Since February 2016 — not quite a year and a half as of this writing — over 2.6 million people have moved to Stardew Valley. The population of the community there used to be around 40 souls: their growth rate is so mind-boggling it could practically unbalance the axis of the world.
In spite of that, Stardew Valley remains a beautiful, bucolic place, with friendly folks and points of interest. A hamlet nestled in the valley is called Pelican Town, and it has all of the hallmarks of quirky, small-town living. For example, there is a peaceful, restorative spa built high on a mountain, where I can soak away my aches and pains, but it’s also next to a noisy train station where a loud freighter comes through once a day throwing rocks and debris everywhere.
My place is just outside of town, on some overgrown acreage I inherited from my grandpa. It’s taken a lot of work to get the property as far along as it is. I’m farming, if you can believe it. I’ve tried making friends with the neighbors, but it’s been a slow process. As willing as people are to talk, they can still be a little guarded.
The whole situation would be like something out of a television show, if it wasn’t already something out of a video game.
I have had video games in my home for as long as I can remember. My mom and dad bought an Atari 2600 for their kids when I was barely out of training pants. It was our first computer. In fact, we would have a total of four video game consoles (Atari 2600, Atari 7800, Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo) before the first recognizable, modern-ish desktop computer.
But my parents didn’t want us to spend all day in front of the television, in one form or another. So while I certainly spent free time with video games, I was just as likely to be reading, riding bikes, shooting baskets, or doing chores.
Nurturing those non-television interests made me a more well-rounded kid, which was the intended purpose. They also made me very picky about video games. If I didn’t absolutely love it, then I had no interest.
Of course now, riding bikes and shooting baskets has transmogrified into family, job, church, and community responsibilities. Adult stuff, in other words. I simply don’t have the volume of free time I once did. So if I am going to spend those precious free hours with a video game, I had better really love it.
What I have read about Stardew Valley is enough to make me curious, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. I have also read that the fan community it is one of the most positive and friendly groups on the internet, which doesn’t sound at all like the internet I know.
There is also another compelling reason why I need an escape right now, even for just a few hours at a time. Something I can hardly think about, let alone write down. I don’t know if Stardew Valley will do the trick, but I am willing to try just about anything.
My first glimpse of Stardew Valley was a lovely vista with a couple of birds flying through that looked like blue herons crossed with flamingos. There was some pleasant, calming music, and the scene slowly slid down to reveal the title card. The options were simple: New, Load, and Exit. I clicked on New, with a thrill.
Next was the character creation screen, which had a lot of fun options. The way someone creates a computer avatar has been the subject of terabytes of pop psychology thought. When a person can select any size, shape, name, gender, and appearance to represent themselves, they are diving into deep mental waters. Even the fellow who sees it as just a chore, to be gone through at maximum possible speed so as to get to the actual gameplay, is saying something about himself.
I was in favor of taking it seriously, whatever that says about me, and naming the character is the lynchpin of my entire avatar experience. Because I was trying to have a little fun with it, I wrote the following names in the box:
- Steve Perry (I happened to be listening to “Oh Sherrie” on Spotify)
- Eatma Shorts
- Mickey Mouse
- Donald Duck
- Peter Parker
- Indiana Jones
- Cat Stevens (“The First Cut is the Deepest” cycled on right after Steve Perry; my compelling emotional reasons caused me to subsequently close my Spotify window and resume the game environment music)
Here’s the thing, though: the amusement value of seeing an NPC say something like: “It’s a lovely morning, Adolf Hitler” is pretty short-lived. But, going with “Nate” creates the opposite problem. The player character is enough of an alter ego anyway, and the lines start blurring too much.
So, to keep the relationship strictly platonic, I decided on “Kit.” As in: Kit Carson, the famous 19th century scout and explorer of the American West; Kit Marlowe, the playwright; and Kit Walker, the perpetual son and namesake of The Phantom. It was NOT for KITT of the TV Show “Knight Rider,” Kit-Kat bars, or first aid kit, just to be clear.
I named my farm Villa Park, after the home stadium of the greatest soccer team in the world, Aston Villa FC. Yes, the same ridiculous name rule from above applies here, but “Villa Park” happens to sound like a legitimate farm. I didn’t go with “Death Star” or “Farmy McFarmface,” or “Disneyland,” after all. The fact that it also shares the name of one of the grand cathedrals of modern soccer is practically coincidental.
The game wanted to know my “Favorite Thing,” and for a long few moments I was stumped. Not that I have any shortage of favorite things, but the context was puzzling. Well, I really like bears, so “Bears” it is. Although my tastes are more in the ursus arctos horribilis camp, I am interested to see what the game does with that information. Kit may just be visited by a large, hairy gentleman, which would be a fun twist.
Next is “Animal Preference,” and I prefer dogs to cats, which is a funny thing for a guy who currently lives with two cats to write. I can’t help that the game is asking me to specify my animal preference. Cats are great, too, but anyone who is honest with themselves prefers the open friendliness of dogs over the low-key hostility of cats.
I dialed in a nice green eye and didn’t mess with the hair color, which was preset to brown. I happen to have green eyes and brown hair. If I am intending to disguise my personal investment in this avatar, I am doing a terrible job.
I found a nice green shirt to bring out the color in Kit’s eyes. Blue denim overalls made him look ready for either a day of farming or a hipster garden party.
The fact that there is an option to skip the intro made me wonder exactly how long and onerous it is. I contemplated checking the “skip” box, but I was in for a pound now, so I should probably see how Kit finds his way to Stardew Valley.
I looked over everything one last time to make sure the character’s name wasn’t Kot and my farm wasn’t Vowel Perk. It looked good, so I clicked “Ok.”
The next scene featured Santa Claus lying on a cot by a crackling fire.
It turns out this is Kit’s grandfather, and Santa/Grandpa is dying. For a brief, fiery second, I contemplated turning off the game.
I pressed on, though, and learned that Grandpa has a sealed envelope for his young grandchild. But Kit doesn’t get to open it yet. The old guy has seen the future, and one day Kit will be ground to dust by the demands of the modern world. Only once all hope is lost can he then break the seal on the gift.
I couldn’t stop looking at a strange totem-thingy on Grandpa’s wall that looked resembled a cross, but with bent arms. Like a cross that was shrugging. Over the fireplace was a sword, a picture of an old woman (Grandma?), and a green blob with an antenna. The wallpaper was purple with a Flying Spaghetti Monster pattern.
We then found ourselves “XX Years later,” which I chose to interpret as 20 years, expressed in Roman numerals. This must have been the bleak future Grandpa warned Kit about, because it looked like the grim, soulless office environment in every movie/television show/commercial where the hero suddenly breaks free. We rolled down an aisle of workers in various stages of disengagement; all except one energetic guy who looked like Woody from “Toy Story,” only he was doing something weird with his tongue.
There was a camera above every desk, presumably tied to a company called Joja (I wondered if it was pronounced with a hard J sound, like “joe-juh” or a Spanish J, like “ho-huh”). Whoever was watching the camera feed was equally disengaged, too, as nobody was actually working except Woody. You know everyone just hates that guy. What kind of outfit is this Joja/Hoha, anyway?
At last we saw young Kit in his cubicle, barely conscious. The spot in front of him was occupied by a woman who didn’t even have her monitor switched on. The guy behind him was half-asleep. Two cubicles in front was an actual skeleton.
A drop of water in a dialogue bubble appeared over Kit’s head, and I think that meant he was crying. It was the grind, finally getting to him. Now in the grimy cubicle, the top drawer opened and Grandpa’s letter was front and center. Kit was finally going to open his Christmas present from XX years ago.
I watched the screen with the envelope for an embarrassingly long time, before I realized I was supposed to click on it.
The spot-on office noise was suddenly replaced with pleasant, calming music, and a letter popped up informing me that Grandpa has given me a farm on the southern coast in a place called Stardew Valley. I was so busy clicking that the letter disappeared before I could read it all the way through.
The very next scene we saw a bus overlooking the same lovely scenery from the start screen of the game. I guess I didn’t get to choose whether to leave my job or not. Then again, the game isn’t called “Joja Office Drone,” so maybe I don’t need to customize every single experience in my life.
Once I arrived, a local was there to greet me. Her name was Robin, and she must have known I was coming, as she greeted me by name. Here, I remembered that a major part of this game was going to be the social interaction, and I was already down with Robin. She had strawberry blonde hair and green eyes. Plus, she knew my name. Robin was currently my favorite person in Stardew Valley not named Kit.
Next stop, Villa Park Farm.
So, I may have quit my job a little too soon. Things were looking rough in Eden, being completely overgrown, and with a sketchy old cabin. Kit freaked out, and another droplet appeared in a dialogue bubble. This game started with the death of a loved one, then showed the hero crying at work, and finally crying at his new home. Not really the cathartic experience I was hoping for, so far.
Robin, all casual-like, asked: “What’s the matter?” Oh, nothing, just the fact that Grandpa’s farm looks like drug dealers planted a crop of wacky tobaccy and let the rest run wild so nobody would get suspicious. At least she believed in the good soil and my ability to clean it up. Clearly, Robin didn’t know anything about my work ethic.
We moved the front porch, where Robin was now openly laughing at the wreck in which I was now supposed to live. It was nothing a person good with tools couldn’t fix, though. Kit is from the city and has no idea what he is doing, but maybe sweet, friendly Robin would be willing to help. We could put on some Otis Redding records, whip up some fondue, and let her fix the gaping hole in the farmhouse porch.
The mayor walked out, and in his newsboy cap and fancy mustache, he seemed like a cool guy. Everybody I met to that point in this game — Kit included — was dressed like a hipster. Lewis let me know he was specifically the mayor of Pelican Town, and although he didn’t make it explicit, I suspected Villa Park Farm was a part of the Greater Pelican Town Metropolis.
The mayor was dropping hints left and right that the townspeople were thrilled to welcome a handsome, bearded youngster into their midst. It was easy to see how that might be a big deal in a tiny community. It should also make introductions to the singles even easier. “Hi, I’m the mysterious new guy.” I wonder if the mayor is married?
Robin was still laughing at my new home, though. I heard you loud and clear the first time, Robin. You don’t have to hammer the point home (ha!).
Come to think of it, maybe I should meet some of the others before committing to the first person I saw off the bus.
(Just kidding, I could never do that to you, Robin.)
Finally, the mayor let me know he would take my goods and sell them for me, all I had to do was drop them in a special box next to my cottage. That seemed nice of him. I wondered if he would take a percentage, and it would be better to sell direct?
Mayor Lewis and Robin finally left me to my own devices, but the questions remained:
What have I gotten myself into? Can there possibly be that much entertainment value in a farming video game? What are the people of Pelican Town going to think about this charming young man who just fireballed into their midst? What kind of cheese does Robin like, and how do I find a fondue set?
All these questions and more, to be answered next time…