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’m really into mining right now. I mean that literally. Mining rocks. Taking my pickaxe, spelunking my way deep into caverns, and hacking a boulder down to a tiny stone or geode for me to pocket. Sometimes I'll kill a slimey beast in my path. I also feel overwhelmed, in the worst possible way.
I’ve played a few Harvest Moons (and more recently Story of Seasons). I fell into their quieting routines, as one does. Tame a farm, settle down, live a simple life. Stardew Valley’s loop is far more daunting. Tame a farm, befriend the locals, do these quests, do some more quests, mine shit, get smoked out by a wizard and magically attain the ability to read a ghost language, etcetera. Stardew Valley eased me into farm life, but it also threw a dozen or so more responsibilities my way in the process. (Will I ever build that scarecrow? God only knows.)
I spent a fair amount of my off-time this week playing Stardew Valley. Despite all the overwhelming tasks tossed my way, I found myself treating the game as a sort of secondary outlet. A time-sinker to distract me as I did other things. Whether I was listening to a podcast, the new Kendrick Lamar album, or even talking to a friend. Stardew Valley is quickly becoming my next mindless time-sinking game; a thing to occupy me as my mind drifts somewhere else.
I realized, I always have a game like this in my rotation. Most of the time it’s Overwatch, even if I tend to take that more seriously when I get the urge to dive into competitive. For a short time last year it was the dress-’em-up Style Savvy: Fashion Forward. Before those, it was miscellaneous bullethell games and Destiny (what someone I know once called an “active chatroom,” which sounds about right). They’re the type of games I could get lost in, that felt like second nature to operate. The games that don’t necessarily flourish under careful, hyperfocused attention, but in the opposite: letting everything go, unwinding, and doing something else for a change.
Of course, all of the games above are equally enjoyable with the precise, closely focused attention you’d give to a narrative driven or highly competitive game. But what becomes of a game when you’re hardly paying attention to it? When it feels more like thumb exercise, than engagement? When a game boils down to a mere distraction as you tend to other things? I hardly remember the potatoes I harvested yesterday in my good ol’ Animal Farm, nor the conversations I had with my neighbors. Whereas, I do recall the moment hitting me that the best song on Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. features U2, and that epiphany throwing me for a loop. (Seriously, U2!)
There's almost a necessity to these sorts of lackadaisical, time-occupying games. I hardly find myself listening to podcasts or music elsewhere (unless I'm writing something, then instrumental music is my jam). For me, playing a game is the only way for me to have an excuse to catch up on podcasts I've missed, or listen to a new record. After all, we live in an always-multitasking society. Games well-lodged among it.
I wonder how much more time I’ll spend with Stardew Valley, honestly, if my attention toward its minor mysteries has already drifted further into the areas beyond the game (...my iTunes). I wonder if Stardew Valley is even the proper game for such mindless play. There are more mysteries afoot than expected. There are more things to do than a Harvest Moon or even an Animal Crossing game. I wonder if they'll be enough to lead me to turn off whatever audio plagues my background, and shift my ears and brain back to the game at hand.
I’ll retain this diary in the meantime. I’ll harvest more crops. I’ll build that scarecrow one day. I’ll dive into level 40 of the mines. I’ll dream about playing something else, like Final Fantasy XIV, which the gang here at USgamer convinced me into picking up. Maybe I’ll start gifting things to the cutest gal or guy in town. Maybe the mysteries that plague Stardew Valley get more interesting, beyond a kooky wizard in the woods with a magical cauldron. Who knows what the future holds.
Next time: Spring is almost done! I guess I’ll see what the next season holds.