Field Notes is a series of diaries by Caty McCarthy, exploring the personal stories that emit from the games we play over extended periods of time, and beyond. Currently, Caty’s visiting Stardew Valley for the very first time, a quaint farming simulation whose charms venture beyond its Harvest Moon inspirations.
Dear diary, I’ve heard a lot about Stardew Valley. I’ve heard about the romances. The divorces. The compactly organized farms. The mining. The neighbors. The hundred or so hours that slipped by players so effortlessly. But what I hadn’t heard of was that it begins with a tragedy. A dying grandfather, as he bids farewell to his grandchild with an envelope. He tells me, the grandchild, only to open it when I feel unenthused about life.
The game then shifts to a sterile office setting. Cubicles line a long room. It feels sad, it feels banal. And there I am. Sitting at a desktop computer, typing away at whatever boredom work’s brought me. Then I reach an epiphany. I reach into my desk drawer and open the envelope dear papa left me, only to find an invitation to a quiet town far, far away: Stardew Valley. I guess it’s time to leave this uninspiring life behind.
My farming prodigy, once a bored office employee, has a new life now: grooming this itty bitty plot of land to perfection. These strange NPCs—some friendly and welcoming, others shy—would grow to become my new friends in this reimagined life. Stardew Valley is a dream, really. Playing its opening hours and getting sucked into its calming loop of farm management, I wished this type of alternative life path existed for all of us. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it does. Whether woven into virtual worlds like these, or otherwise.
Last summer, I quit my day job. I was working nearly full-time as a supervisor at a tea cafe (y’know, the 38 hours a week you’re scheduled sans benefits) in addition to freelancing, when I decided to leave. Once upon a time, I would fantasize about all the ways I’d quit; all the things I would say as I walked out the door ("Thanks for making me work on Christmas"). But when the time came, I found all that silly. I opted to go the non-bridge burning route. I articulated that it was time for me to bounce, I had steady freelance gigs and more opportunities to pursue. Having graduated university the year prior and absentmindedly pecked away at a dead-end job in the abysmal food industry, the time was right. So I left. I never looked back. And despite money growing extremely tight for a few months after, quitting that job freed me.
While I didn’t retreat to a quaint little farm, instead I found myself charting my own path for the first time in life. Not swinging a stressful life of baristaing, freelance writing, attending school, babysitting, and whatever else I somehow managed to do all at the same time to pay the bills and more. I wasn’t chained by a 9-5 job I loathed. I was living my life now. And honestly, quitting that job is how I got to where I’m at now. (But for the record: don’t quit your day job if you don’t have something lined up to supplement it.) Seeing my new self-insert in Stardew Valley skipping away from her daily responsibilities to a life she actually desired didn’t just feel sweet, it felt familiar.
But at its core, Stardew Valley plays as an escapist fantasy. As anyone who works a mundane job grows to know, it’s not unlikely to dream of all the ways you’d eventually escape it. Maybe to pursue a dream job. Maybe to not work at all. Maybe to travel. Maybe to just spite your shitty boss. Maybe to be an artist, a writer (*ahem*), a musician. A more present parent, even. Or in Stardew Valley’s case, to become a recluse in the smallest of towns with only a couple dozen neighbors at your side, and a sizable plot of land to cultivate into your very own healthy farm.
Stardew Valley imagines a world where with a grandparent’s dying breath, you’re left with this seemingly impossible alternate life path. (Because in reality, wouldn’t a lawyer of sorts snatch that plot of earth away if it weren’t denoted in a will?) Stardew Valley sweeps the player into living an idyllic escapist fantasy. One not rooted in adventure like the space operas of Star Wars, or the sprawling Hyrulian fields of Breath of the Wild, but in the sublime calm of a non-stressful, uncomplicated life.
But back to unreality. My farm is kind of a mess right now, which makes sense as I’m only a few in-game days in. I skimmed my calendar to see the many birthdays and town festivals on the horizon. I spent a few days chopping weeds and breaking down rocks across my farm’s vast space. I planted crops for the first time, watering them too. I talked to NPCs in town, already picking out a few favorites that I have a feeling I’ll find myself longing to know better. Stardew Valley recognizes the appeal of slow, small-town life, and eases you into its quiet embrace.
On my fourth day out, I overexerted myself. I spent too much time breaking up rocks. And then, while fishing at the beach, watched my energy plummet. The night fell, and it was a long, slow walk back to my home. I made a few wrong turns, but in the end I made it back, relieved to return to the warm glow of my small home's fireplace. It was a gentle reminder of the importance of keeping myself healthy. I may want to do everything possible, but sometimes, hanging back and relaxing is the key to success.
Next week: I’m going to get better acquainted with my neighbors, and maybe even celebrate a birthday or two. And I promise I’ll be deeper than a few days in.