The games industry is full of intense shooters, sweeping fantasy RPGs, and action-adventure games of immense scope. We’ve ventured to windswept mountain tops and delved into labyrinthine cave systems in search of hidden treasure. Video games take us on journeys through time and across alien landscapes in the depths of space. So why is Stardew Valley, a game about maintaining a small farm in a little village and created by just a single developer, one of the most popular games right now?
An Homage to Harvest Moon
To explain the fandom of Stardew Valley, I first have to explain the success of Harvest Moon. Like Undertale‘s relationship to Earthbound, much of the love for Stardew Valley is rooted in nostalgia for the Harvest Moon (now Story of Seasons) franchise. First released in 1996 and created by Japanese developer Yasuhiro Wada, Harvest Moon is a casual blend of farm simulator and RPG. Just like in Stardew Valley, players create and control a character who takes over a small farm in a sleepy village.
Both games center around two central motivations: maintaining your farm and growing relationships with the villagers. Starting with an overgrown field, you chop, clear, hoe, plant, water, and harvest until you’ve built a sizable farm. You can raise livestock, discover artifacts, and participate in local festivities, such as livestock competitions. There’s a certain amount of pride that comes with raising a beautiful milk cow or becoming good friends with another villager. Harvest Moon and its numerous sequels make each playthrough a personal experience in a way few games can recreate. With so many fans that hold the Harvest Moon series dear, it’s only natural many now flock to Stardew Valley, a game that recreates the charm and personality of the original farming simulator.
As Jojotun from the Stardew Valley Wiki describes, “The game is a modern day replica of the Harvest Moon masterpiece.” Maybe KillerZoey puts it best with this clear and simple message: “it reminds me of my childhood.”
Created over several years by lone developer Eric Barone, Stardew Valley is a labor of love. Nowhere is that love more prevalent than in the townsfolk of Stardew Valley. Yes, you can choose to ignore most story elements in Stardew Valley, but those who invest in relationships like they invest in their farm will be rewarded with a town that feels diverse and vibrant. The characters that walk around the valley aren’t just NPCs that buy and sell goods for your farm. They all have a life of their own: their own schedules, their own families and friends, their own desires.
Getting to know your neighbors is one of the most rewarding elements of Stardew Valley, just like it was one of the most rewarding elements of Harvest Moon. Everyone has their own personality, so choosing who you spend your time with is one of the ways the game encourages you to craft your own personal story. If you start building a relationship with Penny, you may learn about her humble origins and her conflict with her mother Pam. If you’re more interested in wooing and marrying Alex, you’ll discover more about his own parental tragedies.
When asked to share why they love Stardew Valley, Mastercrafter405 from the Wikia community has this to say: “I love the game because of the relaxing feel of being part of a community, and the way I can have real and flexible impacts on the other residents.” This is a straightforward explanation, but an important one. You begin Stardew Valley as an outsider, but soon the game feels like home. In an industry crowded with games about going to strange places and killing people, the familiar comfort of a village is heartwarming and refreshing.
A Simple Tale
The difference between the complex and thrilling adventures in games and the quiet life of a Stardew Valley farmer is one the most significant reasons people find the title so compelling. Like Harvest Moon before it, Stardew Valley is a simple game with a simple story. It’s a calming experience, almost zen like. As Fallcos from the Stardew Valley Wiki puts it, “There is no stress. You don’t have to do more than you want to.”
This doesn’t mean Stardew Valley is boring, on the contrary. By doing away with life-and-death action, Harvest Moon and now Stardew Valley are free to explore the simpler but more real complications of everyday life. The drama is more honest, the small victories more meaningful.
In a 2007 interview with Gamasutra, Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada captured the sentiment well:
“You have a lot of joy and a lot of sadness in your lifetime. Different types of joy and sadness. Not everything is sad, and not everything is joy. It’s just what’s in front of you. In an RPG or other game, everything is always just straight-up. In Harvest Moon, you actually go through different stages, and you want the user to go through those — sadness, happiness, and everything.”
There is a joy to be found in a simple life, and the beginning of Stardew Valley calls this out specifically. Real life is often complicated. We have day jobs, we have daily stresses and anxieties. Games let us go on crazy adventures, but sometimes we want to instead live a simpler existence.
Madtbone from the Stardew Valley Wiki praises this type of pleasure found in the game. Why are we fans of Stardew Valley?
“Because we can live that farm life we secretly want to live.”