I’ve got a confession to make: I spent an embarrassing amount of time last week playing the recently-released PC game Stardew Valley. I now find myself humming snippets of the game’s delightful soundtrack while I wash the dishes. Yesterday, I became deeply confused about what season it was in the real world, since I had just finished harvesting my pumpkins amid the wondrous snow globe effect created by thousands of falling digital leaves . . .
Stardew Valley is an RPG (Role Playing Game) that revolves around crafting and resource management; in this sense it contains some mechanics similar to those found in games like Minecraft, Animal Crossing, Don’t Starve, Rollercoaster Tycoon, and the Civilization franchise. The game’s narrative is fairly straightforward – your character, worn down by the daily grind of working in an office setting, decides to move to a farm in the idyllic Stardew Valley. Once there, you start improving your farm, interacting with the local townsfolk, and earning money. The game is relatively open-ended and doesn’t involve a main quest or complex story. Gameplay instead focuses on collecting items and using them to purchase and construct new items. You can for example, buy seeds and then plant them, but then you will have to water them once a day (unless it’s raining), and harvest them. You could sell your crops, but if you built yourself some canning equipment you could turn them into jelly for three times the profit. Ad infinitum. These tasks are completed with simple mechanics: right and left clicking to pick up and manipulate objects comprises the majority of the game. This type of open-ended collecting, crafting, and resource management is popular in several different genres of games and has been incorporated into major blockbuster RPG titles like Skyrim and Fallout 4.
Over the course of the last week I’ve been thinking about why this style of play is so pervasive and why I find myself attracted to it. Several aspects of Stardew Valley defy my expectations about what makes a game engaging. What I find especially thought-provoking about Stardew Valley and elements of resource management games overall is the way in which they incorporate mechanics, aesthetics, and themes that are similar to what users might encounter in their everyday, non-virtual lives. In essence, these games ask us to perform actions that are quite similar to the mundane tasks we associated with “work,” as opposed to play. Stardew Valley offers a particularly vivid example of this phenomenon. The game does not contain the type of richly crafted and fantastic alternative reality that I would associate with escapism (as found in games like Skyrim and Fallout). In addition, the game is not centered on an online or multi-player mode that facilitates social interaction (like WOW or Second Life). Nor does Stardew Valley contain a complex narrative that would encourage player interaction in order to reveal complex story elements (I’m thinking of games like Bioshock Infinite, Gone Home, The Last of Us, etc.). Perhaps most significantly, for a resource management game Stardew Valley offers players a relatively closed system, especially in comparison to games like Minecraft that allow virtually boundless and limitless approaches to world creation and crafting in order to facilitate user creativity.
This last point could be partially attributed to the fact that Stardew Valley is new. However, I also think that the bounded and limited nature of Stardew Valley can be read as thematically significant and tied to the game’s narrative. I would like to explore whether or not we can read this boundedness as part of the appeal of the game, even though a central trend in the game industry is the creation of bigger, more open, and more choice-driven worlds. Larger maps and more options are certainly an exciting possibility; however, Stardew Valley and similar simulation games are not only about choice, but also about control. In the age of No Man’s Sky and Eve Online I find myself wondering if we can read the popularity of resource management as an embodiment of a counter impulse: a desire for the controllable, knowable, and finite.
In order to explore this further I’d like to look at both the thematic and mechanic elements of the game. If we apply this schema to Stardew Valley, we can see for example that the overall aesthetic experience, though simplistic, does consistently further several concepts. The narrative and design choices further the juxtaposition of city and country, industrial and agrarian labor, and global and regional identity. The unfulfilling aspects of industrial labor are embodied in the opening scene in the game in which the player’s character is shown crying in a cubicle, one among countless office workers typing away at a computer in a large, windowless corporate office. You are not able to move during this sequence, or to engage with the objects or characters around you. The grey office space contrasts visually with the vibrancy of the rest of the game. Though this scene is short, the dichotomies it establishes underlie the entire game; urban, industrial life results in alienation while regional identity and nature enable identity creation, empowerment, and fulfillment.
While narratively these ideas are presented in a straightforward and didactic manner, I find the ways in which the mechanics enforce these concepts to be interesting. Take for example the way the game facilitates and encourages interaction with the small community of non-player characters (NPCs) that live in the valley. There are a set number of NPCs who live in the town by the player’s farm; they have names, jobs, and daily routines. The game encourages the player to befriend these NPCs; however, doing so is time intensive and relies on the player’s ability to develop an understanding of these characters. One of the primary ways in which the player can become friends with the NPCs is through giving them gifts. However, the player can only give one gift a day, and each NPC has a different preference for the types of objects he or she likes receiving as a gift. These mechanics create an environment in which friendships are built slowly, and are “dependent” on gradually learning about characters. This type of mechanic contrasts with the friendship/trust building systems in other games; for example, in Fallout 3 players can gain charisma, which makes it more likely that NPCs will trust the player. Players can of course complete quests to please NPCs; however, players can also lie about completing quests in order to achieve the same result. While Fallout 3’s model reflects the ways in which increasing urbanization has resulted in the immediate and spontaneous need to assess character, the model of interaction in Stardew Valley supports the game’s overall nostalgic depiction of agrarianism and regional identity.
What can we conclude however, about the game’s primary mechanics of collecting, buying, manipulating, and crafting objects? Basically, these tasks are reliant on organization, planning, scheduling, and management. When reflecting on my experience playing Stardew Valley, I couldn’t help but think about how these mechanics are similar to things I already do . . . all day long . . . almost every day. It seems ironic that even though the game’s narrative critiques working at a computer on mundane tasks, the game itself simultaneously encourages the player to sink massive amounts of time into performing work-like tasks. What, then, is the benefit of gameplay? What are players getting out of the aesthetic experience and mechanics of playing this type of game? I arrived at one potential answer to this question while reading David Weinberger’s book Too Big to Know, which describes the ways in which new technologies have proliferated information to the extent that complete knowledge is unattainable by individuals and must instead be understood within broad networks. According to Weinberger, “our techniques for managing knowledge overload show us just how much there is to know that escapes our best attempts. There is no hiding from knowledge overload anymore.” Weinberger celebrates this proliferation and networking of knowledge, but there is no denying that these types of changes in the ways we regard and process information can create anxiety.
I can’t help but think that Stardew Valley (and other similar games) incorporate mechanics that respond to this type of anxiety by creating finite and predictable environments that allow players to “master” stable systems. While initially it may appear as if there are a large number of objects that can be collected and crafted, in actuality, the number of objects that can be manipulated in the game are comparatively limited. For example, there are only ten types of crops that can be grown in the spring season of the game. Thus, even though players may amass a variety of different objects, these collections are still fairly bounded, more so than similar categories of objects and actions in the real world. In staring at my inventory list, I was reminded (oddly enough) of modernist and proto-modernist works of literature that grapple with the proliferation of objects and information by creating lists. For example in “Song of Myself” Whitman grapples with the infinite by attempting to show the limitlessness potential of America as a nation; however, he does so by creating lists of people, objects, and scenarios. These lists initially seem to capture the infinite by incorporating disparate elements (“The youngster and the redfaced girl . . . The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor . . .”), yet the process of list creation reduces the infinite to the finite, to the knowable. I feel like Stardew Valley engages with these issues; the game exhibits a craving for a knowable, finite world that is rooted in a sense of regional identity. It seems noteworthy that these qualities can appear in instances of digital media, since we typically assume that such media are the cause of these anxieties.
Weinberger, David. Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. New York: Basic Books, 2011.