Have you ever just wanted to leave your busy city life behind and move to a small, country town? No more Starbucks queues. No being sardined onto the subway. Just you, the clean country air and locals who don't wither when you accidentally make eye contact.
It's a dream typically reserved for Hallmark films, dripping in cliché and usually fronted by some city slicker who learns to love their hometown roots. But somehow Eric Barone's Stardew Valley pulls it off.
Stardew Valley is an indie gem that not only lets you live out this fantasy, but does so with humor and emotional depth – making it one of the greatest games of this generation.
An escape with a difference
The premise of Stardew Valley is pretty simple, you move from the bustling city to the outskirts of sleepy Pelican Town after inheriting a run-down old farm from their deceased grandfather. In honor of your grandfather, your aim is to clean up the farm and make it a thriving agricultural enterprise.
While, on the surface, Stardew Valley appears to be your typical farming sim in the same vein as the likes of Harvest Moon, it's so much more. Stardew Valley acts as a farming sim, dating sim, dungeon-crawler and adventure all rolled into one. The beauty of Stardew Valley is its sheer variety. You are not constrained to simply farming, instead you can get to know the locals and complete goals for them, explore caverns for resources or simply enjoy some fishing.
What's more, you are never racing against the clock. Despite Stardew Valley having a seasonal system that sees you only being able to grow certain crops in certain seasons, you never feel rushed. Once you realize that you can simply do as you please, in your own time, the game becomes much more relaxing. There isn't a final goal to race towards necessarily (although you are given small goals along the way) – instead you decide what you want to do and when.
With the likes of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, it tend to feel like if you aren't keeping up with everyone else then you're behind. There's always debt to pay and minimal ways to earn bells to pay it. But in Stardew Valley, you can simply just enjoy your surroundings if you want. Want to spend a day just cleaning up rocks and trees? Go ahead. You can move through a seasonal year as quickly or slowly as you wish. It truly is an escape from the chaos of the world.
A complex cast of characters
To see Stardew Valley as simply as game about escaping and relaxing would be reductive. Especially when one of the most interesting aspects of the game is its cast of characters.
When you first arrive in Pelican Town, it seems that each of the town's residents reflects a stereotype of some sort. Jodi: the single mum. Sebastian: the recluse. Elliot: the writer. However, as you get to know the characters better – mainly by plying them with gifts – you begin to peel back their layers and dig into their true nature.
Shane, for example, seems like a rude pig. But if you make the effort to get to know him, you discover he has an alcohol problem and suffers from severe depression. Abigail has disagreements with her mother over her "alternative" lifestyle. Then there's grumpy old George, who is in a wheelchair following a mining accident and is often perceived as angry when, in fact, he's often frustrated at his inability to do certain things for himself.
Pelican Town is full of relatable residents (you can even marry some) and, the more you play Stardew Valley, the more invested you become in its characters. Befriending them provides keyholes into their lives that could totally go unnoticed otherwise. And, again, you're in no rush to talk to everyone.
To see Stardew Valley as simply a pixelated farming simulator would be a mistake – it's so much more. Stardew Valley offers the escapist fantasy so many of us dream of, but not in the cliched way that it could have presented and without the residual pressures so many of these games can often come with.
Stardew Valley will not punish you for not playing and there is no right way to play. Instead, you only need to sink into its charming aesthetic and lose yourself.