In my still-limited free time, I have been playing Graveyard Keeper.
Even before I purchased the game – or got it through a bundle, I forget – Graveyard Keeper had been unfavorably compared to Stardew Valley. Specifically, how the game devolves into an inordinate grind. Having played the game now for about 25 hours, I have to agree. But it is not the grind that is the problem, but the overall disjointed experience.
As you might imagine from the name, the primary task is the maintenance of the graveyard and nearby chapel. Bodies will be delivered periodically, and interring them can not only improve the overall quality of the graveyard, but gives you a Burial Certificate which you can trade for coins. As things progress, you get the ability to perform autopsies to improve the “quality” of the bodies before burial – primarily by removing “sinful” organs – such that higher quality headstones and such can unlock the full potential of a buried corpse.
So, the gameplay loop starts relatively tight. You chop trees and mine stones/ore to build headstones and such to improve the graveyard. Improving the graveyard eventually allows you lead sermons that generate Faith resources, which allow you to research further technology.
Things fall apart in the mid to late game. The ultimate goal of the game is to collect six items from certain NPCs in town and spend 12g on a last item. 12g is 1200 silver and you get 1.5 silver for each buried/burned body. Thus, you need alternative means of making money. Which is fine, because the quests necessary to get the special items are long and involved and require you to do all sorts of tech-tree development, building dozens of workstations, and basically creating a little empire. However… you can’t specialize. The bartender will purchase the wine you make, for example, but each bottle sold will reduce the price of the next bottle, and prices only recover slowly over time. Which means you need to do all the things all the time, when there will never be enough of it to matter.
To me, that is not even the worst part. The worst part is that your time horizon is ever only seven in-game days. In Stardew Valley, you had seasons and yearly events to plan towards. Sometimes that was a massive pain and source of min-maxing, given that you could spend a lot of time on crops only to have them all die a day before harvesting because the calendar changed. But it also gave you a focus. Hell, you could focus on just a few things, e.g. fishing vs animals vs growing crops, depending on your mood. Graveyard Keeper requires a generalized approach of running around all day every day, never really getting a sense that you’re making progress on any particular thing.
I even have some zombies now to assist in automating resource collection, and I still never have time to do all the things I need to do to feel satisfied on my progress. At one point, I just abandoned the whole corpse part of the game for several in-game weeks because I couldn’t be bothered. I was trying to unlock the second-tier Alchemy Bench so that I could actually start using the Embalming techniques I had unlocked 10 hours beforehand, but the convoluted tech tree and components meant I couldn’t do much of anything. Even when there are interesting choices to make, such as removing more organs than necessary to turn them into alchemical ingredients at the cost of corpse quality, all it becomes is just another chore to do on the path to something else.
It is difficult to discern why I still like playing this game. Well, perhaps not too difficult: it’s a game that encourages planning and thinking even when not actively playing. Same with Fallout 76, really, in that even at work I am strategizing on what I plan to do in-game when I get home. But this chronic tension and sense of never making particular headway is also exhausting, and the last thing I need more of in my life.
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.
Why did I think it was a good idea to start playing Stardew Valley for the first time this weekend? The Fallout 76 Beta is coming out like tomorrow, and I decided it was a good idea to boot up a game that has already consumed 10 hours of my time in two days? Good lord.
As a side note, it’s amusing experiencing the same synapses firing off when I farm and plant crops as I do when playing survival games. It’s starting to make me wonder whether I like survival games, or if I have been using survival games to scratch the itch for farming simulators.
Either way, it’s trouble. I gotta do stuff this week.