Why I Play: Stardew Valley is still something special

What a dump.

I’d been saving this for myself for weeks now. It was late Saturday when I finally decided it was time to stop waiting and play something that I had been looking forward to before it launched and had known I would enjoy immensely. Oh, sure, it wouldn’t win game of the year anywhere, or even be in the running for our expansion of the year. But it was something that I had been anticipating like the calm, soft embrace of fresh blankets on a lake house when you wake up into a deliriously calm vacation.

It was time to check out Stardew Valley’s patch 1.6.

People have been singing Stardew Valley’s praises more or less since the moment the game first arrived, and I’ve talked in my various game reviews about how in some ways it seems like we have collectively still not gotten over this game. But one of the things that gets me every time I go back to the game is how this title is still something special – and ironically, how it gets to be something special primarily through leaving itself a little wild and ragged.

But here’s the thing. When Stardew Valley originally launched, I was not one of the people singing its praises. I was one of the people who started playing the game, immediately finding myself turned off by the mechanics, the vagueness, and the whole experience. You had basically no energy when starting off, meaning that every morning you would do one or two farm-related tasks and then you’d just have to stop for the day. Everything was very much locked on timed schedules, so you’d go to get something built on your farm just to find that Robin wasn’t working today, and if you didn’t like that, too dang bad. And there’s a whole timed meta-goal you’re supposed to be accomplishing? Come on. This is not fun.

So I bounced off it and stopped pretty early. It sat in my Steam library unplayed. Oh, sure, I had heard their were mods to fix these issues, but that was just painting over the problems. It was a game made by one person, these balance issues were real, and you couldn’t just ignore them or move past them.

It wasn’t until I came back to the game years later that I realized I had, in fact, been wrong.

Yes, stamina is very limited early on (unless you make a bunch of snacks to boost it, which are made from ingredients you’ll find while clearing your farm), but that’s actually intentional. Why else would you be inspired to go into town, start talking to the various townspeople, and learning the map? You need a reason to do all of this. Early costs are substantial… which inspires you to learn the stuff that will make you money and do the math about which crops are actually worth it.


The thing that Stardew Valley actually hides quite effectively is that at the end of the day, the game is not actually very complicated. Oh, it looks quite expansive, but pretty much everything runs on simple rules that you can learn and exploit. And much of this learning is player-based, rather than in-game. On any given playthrough, you start with the knowledge of what you have already done, and thus can approach the game differently and with a more holistic overview.

Once you understand how sprinklers work – and how effective they are – you can prioritize them early and lay out your farm for them. You learn to get and place scarecrows optimally. You have a clearer picture of what you can do to earn money on a daily basis and realize that things like dungeon diving and fishing – traditionally one of my most hated of all activities – are there not as distractions but because there are days when you don’t need to farm much.

You learn the schedules the NPCs work on because they’re all quite reliable. You start expanding into other products and potential sources of revenue. And you can do all of this however you like, but there are a variety of different needs to consider. Sure, you’ll make solid money on animals; can you keep them fed and cared for? It’s not a huge burden of complexity for the player, but it is an extra task of time, and you have to consider what the animals bring in before committing to a dairy farm. That’s actually fun and interesting to work through.

It’s also simple enough that it encourages you to start new playthroughs and actually try different approaches. Oh, sure, the text of the game is quite clear that JojaMart is not the hero of the piece, but what if you don’t care about that and just want to side with the undoubtedly simpler corporate overlords? That’s peachy. The game lets you do that and unlocks new content. What about a more mining-focused experience? Sure thing. Multiplayer? Yes, the game supports that with aplomb.

immigrant song intensifies

And on top of all that, the simplicity means the game is rife with potential for alternative playstyles. I’ve seen people play the game as a hermit who never leaves the farm. You can avoid ever growing a single crop and selling things you forage or from the mines. You can go nuts with fishing. See how far you can get without ever using sprinklers! It’s all viable.

The opening of the game seems slow at first, but you realize that it’s slow as a means of letting you get a grip on the game’s overall mechanical thrust, to keep the complexity for once you understand how the game works. It doesn’t take time to level and catch up. At this point on my main game, I barely even notice my stamina bar because as a means of gating my progress, it did its job. It slowed me down at first, but only so that I could learn how the game as a whole worked.

Stardew Valley is, at its core, a simple game. But as in any number of simple games, the simplicity gives space for emergent complexity and a satisfying sense of progression. Just as you can look at Super Mario Bros. and find it initially difficult to approach before going on to speedrun the game in less than five minutes, there’s a wealth of systems in play that are just complex enough to be interesting and just simple enough to be comprehensible as you make your way through the challenges.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to finish setting up all of my Heavy Tappers on my main game. We desperately need that extract to make all the wine I can sell at market; there’s the vague chance that I might not win the annual farming competition this year, and I want an array of delicious aged wine ready to shame every other display. Also, I’ve been displaying the same fish out there for years now. That fish should be bones at this point.

There’s an MMO born every day, and every game is someone’s favorite. Why I Play is the column in which the Massively OP staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it’s the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.
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