My First Year in Stardew Valley

Some time after Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures but before Star Ocean: The Second Story, Harvest Moon 64 was my favorite game. Most video games centered around action and compelled you forward through tension, and I was showing early stages of anxiety that would steer me away from games that relied on menacing or competitive forces. I don’t know how I was introduced to it, but I remember how paced and comforting the game felt. There was something to organizing plants in grids, how everyone milled about the town doing their own thing, at the libraries Tuesday afternoons or a late night bar regular. It was the first time I dated someone in a video game, the vineyard’s daughter, beginning my interest in sex and intimacy in digital play. Harvest Moon was one of the few games my mother would enjoy watching me play, it was sort of like the times I’d come home and she would be watching a soap opera and attempt to explain what was going on. She would ask about the various denizens of the town while witnessing my habitual, daily movements ingrained into my brain, watering the plants then milking the cows before doing a loop around town to give presents to the people I liked before going off to fish or mine before night would fall, I’d go to bed, and start all over again.

Stardew Valley came at the right time for me. I just moved to New York City and was dealing with post-move shock, mainly needing to cultivate a new friendship circle and feeling an immense pressure to be everywhere doing everything that, even when I’d be crashing into my bed at the end of every evening, I felt like I wasn’t nearly doing enough. I only noticed this because of the many times my character would just pass out in public from exhaustion, still too new to Pelican Town and my farm to have a productive rhythm. I would start the game over and over again at the end of spring because I wasn’t yielding my maximum potential. I had to make concerted effort that I would try to use the game for it’s more fluffy narrative reasons, to get away from the city that bears down on me to be productive for the sake of advancement instead of pure personal fulfillment.

I admit, I have a hard time making friends. I’m pretty intense yet shy when it matters, usually overeager and demanding. This game is a sort of friendship wish fulfillment where you have computer characters that run like a mechanized dollhouse village, mostly reliable and you can bribe them with gifts for their love and attention. Townspeople showed up when they were supposed to, filled you in on their mundane problems, had favorites and dislikes you could suss out from their acquaintances. It wasn’t just that this was a group of people forced to be my friends, rather, there was a forced friendship process that I got to indulge in because I’m needy. Even better, everyone in the game is depressed about life in one way or another. Many feel stuck in small town life, others has silly trifles with one another, some have bad habits they wish they could break but always give into them. It feels like an evolution of the bucolic fantasy, since straight-up provincial tourism doesn’t feel as compelling as a town silently decaying. So instead of planning out a megafarm with all the produce in a neat grid and min/maxing my animals, I mostly just want to grow flowers and have everyone like me. It all feels a bit emotionally coercive, but I guess that’s what entertainment means when it comes to video games, going to worlds where ultimately everything cares about nothing but you.

There are troubling aspects of this, of course. The relationship between work and leisure get progressively troubling, where I leave two worlds, my own where I’m implored to labor just to live, and the fiction’s, a corporate dystopia, to be on a vacation that means more work. Anyone watching me could see that my movements are like clockwork: I wake up, pet the dog, water the plants, feed the animals, then either mine, fish, forage, or walk about town, then go to the bar, give gifts to everyone there, check my fish traps, then get to bed. This routine is only broken by festivals or cut scenes showing that my relationships are growing stronger. I feel like there should be a word for leisure-labor that both soothes and stresses, calms down the constant running anxiety that seems to be endemic to the city but fills up my mind with an assembly line of useless motions, not directly contributing to my health nor giving me a complete peace of mind. More like stalling the inevitable.

It also doesn’t help that the circumstances around the same are fantastical, though it seems to be a genre convention. There’s always a dead rich relative that has a plot of land and magical spirits that will restore the land if you just try hard enough. The real fantasy isn’t even a pastoral one, but of magical affluence, or even some sort of ‘practical affluence,’ where you can extract yourself easily to ‘live rough’ and contribute to a community, but you’re not really invested in the village, you’re a step away from varied interests in restoring the function of the town. Ultimately, in all these sorts of games, that I love, am I just a gentrifier? Sitting on it more, Stardew Valley feels like a gentrification fantasy, where you can make your own beers and artisan jams, take a day off in the spa up in the mountains or fish all day. I bribe people for their love and loyalty, though really, all of their repeated NPC lines feel so distant, like a Disney World attraction, where the characters are pleasant to my face but curse my name the moment I leave the room.

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