Out of the 7.6 billion people on the planet, it felt like I was truly alone. It wasn’t true, obviously, but when you are the only person in the world that wasn’t obsessed with ConcernedApe’s 2016 hit Stardew Valley, it might as well be gospel. All the world’s a farm, and I was the only one without a hoe.
Looking back on that year with such perfect, shiny hindsight, it’s obvious now why it didn’t click with me when it should have right from the get-go. The base impetus of fleeing an office life to find something with meaning was highly relatable to an earlier me. The characters were the most real things concocted of that year. And the progression scheme was damn near pitch-perfect. Academically, it was all there.
But it was on PC. It made it feel like a job. I couldn’t stand the idea of settling into that terrifying and familiar slouch that accompanies the slide into a sedentary employment in front of a screen and keyboard. (And yes, I appreciate the irony of writing that statement as I, a real adult human being, am laying down in a kitchen nook against a pillow like a sleepy kitty cat.) I was one step away from being Gavin Orsay in House of Cards, cracking my knuckles and sitting down for a full day of forced labor.
That’s simply the nature of the game, though. Playing plenty of other games via mouse and keyboard, the glitz and glam of fancy graphics—and, most likely, some sort of firearm—smothers that sensation of work just enough to be hidden. But Stardew Valley is wholly about taking numbers from one bucket, putting them in another, and watching more numbers emerge for you to figure out what bucket they go into. It was an overbearing master and each click of the mouse was another snap of the whip.
That stopped me from enjoying one of the most loving and lovingly crafted games made in 2016. A solid 30 feet of wrought iron in my brain separating me from finding the same joy that so many others had found. But then, just one month ago, something happened: I got on a plane.
Hey, I didn’t say something amazing happened. Just something. But having flown three times already between October and the end of November, I had pretty much depleted my well of inflight distractions. I’d long since put Super Mario Odyssey to bed and my list of books to read had become a list of books that were read. Something I hadn’t consumed yet, though, was the recently released Nintendo Switch port of Stardew Valley, and with a five-hour flight on the horizon, it wasn’t hard to convince me to give anything a shot.
Stardew Valley was made for the Switch. Playing it on any other console or on the PC feels like a mistake compared to this experience. It transforms the sensation of committing yourself to do a pressure-filled set of tasks into a leisurely stroll through a bucolic and welcoming meadow. It is an entirely new game for me.
I’ve been playing it almost nonstop for the past month, and I mean that so close to literally that it should be concerning. While patches are downloading for my PlayStation 4, I’ll pick up my Switch and refill my cheese presses. While GTA Online is loading for some dickaround time with faraway friends, I’m actually going into the mines to find some frozen geodes. While eggs are frying, Leah and I are enjoying our peaceful homestead.
Suddenly all the whimsy and charm that everyone else found upfront was hitting me like a baseball bat made of parsnips and cranberries. Without so much of a physical constraint like locking myself down onto a couch to farm on my Xbox or pushing aside the rest of the world to zone in on my computer, I was able to play Stardew Valley was it was intended: happily. Freely. Willingly.
In that immediate and protracted return, I’ve managed to dig deeper into why it’s much more than a Harvest Moon simulacrum. It did something those games (now called Story of Seasons, actually) never did, and it is accurately portray relationships. The first rejection at the Flower Dance? Devastating. Truly a reckoning, laying me out on the floor for an hour.
And the realization that infatuation is engrossing but fleeting, that digging deeper mines the brightest gems even under the dirtiest ground. The turns in these relationships are turns that mimic real life so close it’s as eerie as it is profound. It’s not always about redemption and triumph; sometimes the only thing that matters is understanding, even while disagreeing.
You can find insight even in the base mechanics. Friendship grows as you talk, consistently and meaningfully. You remember birthdays and likes and dislikes, creating networks of memories and information. And the weakest acquaintances evaporate so quickly when left unattended, ties decaying and blowing away like a dandelion in the wind—ice cream on a hot summer day.
This is surely old news for many of you. Talking about a game even just 22 months old in a year where generation-defining titles like Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey (and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and so many others) seems folly, but it has left an indelible mark on me in 30 short days. Given how many other rereleases have come to the Switch recently, it makes me wonder what else is worth giving a try.
I should probably plant some more strawberries while I think it over.