon — right on the edge of the town. Perhaps this is a nod towards the way mega corporations force themselves on local industries. When the player introduces himself to Morris, the Public Relations manager of the corporations, they are offered a membership for 5,000 in-game currency. An outrageous price that seems just like what a corporation would want. The player is then informed that their membership would allow the corporation to purchase the old and once-respected town hall to tear it down and build a warehouse.
If the player refuses, they go through the plot of repairing the city (along with the old town hall!) by completing various nature-friendly quests. For example, catch a few fish and donate them in order to unlock something interesting! Or, maybe you’ll go foraging in the spring for some mushrooms for something to unlock itself. This nature-friendly ecosystem allows the player to immerse themselves in just exactly what this game seems to promote originally: becoming one with nature in a digital world. After everything is unlocked and all the nature bundles are complete, the massive market goes out of business.
If the player saves up and pays for the outrageous membership, the entire game is changed. Instead of going out to listen to soothing music while collecting food and artifacts throughout the applied nature, the player is forced to pay lucrative (and insanely high) amounts of money to get the same unlocks. This method of playing the game doesn’t give any of the bonuses (revolving around friendship with the townspeople) that the natural method does, although it appears that the overall rewards are the same. When everything is unlocked? The player receives…a Soda Machine.
So, you’re basically tasked with choosing one of two methods of completing the game: either progressively, making friends and helping nature while letting the historical town hall strive once more; or…capitalistically, spending tons of money to help a massive and greedy corporation get richer in return for a materialistic gain.
That basic game mechanic — having it divert one of two ways for the local farming character who plays the main role on this journey — is why I love it so much. Do you help the local townspeople, reconstruct a historic building, and protect nature? Or…do you help the massive corporation, tear down the historic building to create a warehouse, and pay thousands of dollars (a total of 140,000 in-game money if you count the initial 5,000 membership)?
It may seem easy to pick in the game, but look at what happened in our real, non-digital world.
While the game does have cute and somewhat nostalgic graphics with a unique flare hidden behind cardboard cutouts and a plot that actually ties everything together within three years of gameplay, the reason I love and absolutely recommend Stardew Valley is because of this social situation it gives to the players.