Enjoying the Peace & Quiet in Stardew Valley

Any time I started a new video game during my childhood, I would ask the same question: “Which button is shoot?” And for the vast majority of games played through those years, on everything from the NES to the Genesis and Super Nintendo, there was an answer. Shooting, swinging a sword, punching—one way or another I was planning on blasting an enemy to be the main thrust of the game I was playing.

The idea of a “farming simulator” was the height of boredom to my Super Nintendo-loving brain. Games like Harvest Moon and even SimCity held very limited appeal to me, in part because of my short attention span, and also due to my impatience for getting to “the good stuff”—the action of the game. It’s only now, with my adult brain and patience, can I sit and enjoy a game like Stardew Valley, a Super Nintendo era-looking farming simulator. Ten-year-old me would have balked at the idea of a game being “peaceful” in anyway, or even meditative. Today I crave it.


And so here we are, with what has become one of my favorite games of the year—a game whose goals aren’t to vanquish an evil foe, but to rebuild your community center. Instead of leveling up spells and weapons, you strengthen your pick to break apart harder stones, a more advanced hoe that allows you to till more land even faster, a watering can that hold more water than the last.

The story begins with you quitting your corporate job and schlepping yourself off to the countryside when you find out that your Grandfather has passed away and left you his farm. You spend the bulk of the game renovating and cultivating the land. You clear refuse, repair and construct buildings and barns, plant and harvest crops, convert milk and fruit to cheese and jams, and so much more. The farming in this game feels almost like a constantly evolving process that is always one step ahead of you. Almost anything you think of within the restraints of this little world of farming has been thought of, and is waiting for you to discover its system. Look! You’ve earned a bee colony for honey. Why not plant some flowers near it to keep things looking pretty? Well now look at that, your next batch of honey has a different flavor based on the flowers you put nearby. It’s these constant little details, that petting your chickens every day gets you bigger eggs, or shearing a sheep can get you wool that can eventually get you fabric, that makes Stardew Valley an addicting and strategic experience.

But that’s only half of this game’s charm, and I would argue only a third of its soul. So much of this game revolves around the people of Stardew Valley. The little town is filled with a diverse mix of people (about half of which you can marry and have kids with), who each have a surprisingly involved story. Some are joyful, some are depressed, some are successful, some are ashamed to have to ask you for help. Their lives become the thread to the entire quilt of this game, they give texture to the community and meaning to your (honestly endless) farming quest. You’re invited into literal dreams, they share small intimate moments with you like an argument with their mother or a hot air balloon ride. All of it so simple and colorful, and all of it packed with meaning.

It does, however, make a big ask of its players: patience. This isn’t a thrill ride; it’s a meticulous series of character conversations. A deep and time-consuming dive into more than a hundred levels of gem and stone mines filled with little enemies to swipe at with your sword, hours of farm planning and cultivating. The rewards are high, the feeling you get after a successful day of farming, or when that pumpkin is finally ripe enough to pick are honestly very satisfying. But they are not speedy events. They take time, however, that time is pleasantly spent. That is, if you have the time to spend in your actual life in the first place.

Stardew Valley is a rare game, one that you go to not necessarily for the incredible gameplay or action, but for the way it makes you feel. It is a funny, emotional, gentle, mysterious experience that anyone with enough patience will lose hours to. It is a fine way to spend several of your free hours, and is a safe and pleasant experience for anyone to enjoy.

Fire Emblem Warriors & the Question of Camilla

IMPORTANT NOTE: This was originally written for a Christian magazine's game review section. In the end, I didn't feel that it was a right fit for the publication, but still had some interesting ideas I thought were worth reading. So please understand that this was originally written for a Christian audience, from my own perspective as a person of faith. 

Fire Emblem Warriors is a hack and slash battle game where you control powerful characters as they blow through literally thousands of enemies on winding maps and battlefields. Each level is presented as a battle in the story, two armies fighting for control of a multitude of little “forts” that dot the map. Move your fighter to a small area, smack away at the soldiers and fort boss, turn control from their army to yours, and move on. If it sounds repetitive, that’s because it is - but please don’t get me wrong. It’s also a lot of fun.

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While these grand army battle style games all tend to be made by the same company and fall into the very specific genre of “misou” games, marrying this style to the Fire Emblem franchise brings in unique complications that add a lot of surprising strategy to a simple game.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising at all. If you’re unfamiliar, the Fire Emblem series is a long standing one, in which you move several individual or paired units across a chess-like grid eliminating enemies one at a time. It’s a patient game, much of the combat based on a “weapons triangle”, where your three main weapon types work in a rock-paper-scissors system against each other. Swords over axes, axes over lances, lances over swords. Most Fire Emblem games also let you pair your units, allowing them buffs and additional attack power, as well as raising their “relationship level”, allowing some characters to even marry one another for even more combat benefits.

Whereas Fire Emblem uses these systems in a very methodical turn-based combat structure, most of the transfer in unique and challenging ways in Fire Emblem Warriors.

A huge part of one map may be filled with axe wielding enemies or bosses. Well it would be foolish to deploy your lance hero over there, you should probably use someone with an advantage. So before you even begin, it’s best to make sure that one of the four playable characters you can choose (from over 20 characters, even more if you purchase the DLC) have strengths against the enemies on the map. Swap between the four of them on the fly to fight them enemy yourself, or stick with one and direct the others to specific locations and specific tasks in the pause menu.

Fire Emblem Warriors can be tedious, at times too easy, at times too difficult. I played a ton of it in its first month of release, then dropped it cold turkey for almost five months. I was suddenly inspired to take it up again when I saw they had released their final package of additional content and was immediately absorbed into it again. It’s a fickle game, really, that in my opinion plays best when you set it to your rules over its own, which is where having an easily adjusted difficulty setting is one of the best features. If it hits you right, it hits you right. And if you are like me and have any affection for the Fire Emblem franchise, it can be an absolute joy to play at times. There is tons of content here, though much of it similar to the rest. But it’s still fun content, and really demands very little of the player. As a busy adult, that’s something I can get behind.

But all of that aside, there is a very large elephant in the room. I want to talk about Camilla.


The Fire Emblem franchise fits in an odd corner of the Nintendo canon. While most of Nintendo’s mainline properties star exaggerated and cartoony characters, think Mario and Yoshi, Fire Emblem is a rather standard “anime” style series with more realistically proportioned human characters than other games. It’s a nice addition to the overall roster, but also has served as a sort of niche way for Nintendo to work in what many call “fan-service”; creating and designing many of their female characters (some male, but mostly female) in an exaggeratedly sexual manner, with almost hilariously inappropriate outfits. One character wears what is essentially a nylon body suit, as though her entire outfit were a pair of panty hose, accented with visable underwear and gold jewelry.

Another - and the most prominent - is Camilla. She’s a powerhouse, one of the most effective and entertaining characters in the game. Perhaps six feet tall and flying in on a small dragon and swinging a giant axe, Camilla has the combat ability and the fun and sassy attitude of someone you would want to spend time with in this game, she was almost always in my top four on the battlefield. Camilla is also dressed in armor that is cut low across her broad chest in a revealing corset, and despite it being made of some sort of black steel, somehow bounces and sways with the slightest movement. Her pants, for no discernable reason, are basically cowboy style chaps, leaving most of her pelvis exposed for clear viewing of her bikini-bottom underwear.

Why? Why do that? I mean look, we all know why. In our current culture, as we finally begin the long and hard work of finally addressing how our culture sees women, Camilla offers a bizarre case study of “sexy female characters” in video games, especially in consideration of character agency.

Camilla herself offers no real sexual interest in anyone, as far as I can tell, and only seems focused on impressing her beloved sister Corrin (Corrin can also be a male brother, but I always chose to play with the sister. Either way, they are always siblings). It’s a really wonderful touch. But if that is the case, why is she dressed this way?

Let’s stop again and look at it through a social lens, then again myself as a Christian. There is a strong argument for women in the world to be allowed to dress as they want to dress, an argument that I agree with. So it would be easy to write this off as “well Camilla wants to wear that.” The main difference, obviously, is that Camilla is not a sentient woman who can make her own choices. And when we consider the earlier point that Camilla has no other intent than impressing her sister, it becomes embarrassingly obvious that Camilla is a fictional character who was designed and drawn a certain way to please the player gazing at her. No one in her world is benefitting from her appearance, and she doesn’t even seem to take pleasure in it herself. (An important note: Camilla also appears in two other Fire Emblem games, two halves of the same story. In those games the player can create a romantic connection between her and several other characters, marrying them off and having a child. So it’s a fair argument that Camilla IS attracted to someone in her history as a character, but not specifically in Fire Emblem Warriors)

This relationship between her, the other characters and the fourth wall is only complicated by her end of battle animation sequence. At the end of a successful fight, your most used character will have a little cinematic where they look to the camera and say something pithy, inspiring, or some other little character touch. “Only through friendship and teamwork will we prevail!” is the sort of message you’ll get. But when Camilla has her moment, she walks towards the camera, looking directly at us. The camera, however, is trained on her chest. She then leans forward, reaches out as to grab our chin and says, “Sorry, darling, but my eyes are up here,” as she tilts the camera upwards to her face. Having played through the entire story, I have not found any other character that is drawn to Camilla, who lusts after Camilla, or has any affection towards Camilla that isn’t from immediate family members. The implication is clear: her appearance is for the player to enjoy.

She may playfully chide you, because that’s part of the fun of her personality. She frequently portrays herself as naive, but winks her self awareness to us and to the other characters in a way that suggests serious self-confidence. But she is dressed the way she is to titillate, to please no one but the person holding the controller. Perhaps we’ve already put fault on her in this situation. She is not dressed, no - she has been dressed by someone else to please the player.

But while Camilla is dressed in a specific way in a fictional world, we can pull a real world lesson from her appearance, and from her clothing in contrast to her actual figure. Camilla is obviously a designed character, meaning her body isn’t something she was born with, but something drawn by an artist, but it still invites discussion to parallels in the real world. The easy assumption is that Camilla was given the specific proportions she has to serve the notion of sexual appeal. There are, however, real women in the real world who are built in a similar way to Camilla. Not exactly, obviously, it may not be physically possible, but they have similar physical features, and unlike Camilla, they were not given those features by an artist. Those are their natural bodies. Are these women not allowed to exist in a video game like this because they are simply “too sexy”? Should the developers have intentionally omitted someone built this way because of OUR tendency to lust after bodies? Are we to keep characters like Camilla out of games simply because many people find her attractive, and attraction is dangerous?

Unfortunately society - and the church, tragically - is riddled with stories of women who are leered at, ostracized, scorned or scrutinized due to their appearance, but an appearance they cannot control. It’s bizarre but not impossible to imagine Camilla walking into a church on a Sunday morning wearing a well-fitted sweater and skirt and still getting judged simply for the way her body sits on her own skeleton. It’s happened before in our churches, and it will happen this Sunday, the next, and on in our world. We need to be aware of the bizarre expectations and judgements that we put on people - especially women - for how they look, frequently in ways that they cannot control or anticipate.

Let’s return to the game. Perhaps the easiest answer is to simply remove Camilla. Would removing her from the game have fixed the problematic situations that arise around her? Should Camilla be removed from our sinful gaze simply because of her figure? Well, should living women be removed from our environment because we cannot contain our lustful thoughts?

Thinking about this whole thing reminded me of a pivotal line in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Jessica Rabbit, Rodger’s voluptuous wife, is in conversation with the main character, a private eye. After accusing her of abusing her sexuality against others, Jessica offers up a stunning defense: “You don’t know how hard it is being a woman, looking the way that I do… I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way!”

Camilla can’t help it, as a character. That’s who she is, that’s her body. There are women in the world who look like her. That is the lesson I believe that we should pull from this idea. And as Christians, we must admit that we often project our own sins onto people who have no control over our behavior. It’s the difference between saying: “How DARE she tempt me in such a way!” and “Am I unable to see someone as the person God created, knows, and loves? Am I trapping myself into focusing on someone based on my own attraction?”

This is, in the end, is still just a video game. Female characters are placed into this game with the express intent of drawing players in with their exploited sexuality. As characters, that is not their fault; therefore it is not a projection of our own shortcomings if we decide to remove those elements from our gaze. And while I could understand an argument that Camilla should simply never have been in this game, I would push against that. Removing a character because of their body type is a horrible thought. Should we demand our entertainment to be populated only with bodies we approve of for one reason or another? Certainly not. Her clothing, however, should have been reconsidered, and if it is a stumbling block for you, I recommend avoiding using her in your playthrough. Luckily, that is an easy option while playing this game - you can ignore using certain characters at all and still do fine, and you can CERTAINLY avoid many of the more revealing outfits provided these women. If it’s not an issue for you personally, play on! But we are all better off when we take into consideration how women who have no control over their appearance are put before us as consumers. It may sound rather silly to say about a game like this, but Fire Emblem Warriors has inadvertently given us a chance to discuss how we take in the real world, and to confront the idea that we may be projecting our own shortcomings on those who have no control over them.

Horizon Zero Dawn - A Beautiful Apocalypse

I have to be very honest with you - Horizon Zero Dawn is the reason I bought a PlayStation 4. The game’s concept, on the surface, is a simple one: you play a young woman named Aloy (pronounced Ay-loy), who hunts robot dinosaurs with a sort of bronze age/sci fi mix of bows and arrows, slingshots, and crossbows that shoot everything from freeze bombs to electric bolts. That was more than enough to sell me on it.

The more fleshed out concept revolves around Aloy’s story: She is born to no mother, a baby that appears in a sacred mountain that is home to a small tribe called the Nora. Her world is a future version of our world, one that has gone through some sort of global, catastrophic event (no spoilers) that has reverted mankind to this sort of primitive, tribal existence. And yet techonology from the “Old Ones” still dots the landscape, large cavernous bunkers from ages past are scattered about, and the robotic versions of everything from gazelle to giant crabs wanders the expansive (and gorgeous) world.

From a technical standpoint, Horizon Zero Dawn is nothing less than a towering accomplishment. Each robotic animal or beast has weak spots highlighted by your “focus”, a tiny computer that sits on Aloy’s temple like a bluetooth headset, and each weak spot has a different weapon based weakness. You’ll quickly find yourself crouching into a stealth position in some tall grass, arming your bow with a fire arrow, and shooting it into one of the robot’s fuel canisters. Then ready you precision bow as you wait for the lit canister to explode, and next fire a well placed arrow into the creature's jaw during the explosive confusion. Or perhaps you’d rather sneak around, taking out the robots one by one while out on their patrol paths. Or perhaps you’d prefer to hack one of the creatures, turning it into your temporary body guard as you fire freeze grenades into a crowd of them, leading them into your traps placed around the perimeter. Whatever your play style, you will be rewarded with tight, well crafted, and extraordinarily enjoyable game play.

Yet perhaps the greatest achievement of this game is the world it has managed to build. While the action and exploration makes this game fun to play, Aloy’s world is one at war with itself. A primitive civilization built on top of humanity at it’s most successful and technologically advanced, but with no understanding of what the technology is or how to use it. This overarching question of “what happened to the world?” was the driving force behind my playthrough; I was desperate to solve the mystery of how humanity got to this point.

Horizon Zero Dawn puts a lot of compelling ideas into this new humanity. Aloy’s village is largely Matriarchal, worshiping the “Goddess” who occasionally speaks to them from a cavern in their sacred mountain. While the cultures outside of Aloy’s original tribe have variations on this idea, the whole story focuses on this push and pull between belief and fact, and back to belief again. Aloy herself is a critical mind, someone who isn’t satisfied with answers that stop at the idea of spirituality - or more importantly - tradition. She herself, due to her peculiar, parentless birth, was shunned until she turned 19, which is where the game truly begins. Aloy’s story begins as one fighting for legitimacy, a young woman striving to prove that she belongs, because she is an unwitting victim of her tribe’s belief system.

It’s a challenging idea. Aloy is a woman who was victimized by her culture’s religion, and soon finds herself and the focal point of it. It’s too easy to simply describe her as, say, an unwilling Messiah. Aloy’s journey is a bit more nuanced than that. She is a woman digging down into her culture’s faith system, frustrated with it’s views on things like nature and logic, but cannot escape its influence. And perhaps the more compelling idea is that the more Aloy uncovers about the world around them, the facts, the history, the truth behind it, the more she discovers the value in her culture and religion, and in an interesting twist: the truth in her religion.

I cannot recommend Horizon Zero Dawn enough. It has incredible racial and gender representation, with a world in which women can be generals and men can be the designers of tribal clothing. And in what is - tragically - a stunning achievement today, Aloy is never sexualized. Thank God, truly. There is violence, and it isn’t limited to robots, but it is never glorified in its gore. I would still investigate it if you fear that would be a stumbling block for you.

Aloy’s story is not one to be missed. For one, it is a chilling reminder that in our own religion we are capable of victimizing innocent people, the way Aloy was shunned simply for having a mysterious birth. But the marriage between religion and science, and the careful, nuanced examination of the beauty and dangers of tradition for the sake of tradition make this a truly memorable and challenging experience. This is the sort of game you play in front of your parents when you want to explain to them where gaming is in 2017. A compelling, mysterious, challenging, and above all fun experience. Five out of five stars.