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.