What It’s Like Returning to ‘Stardew Valley’ as an Adult
With Haunted Chocolatier just beyond the horizon, I’ve been thinking more and more about Stardew Valley lately. A lot has changed about the game since it came out, when I was a senior in high school. More marriage candidates have been added, there are new maps to explore, and the number of things you can do has increased exponentially. By all metrics, it’s almost an entirely different game.
So, as I’ve been undergoing something of a ~Quarter Life Crisis~ as of late, I thought I’d see what all the fuss is about regarding the cozy game lifestyle. I’ve returned to the Valley, this time as an adult woman who pays taxes and makes appointments at the DMV a month in advance.
And you know what? Stardew Valley has never been better for me.
The fantasy of flight
The most obvious comparison is regarding the very beginning of the game. As a teenager, the whole sequence of watching Grandpa (on his weirdly uncomfortable bed) die and give you the deed to the farm, which you read at your shitty desk job, felt humorously stereotypical to me. I recall thinking along the lines of, Lol this is so cheesy.
Fast forward to now, and I literally got teary-eyed. I thought to myself, Holy shit, what I’d give to have an inherited plot of land I could just **** off to!
Like most people, when I was younger, I was incredibly idealistic and excited about what the future held for me. I had daydreams of traveling to new countries with friends, writing and creating beautiful things, just living life with pleasure and curiosity in mind. Alas, like most people, this was not meant to be. Before coming to The Mary Sue, I also had to slog through hours of menial work, waiting and wondering if this was it. The temptation to just leave it all behind was always in the back of my mind.
As I played through my new game of Stardew Valley, I was better able to put myself in the mindset of my farmer than before. I’ve already gone through the anxieties of moving somewhere completely new, and jumping career tracks; as such, as I waddled around town, trying to gather my bearings, it felt oddly cathartic. My farmer had left a sure thing to try to make a better thing work, and it was proving to be hard, financially unsure, and socially bizarre. (I’d forgotten how standoffish the villagers are at the beginning of the game!)
Yet even so, the game doesn’t give you an option to give up. You learn to take comfort in the mundanity of your daily tasks, and when you finally make things a little better for yourself, incrementally, you take immense pleasure in the payoff. My goals this time around were less oriented around the Next Big Adventure, and more about little housekeeping things, like eventually getting access to gold ore, so I could make better quality sprinklers. Eventually, you get to a point where you walk out to your farm, do your chores, and then head into town, and you realize that you have built a good little life for yourself.
It really, truly is wish-fulfillment to the umpteenth degree. No wonder my teen self didn’t “get it.”
What’s my age again?
Where things got a little awkward for me was with the romance aspect of the game. I remember marrying Abigail when I was in high school, because she just seemed like the coolest option. Then, when I played again in college, I married Leah, but wondered if she was “too boring” compared to all the other oddballs in the game.
Now, I have no idea what the hell I was on about, because half the villagers need therapy, and the other half feel like they were written specifically with teenagers in mind. It’s that Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons/Rune Factory problem: Historically, games like this do well with teenagers as well as adults, so the romances are designed with all ages in mind, yet this often ends up feeling supremely awkward for older players.
We have characters like Sam, Alex, Abigail, and Haley, who all feel like they could be teenagers, for various reasons ranging from emotional immaturity to a lack of any long-term dreams whatsoever. Even Maru could be added to this list, by virtue of how coddled she is by her parents. And look, I’m not at all saying that living with your family in your 20s, or not knowing what you’re doing, makes you less of an adult. (I’d be a hypocrite in that scenario!) I just think there’s a better way of writing these sorts of characters, where it doesn’t feel so odd dating, marrying, and having kids with them.
Sebastian, for instance, feels like a good representative of this kind of character. He’s listless and isolated, and he actively wants to get out of his current situation. Is he kind of a petulant ass? Sure. But you understand why. He’s a young man who wants to get out of his hick town and see the world. It’s not like he’s Sam, who’s content to have his mom keep cooking, cleaning, and doing his laundry for him.
Comparatively, characters like Leah, Harvey, Emily, Elliott, and Shane feel like they’re from an entirely different game. They all feel like they’ve already lived an adult life, and therefore, they’re more on “your level.” Yes, they’re on wildly different spectrums of this experience, with Emily out there vibing with her bohemian self, and Shane having incredibly real struggles with his mental health. But they still feel more age-appropriate and relatable than, say, Alex’s reminiscing about his high school football days.
I, for one, am ashamed that I found Leah to be a little basic in my college days, because I absolutely love that woman. Just like the farmer, she left her old life behind to try to live more authentically, and she’s an artist to boot! I’m putting a ring on it ASAP.
Grind over matter, or matter over grind?
What I want to end on is something I personally find very interesting, and telling, about how people play Stardew Valley. It’s something that happens a lot with these types of cozy, life-sim games. Some players take things to their absolute limit, creating farms like this:
And it’s absolutely incredible! But it’s not something I can relate to at all. The beauty of a game like this is that you don’t have to follow a mold; you can make your escapist fantasy whatever you want it to be.
At this point in my life, all I want is to make an honest living doing what I love, enjoy the company of people I love, and see the fruits of my labor reflected in the life I’ve built. I try to emulate this in life sims like Stardew. I don’t min/max my financial gains, feel the need to cover every square inch of my property, or even care about which farm is the most profitable.
I picked the beach farm because I grew up by the ocean and I like it. I have daydreams about settling down in a shack by the beach, so getting to play through that daydream is very soothing for me. I like planting seasonal crops, as well as high-profit crops, because it’s more fun that way. I refuse to build a Slime Hutch because I hate slimes. Instead of a shed, I built a subsidized guest home to store my artisanal tools in, because I like the way it looks better. And, finally, I’ve spent more time rearing livestock than capitalizing on crops, not only because animal products provide a steady income, but because it feels so good to have a bunch of cute animals to look after.
Yes, at this stage in my career, I play games partially for work, but I also still play them as a way to decompress and return to center. In this sense, Stardew Valley has never been more of a pleasure to explore than as an adult. There are things about the game’s core themes that I simply relate to more than ever, and the fulfillment I feel living out my real-life pipe dreams in a video game is just incomparable. Whereas once the idea of leaving it all behind and creating my own life was just one of many teenage whims, it now feels more pertinent than ever.
And while no, it isn’t the first game of its ilk to set out with these themes, there really is something special about Stardew that you don’t find very often in video games. If you’re looking for an excuse to start a new play-through, well, here it is—get to it, farmer.
(featured image: ConcernedApe)
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