I had a whole day free last week to play a bit of catch up on games for fun, and for work. Instead, for eleven hours of that day, I just played one game, Stardew Valley, and I enjoyed every moment I played of it that day and every day since. Even now, in the last embers of the year, a game like this comes up and puts itself down for game of the year contention, and it’s all the work of one man.
Stardew Valley is primarily a 2D farming game akin to Harvest Moon, but it is so much more than that. It’s a game about community, growth, adventure, and mystery. You have the freedom to approach your time in town however you see fit, but the crux of it comes down to farming, as the key plot device is that you’ve inherited a farm and surrounding land from you Grandfather, with the assurance that it will be there for the day you’ve had enough of city living. That day indeed comes and you show up in Stardew one fine spring day to begin life anew, and get to know the community.
You start by setting up your farm more than likely than not. You go from season to season, changing up your crops materials and goals to suit the climate. Everything is fairly simple to navigate (mapped to the PS4 controller quite well too), and the game throws in a few handy tips for good measure without holding your hand the whole way. There’s a certain amount of crafting and item-gathering to do, as should be expected, but the design of these systems are highly user-friendly.
There’s little intricacy about creating things: Once you have the items required you can simply go to the crafting menu and select it, no fuss. Button input is kept to a minimum and that keeps the sedate momentum ticking over nicely, feeding into the ‘just one more day’ mantra that turns an hour of play into several. Even when you get to more complex things for your farm, like deciding which crops to grow, it’s left up to you without any severe punishment. You’ll get setbacks and lean spells of course, but Stardew Valley is confident enough to allow you to take risks without missing out. However you play, you’ll pretty much always find your rhythm and routine after a season. The smart thing the game does to counteract the simplicity of the interface is to have your avatar suffer from fatigue through exertion. It means you need to make a plan for your days, and therein lies the depth of Stardew Valley–and yet more reason to feel invested in the town.
Part two of the Stardew experience is the mining/adventuring. You gain access to a creepy old mine early on, and it’s full of nasties to be vanquished and precious gems, ore, and loot to be pocketed. The basic objective is to clear a floor of loot and baddies, find the ladder down to the next floor, rinse, and repeat. Every five floors you get a save point, and with the exhaustion/exertion paradigm, alongside a legitimate threat to your health, there’s greater and greater risk trying to get to the next save before bailing out/dying. You can choose not to go in the mines for the most part, as there are plenty of other ways to be a success in the game; but there is a tasty amount of special items, gems, and ore to snaffle that it offsets the risk factor somewhat. It’s also a nice diversion from the day-to-day grind of farm life.
Then the third part is the social side. You can help out the residents of this small town, getting to know them over days, seasons, and years. In time these people can become an important part of your story as you grow fond of their quirks, and in some cases you may even fall for them a little, and to that end, Stardew Valley has got you covered as coupledom and the married life are included in this dynamic. It isn’t all about one-on-one interaction though, as there are events, festivals, and fairs to join in with. Great ways to mingle with the community and feel like you’re part of something bigger.
And you are. Stardew Valley’s greatest strength is that what you do for the town feels like it has a tangible impact. Both on people and the world itself, you don’t remain a stranger, removed from the rest of the world by your own agency, rather you become a part of the lives of others; and vice versa. It’s another key component in what makes Stardew Valley tick: You may be performing menial tasks and busywork, but the setup makes it feel like it matters.
Stardew Valley (both the game and the place) is a warm-hearted throwback to simpler times, rich, brightly-colored flora, fauna and familiars lovingly realised in pixelated form. There’s a pleasing level of detail to the town, with lots of lovely animated movement of trees, grass, water and the like. It breathes life into this quaint little farm town and gives Stardew Valley a distinct personality. Characters are drawn with enough variation to differentiate from each other, and the incidental animations they have further cement these folks as being a large part of the community feel the game does so well. Oh, and the chiptune soundtrack, whilst a tad repetitive by the time you’ve clocked a fair few hours, is delightfully nostalgic.
The craziest thing is that developer, ConcernedApe, will continue to work on the game, adding more and more (co-op being the most wanted feature), and yet what is here is absolutely fine as it is. Stardew Valley is both a love letter to the past, and a formidable modern indie gem. It may not be making giant leaps in concept, or offer the depth of creativity other, similarly-styled games offer, but it steadfastly sticks to its own guns and hits its target dead on. Wonderful, peaceful, engrossing, and captivating, Stardew Valley is the sweetest of cherries to go on top of a fine year of video games.