I spent a week fighting off what I understand to be the flu, and then another couple of days tangling with a separate, stomach virus of some kind. It’s a miserable way to spend a couple of weeks, and my writing here suffered (as did my dissertation and professional obligations), but my farm in Stardew Valley thrives from all the attention I’ve been giving it. (I’ve also been playing Factorio and Undertale, more on those soon.)
In playing the game a lot more, I’ve begun to see more of the blemishes and cracks that come with a single-dev title. Given my prior, glowing adoration of it, I feel it’s only fair to air out some of the hitches in the experience. Nothing I’m going to say here should detract from the understanding that Stardew Valley is a gloriously delightful title, mind you, but there’s lessons to be learned here as well.
The first hiccup with Stardew Valley comes very quickly during your second year: the gameplay that you’ve learned in the first year is now your routine. The basic mechanics involved in farming are unchanged, only now – if you’re like me – you’re level 10 in a bunch of skills and have maxed out a fair number of tools. There’s really no progression left to you, and we settle into the grind. By the end of my second spring I was sitting on hundreds of thousands of gold, stack after stack of wood, stone, slime, tree seeds, and so forth. But the progression falls off very rapidly. As long as you really enjoy the daily routine (and I do) this is fine, but given how progress driven gamers are, as a lot, I do wish the dev had given us more options and more money sinks in particular. Entering my third year, I’m parked on half a million gold and there’s basically nothing to spend it on.
The second is a weakness that even the dev admits to: married life is problematic in a number of ways. Several of my complaints have been rectified since I encountered them, including the fact that upon marrying you, your spouse effectively becomes a social shut-in; forgoing whatever social life they might’ve had. Even with that bit fixed, however, there are some other… questionable moments that invoke relationship dynamics that aren’t exactly healthy:
I’m encouraged, as I think many critics of slips like this should be, that the dev acknowledges that this is the weakest part of the game and even after the game’s wildly successful release, is working to make improvements (I can think of other games that could learn from this fine example). Still, it’s a little jarring to see the ways in which my partner’s existence becomes entirely anchored on my own. Yes, I’m the player character, but there’s a line in a healthy relationship and there’s ways in which your spouse’s behavior is DECIDEDLY on the wrong side of that line.
The ‘sin’ here, as with the swift arrival at the maximum of progression in a number of areas, seems to be generally a ‘feature-complete’ approach to game development. It is important that a game ship with all the mechanics in place and working, but you can’t approach story writing in general – and character writing in particular – with a ‘does it compile?’ mindset.
Everything I could complain about, however, must be taken in with the understanding that this is a single-dev game, a single person is responsible for literally everything about it; of course that one person didn’t spot every nuance in every aspect of the game play experience.
Stardew Valley is still a fabulously great game and a worthy buy. The missteps it makes are the result of the dev not being everywhere at once. To top it off: Stardew Valley is an amazing way, in particular, to spend a sick day.