Stardew Valley: Stories With A Human Touch

Stardew Valley logoA month ago if you’d said to me, “Will, what you need is a jRPG/Dating Sim/Farming game,” I would’ve asked you how much you’ve had to drink.  Then a friend sent me the game as a gift on Steam.  The next half a week is little more than a frenzied blur of planting crops, fishing my head off, and desperately trying to remember the upcoming birthdays of virtual friends – all while keeping track of upgrade schedules and the ever-growing list of morning chores my farm was accruing.

Stardew Valley’s genius isn’t merely the way it delivers a broad array of gameplay that offers to scratch any number of itches one might have.  Rather, Eric Barone’s ability to pack so many different threads into a game – and make them all behave well together – truly shines by cramming over two dozen charming, human stories into the same box.  

Stardew Valley is a game built on the sensibilities of Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana.  The similarities are not just in art design, although that is also true.  Even the storytelling seems to draw from the essence of those two classic jRPGs in particular.

art style triptych.
Left to right: Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Stardew Valley.

From Secret of Mana, Stardew borrows the ‘Technology vs. Nature’ themes, presenting us with two basic philosophies of how society can organize around the unavoidable fact that human life requires the consumption of resources.  Rather than tech vs. nature, however, the conflict is more Regionalism (or Global Capitalism) vs. Localism.  The closest thing the game has to a ‘main conflict’ is that between the Joja Corporation (a mashup of Costco and Walmart), and Pelican Town (the small town nearest to your farm).

Pelican Town is suffering the closure of local businesses as Joja engages in brutally cutthroat pricing schemes in order to capture market share.  You have the ability to pick a side in this fight, either joining Joja as a club member – whereupon the mayor of Pelican Town capitulates to Joja and sells the Community Center off to be converted into a warehouse – or by siding (as I did) with Pelican Town and the cluster of forest spirits that have come to haunt the Community Center.  I’m only finishing up my first year of what I understand to be an intended three (though gameplay continues indefinitely, I’ve been assured), so I have no idea how this conflict plays but as an opening tension it’s a surprisingly relevant and effective conceit.

Most of the game, however, happens outside of that tension.  The game is about you and your farm, after all. The place is a disaster when you first get it. Your first couple of days will likely be spent learning your tools and making sense of the various mechanics for building your farm.  Very quickly, however, the long list of activities you can spend your time on (farming, fishing, animal husbandry, adventuring, foraging and exploring, socializing, and courtship) will be unveiled.  The game expects you to at least dabble in everything, but many players will find particular aspects of the game more appealing than others. Personally, I rather enjoy fishing and only maintain a modest farm against those my friends have assembled. It seems entirely legitimate and possible to eschew farming altogether if that’s how you want to roll.

From Chrono Trigger, Stardew Valley borrows the massively ensemble cast. Unlike Chrono Trigger, these characters (the townfolk) are not playable.  They are, however, all fully fleshed out people with their own lives, their own concerns, likes and dislikes, and in many cases their own arcs.

Stardew Valley approaches the ensemble cast as a dating sim. Even individuals who are not available to be romantic partners have a 0 to 10 relationship score with you.  You raise your score by talking to people, running errands for people when they post Help Wanted ads, and giving them gifts that they like. You lower your score by letting days go by without contact (small effect) or offering them gifts that they dislike or hate (but take anyway).  Dumpster diving near someone seems to generate a negative response too.  Giving someone a gift they like on their birthday gives a massive boost to the score. I presume that ruining someone’s birthday by gifting them some soggy newspaper you fished out of the river is a great way to earn a restraining order.

soggy newspaper
Ceci n’est pas un ‘gift’.

There are ten eligible candidates – five male, and five female – who are available for marriage.  The status of same-sex couples is unknown to me at this time.  One the one hand, playing male, I had the option to ask other male bachelors to dance during the fertility festival in Spring – suggesting that yes, gay marriage is on the table. On the other hand, ‘starting a family’ is explicitly the goal for marriage and there’s an achievement for also having two kids.  I don’t know that Barone saw adoption as a means to this end for gay couples, but given the depth of humanity displayed and the positive take on other marginalized aspects of human society I strongly suspect he did. I plan to test this in future playthroughs after learning what a heteronormative playthrough establishes as a baseline.

A final thing must be said about the vignette-style, ensemble-cast storytelling here: these are not typically epic stories common to a jRPG.  In fact, they’re not even the stories of personal-scale high drama common to dating sims.  These are human stories about human concerns. Most of the adults in the village face some kind of very real-world non-crisis.  Be it housemate dynamics, a tight budget that forces them to buy from Joja (Walmart) even though they see the effects it has on their community economy, fears of their own mortality and regrets over parenthood, an elder’s resentment at being forced to retire by a tragic injury and increasingly needing assistance from others, and so on.  Barone has captured what I assume to be a cast of real people in his life in the manner of a great novelist and offered them a sort of rustic dignity as they go about with very relatable fears and struggles.

The gripes that I have about Stardew Valley are non-trivial.  There’s a general lack of good instruction; one is often forced to go to the game’s wiki to make sense of things. Quest chain cues are poor. There’s room for a much richer plot than we see, at least in the first year.  It is important to remember, however, that Stardew Valley is the work of a single person: Eric Barone.  Unlike other titles I’ve looked at, all of the game’s fiddly bits work well together and with the game’s themes – and all this without the benefit of a Triple-A studio’s budget and staff.  The game’s shortcomings do not produce a jarring disconnect during play, either. They’re not so much missteps as they are missed opportunities.  Given the four years Barone put into the game, I’m perfectly happy.

This is an astonishingly clever and human bit of storytelling crammed into a box full of jRPG, dating sim, and farm sim.  At $15 it’s a far better game than several $60 titles – definitely value here and if anything I’ve said here intrigues you, it’s worth you giving it another look.