Why Stardew Valley Isn’t Really A Farming Simulator — And Why That’s A Good Thing
You may have guessed it from the everything about me, but in my spare time I really enjoy playing video games. From Phasmophobia to Animal Crossing, there’s something about relaxing after a long day of work with a game in hand. It’s better than alcoholism, and really, those are the only two options. I’ve played many a slice-of-life simulator games in my day (several, in fact. They’re weirdly addicting), but truly, none of them hold a candle to the masterpiece that is Stardew Valley. It’s by far my favorite game I’ve ever played, and let me entreat you as to why.
Stardew Valley begins as just another farming simulator — you inherit a farm from your late grandfather under the agreement that you’ll clean the place up and restore it to its former glory. Weary of your life in the big city, you agree, and thus begins your journey in the town of Stardew Valley. Very much the typical faming sim dynamic, very basic. After that slow start is when the real beauty of this game comes into bloom. It’s not just a farming simulator like you’ve been led to believe — it is a complete and total life simulator of the life you would live in this little seaside town. Sure, it’s escapism, but it’s fun escapism. After you settle into the farm, you integrate yourself into the community through a series of festivals and quests. Oh my, there are a lot of quests. You get to meet the Wizard who lives in the southwest corner of the town and you get to meet Linus, the homeless man who lives on the northeast side. You can raise chickens and cows, make friends, get married, settle down with a few kids, and do some witchcraft with the local nature spirits in your free time. Really, what more could a girl ask for?
A lot more, as it turns out. Stardew Valley is a life simulator, and that goes down to the very people around you. The engaging part of joining the community in Stardew Valley? Not everyone is a good person. That sounds strange, I’m aware, but let me explain. It goes beyond having rude dialogue options every now and then (although those certainly exist). There are just genuinely some horrible people that live in Stardew Valley. They aren’t the villain either, although there is a villain in the first part of the game. These characters are unbelievably complex for the style of game that Stardew Valley markets itself as.
Here’s an example: Pierre, Caroline, and Abigail are a family that lives in the center of town. Pierre owns and runs the general store, and he is obsessive in that task, to the point that it’s destroying his family and his marriage. His wife Caroline is on the verge of leaving him throughout the game because of how he has distanced himself from their family, and if you play through Abigail’s heart events (you gain hearts as you befriend each character and when you reach a certain amount of hearts, a cutscene will trigger) you learn that Abigail is actually the child of the Wizard, not Pierre. I, for one, did not expect a cheating/broken family storyline in this seemingly simplistic game.
The Mayor, Lewis, is too an awful person in a lot of ways. As the game progresses we learn that he’s secretly dating Marnie, the woman who owns the animal shop. He mistreats her and forces her to hide their relationship from the town, which causes her obvious emotional distress, but his pride and image come before her feelings. Even in a video game, men never change.
Another example is Penny and Pam’s storyline — at the beginning of the game, Penny and Pam live in a trailer on the east side of town. Pam is unemployed and barely scraping by, only surviving on the change her daughter Penny brings in from her teaching job. Whatever Penny earns, Pam ends up spending at the Stardrop Saloon. Gus, the bartender, does nothing to curb her frankly frightening decline into alcoholism, even going so far as to encourage it so that he can make some extra cash. (I have no lost love for Gus. He is an enabler for multiple characters’ drinking problems.) The player character can, through a series of quests, bring back Pam’s original job as the bus driver and build a brick-and-mortar house for Penny and Pam, but it is slightly disturbing how Pam was allowed to fall that far in a town this small. A surprising amount of people fall through the cracks in this town of maybe 25 people, and none so much as Linus. How can there be a homeless man wearing rags rummaging through trash in a town of 25 people? Have none of you tried to help him? The most that happens in regard to Linus is Gus offering him free food once in a while — but we’ve already discussed how I feel about Gus.
Stardew Valley is not an overly dark game, however. Each of the people described above have good things about them, and the game dares to explore some concepts that make the characters truly feel human. One character I was blown away by in terms of storytelling is Kent — Kent is a war veteran, and they do not gloss over or shy away from this fact. In Kent’s two-heart scene, we see him have a PTSD attack due to the popcorn his wife Jodi is cooking reminding him of gunfire. In a letter on his nightstand, we learn that all of his friends died in the war, every last one. He’s rebuilding his life and healing in Stardew Valley, and it’s surprisingly poignant.
The people of Stardew Valley are dangerously human — and that’s what makes this game so addicting. I could play this game forever, and have already logged a ridiculous amount of hours. My rating? 10/10, would play again.