Stardew Valley is always something I just heard about. Something the adorable Commander Holly (Holly Conrad) played, a bright colorful 8-bit game that takes Harvest Moon and adds combat, a game my friend found a mod for where all the characters are naked? You get it, the game just existed, as you and I do. No direct interactions, a name in the background of my life, until this past December.
In between bouts of dry colds and sore throats (because winter in the northeast United States means the weather is having an aneurysm) I was reccomended to play Stardew Valley by my best friend. I got it aroooound December 16th? Well on January 3rd, it appears I’d clocked in 100 hours of this Minecraft-meets-Harvest-Moon-but-fun. It’s still up for debate whether I’ve got some addictive personality tendencies or something, but this game ticks so many boxes for me.
For starters, the art design. It’s a beautiful, vibrant game with so much detail and cuteness packed into good old-fashioned pixels. For starting on Steam, this game surprises me veeery little with the occasional tiny cosmetic glitch or split second of lag, but otherwise it runs really well on the Switch! It feels perfect for this system and unlike Pokemon Let’s Go, you can play with both joy-cons at once on a TV. (Yes, I’m still annoyed at Pokémon, no matter how cute it is. And it’s damn cute.)
Most of the time, a game gets me with story and characters. Slowly but surely, I became very fond of the people in the valley. At first, you think they’re your standard, colorful, glassy-eyed NPCs. But as you become better friends (or you read their wiki entries because you don’t know what to give them to make them like you until it gets mentioned off-hand a la Animal Crossing…) you start to see they have their own unique dreams and problems. I’ve greatly enjoyed getting to know Linus, the hobo in the mountains, who just wants people to respect his chosen lifestyle. He’s thankful for any small tokens of food you pass on to him, so he’ll send you fish and other useful items in return. Essentially, don’t default to judge someone’s situation or pity them. It’s a nice little sentiment! The friend who introduced me to the game told me this other particularly standoffish character admits to having contemplated suicide! There’s a lot more to these characters beyond their bright anime-esque designs… To quote the 12th developer update, including a little intro to Haley, the Barbie-looking blonde, “Being wealthy and popular throughout high school has made Haley a little conceited and self-centered. She has a tendency to judge people for superficial reasons. But is it too late for her to discover a deeper meaning to life? Is there a fun, open-minded young woman hidden within that candy-coated shell?” And while I haven’t gotten to know this character super well yet, I’ve been seeing more interesting dialogue come up with her since I started giving her unique items she likes. Plus, there’s something hard to resist smiling about when you give an NPC a flower and she says “GASP for me? Thank you!” And that’s to say nothing of giving a special item to a more grumpy character like old man George, who complains about everything.
Like Minecraft, Harvest Moon, and (less so, but still) my life-sim darling Animal Crossing, I had to look up a lot of ways to endear myself to NPCs, get better tools, unlock better items, unlock new farm animals, etc. etc. – I, however, have never minded doing this with games. An old boyfriend once said “I don’t like to have to look up how to play the game I paid for.” This never made sense to me, I’d rather spend a hot second researching than wandering around for hours, in real life and in game, lost and annoyed. Sure, finding solutions is validating, but I know when it’s best to just do some homework. Mining is satisfying between the interigue of what the RGN pops out of each stone you smash, another ladder to a new level, a geode to open up, some ore to smelt for money or upgrade or craft- you get the point.
The act of mining, like farming, exerts a lot of energy, which requires you to eat, but you can just eat most things you can find around the valley. And while the energy meter is constantly in view, it only slowly ticks down as you swing your tools around, enough you may not realize and find yourself in a bad spot. The key part of this is that the energy ONLY goes down when you use most tools, so you aren’t babysitting a character who eventually gets hungry or tired while you’re trying to do something. Overall, there’s a surprisingly solid balance to this game. I feel like I’ve been able to earn stronger equipment shortly after I reach tougher monsters to fight or I start to get useful new tools as my farm grows ever more populated with animals to care for.
A ton of what hooks me on Stardew Valley is the possibilities, what lies ahead. There’s a ton of content where one thing unlocks another which unlocks another, etc. like a big beautiful tree of fun and mystery! I’ve even started finding that seemingly useless things (like literal trash) can be made useful in another way! It’s amazing how cleverly woven together this game, its secrets, and its mechanics are. My friend and I started in different types of farm landscapes, mine was the forest, hers was a monster area. As I’ve observed, the choices in what kind of terrain your farm is will determine what you start with and how you proceed to some extent. For example, I was playing for weeks wondering how to get some hardwood when my friend, whom I’d introduced to the game soon after I was, said “oh you go break that log by the tower and walk into the area behind it.” It was a nice little “mind blown” moment that I don’t often get in games, especially unassuming 8-bit style top-down RPGs. I love to discover new things in games, that’s part of the whole adventure! Consequently, that keeps me turning on my Switch and playing this game, wondering what other surprises the developers have buried in this surprisingly deep and detailed pixel adventure.
Freelance cartoonist, illustrator, & writer
School of Visual Arts Alumna