I was trimming the weeds on my overgrown Stardew Valley farm when I heard a mumbled “Canal Street” over the subway intercom. Shit, I thought, looking up from my seat on the J train. I should have gotten off two stops ago.
I collected my belongings and dashed out of the closing doors and onto a train platform that smelled of sour, smoked rubber. I could hear no chipper synth music; just a low, sombre drone. The Q train screeched to a halt on the platform below, and I hastened down the stairs to my transfer. A pair of carefree tourists slowed my progress. The train doors closed before I reached them. As it rumbled away without me, my mind’s buzzing anxiety met the droning sound overhead. My managing editor is gonna be pissed, I thought. I’ve got articles scheduled for today, and I need to make sure they go up. Also, did I forget my tupperware in the fridge?
I stopped myself, and thought back to the seeds I had been watering on my video game farm. Every morning I had watered them, and now they had grown and sprouted beans. Playing it backwards in my head, that clear chain of causality calmed me. First, I’d had seeds; now I had beans.
A second Q train arrived, and I caught this one. Nervous and running late, I powered up my Switch again and walked my farmer over to the town store. When she finished working on the farm, she could easily sell her wares there at a reasonable, fixed price. With the money she made, she could purchase more seeds to grow more vegetables. It was all so predictable.
I am a new Stardew Valley player. I didn’t play the game when it came out on PC last year, and I’ve never played Harvest Moon, Farmville, Animal Crossing, or any of its other spiritual predecessors. Withdrawing into a virtual farm has not traditionally been my go-to escape from reality. Actually, after the chaos of the day has levelled me, my escapist thing is beating people at stuff. There is a direct correlation between how many subway malfunctions I suffered through on my commute home and how merrily I pummel strangers on Overwatch or, if it’s a particularly bad day, my housemates at Super Smash Bros. Power fantasies, they’re called. I like escaping to a world where I am not just strong, I’m stronger than others. My will wins out. And if it doesn’t, I’ll just get better.
It’s not a great way to navigate, say, friendships or jobs; but being hyper-powerful in a competitive video game, for me, steam-presses the stress I feel about not being able to control my life.
Farming in Stardew Valley is not about that kind of power. It’s about structure. It’s about knowing that if I go about my mundane video game life with any focus or intention, what I want to make happen, will happen. If I have a hoe, I can till soil. If I have seeds, I can plant them. If I refill my watering can, I can water my seeds and, with time, they’ll bear fruit that I can sell for more seeds. It’s like a mantra, the kind a therapist or a priest might recommend to a frazzled young professional. Instead of speaking this mantra, I perform it. The more I grind, the more I gain. What in life is so clearly like that?
In Stardew Valley, my character was not always a farmer. She was an office worker who got fed up with the inhumanity of the system of which she was a part. Stardew Valley seems very self-conscious of its role as an escapist game for people who feel, as my character’s grandfather says in the opening, “crushed by the burden of modern life.” Frankly, that’s all of us. My character had no control over her officeworld ecosystem. She sat in her cubicle, same as the other cubicles. Her boss eerily watched her from a window on high. Maybe, if she spent another few years in that cubicle and knocked a few of her colleagues out of her way (with a well-timed grappling hook, perhaps), she’d get to watch from that window, too, and maybe, eventually, take a private car to work instead of the chaotic subway. But that’s not what she decided to do.
My usual escapist power fantasies of getting stronger and out-performing others is an appendage of the modern life Stardew Valley so openly rebels against. They stand in stark contrast with the values the game promotes, particularly if you choose to embrace those values as you play.
In the world of Stardew Valley, the trains always come on time. I wonder, if I lived in that world, would I even enjoy the carnal rush of sport and victory in Overwatch or Battlegrounds? Stardew Valley almost doesn’t feel like a video game by that metric. There are no antagonists or impediments. There doesn’t need to be any competition. I can’t think of anything less realistic.