Often times it seems that the rapid pace of modern life makes you feel that there is no time for slowing down, let alone does it offers a chance for you to reflect on the things that matter most. You get caught up in a daily routine where you can only focus on simply getting by, rather than try to accomplish something greater. Sometimes itʼs easier to settle for less than strive for what could be.
Stardew Valley, the debut game of Eric Barone, better known by his alias ConcernedApe is much more than a farming simulator RPG game influenced by the 1996 Super Nintendo classic, Harvest Moon. Itʼs the kind of gaming experience that reminds its players of their relationship with their origins. Seeking to hone his programming skills and go above and beyond where Harvest Moon fell short of its full potential, Barone devoted four years to the making of the project. During the years of development, Barone touched bases with players who expressed interest in Stardew Valley to obtain feedback. Publisher Chucklefish Games approached Barone when the game was half-way through completion, which gave him more time to devote his attention to complete the project.
Aside from Harvest Moon, Barone also cited Animal Crossing (2001), Minecraft (2011), Rune Factory (2006) and Terraria (2011) as influences behind Stardew Valleyʼs additional gameplay features, such as combats, side quests and crafts, which all together further enrich the player experience and deeper connection with their character and the theme of the game.
From deciphering who the playable character is, to making a living in Pelican Town, the relating to the NPCs and to its open ended ending, Stardew Valley delves into more than just life management, but also a story about playersʼ reconnecting to their roots.
Who Is Your Character
Upon starting a new game, the player customizes the character they play as. The can name the character, decide on gender, skin, hair, eye color, and fashion. The even get to name the farm their character will be attending to and what their characterʼs favorite thing is as well as if the character is a dog or cat person. On the right hand side of the screen, are five different versions of the farm. The one at top of the menu is known as the ʻStandard Farmʼ, which is described as “[a] simple plot of land, with a large amount of open space to design your farm”. The second one is dubbed as the ʻRiverland Farmʼ in which itʼs “spread across several islands and scenic riverbanks. Fish are more common here than usual”. The third is the ʻForest Farmʼ in which “[t]he woods limit your farming space. However, the bounty of the forest is nearly at your doorstep…”. The fourth farm is the ʻHill-top Farmʼ which its major setback is that the “[r]ocky terrain and a winding river make it difficult to design your farm”, but on the upside, there is “a mineral deposit” which offers “mining opportunities”. The fifth and final farm on the list is the ʻWilderness Farmʼ in which “[t]hereʼs plenty of good land here, but beware… at night the monsters come out”.
Depending on the playerʼs decisions of who their character is, what they like and which version of the farm they want to attend to, the results say something about the playerʼs life box package. Their past experience that shape who they are today influence who their character is in their play through of Stardew Valley. While there are players who might consciously decide to make their character completely different than their actual selves, the common choices are based in the playerʼs gender, interests, pets, appearance and dream home. By making these decisions, it makes the gameplay more personal and the character more relatable, especially with the story we are given afterwards.
Once the player completes the depiction of their character, the selection screen transitions into a cutscene where the game will have some context of who their characters is.
We then see an elderly man lying down peacefully on his deathbed with an envelope in hand. As he lays dying, he gives the protagonist the envelope. In this scene, his final words are a reminder that when the time comes, s/he will read the letter inside:
“…and for my very special grandson/granddaughter: I want you to have this sealed envelope. Now, listen close…There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life…
…and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness. When that happens, my dear, youʼll be ready for this gift. Now, let Grandpa rest…”
As with our real life grandparents, who hope that the younger generation will return to their origins, the grandfather of Stardew Valley serves as an example of the youthʼs relationship with their elders. The elderly canʼt push the youth away from the rapidly changing world they live in that enchants them into the out-with-the-old-in-with- the-new attitude, so the best that can be done is let the youth discover that on their own. Once they have this epiphany, it gives the youth a chance to embark on their journey of why their grandparents valued the things they valued by seeing what survives them for themselves.
Joja vs. Traditions
In the following scene when “XX Years later” have gone by, the player sees for themselves the meaning behind the protagonistʼs grandfatherʼs last words. The peaceful and colorful setting of Grandpaʼs room with its warm color scheme of bright blues, purples and yellows transition into the cold, steel shades of gray of the Joja Corporation. This scene depicts two cubicles in threes. One on set on the left and the other row on the right are filled with people working non-stop as a corporate leader on either side watches from behind a window. In the center, the wall has the Joja logo and slogan, which reads “Join us. Thrive.” Below are two lights. The green on the left is lit up with the word ʻworkʼ next to it and lit up. The red light is turned off, which has the word ʻrestʼ next to it also dimmed.
The next scene depicts the aisle where the playable character is working. The camera slowly shifts from left to right towards his/her desk reveals the mundane and grim conditions of the work place. Above the workersʼ heads reads “Smile. Youʼre with Joja” and “Lifeʼs better with Joja”. It gets so monotonous that itʼs reflected in the playable characterʼs gestures. S/he begins to lose focus at the front of an old computer and finally reaches for the envelope given by his/her late grandfather. The letter inside is an inheritance to the old family farm, which explains what Grandpa realized mattered most in his life:
“Dear [playable characterʼs name],
If youʼre reading this, you must be in dire need of a change.
The same thing happened to me, long ago. Iʼd lost sight of what mattered most in life… real connections with other people and nature. So I dropped everything and moved to the place I truly belong.
Iʼve enclosed the deed to that place… my pride and joy: [name of farm]. Itʼs located in Stardew Valley, on the southern coast. Itʼs the perfect place to start your new life.
This was my most precious gift of all, and now itʼs yours. I know youʼll honor the family name, my dear”.
Grandpa concludes his letter wishing the playable character the best and giving him/her his love. He also adds a P.S. to greet his old friend Lewis is he is still alive. From there, the playable character leaves the company to venture to Stardew Valley to begin his/her new life on the farm.
Thereʼs a certain irony about the words that Joja boasts and the quality of life represented to the player in contrast to the humble sincerity reflected in Grandpaʼs letter. Joja believes in taking part in the settings of a preexisting corporate brand name and simply ʻthriveʼ and sets a tone that people should be simply content. As long as they are caught up in this endless cycle of working in front of a computer all day everyday for the company and they are being paid extraordinarily well, thatʼs all that counts. No time for anything or anybody else, just this brand name that represents itself as a wonderful happy place. Grandpaʼs words foils the promise these slogans offer by reminding the playable character that he too, had been down that path where the modern world would serve as a distraction and a temporary high over relationships with others and the beauties nature has to offer.
Moving to Stardew Valley and maintaining the family farm are that balance of work life, mixed with forming relationships and taking the time to bask in natureʼs wonders are what create a healthy lifestyle whereas life working for Joja is seen depriving the workers of such lavishness. With that being said there is an immense difference between being content verse true happiness, which Grandpa hopes for his grandson/granddaughter. Hence why, without second guessing, the playable character accepts this inheritance in a heartbeat.
Your Characterʼs Arrival In Pelican Town, Meeting Mayor Lewis and a History in Jeopardy
Upon arriving to Stardew Valley, the playable character is greeted by the townʼs carpenter, Robin. In this introductory scene, the playable character gets a brief overview of his/her role in the story, both plot and gameplay. Upon meeting Robin, she leads him/her to his/her farm, which has an excessive amount of plants and trees growing everywhere. The playable character is shocked by this to which Robin reassures is not as bad as it may look. She then shows the playable character his/her new home, Grandpaʼs cottage. Lewis, who is the Mayor of Pelican Town walks out the door and greets the newcomer. He tells him/her that “everyoneʼs been asking about [him/her]” and that “[i]tʼs not every day that someone new moves in. Itʼs quite a big deal!”. Lewis then comments about the playable character moving into his/her grandfatherʼs cottage and describes it as ʻrusticʼ. Robin joking remarks “[r]ustic? Thatʼs one way to put it… ʻCrustyʼ might be a little more apt, though” much to Lewisʼ disgust. He tells the playable character to ignore Robin and that “[s]heʼs just trying to make you dissatisfied so that you buy one of her house upgrades”. Robin pouts at his words. Lewis concludes this introduction by encouraging the playable character to rest after his/her travels from the city to the valley and that tomorrow, s/he “ought to explore the town a bit and introduce [him/herself]” and by doing so, “[t]he townspeople would appreciate that”. Thus begins a new chapter in the playable characterʼs life.
In this introduction of the farm, players see that time has taken its toll on the piece of land surrounding the cottage. Between the time since Grandpa had passed on to the day the playable character decides to leave the job at the Joja Corporation, the farm and the cottage had little, if any, maintenance. As being part of a family heritage, the reaction players get from their character is not surprising. S/he is rightfully appalled at seeing the plot of land in such imperfect conditions. In addition, Lewisʼ modesty when describing the cottage as being ʻrusticʼ demonstrates a bit of his nostalgia of seeing it at itʼs prime, though he knows it has seen better days. Itʼs even reflected when he gets defensive towards Robinʼs response and back talks about her upgrades. With all that is being shown in this scene, the playable character sees what his/her grandfather left behind and has plenty of work to do to nourish it and maintain it. However, as the game goes on, s/he learns more from Lewis about why he gets sentimental about the seeing parts of the town falling into dilapidation. This becomes more apparent when the playable character meets him at the Community Center and comes across building in ruins nearby his/her farm.
When Lewis is standing in front of the Community Center, he appears lost in thought, possibly reminiscing. The playable character slowly walks up to him. Lewis doesnʼt expect someone to be behind him, hence why he seems surprised to see the playable in this area. Nonetheless, he is pleased to have someone he can open up to about why this matters to him. When he and the playable character take a moment to look at the building together, he sadly expresses how seeing the Community Center in such poor conditions makes him feel and what Joja plans to do with it:
“It used to be the pride and joy of the town… always bustling with activity. Now… just look at it. Itʼs shameful. These days, the young folk would rather sit in front of the TV than engage with the community. But listen to me, I sound like an old fool. Joja Corporation has been hounding me to sell them the land so they can turn it into a warehouse… Pelican Town could use money, but thereʼs something stopping me from selling it… guess old timers like me get attached to relics of the past… Ah well. If anyone else buys a Joja Co. Membership Iʼm just gonna go ahead and sell it”.
Based on the context clues and the appearance of the interior of the Community Center, it used to be a gathering place for the townspeople. This would be the place where they would meet up on a Sunday afternoon or any time just to socialize and have a great time together. While part of it is Lewisʼ nostalgia that prevents him from letting the place go, there is also value to preserving the center that the playable character can either dismiss or take to heart. Because Joja is flourishing and overtaking Stardew Valley while Pelican Town is struggling to remain relevant, the playable can either purchase a Joja membership or work hard to restore the building to its former glory. This goes to show that Grandpa valued hard work and community to prosper rather than take the easy way out and dismiss the past that made Pelican Town what it is today.
Lewisʼ sentiments are relatable because as life changes, the symbols of the townʼs history slowly diminishes in favor of the new and modern. Seeing the playable character disenchanted working at the corporation and reaching out for Grandpaʼs letter is an example of how much being so caught up in the purely modernized world can detach one from their roots. Aside from the playable characterʼs reaction to the condition of his/her inherited piece of land, his/her response to the damaged building nearby is “[w]hatever this once was, itʼs now in ruins”. One could interpret that as the playable character sympathizing and wondering what the building once was.
Like life itself, we tend to hear stories about places our parents, grandparents and great grandparents have been to and used to go to in their youth. While we may not share that same sense of nostalgia, we imagine what those places were like during their glory days and if it meant the world to them, it will mean something to us as well, albeit differently. We may have a different kind of attachment to that place, but the meaning behind it encourages us to connect and reconnect its past and how it shaped the present. While change is necessary for keeping up with the times, itʼs when itʼs used to bury traditions and heritage as if they never had any influence on the present that stifle these relationships, hence the playable characterʼs role in game to represent that culture in the modern times.
Meeting the Other Characters and Bonding with Them (Life Box Package)
The characterʼs first day on the farm takes place during the Springtime. The day starts with the sun shining through the windows and with the non-diegetic musical score entitled Spring (itʼs a Big World Outside). The color palette and the tone of both the setting and the music set the feeling of a fresh new start the the playable characterʼs life and is ready to openly embrace it. S/he slips out of bed and has the opportunity to get to know everyone, who they are, what they like, what they dislike, how they go about their day and how they relate to their environment. It is up to the player to take the time to listen and understand their nature, especially towards who they decide the playable character marries and wants to form a meaningful relationship with.
The way the playable character interacts with the NPCs is another example of the life box package. Like how our past experiences shape the way we are, the NPCs of Stardew Valley display their reactions to what the playable character offers them. For example, the character Shane, (one of the available bachelors as of the 1.1 update) is usually in a bad mood. As the playable character gets to know him, s/he learns he works at Joja Mart, a job he strongly hates and when heʼs done for the day, he spends his time alone at the Stardrop Saloon. He is off work on weekends and is around his aunt Marnieʼs ranch. The playable characterʼs ten hearts represents how well s/he is bonding with the character. If the playable character forms a relationship with him, heʼll start to warm up to him/her.
If the player receives two hearts, s/he can venture towards the Cindersap Forest to meet alone Shane at the dock between 8:00 PM to midnight. This is the first time he opens up about his personal struggles with depression to the playable character as he shares a beer with him/her. He asks him/her if s/he has ever felt him/herself spiraling down into an “abyss” he admits to him/her that he “just feel[s] like no matter how hard [he] tr[ies]… [heʼs] not strong enough to climb out of that hole”. The heart stats rise if the player frequently interacts with the NPCs so if the player decides to continue nurturing the relationship with Shane and with each empty heart filling up, a cutscene will be triggered by venturing wherever he goes at a specific day and time. For example, upon earning four hearts, there will be a cutscene taking place at the ranch revealing more of Shaneʼs personal issues and how it affects those close to him, most notably his little niece, Jas. By earning six hearts and traveling towards the Cindersap Forest on a rainy day between 9:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M., the playable character will find Shane laying by the cliffside, where he will further reveal his lack of self worth and believes it would be best if he took a leap off that ledge. After the playable character responds to what he says, s/he will take him to the hospital, where he is treated by one of the other bachelor NPCs, Harvey, who suggests heʼs seek counseling in Zuzu City. Shane will stop by the playable characterʼs doorstep the next morning to tell him/her that he has considered to seek help and apologizes for being burdensome. The more hearts earned before the tenth and the playable character visits Shane each time, the cutscenes reveal the progress he is making and how much better he is doing. After earning the full ten hearts, Shane invites the playable to go with him to Zuzu City to see a sports team play at their home stadium. When the crowd is cheering, Shane is so caught up in the moment, he kisses the playable character. At first he is embarrassed by it, but the playable character will kiss him back and thus the relationship is mutual and open for a possible marriage.
Each scenario with the bachelor and bachelorettes is unique and they all have their backstories and personal issues that the player has to be willing to lend an ear to if s/he hopes to have a meaningful relationship with. Shane is one example of a character the player has available to him/her and by choosing to develop that relationship, they are getting to know the life box package of that character. Understanding why each of the bachelors/bachelorettes think and feel the way they do gives them a reason to give their respects to the playable character in return. The same goes with the other NPCs who are not marriage options, but the playable character can bond with them by being open and willing to learn about the town and what living there is like for them. That too, will raise and fill in the heart stats. Even so, while the playable character juxtaposes his/ her time to maintain the farm, s/he will also be given opportunities to accept and go on quest the townspeople have to offer. Not only is the playable character rewarded for volunteering, but they grow closer to the people around them. As a result, the playable character will also see a cutscene after receiving another stat if s/he stops by to check on the NPC s/he is interacting with and befriending. S/he will discover their personal struggles and why they behave and react to things the way they do.
After obtaining three hearts from interactions with Kent, the playable character can stop by at his and Jodiʼs place. While Jodi is making popcorn, the sounds of popping stir tragic memories of the war and the friends he lost during combat. The six hearts event for Caroline gives the playable character a chance to eavesdrop on an argument she has with her daughter, Abigail, who is one of the bachelorettes. Earning six hearts for George and coming over to his place after garnering it will prompt the elderly man to warm up even more to the playable character. In the scene, George needs help reaching for one of the books on the shelf, but is unable to because he is paralyzed. The playable character will help him. He then expresses his gratitude and tells him/her he is immobile because of an accident that took place while he was working in the coal mines 30 years ago. He then expresses his appreciation for the playable characterʼs kindness and tell him/her that at an old age “you start to forget that anyone cares about you”.
As with the case of our own lives, moving into a new place introduces new people and at first glance, we tend to see a blank slate. By choosing to reach out to them and earning their respect, they eventually start to open up and we learn more about why they behave and think the way they do and why they value the things they value. As a result, the lives we touch and influence become a part of our legacy. Our involvement and how much we contribute is what people will remember about us, either for better or for worse. In the scenario Stardew Valley depicts, the playerʼs character is either active in the community and willing to listen to what his/her peers have to say, what they like and donʼt and how their personal struggles shaped them or easily dismiss those things and never help enrich anyoneʼs life. This leads to Grandpaʼs judgment and if he feels the playable character honored the family heritage or not.
Open Ended Ending and Grandpaʼs Judgement
Three years after the playable characterʼs arrival to Pelican Town, the spirit of his/ her late grandfather will appear to him/her for evaluation. The playable character discovers this when coming across his shrine nearby the farm. There, s/he finds a note from Grandpa that says “[w]ait for my return at the dawn of the 3rd year”. When the time comes, 1st of Spring, Year 3, Grandpaʼs ghost will appear to the playable character. His criteria will be based on how many candles are lit when the third year begins, which is measured by the amount of points and milestones the player reached in the years prior. The lowest score, which is between 0-3 with only one candle lit will result in Grandpaʼs regrets turning the farm over to the player. The highest score, 12 points or more where all four candles are lit, he will express how proud he is of his grandson/daughter.
Again, all this depends on what the player had their character do during the first couple of years. As players level, s/he should garner 30 levels in Skills or 50 in which the playable character scores a level 10 per skill. Achievements also play a role in Grandpaʼs evaluation. The playable characterʼs contributions to the town, such as completing the collection for the local museum, full shipment of every item and catching every fish. The friendships made, which include marriage and a house upgrade. The playable character must also have formed friendships with at least 5 or ten villagers, reaching the stat of at least 8 hearts. Even so, 4 hearts at most with his/her pet is also required. In addition to these requirements, both the Skull and the Rusty key need to be obtained and the Community Center needs to be restored to its former glory.
Upon reviewing Grandpaʼs expectations for the playable character, this is more than just scoring points for scoring points, but this also who he is supposed to be as a character. By knowing what Grandpa hopes his grandson/daughter does upon inheriting the farm and why, the game becomes less about the typical completionist mentality and more about relating to the character as we would with those who came before us. The story opens up with Grandpaʼs final wishes. Before the player is told this story, they put the playable character together, who is in some ways a self representation. It serves as a reminder that our family members like our grandparents can only teach as much as they can during the remainder of their lifetime. When their time is almost up, they can only hope that the youth they tried to connect with will honor the legacy in someway. Grandpaʼs words when he evaluates your dedication reflect those sentiments and possibly the fear of having not done enough or the right things to honor those wishes.
It should also be noted that because the game is open ended, the player is given more time to redeem their character if they fail to meet Grandpaʼs expectations. This could be interpreted as the playable character receiving a wake up call or a reminder that s/he have strayed away from his/her roots, but can still return if s/he chooses to do so. Although realistically, people have a short amount of time to turn things around and the game lets the player continue indefinitely, itʼs the tone of voice Grandpa sets for the player. In the scenario where Grandpa is completely satisfied does not imply that the player does not continue improving. As with life itself, even if you reach a goal or what you define as success, you never stop further developing what you are building. With every new experience life has to offer, you never stop growing from them. Therefore, even if the player is still at a less than satisfactory conclusion, there is still a chance to reevaluate what could be better. It could be interpreted that in the scenario where Grandpa is displeased, the playable character is reflecting on his/her strengths and weaknesses.
However players comprehend Grandpaʼs role in his afterlife is subjective, but within the diegesis, the depiction of his relationship with the playable character shows his high expectation for him/her to reach his/her full potential. This can seen as an epitome for how the player themselves ponder over how they pay their respects to their own heritage and if their grandparents would be proud of who they become.
What the Player Gets Out of the Experience
Stardew Valley stands out as being more than a farming simulator RPG. It serves as a reflection of the player and their ties to their own heritage and legacy. Eric Baroneʼs goal was to succeed where Harvest Moon had fallen short and has most certainly done so by giving the gameʼs basic premise more personal significance. With the player customizing the playable character, the concept of their character inheriting his/her late grandfatherʼs farm and how they draw those literary connections to their own lives and grandparents and how much their character contributes to the town and relates to its people, the game goes above and beyond being a life management simulator and reflects how we identify with our past and the present. The game also serves as a reminder that the present is shaped by our history and and those whose lives we relate to and without our connections to them, our meaning is lost. Itʼs those contributions and involvement that further develop character. The new can be welcomed without sacrificing roots. The community we participate in and the way we influence it also become a part of that legacy.
In the end, Stardew Valley has displayed what our rapidly changing society leaves behind by being more invested in the glamour of modernism without taking a moment to bask in the beauty of what life offers and understanding our origins. In a world where the out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new mentality overshadows what made our story, it never hurts to take a step outside the monotonous comfort zone and take the time to explore what shaped us into who we are today and who we want to become.