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 awoke one morning to so many crops blooming in Animal Farm that it made my head spin. My newly constructed scarecrow stood tall in the middle, having fended off a grand total of a single crow. Cauliflower, potatoes, green beans, tulips, and more bloomed around where I stood. For the first time in Stardew Valley in my hours of playing it, I felt accomplished. It didn’t last though. And it left me wondering why this game wasn't grabbing me like I wholly expected it to.
Animator Makoto Shinkai, often heralded as the "new Hayao Miyazaki," has made a lot of movies about missed connections. Not of that variety, like the “Hot girl who borrowed my water bottle, I am the soft-spoken, sweet-natured knight in shining armor” listings you’d find scrolling through Craigslist after a music festival or convention. But in the sorrowful, emotional “we met at the wrong time, wrong place” type of way. Shinkai, as I’ll personally admit I’m not the biggest fan of outside of his episodic 5 Centimeters Per Second, sure has a knack for leveraging visual flourishes over emotional depth. But even then, sometimes it works.
In 5 Centimeters Per Second, two friends fall in love, until they realize they can never be together due to the distance between them. Eventually, they move on with their lives. Their missed connection always haunt them, but lead them to happiness outside of one another. In Shinkai’s most recent film Your Name, a movie nearly entirely about this theme, two characters (the girl, living in a rural town; the boy, living in Tokyo) swap bodies randomly during the week, falling in love along the way despite never technically meeting face to face.
I think my relationship with Stardew Valley feels similar to this idea. In another time, another life, I really could have loved this game. I could have gotten lost in it, become obsessive about harvesting crops and romancing local NPCs. But the fact is, I didn’t. The game didn’t click with me in the ways I almost expected it to. Instead, I felt bored, my mind often drifted off to other places entirely. Its loop was polished and well-designed, but I found it monotonous in an unpleasing way. And I wondered why.
I fell back into the routine after my morning crop success. Slowly growing an assortment of other vegetables and flowers, giving gifts of soda pop to Resident Emo Kid Sebastian (I love him, even if he spends 80 percent of his days on his computer or smoking by the lake), hanging out with my pet cat, crawling deeper into the mines and defeating any slime in my path. Spring turned into Fall, and some crops predictably wilted. Then, without warning, I fell asleep. I legitimately dozed off in the midst of playing the game. I wasn’t playing this in the late hours of the night. It was only around 7 o’ clock at night. I woke up a bit later, and so much time in the game had passed. ...So I turned the game off.
Stardew Valley has struck me as a game I like on a conceptual base level more than I enjoy playing it, contrary to so many friends of mine or colleagues' experiences with it. By all accounts, it bared the recipe for success: relaxing farming, slice of life relationship building, dungeon crawling in mines. But it did nothing for me, really. Was it farming game fatigue? Was it unbridled boredom?
I think if I hadn’t played Story of Seasons a few years ago, a Harvest Moon “reboot” (or rebranding?) of sorts from the series’ original creator, I would have connected with Stardew Valley more. Stardew Valley seems to me to be the perfect game for players who haven’t touched a farming game in a decade, or never at all. It’s pristinely designed, mechanically dense in a way where a player’s day will never feel useless. For me, I’ve seen it all before. And I got my fill when Story of Seasons surprised me in all the ways Harvest Moon once did years ago.
I think Stardew Valley is great for what it is, even knowing that it’s doubtful that I’ll ever see it through to its end. It will exist as one of those games I respect from afar. Having played it for a bit, recognizing that while it feels tailormade for what I’d expect from a game of that genre, it also isn’t the right time for me to play it. There are other games that have joined this rank—Dark Souls, the recent For Honor. Games that I have a feeling I would greatly enjoy if it were another time when I had the patience for them, or the drive to delve deep. But that time isn't now.
And so, I’m bidding adieu to Stardew Valley. It was a snooze while it lasted, and I wish it weren’t. So it goes. Onto greener, non-wilting pastures.
Next time: I’m moving onto a new game. A hint: it involves pomeranians in a dystopian city.