At first glance, you might think Stardew Valley is some kind of 32-bit retro-throwback, one that’s reminiscent of the many simple sim games available for smartphones these days. And in a way, it is. But this console simulation game is also so much more.
Things start out with a visit to Grandpa. This kindly, bearded old gent is deathly ill in bed and eager to bequeath a special envelope before he passes into the great beyond. He suggests that we keep the missive sealed until that day when we feel “crushed by the burden of modern life.”
Well, it turns out that day isn’t too far down the road. After a few years of office work for some heartless corporation, we’re feeling beaten down enough to tear open the envelope and find the deed to an overgrown farm in a place called Stardew Valley, “the perfect place to start a new life,” the letter promises.
That new beginning in Stardew Valley commences in the fields around the property’s little broken-down farmhouse. Armed with a few tools and a bag of seeds, players start hacking away at weeds, breaking up rocks, gathering wood and tilling the earth. The basic routine all comes pretty easily: work, plant, sleep and sell the growing crops. Then you start to realize that better tools can be crafted with the right gathered items. And raising a small barn and acquiring a few animals might be a worthy growth goal, too.
There are people to meet in Stardew Valley as well. Relationships to cultivate. Shops to patronize. New assignment quests to fulfill. Next thing you know, you’ve added town buildings to repair, bridges to fix, islands and mines to explore, and birthdays to remember to your daily “To Do” list. And the build-your-world beat goes on from there in an ever-expanding circle of influence radiating out from your little farm.
Oh, and if you think you can just stick to your farming operation like some eccentric hermit in the hills, well, think again. There are a number of ways that the game encourages you to get out there and get involved. For instance, when making your way to the local Flower Dance at the end of spring, you’ll feel pretty rotten if nobody cares enough to be your dance partner. On the other hand, if you take the time to cultivate conversations and hand out a few gifts, why, you could be rewarded by adding romance, marriage and family to your checklist of possibilities.
This engaging rural world-building sim gets a T-rating for a few content concerns prospective digital farmers should be aware of before grabbing a hoe and taking gramps up on his back-to-the-soil offer. On that romantic front, for example, the game offers five male and five female characters to woo and pursue, regardless of your avatar’s gender. Success yields a bit of kissing.
The townsfolk tend to be civil, salt-of-the-earth types. But you might run across an angry individual who, after one-too-many beers at the local saloon, spits the word “d–n” in your general direction. And you might find some shadowy critters that attack you when you’re out treasure hunting in a dank cave. You can craft swords and daggers to fight them off bloodlessly.
For a sim that’s realistically down to earth in so many ways, it’s a bit surprising that there’s a fantasy component as well. Players may interact with dwarves, ghostly Shadow People and alien-spirit creatures called Junimo. And a spell-casting wizard will make your acquaintance and give you a sip of his bubbling-cauldron concoction—one that sends you on a “forest magic” hallucinatory trip of sorts.
Perhaps the biggest caution I can offer, though, is the fact that this game does its job really well. Once you transition from fixing up the farm to fixing up the town to becoming a productive part of the local economy and community, you start to realize that the game has hooked you. You enjoy the world and its virtual rewards. You long to explore more and more of it. You like the people you meet, and you want them to flourish. And you start making lists of all the things you need to do and should do to make this digital life the best in can possibly be.
And there it is.
With the passing of digital seasons and years, and hour after immersive hour of gameplay, Stardew Valley invites players to give themselves fully to an online life. Another life chock-full of increasing work responsibilities and important relationships.
And all of that begs an important question: At what point do all these virtual responsibilities and relationships begin to impinge on the ones we all have back in the real world?
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.