Stardew Valley: Nuance, Worldbuilding, and Surprising Characterization

Stardew Valley has been around for over six years now. There are already countless other reviews, guides, interviews, mods, details, and perspectives around the game. Naturally that means that I’m going to mostly just skim the review portion of the game to pretty well agree with the consensus here:

Stardew Valley is, in most ways, the best of its sort that I have ever seen or played.

Ironically I feel like I’m joining the drone masses.

Now, I will say that unlike most of my reviews, I haven’t actually beaten Stardew Valley yet. I have pumped over 60 hours into the game, done all the requests and rebuilt the community center, romanced several characters and selected my wife (more on that in a bit), raised a farm that’s almost ridiculously successful by most standards, unlocked pretty much every location and character, and maxed out most of the relationships.

There’s just so much to do in Stardew Valley that it honestly feels less like playing a game and more like inhabiting a world. This is a common occurrence with the best of these life simulation games, and it happened with Animal Crossing: New Horizons for tons of people, myself included, during the pandemic. There’s something great in entering a new world and immersing yourself in what you find there.

My character’s the one in the heart shirt there

For my purposes, I sort of built my own character. I sort of put together things I found interesting and mentally developed a character that I felt would be fun to play. I can honestly say that I think the way Stardew Valley set this up and allowed me to enter and essentially create my own narrative resulted in a lot of my personal investment.

I’m a writer, in case this blog wasn’t evidence enough. So it came naturally to create a backstory for my avatar, who shares my usual handle: Fate. They were originally something of a musical artist with an adventurous spirit, but they opted to choose the standard path and join that drone collective to make money. On receiving their grandfather’s farm, they decided they may as well take the opportunity to try and live something close to their dreams.

On their arrival, they found a lot of work, but also a lot of interesting people living in the nearby community. They started revitalizing their farm, reworking he gone to nature land and doing what it took to gain a foothold. Going to town was something of a necessity at first, but they started talking and letting the people get to know them.

They got along good with the shopkeepers, because they’re smart. They originally told off this dumb jock, all but negging him with various comments, which seemed to spur the jock on further. Some of the townsfolk were initially distant, and Fate was more or less uninterested in a few; even years later they would still have a low relationship with a couple.

Of most interest people wise was Abigail, the local shopkeeper’s daughter. It obviously didn’t hurt that she was where Fate had to go nearly constantly to get new supplies. But that relationship would develop organically, starting with awkward greetings as Fate entered the store, moving to a moment where Abigail would snag Fate as they came in. See, she had gotten stuck in a video game and demanded Fate’s help to get through the level.

Fate, being the rebel they are, had some experience. They could easily help Abigail win, and Abigail proved grateful. Their relationship improved, only to improve again as Fate ran into Abigail during a rainy day and they shared a love for such things, before playing music underneath a natural shower.

At some point Fate decided to start delving into the local mines. Legend had it that monsters had started dwelling, and a group of older adventurers insisted that the population needed to be kept in check so as not to bother the nearby village. Fate, craving both adventure and a slight break from constantly watering their farm, went in.

This meant a new aspect to their journey and life. They’d be known as much in town as an adventurer who delved into dungeons as they would a farmer, and a friend, then something more, of Abigail. Again, it didn’t hurt that Abigail was, herself, someone who craved adventure, practiced with a sword and eventually was encouraged by Fate to start heading in and adventuring.

There were celebrations that Fate got involved with. Their farm slowly gained an identity: they became one of the town’s major brewers. Kegs lined their property and they were constantly delivering wines, ales, beers, and more to the townsfolk, building a relationship on sharing their stuff.

And they found the community center. There they discovered something magical: junimos, the spirits of the forest. They wanted help to revitalize sections of the community, bits the people had lost in the way these things happen.

This began another quest that they’d do almost in the shadows, running around and helping others. Sometimes it was growing and donating food. Othertimes it was fishing the local waters. Or sometimes they had to venture into the dungeon, which they were doing anyway. Eventually, at the end of their second year, Fate would get acknowledged as they finished the last task, the Junimos first doing deeds for the townsfolk in Fate’s name to raise their already high reputation, then the Junimos finishing work on the community center.

Fate’s now running a successful farm. They brew ridiculous amounts of alcohol and coffee as their main profit. There’s also over a dozen animals that live on their farm. Toward the end of the year, they will eventually propose to the girl who had let it slip that she had feelings for them during a “seance,” the girl they’d kissed, the girl they’d helped realize her dreams together: Abigail. The proposal will happen at the end of the second year, and together they’ll push Luna Farm forward.

In case it wasn’t obvious, this is the story the game helped me create. In some ways, Stardew Valley felt more like an engine to make my own story in. The writing draws you in, with this compelling little world and holes in the narrative for you to fill with your actions and deeds. In some ways, this is almost a perfect video game: it needs a player to complete what it’s doing.

But it’s also just got some incredibly well done writing, period. The relationship between Fate and Abigail was one of the best I’ve ever seen done in a video game. And there were several other relationships that were interesting, some that I only sort of explored and others that just didn’t quite win me over. On top of that, the game continually offers you something new.

Creator ConcernedApe is one guy who has produced what is one of the most fleshed out and liveable video game worlds out there. Someone could just play around with the farm and the mechanics, master farming and build their world. Or they could do what I did and construct a narrative, work their lives and just find themselves in a relaxing game and a story that gives them investment, because they lived it.

I wish that more games took that into consideration, made the effort to draw us in and give us agency in how the story unfolds. This was more than making choices alter the flow of the game, though I do love games that do that (I’ve played most of TellTale’s library). It’s about establishing this overall feeling and sensation, leaving room for the player to complete the story. Yes, the gameplay may not be for everyone: this is another of those relaxed games, and the more fantastical combat parts are a bit stiff and awkward (your character is primarily designed for farming and socializing). But that almost added to it: I literally felt like I was becoming more competent at everything as it grew.

This has become one of my favorite worlds to enter. I haven’t really fully completed Fate’s story yet: I still want to see what married life is like and the game just opened up new stuff for me. But that’s it: It opened up new stuff for me at hour 60 of the game. It’s wonderfully done and gives you tons to work with. I’m almost sorry I waited for a free game trial and sale.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, I’d encourage you to pick the game up. It’s available on all kinds of devices too.

10 there may be some flaws in gameplay, but the worldbuilding, writing, characters and sheer depth, let alone the ability to enter a world and construct my own story, has made this a game I won’t be putting down any time soon

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