- Keshia Mcclantoc
Rural Escapism and Stardew Valley
By Keshia Mcclantoc
In the mornings, I keep a routine. I'm up at 6am to open the barn and coop doors so the animals can explore for the day. I milk the cows and shear the sheep, if needed. I check to see if the chickens or ducks left any eggs that day. In the greenhouse, I harvest anything that’s freshly bloomed. After, I hop on my horse and ride into town, dropping off anything that my farm produced with the local merchant. My afternoons are more open. Sometimes, I’ll head to the beach to see if any fish are biting. Other times, I’ll ride around the forests, foraging for that night’s supper. And if I’m feeling adventurous, I may head into the mines with my pickaxe in hand. There’s so much possibility in this valley…
Except I’m not actually doing any of this, I’m just playing Stardew Valley.
First released in February 2016 by gaming company ConcernedApe, Stardew Valley is a farming simulator game. Popularized in the late 1990s, this genre of video game includes anything from popular console games like Harvest Moon (1996-2021) and Animal Crossing (2001-2020) to Facebook’s FarmVille (2009-2020). At face-value, farming sim games are exactly what they say they are – a playable character is tasked with keeping a farm. This usually includes planting and harvesting crops, raising livestock, and maintaining various aspects of farm life. While this covers the basics, many farming sims go beyond this with the addition of storylines, challenges, and lore that greatly expand the world of the game and the possibilities within it.
The plot of Stardew Valley opens with the 20-something customizable playable character experiencing deep depression and burnout at their corporate office job with JoJaCorp (which many players argue is parody of Amazon). To mitigate this depression, the character leaves their job and move to Pelican Town, a small town in Stardew Valley, where they inherited a farm from a recently deceased grandfather. Though small, Pelican Town seems to have everything – ample farmland for the character to make use of, trails and forests, beaches and mountains, and even deserts and swamplands. Pelican Town also includes a host of non-playable characters (called NPCs) whom the player can befriend and build relationships with, eventually marrying and having children with one if they wish. Characters can farm, raise live-stock, and participate in the other various aspects of farm life, as well as learn how to fish, fight monsters in the mines, and build an array of other skills. And this is just the tip of the iceberg for the potentials within this game.
What makes Stardew Valley one of the most popular iterations of the farming sim genre is just how extensive this world is with details upon details for the player to explore. In “Stardew Valley: Your New Home Away From Home” Javy Gwaltney argues that “though Stardew Valley’s farming simulation initially appears to be a Harvest Moon imitator, it’s much more than that: it’s a sprawling and surprisingly deep RPG filled with secrets waiting to be discovered by the most patient and vigilant players” (Gwaltney). Jacob Creswell, in “Stardew Valley Turns 5: Why Gamers Can’t Get Enough of this Farming Sim,” adds “it's next to impossible for players to see everything in a single playthrough” (Creswell). And it’s true – the possibilities within the game are endless. In one storyline, the player restores the town’s Community Center, unintentionally putting the local JoJaMart – the last vestige of their former life – out of business. In another, the player finds an entrance to the Witch’s swamp, whose powers can be used to reverse major life choices the player has made. In yet another, the player discovers that the mayor is embezzling funds from the town to build a golden statue of himself. And on and on and on…The more a player-- well, plays – the more they can uncover.
My obsession with this game knows no bounds. But at least I’m not alone in this obsession. Since it’s 2016 release, the game has sold more than 10 million copies. There are multiple dedicated fanwikis, reddit pages, YouTube videos, and various other online spaces where players share information and show off their own playthroughs. It’s more universally loved and universally played than any other farming sim game in on the market, even those whose ongoing development and fanbases have existed decades before Stardew Valley (Pursey).
But why do so many people love Stardew Valley? My theory – the draw of rural escapism.
Rural escapism has a long history from the Romantic writers and painters of the late-18th century to the Back-to-Land Movements of the 1960/70s. It seems humans have always had an internal ache for rural life. A nostalgia for the simplicity of small towns, the quaintness of its colorful characters, and a deep respect of the reciprocal relationships one may build with nature. In our present form of rural escapism, many see rural areas as means to free themselves from the hustle of hyper-capitalistic urban life. As Sarah Searle says in “Stop Romanticizing Farms”:
The craze for rustic, weather-beaten barns, long farm tables and the other aesthetic trappings of traditionally conceptualized farm life has reached a fever pitch. We demand it in our weekend getaways, our dining experiences, and our leisure time. We travel to “farm stays” where we can pet sheep and book facials; we shell out cash for farm-to-table cuisine and go apple-picking.
This has become especially true in the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, where more and more people are looking for an escape from not only the hustle, but the perceived dangers, of big cities. In “The Great Migration of 2020,” Marc Fisher et. al say that “from beaches and resort towns to mountain cabins to rural family homesteads, places far from densely packed cities are drawing people eager to escape from infection hot spots” (Fisher et. al). But for those who don’t have means to physically participate in COVID-19 migrations or the more touristic farm stays, rural escapism comes through games like Stardew Valley.
Stardew Valley offers all the perks of rural escapism without actually having to go to a rural area. Your character can both live off of and thrive from making use of the land, they can make friends with small town folks who have extensive, in-game backstories, and challenge corporate greediness by taking down JoJaMart. With an in-game universe as expansive as that within Stardew Valley, it’s easy to live a full and complete rural fantasy, which deeply answers to the inherent urge of rural escapism. Even the introduction of the game itself adds to this with the character’s grandfather opening the game by saying “there will come a day when you feel crushed by burden of modern life and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness, when this happens, you’ll be ready for this gift,” before the character inherits the farm. As your character escapes into an expansive rural life, so do you. Gwaltney says that “turning off the game was almost like leaving a second, smaller home, one filled with fond memories and good people” (Gwaltney). In short, Stardew Valley seems like the perfect rural escapism.
However, rural escapism is a little more complicated than that. Despite the obvious romanticization of rural life in Stardew Valley and other avenues of participating in rural escapism, very few people actually hold rural areas in high esteem. In left-leaning and liberal circles, it’s not uncommon to hear rural stereotypes run amuck. Just look at Frank Rich’s “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly,” which lumps together all of rural Appalachia as “Trump Country” and suggests that Democrats should completely forget them in voting efforts. Or read through “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless White Mind,” wherein Kevin Baker suggests that rural peoples, who he thinks are only white, have no understanding of the modern world. Then there’s the takes from reporters on Twitter, like @morninggloria, who suggests that all rural folks hold moral superiority over non-rural folks or @Noahpinion, who argues that liberals can only survive if they leave rural areas and move to the cities. This is not to mention how many times rural stereotypes are use in movies, television shows, and various other forms of media. It’s not a stretch, I would argue, to say that many of the same folks who will spend hours playing games like Stardew Valley or taking weekend trips to farm stays will complain about actual rural areas as if they’re the last homogenous bastions of racism, sexism, homophobia, and illiteracy while praising cities as welcoming utopias.
These views are not only damaging, but they are incorrect. “Redefining Rural America,” a 2019 report from The Center for American Progress, states “significant populations of African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinx individuals live in rural areas across the country” (Ajilore and Willingham). The study further states immigrants are often the lifeblood of rural areas. Fifteen to 20% of LGBTQ+ Americans lives in rural areas, and the disability rate in rural areas is proportionally higher than it is in the total U.S. population (Ajilore and Willingham, 2019). Rural areas are more diverse and expansive than many people imagine, almost in the same way Stardew Valley’s gameplay is more diverse and expansive than any farming sim before. However, until the realities of real-life rural areas are fully acknowledged, the fantasies of rural escapism will always be the fantasies of hypocrisy.
This isn’t to say that you can’t participate in rural escapism and you can’t fully embrace and enjoy games like Stardew Valley. But you should think more deeply about the subjects of the games you play, and the lines you draw between reality and fantasy. The reality of rural areas is that they are neither the perfected rural fantasy of Stardew Valley and nor are they the homogenous wastelands many people stereotype them as. They’re something in-between, and very rarely understood except for by those who live there. So, the next time you want to disappear into a rural fantasy, whether physically or digitally, think a little more deeply about the escapism you’re participating in and hypocrisy it may carry.
Ajilore, Olubenga, and Ciaus Willingham. “Redefining Rural America.” Center for American Progress, 17 July 2019, www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2019/07/17/471877/redefining-rural-america/.
Creswell, Jacob, and Jacob Creswell (395 Articles Published) A writer for CBR since September 2020. “Stardew Valley Turns 5: Why Gamers Can't Get Enough of This Farming Sim.” CBR, 27 Feb. 2021, www.cbr.com/stardew-valley-fifth-anniversary/.
Fisher, Marc. et al. “The Great American Migration Of 2020: On the Move to Escape the Coronavirus.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Mar. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/coronavirus-great-american-migration/2020/03/28/b59d4d44-6f6f-11ea-a3ec-70d7479d83f0_story.html.
Gwaltney, Javy. “Stardew Valley Review – Your New Home Away from Home.” Game Informer, 24 Mar. 2016, www.gameinformer.com/games/stardew_valley/b/pc/archive/2016/03/24/stardew-valley-review.aspx.
Pursey, Jack, and Jack Pursey (307 Articles Published) . “10 Best Farming Games of All Time.” Game Rant, 2 June 2021, gamerant.com/best-farming-games-all-time/.
Searle, Sarah. “Stop Romanticizing Farms.” Modern Farmer, 2 Oct. 2018, modernfarmer.com/2014/06/stop-romanticizing-farms/.