When Animal Crossing was released back in 2002, I had never played anything like it. My friend, Mark got it for me as a Christmas present and I got really hooked. Of course I was living alone in a little shack in the country at the time. I didn't have cable. High speed internet wasn't really even a thing yet. And I was 21, so my disposable income was meager. I wasn't much of a PC gamer, so I hadn't played things like The Sims. So Animal Crossing seemed like a total revelation. It was a game about... nothing. You just kinda lived in this little town and did tasks to make money and pay off your home and improve it. It was novel, at least to me at the time.
But after the novelty of that original Animal Crossing wore off, I never got all that into life sim games. Hilariously, I wouldn't buy another Animal Crossing game until I heard Brie Larson talk up the 3DS one on a podcast... but I never actually played it. Finally, I picked up New Horizons in the midst of pandemic era lockdowns. It was THEE game that everyone was talking about at the time. And I was really into the idea of building an aquarium. And over the course of a week, I did just that and grew incredibly bored and never looked back.
But Stardew Valley is a whole other beast. It's an homage to the 16-bit era Harvest Moon games. But it's also completely modern. It looks like an old game, but it plays like a new one. And it's way darker than anything you'd ever see in Animal Crossing. Sure, you could point to Tom Nook and say he's the personification of the housing market, or the banking system, or student loans. But at the end of the day, Animal Crossing is a Nintendo game. It's light.
In Stardew Valley you have Joja Mart, which is totally just Walmart with an Amazon logo. And people die there while wasting away their corporate lives. It's really dark, and not subtle in the least. You've also got a town that is clinging to their simple ways, watching the internet and global corps suck them into a black hole. You've got alcoholics and Blue Velvet level messed up stuff happening just beyond those pixelated picket fences. As much as Stardew Valley might be a chill farming game, it's also an example of the creeping agony of existential dread. As such, I think I kind of like it.
That said, a lot of the darkness is just under the surface. I don't want to paint Stardew Valley as something super edgy. It's not. In fact it's so colorful that my wife asked why I was playing a Zelda game on Xbox. The truth is that a lot of the wider tone of the game is like Walden Pond. It's about moving to the country and getting off the grid and embracing small town dynamics. It's about pushing away the burdens of our digital world. And as much as I'm not the outdoor type, I can kind of get the appeal. As some cool band once said, "modern life is rubbish."
My arrival in Pelican Town was inconsequential. And I honestly had no idea how to even get started. So I took the Minecraft approach and just started whacking away at overgrown shrubbery and cutting down trees. After a few (in-game) days I noticed that there were actual tasks to complete. So I started following those. I started to understand the flow of the game: work hard in the morning until your energy has diminished a bit, then take it easier in the afternoon so you can go off exploring and completing tasks. I’d talk to folks and familiarize myself with the island. When Friday rolled around I went drinking at the bar to make some new friends.
Oh, and I guess I was looking for love. That's something you’re able (supposed?) to do in this game. But I don't know. Romance is pretty low priority for me in a game. I guess Abigail is cute. She's got purple hair and comes off as a kind of moody goth nerd or something. But I just don't care enough to figure out what kinds of gifts she wants or whatever. I just want to be by myself.
I started crafting a bit – something I'm not terribly fond of. And then, I started looking into the Community Center. That's when the game really opened up to me.
The Community Center is a rundown abandoned building. Jujamart wants to buy the land, but the mayor can't bring himself to sell it. But you start to realize that you can fix it up and restore it to its former glory. There are many various tasks you need to complete to do that. And that's what makes Stardew Valley cool to me. As a farm sim, it's wide open. Do what you want. Plant stuff, forage, fish, make friends. It's a great alternative to the somewhat stale Animal Crossing formula. But with the Community Center, there are actual GOALS. There's a whole checklist of stuff to do. There's concrete progression. I like that.
My only real problem with Stardew Valley is the genre, not the game. When I first played Animal Crossing in my early 20's, I had no real responsibilities in real life. I was a college student. I was working a part time job. I lived in a one bedroom apartment. My life revolved around hanging out with my friends and going to bars. So yeah, something like Animal Crossing was a huge time-suck for me. I could screw around with no real end goal in mind. I also had less money, so less games.
Now I'm in my 40's. I work a demanding a job. I have a toddler. I have many responsibilities. So a game that's all about – y'know – working, is just less appealing to me. It's not exactly chill time if I'm worrying about repairing my farm and earning money.
As a game, Stardew Valley is fantastic. It's actually more appealing to me than Animal Crossing since it's people instead of animals, and it has a dark streak, and mysteries, and the whole Community Center thing to unwind. But it's also a tremendous amount of WORK and frankly, I don't need a whole lot of work in my games right now. I need real deal escapism. So while I respect Stardew Valley, and while I appreciate and applaud the work of a single developer, this game just doesn’t fit into my life in a meaningful way right now. I can see myself coming back to it now and then to mess around – not unlike Minecraft. I got a solid week out of playing this one (on Game Pass, no less). But I think I'm ready to move on.