By Geoffrey Bunting
We live in a world of active and dynamic realities, in which a life in pursuit of short-term gains is often viewed as the only real way to live. We want it loud and exciting and to be kept in the present by the constant boom of immediate success. It breeds an overwhelming interest in big salaries, big fame, and big rewards. Anything that appears to be an unambiguous gain we are more than happy to pursue. As such, this loud party lifestyle is increasingly seen as the norm, while those that live a more peaceful existence are seen as the loners and the eccentrics.
Even our games adhere to this ideal. They are loud and biting, full of the roaring sound effects one comes to expect from the Call of Duties and Gears of Wars. The gains are minuscule but obvious: “shoot that, well done, now kill this, excellent”. Everything needs to be bigger, better, and louder than the last.
As a result, the quiet life increasingly appears to be something that people need drawn from them like a disease. Anyone who doesn’t take part in the rapid life of everyone else just needs to be brought out of their comfort zone. Because, to most, the quiet life appears something imposed on someone – and all it takes to save them is to show them the loud world outside that, according to us, they are missing.
Except, is that loud life any better? In reality, is this active and uncompromising life of success at all costs; of adhering to the accepted image of fun really that beneficial? Deep down, what we all hate to admit is that, despite the success we may gain, we’re all very tired and we’d probably enjoy a peaceful life more than we’d care to admit.
At the beginning of Stardew Valley we are told, as the player, by our grandfather that he is bequeathing his farm to us after he dies. It appears that some time passes after this and we are treated to a short panning shot of happy faces at desks. That is, until we come to our character. They look jaded, tired: aiming a blank stare into their computer screen. This disconsolate image is one of realisation, of a person thinking “I need a change”.
It’s a moment we’ll all face at some point in our lives. It might be a change of job, or a change of scenery, or just a change of clothes. But sometimes it’s more than that; sometimes it is a need for a complete change of lifestyle.
When we arrive in Stardew Valley we have no idea how to run a farm. We’re given a few tips (and warnings) by a couple of village residents, but on the whole we’re left on our own to start clearing up the rundown real estate.
What follows is a serene and bountiful existence of self-sufficiency in which everything is somehow both earned and laid out before you. You have to build relationships, but there are single villagers a-plenty. You have to grow crops, and the village shop sells plenty of seeds that mature fast and rarely, if ever, spoil. But you want some action? Well, there happens to be dungeons to crawl through too. To use an old cliché, there’s something for everyone.
But at its heart, it is an ideal and idyllic life. The kind of life that every office worker probably dreams of now and then: not necessarily buying a farm, but of a peaceful life without worry or stress. Self-sufficiency in which you reap all the rewards of the sweat of your brow, and there are no middle-men. The Good Life in 256 colours.
What Stardew Valley manages to avoid, unlike its comparable peers – Animal Crossing, Minecraft, Terraria, I’m looking at you – is keeping the image of this quiet life fresh and exciting. Exciting: it’s a word that one wouldn’t expect to see written beside “the quiet life”, but that’s exactly what Stardew Valley’s quiet life is. Other games, while communicating the same idea, at some point give over to the monotony of repeated action. In Minecraft, once you’ve found all the minerals you could ever need, built an enormous house with a hundred empty rooms, and killed all the bosses you could find, it’s easy to lose interest. In Terraria, you can only go on doing the same thing over and over, mine this, cut this, dig here, and so on. In Animal Crossing, having to wait for the actual day to end so you can move on. These games end up showing you the pure tedium of your virtual existence. Not so with Stardew Valley, the character and the player remain happy in this idyllic life. And if boredom does begin to set in, there are so many areas to unlock and explore, new relationships to foster, new events and items. You can try and specialise, or if you’re already specialised you can branch out to keep animals as well as crops. And if that’s not enough, starting again doesn’t have the same negative feeling as other games might.
Somehow, Stardew Valley keeps itself going for much longer than other games. But most important of all its features is: it doesn’t let the quiet life fall apart. It is a rare game that says “living like this is okay, if it’s what you want it never gets dull”, and communicating that is a skill I never thought video games would have.
Yes, in some ways, the life presented in this game is somewhat limiting. After all, your farm can’t be anything but a farm, the town’s events are always the same, and it’s heavily implied that you should marry someone. But the point of Stardew Valley is that you are playing through a life that is already mandated. You cannot mould that life into what you wish, rather you are stepping into the avatar’s shoes.
Stardew Valley is a beautiful game of serene living. You’ll be surprised how quickly you accrue gameplay hours. Unlike some flashier and more jarring gaming experiences, you can relax and watch the in-game days roll by. Stardew Valley doesn’t get boring, not really. This is because it doesn’t bring you up to a point you can go down from – it doesn’t spike the fun and thus mar the lower end of the spectrum. Rather it keeps you on a consistent level where you neither get bored or over-excited.
In an industry dominated by action-driven games, with jarring scores and faux blockbuster presentation, Stardew Valley, with its 16-bit aesthetic and modern gameplay, provides you a look at the other side of gaming. It invites you to take a break and relax and enjoy the quiet life for once – so why not accept that invitation?