I haven’t been writing very much in the last few months. Part of that is due to my putting time into preparing for and recovering after Unpub6, finalizing New Bedford for printing, and preparing some games for design contests. But another part is that I’ve been putting a lot of time into playing Stardew Valley, the recent smash hit indie video game about farming. There’s something about farming that really speaks to me as a game player and a game designer, and it’s probably safe to say that I wouldn’t be where I am without farming games.
My history with farming games goes back to Harvest Moon on the Super Nintendo. I don’t remember reading about it in Nintendo Power, but I enjoyed gardening with my grandfather and gave it a try. It was a completely new experience to me, and it was remarkably fun to simulate chores. The game was a constant balance between how to use your limited time, energy, and money, that somehow captured the feeling of country life. You want to keep playing because you see things change every day. It compresses the hope, excitement, and best aspects of changing seasons into an accessible package.
Looking back, the game was remarkably simple. For two of four seasons, there wasn’t a single crop to plant or harvest. Inventory management was severely limited. There was little customization, and barely any story. But maybe the biggest flaw was that time doesn’t pass after about 8 at night. You could repeatedly restore your energy at the hot spring, clear your entire farm on the first night. But the game still worked.
Harvest Moon 64 basically fixed all of those problems. [In my experience, the prevailing opinion is that HM64 was the pinnacle of the series.] I know consider it the It kept the formula that worked so well. But now you had an actual inventory (albeit a clunky one), there were more crops, more things to do, and lots of little secrets to discover. The townsfolk had their own troubles and lives, and your relationships with them invisibly influenced events, and if you just focused on your farm, you might not even notice some of them. People would seem to arrive and depart randomly.
The next several iterations veered more towards being life simulator. A Wonderful Life focused more on building relationships and growing your family over time. Farming was a very limited aspect, and the game didn’t grab me (although the weather and seasonal transitions were amazing). Magical Melody turned the customization up to 11, and added people arriving or leaving based on what you shipped, with an “achievement” system to guide players with objectives while keeping a lot of the basic mechanics.
I skipped a number of the intermediate games because of lack of time and interest and poor reviews. But the latest games have really tried to be life simulators than farming games. Animal Parade had a lot of promise, but everything was locked behind friendship and scripted events, making it too mechanical. The 3DS games have have fallen victim to Minecraft, with a huge “crafting” system required to do anything. The last Harvest Moon title (Lost Valley) borrows very heavily from Minecraft. And the series has fractured with the developers now publishing under the Story of Seasons brand. Story of Seasons, like A New Beginning fail in playability. You constantly run out of energy too quickly, leaving you with nothing to do but forage for items, which you have to keep all of because you need everything for crafting.
The fracture in the series is symbolic of the fracture taking place within the game. Each one adds on more and more things that you have to do to play the game “right”. You can’t just own cows, you have to take them out to feed in the special place or they’ll never grow. You can’t just plant crops and harvest them, you need to unlock farming areas and compete for them. Mining is a wholly random process. As a result, the games seem disjointed into several game-like activities revolving around farming, without any of the joy of the original Harvest Moon games. The real goal seems to be forcing the player into specific curated events to tell a story, rather than letting the player create the story themselves, which is something I identify as the core of the Harvest Moon experience.
The original Harvest Moon took chores and made them fun. The recent games some how manage to take fun and make it a chore. The work itself used to be interesting. Now, I have to work as a player in order to do anything interesting. Farmville (and mobile gaming in general) has poisoned the whole concept, where the “game” is about filling your time between things happening. I’m still drawn to farming, but I want something that follows the original formula without all the extra baggage that the series has collected.
Enter: Stardew Valley.