I got Stardew Valley for my Switch on Friday, after an hour’s deliberation. I’ve already played it for 60 hours on PS4, you see, and my gaming time is pretty limited at the moment by my ten-month-old son - so was I really going to play it again? Probably not. But it’s nice to have on a portable system. And it’ll have co-op soon, meaning I might finally persuade my partner to get involved.
It wasn’t until I started a new game and dossed around on the farm for an evening that I realised I had absolutely no memory of my previous experience with Stardew Valley. I had vague recollections of being in a frozen mine, but that’s it. I didn’t remember any of the characters, or systems, or anything specific beyond the daily rhythm of play, How is that possible? Well, first time around I was exclusively playing Stardew Valley in the middle of the night with my newborn nestled on my lap. I was probably averaging about 4 hours of broken sleep per day. Turns out that’s not enough for your brain to create memories.
It’s difficult to overstate how totally mental the first few weeks of parenthood are for new mothers. After 24-48 hours of childbirth - often a traumatic experience for women - you’re sent home on no sleep to look after your new baby. Meanwhile, the hormones in your body are doing the most insane shit to your mind. Also, newborn babies don’t sleep. They operate on a continuous two-hour cycle of feeding, napping, waking briefly, feeding and napping, with probably a three-hour window of screaming in there somewhere. As a result, I didn’t sleep for more than an hour and a half at a time for about a month. There were moments in the first few weeks where I felt like I was losing my grip on reality.
Most games operate on two levels. There’s the second-to-second experience of what you are doing with the controller in your hands, which is what the game is, and the contextual experience that it layered on top of it: things like narrative, message, artistic intent. In short, what the game means. Twitch-based games operate almost entirely on the first level, where most modern games exist chiefly on the second. Very, very occasionally, a game perfectly marries these two things, and the game’s mechanics are its message, but that’s unusual.
This is one of the most fascinating things about video games as a form, and the tension between the two is often the territory that you occupy as a critic. In a state of sleep deprivation, I was unable to internalise anything beyond the moment-to-moment reality of Stardew Valley. To me it was a game about pressing buttons to plough fields or chop wood or plant crops. Second time around, it’s as if I’m playing an entirely different game - one about building a worthwhile life in an alternate world.
I’ve learned a lot about sleep since becoming a mother. Did you know that scientists still don’t know exactly how sleep evolved? It’s surprisingly under-studied. But what we do know shows that humans fall apart with astonishing rapidity when sleep deprived. One prominent sleep scientist recently claimed that our cultural obsession with working out-of-hours and constant productivity has made all of Western society chronically sleep-deprived, leading to an epidemic of ill-health, particularly Alzheimer’s and dementia. I learned first-hand that your brain cannot make memories without at least one, four-hour cycle of uninterrupted deep sleep. During deep sleep, your brain busily consolidates your experiences, sorting the interference from the stuff worth remembering before you move into cycles of light and REM sleep. Amazing fact: during REM sleep (when people dream), your brain in an MRI looks the same as it does when awake.
Another great theory: deja vu is caused when your brain accidentally tries to file a memory in both the long-term and short-term memory boxes. When you experience deja vu once awake, that feeling is the experience of a memory being processed twice at the same time. If you’ve ever lived with severe sleep deprivation, you’ll recognise the same strange feeling of being marooned in time. Last fact: studies suggest that sleeping too little shrinks your balls, if you're a guy. Isn't that nuts?
One of the things that kept me sane at the time - apart from the support of my family and continuously marvelling at the miracle of new life, of course - was Stardew Valley. When my partner went off to bed at 10pm and I settled in for the night shift, the prospect of a few hours of gentle farm-tending kept my addled mind from focussing on how little sleep I was getting. The daily rhythms of Stardew Valley are so methodical - till, tend, harvest, repeat - and so familiar to me from a lifetime of Harvest Moon fandom that I could play it without thinking, immersed in comforting, familiar, reliable play patterns.
Once the Nintendo Switch came out, I moved on pretty much immediately from Stardew Valley to Breath of the Wild. By that time my son was nearly three months old and things were much rosier: he slept mostly at night, and so did I, restoring my brain’s ability to lay down memories. I have fantastic memories of all my naptime and evening adventures with Breath of the Wild, thankfully. It’s one of the defining gaming experiences of my life and I would have been gutted to lose it to the fog of sleep deprivation.
I have a second chance with Stardew Valley now. There’s so much cool stuff that I missed. I don’t think I ever even caught a fish last time, probably because I got the fishing rod and then stored it away and forgot all about it. I can get to know the characters, learn what’s at the bottom of the mines, expand my farm, figure out what’s going on with that wizard. I’m gonna plant like 500 melons, and find the desert, and complete those Community Centre bundles.
I’ve only been playing for a few hours this time around, but already I’m newly impressed with how creative and likeable it is. Harvest Moon stopped evolving probably a decade ago; Stardew Valley picked up the slack. It could have been a lightweight tribute act, like a few of the other farming-RPGs I’ve played over the past few years, but instead it makes the whole concept feel new again.
I’ll always be grateful to Stardew Valley for helping me through the most insanely challenging part of my life. I feel like I owe it to the game to go back - and this time, make some memories.