It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything of substance here. There have been half a dozen potboiler posts bubbling away in my mind and in my drafts folder for the better part of a year, but those never come to anything. If I don’t finish it when I start it, it’s over. As I sit down to write this one, I’ve given myself no out. Phil is sitting on the other end of our weekend Hangouts call, with instructions not to let me finish the weekend without finishing the blog post. So far today, I’ve hung pictures on the walls, rearranged furniture, run an errand, started a laundry and taken a shower. He has asked me four times, “Blog post?” He’s a good partner. Blog post.
Since mid-March, I’ve been spring cleaning and packing my apartment in NE Portland, in preparation for moving in with a friend a few miles away. She had a spare room. I needed to be paying less rent, and I wanted to break out of a pretty stale work-to-home-to-sleep routine. It’s worked out really happily for both of us. It also happened to coincide with the breakneck busiest time of year for Mavora, where I work. March and April were bumper months for us, and when we’re busy I’m on my feet for long workdays and pushing against the clock all the time to get everything printed and shipped on schedule. For the last 10 weeks, by the time I got home and/or to the weekend, I was pretty much a blank slate. I haven’t made any new jewelry in months, and except for keeping up my daily selfies for my 365 project, I’ve been mostly absent from social media.
During this time, though, there was a world where I’ve been fully present and thriving, hardworking and full of creativity and energy. While I was recovering from daily work and resting my mind being quiet at home, a tiny adorable farmer named Allergy was efficiently conquering every aspect of a place called Stardew Valley.
I’m a fairly new player of videogames, having only really started playing four years ago. There have been many games that I’ve enjoyed, and a few that I’ve stuck with long enough to feel competent and comfortable. As it turns out, though, I hadn’t yet found my game, the one that hits all the right notes of mechanics, visual world, challenge and reward. Even the sounds are perfect. I had absolutely no idea what could happen when you find that game, but now I know.
I have loved playing Stardew Valley so much. I’ve not so much played it as fallen all the way into it. It’s been the exact right thing for me at the exact right time. To begin with, it’s beautiful. It’s a farming/country life RPG, drawn in a retro-looking pixel style, but with tremendous depth and color. It’s the work of one man, Eric Barone, and is entirely created and made by him, from the first line of code to the last note of music. That alone is amazing, and made me want to explore every part of it. Making videogames is complicated, multilayered work, and to create something of this scope and detail by yourself is mind-blowing. The world of Stardew Valley is a place I want to be, listening to the soft chuff-chuff of my footsteps on the ground, walking through drifting cherry tree petals in the spring. Fishing as the shadows of clouds pass over the landscape in the height of summer, and clearing pink and golden foliage from my farmland in fall. The appearance and origin of the game were enough to keep me interested, but the mechanics and goals have also been perfectly appealing to me, and I’ve been completely immersed for two months.
The tone of Stardew is a perfect balance between cheerfulness, sadness, and hilarity. It’s essentially a happy game, but it’s tempered with a few moments of genuine seriousness. When the game begins, the scene opens on your grandfather’s deathbed, and he’s telling you that he remembers wonderful days earlier in his life on a farm. As he slips away, he gives you a letter and tells you to open it when you’re at your lowest point. The next scene reveals that you’re an office drone worker for a gigantic corporation called JoJa Co. The camera pans over desk after desk, showing one drooping, dispirited person after another. (An interesting point here, though, is that the developer’s eye for detail has given each of these downtrodden workers their own personality through clothes or cubicle decorations or body language. You only see them that once, but they’re still distinct people. This is a game that’s meticulously well-developed and balanced, and although it has a cartoonish and familiar appearance, it has an incredibly full personality.) Finally the camera reaches your desk, and you slump in discouragement. Then you remember the letter, and open the drawer where you keep it. When you open it, you find that Grandpa has left you the family farm in Stardew Valley, and charged you with keeping the family legacy alive.
Off you go, you own a farm. It’s a shambolic mess, several acres full of trees and boulders and detritus. It just needs a little care and attention! It’ll be great! Off you go. Off I went, and from the very first morning on Sparkle Farm (of course I called it Sparkle Farm), I was smitten.
It was damn hard work, though. Videogame farming shares some exhaustion and some heartbreak with real life farming. In my second year, I could finally afford a few fruit tree saplings. I planted six, only to have two of them struck by lightning and burned to stumps. Welp. (And no insurance options available at Sparkle Farm, either. In a recent update, lightning results have been changed and now just scorch a tree for three days instead of burning it down. That is kinder, but the total loss of the expensive trees to an arbitrary act of weather felt real.) At the beginning, my only goal was to get sprinklers for my crops so that I didn’t have to spend half the day watering them with a watering can that I had to keep refilling. From that one simple goal, I began looking at what I needed to do, and I could see the entire game full of tasks unfold in front of me, filling in little imaginary slots in my head. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a wholecloth picture of what I needed to do, and in what order, right from the beginning of a game. That is due, in main, to the perfect balance that’s built into the game. There is no aspect of play that you can master without needing to achieve competence in other levels to support you along the way. It was enormously satisfying, even in the very early stages, to tick something off that massive flowchart of goals and build the next piece onto it.
As my real world home was increasingly chaotic and unrestful, piles of boxes in the corners, and an ever-fresh heap of bags to donate collecting by the door, my farm home was coming together in adorable and rewarding ways. I learned how to mine and I made sprinklers. I got better at fighting monsters, went deeper in the mines, and made better sprinklers. With better sprinklers, I grew more crops. With more crops, I made more money. With more money, I built a coop and a barn and bought livestock. I contributed to town infrastructure and started to make friends with the villagers. I bought flower seeds and did a little landscaping. Hey, if I’m growing flowers, I should probably make some beehives to make honey.
From there, I ventured into artisan farming, making goat cheese and wine and pickles. There is nothing more satisfying than collecting entire rows of pickles, jams, wines and cheeses, to the accompaniment of a little popping sound as you pluck each one from its keg or press. As I mastered those tasks, I started to learn cooking, and to bring better gifts to the villagers. As those relationships developed, they unlocked further areas and abilities of the game. And so on and on, ticking things off my master plan, and knocking one achievement after another off the game board.
The only thing I ignored for a long stretch was fishing. There’s a fishing mini game, and it’s staggeringly hard when you first start out. Hard to the point where I failed over and over again and thought, well, I may never even get beginner-level able to do this. I’ll at least leave it until there’s nothing else to do, or until it’s necessary to move forward. Of course, there came a point when it was necessary to master fishing to move forward. It was maddening, and I was so bad at it for so long, but in the end I beat it. I finally caught a fish, and then another, and then a harder one. Eventually, my fishing skills hit the max level, and I caught every fish in the game, including five legendary fish that you can catch only once. I am stupid proud of my fishing achievement. Ask me about my fishing achievement. The eye patch you’ll see Allergy wearing in a couple of these screenshots is earned with that achievement.
Most of the time, I have a very sensible (for “sensible,” you may also read “lazy”) approach to lists. I’m pretty happy to postpone, reorganize, or abandon as necessary. To-do lists must be flexible, or we make ourselves ill. It’s not often that a goal really gets under my skin in an uncompromising way, but this one did. I had to finish ticking it off or slowly itch myself to death. The day I caught the last legendary fish and saw that whole collection filled in, I felt an actual physical sense of accomplishment. When I was playing Guild Wars 2, and I finally got good at climbing vistas, I felt a similar sense of pride and satisfaction, but this was personal in a way that never was.
Partly because I’m so impressed with and attracted to the world of Stardew Valley, and partly because of this chaotic and transitional time in my life, mastering the elements of building a home and community in that world has created a response in me that I’ve never felt for any other game. The more accomplished I became, the more determined I was to truly finish the game: to completely cross off every single element. The one exception to this is a social achievement: you have the option to marry one of several townspeople, and to have or adopt two children (same sex marriages are available, and there are no gender restrictions on character appearance – yet another reason to love it). In-game marriage and kids don’t appeal to me, and the kid aspect in particular I find a bit disturbing (they never age past toddler.) I have no interest in pursuing that element of the game. I find the conversations with townspeople fairly natural, if a little repetitive (that in itself is natural in a small town – everybody’s tracks are very well-worn). The ways your relationships with them develop is comfortable and moderately realistic. But adding a courtship element to those rote conversations would make them stop feeling authentic to me. So I enjoyed building my relationships with the townspeople, but I didn’t want to marry any of them. That achievement will have to remain unticked on the master list, but this run-through feels complete without it. (There may be a second run-through with a different character at some point, if I find I’m obsessing over getting every achievement.)
For now, though, I’ve nearly completed my list, and it feels like my time in Stardew Valley is winding down. I tumbled through completing five of my last seven achievements this week: catching all the fish, cooking every item, selling every item, crafting every item, and reaching a max friendship level with 8 characters. Those were the ones that felt truly compelling to me, and the last two are longer-play goals that I can continue to chip away at over time. After this week, though, I don’t think I’ll be spending hours at a time on Sparkle Farm anymore. It looks more or less as I want it to, and it has carried me through an exhausted and depleted time in the real world. It gave me joy and organization and peace in chaos, and I am profoundly grateful for every maddening and adorable minute I spent there. I’m proud of my thorough knowledge of something I admire so much, and it’s always going to feel like home every time I walk through the gate.
Onward now, to the next world, the new home.
If you’re interested in playing Stardew Valley, there are three great resources I’ve relied on throughout (and more being developed every day, but these are the ones I used most often):
The official Stardew Valley Wiki, created and maintained by ConcernedApe and the player community. Really, really helpful and thorough.
The Stardew Planner, which allows you to workshop your full farm space with all available buildings, farming implements and plants.
Stardew.farm, where you can download software that captures a screenshot of your full farm at the end of every game day and saves it to the website. This is new and a bit glitchy (there are some frames missing from the gif Phil made for me because there was an update to the way they posted), but still a really cool tool. If you’re using it, make sure the software is active in your taskbar before you end a day. As long as that’s running, it will grab the screenshots even if the website that displays them is glitching. They’ll turn up there eventually.