My Happy Place is “Stardew Valley”
At this point, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that 2016 has been a fucking dumpster fire of a year. Between an election that tore people apart, many of our beloved celebrities passing away, and other various terrible things that vary from person to person, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of us wishes that we could just escape.
Fortunately for me, I found an escape in a game called “Stardew Valley.” When it first came out, the pixelated graphics and cutesy gameplay appealed to a need I had for a game that was light-hearted and relaxing, but what I found in the valley ended up being something that, at the time, I didn’t know I needed from a game.
Some Spoilers Ahead
When you first begin “Stardew Valley,” your dying grandfather gives you a letter and tells you that one day you will feel the weight of the world becoming too much to bear, and that when that happens, you should open the letter. Then the game cuts to you sometime later; you’re toiling away at a call center, and you decide to open the letter. In it, you are gifted the deed to the family farm, located in Stardew Valley. The farm is complete with a home and land to grow and start your new life. This introduction was surprisingly moving, and it’s a lot darker than I’d expected from this game. It did a great job of drawing me into the story. It didn’t just plop me on a farm and say, “You live here now.” I think the introduction speaks to a lot of us, and that’s what is so enthralling when you first start. You can empathize with your character feeling lost and without direction, and the idea of packing it up and moving to a cute farm in the middle of a scenic valley is idyllic.
Your neighbors and friends in “Stardew Valley” are not like the characters you typically meet in an RPG. At first, they are closed off and somewhat private; they don’t know you, and while they’re curious and friendly, there’s a definite sense that you need to get to know them before you’re let into their lives. You can do this by striking up conversations when you see them out and about, as well as bringing them gifts. As you get them to warm up to you, each NPC has a unique personality and story that makes them feel that much more real. The game tackles real-world problems like abuse, alcoholism, and PTSD, but presents them in a gentle way without making the game feel dark.
Over the years, your neighbors become your friends, and cutscenes give you deeper insight into their personal lives and history. You learn their secrets and realize that, just like in real life, everyone’s hiding or struggling with something. The characters aren’t just vapid NPCs there to make your game easier; they’re flawed and complex characters with a lot to offer. They help the world feel more dimensional. Some of them are even marriage candidates, and if you choose to get married, they will come live on your farm and help out. You can have or adopt up to two children, if you choose.
Although there’s not technically an end to this game, once you’ve hit the point where there’s nothing left that you want to do or explore, you can start over and play a different character. You can marry someone else, choose a different starting farm, and begin again. The romances are sweet and varied, and each of them offer something unique.
There are so many things in this fantasy world that appeal to the gamer looking for an escape. Whether you want to explore caves and fight monsters or cultivate your dream farm, this game is the perfect way to spend a few hours. (Or a few hundred, to be honest.) Whether it was asking neighbors to dance with me during the spring flower dance or getting lost in the giant maze during Spirit’s Eve, “Stardew Valley” was the reprieve I needed this year. I was not expecting to love this game as much as I do. It was, hands down, my game of the year for 2016. My happy place is “Stardew Valley.”<3