Impression: Stardew Valley
While I still have a modicum of free time, let’s talk about Stardew Valley.
It’s awesome. /impression
Describing why it’s awesome is much more difficult. So I’m just going to try talking about its various interlocking systems.
Despite the game looking and sounding like a peaceful farming simulator, there is a rather large amount of tension to the gameplay. You start the day off at 6 AM with (usually) a full energy meter. Each time you till a farm tile, water a plant, chop a tree, etc, you use up a little bit of that energy. Starting out, the only real way to regain energy is to eat either foraged food or perhaps some of your crops. This, of course, will prevent you from selling said items though.
Meanwhile, the clock is always ticking in 10 minute increments. You can walk around and explore the town, but the game doesn’t care if you run out of daylight with a full energy meter or an empty one. People in town have schedules as well, so if you want to seduce/befriend them, you have to plan around their day. Forgot to pick up seeds and it’s 5:10 PM? Tough luck, the store is closed. If you’re not in bed by 2 AM, you collapse and are dragged home by someone, losing money and some of tomorrow’s energy along the way.
On top of that, you have longer-term considerations. Some crops will produce in 4 days of growing. Others take 12 days. Some you have to replant after harvesting, and others will continue producing. Each season in the game is 28 days long, and most crops only grow in one season. Ergo, it’s entirely possible for your 12-day crop to wither on the vine one day before harvest if the season changes.
Oh, and by the way, some of the super-important unlocks require items that can only be found/farmed/fished within certain seasons. If you miss a Spring item after the season changes, well… better luck next year.
All of that might sound intimidating. And complicated. And difficult to optimize. And it is all those things.
But it’s also weirdly liberating. Because it is not as though the game just ends if you miss some kind of deadline. Life keeps going. You can try and complete the most efficient path… or you can just keep doing what you are doing. Want a big farm? Focus on that. Want to raise livestock instead? Go do that. Fish all day erry’day? Probably viable. You may or may not get enough cash to upgrade your house before the first winter, but who cares? Only you.
The mutual exclusivity of tasks somehow doesn’t feel constricting. You can’t dig deeper into the mines and also plant new fields and forage for forest plants and also talk to everyone in town in the same day. But that doesn’t feel like an arbitrary restriction so much as a natural consequence. It makes intuitive sense that these things take time to accomplish. And it’s not as though swinging your ax makes time advance faster or anything – it takes precisely as long as it takes to get something done. This also makes you appreciate the tool upgrades a bit more, if they reduce the amount of swings it takes to finish a task.
I recently unlocked the Sprinkler item to craft. As you might expect, it automatically waters crops around itself. That said, the beginner version only waters four tiles in a cross shape around itself. “That’s dumb,” I thought. More advanced versions are available later that water all adjacent tiles, and eventually multiple rings of tiles. But once Summer hit, I went all-in on crops with the idea of earning enough coin by mid-season to finally upgrade my house. And now I’m spending 2+ in-game hours just watering plants each morning. So while the sprinklers are incredibly inefficient, I started thinking to myself that 4 less tiles to water * 10 is actually lot less time/energy used each morning.
That’s just one example of an interesting decision the game presented me without it coming across as an obvious Yes/No binary. The game is just full of them too, thus far. Instead of worrying about watering crops, I could have a different set of concerns if I had decided to build a chicken coop instead. I’m assuming it’d have something to do with feeding all those animals.
So, yeah. Stardew Valley is fantastic. It’s scratching all kinds of itches I didn’t even know I had. Short-term planning, long-term planning, optimization, experimentation, agency… all wrapped up in a pixel bow and all created by one dude. Can’t wait to see what else this designer has up his sleeve, and hopefully the sleeves of a few extra helpers, because I don’t want to have to wait another 4+ years for his next title.