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.

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.