Escape to Stardew Valley, where social distancing is discouraged | Feature

Stardew Valley begins with the player receiving a letter from their grandfather, who tells them that they are about to inherit his farm before passing on peacefully in his sleep. The player is shown working in a drab office filled with cubicles, and decides to trade it all for a less mundane existence.

The beginning of the story hits quite close to home for me. My late grandfather owned a piece of land back in my hometown where he cultivated fruits like durian, custard apple, longan and cocoa. When I was younger, I used to wonder if I would ever be able to live and work as my grandfather did. Toiling the land, waiting years to see if a plant grows or dies and making a living off produce from one’s negotiation with nature. It was hard work, which is why my lazy ass chose a life of drab cubicles and deadlines. Also, unlike my grandfather who had green fingers, I have the fingers of death that can kill the hardiest of cacti.

Day 14 of the Restricted Movement Order. I am the scarecrow, the scarecrow is I.

Speaking of death, the world is in a bleak state as I’m writing this article. As Iron Man once said, “Earth is closed today.” Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, countries are either on lockdown or a Restricted Movement Order to curb the spread of the virus. Most companies have shut their offices and employees are now required to work from home.

Being a freelance writer, the work-from-home mandate is business-as-usual for me. And being stuck at home means I get to hunker down and focus on my backlog of books/comics, games, TV series, or compose some poems. Yeah right. The only thing I’ve been spending time on so far is playing Stardew Valley (SV).

There are three main reasons why I’m currently hooked on SV. The first is that its latest update added a slew of new features and story elements to the game. Secondly, I wanted to live out my fantasy of living a self-sustaining lifestyle without actually having to unleash my fingers of death. Thirdly, I wanted to play a vibrant and lively game — as an escape to what was happening in the real world — that is also less demanding and frustrating. In truth, I got quite the opposite.

If the villagers ask me if I sell pumpkins one more time…

SV is a simulation role-playing game that is heavily inspired by Harvest Moon. It’s pretty much a farming simulator but developer, Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone, gave the formula a twist. Besides just growing crops and raising livestock, you also have other activities such as heading into mines to collect ores and minerals, fighting monsters, fishing and most importantly, befriending the locals.

If Harvest Moon is a crunchy and juicy apple, then SV is a masterfully-baked apple pie with layers of flavour. After breaking through the crunchy crust, you then get to the cinnamon-flavoured apple chunks that taste great but can also burn your mouth if you weren’t careful. More about that burning pain later.

In SV, you begin your farming career when the Mayor of Pelican Town welcomes you to your new home and farm. You are then free to do whatever you want. For most players, it would mean clearing up the overgrowth and junk strewn all over the farm. This is when I started to rethink my fantasy of living a self-sustaining life. Much like actual farm work, clearing my virtual land took a lot of hard work and patience as I had to chop down trees, smash rocks, de-weed the land and till the soil.

Then comes one of the first quests —  introducing myself to the 28 locals of this quaint little town. You would probably think to yourself as I did, “Why would I bother with these NPCs in a farming simulator?” The short answer is that they are the cinnamon-flavoured apples in the pie. By befriending them, not only will you discover a complex set of characters but also scenarios that are quite tragic for a game set in such a brightly coloured and cute setting.

I totally under…. SHUT UP SHANE! LOOK! IT’S A BIG TROUT!

There are of course farm-related quests such as “Harvesting your first plant” or “Buy your first animal”, but I found myself drawn to uncovering the stories of each and every character. To get them to like you, you will have to give them gifts and this is a mini-game in itself. Each character has a set of things they dislike, like and love. Also, you are only able to give them gifts twice a week. So if you gave them the wrong gift on Monday, which causes them to dislike you a little, then you would have to find something else to bring that level up higher the next chance you get.

Once you get their affection up to a certain level, special events will trigger when you meet that character at the right place and time. Sometimes it could be a really fun event where you tell the local children about the joys of farming at a picnic. But getting close to people, even virtual ones, can bring some pain — the scalding sensation of the pie that I mentioned. It could be finding a character whom I care about passing out by the edge of a cliff surrounded by cans of alcohol on a rainy day, or getting caught in between a mother and daughter’s verbal sparring match after helping to tidy up their home as a favour. 

I really think I should leave before I say something like “Here’s my 2 pennies…”

This makes the characters in SV feel like real humans. They have routines that they tend to and you won’t always find them in the same location. They move around depending on the time and day. It is during these times where you can talk to them and uncover even more crumbs of their stories such as secret love affairs, failing marriages, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and even tragic work accidents. It’s these stories that keep me hooked to the game and finding myself rushing to get done with my in-game chores, just so I can run around town giving everyone gifts and talking to them.

SV supports co-op play, especially nice if you and your siblings, significant other or housemates are looking for a game to play together to make the best out of being stuck at home during the current social distancing advisory. It’s definitely easier having extra pairs of hands to help you around the farm. Just make sure you don’t end up making your partners do all the work while you go schmooze with the locals.

On the flip side though, I would recommend playing in co-op only if you and your fellow farmhands don’t really care about the story or have played through SV. This is because each player is required to build relationships with NPCs separately, so certain players might miss out on specific interactions or events. Also, certain events won’t trigger in co-op mode. So, if you prefer to see more of the stories, then single-player is the way to play.

See what it says on the right? That should be you right now. At home, playing Stardew Valley.

Much like a real farm or relationship, SV is a game that requires effort and patience for you to get to the good parts. To me, it also reinforces the fact that, like a farm or a plant, human relationships also require nurturing for it to bloom and grow — with or without green fingers.

Also published on Medium.

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