Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon: Why We Dig Virtual Farming0 Comments
If you're old enough to remember the sunset of the SNES' lifespan, then you might remember seeing magazine articles about a mysterious-looking RPG / sim hybrid called Harvest Moon nestled in between previews for N64 and PlayStation games.
Maybe you even scowled at those previews. After all, Harvest Moon was a primitive-looking game for 1997. We were up to our eyeballs in the likes of Chrono Trigger and Donkey Kong Country 2. By contrast, the visuals for the original Harvest Moon are a few shaky steps up from the earliest 16-bit RPGs.
"It'll flop," you probably said to yourself as you turned the page of Awesome Gaming Monthly.
Nearly two decades later, the Harvest Moon series is still around, it still has a rabidly enthusiastic fanbase, and it's the core inspiration behind one of Steam's biggest hits: Stardew Valley, an indie farming sim by Eric "ConcernedApe" Barone.
Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon share very similar premises. You inherit a run-down farm from a relation, and you're tasked with making it profitable. You turn the ruined soil profitable by clearing the land, planting crops, and raising animals like cows and chickens. You have a limited amount of time and stamina, so every day is a race against your own limitations. You "win" if you make a good day's bank. You "lose" if you collapse from exhaustion and waste precious time.
It's not hard to understand why a cute farming sim game would gain a fandom in Japan, where it's not uncommon for kids to to grow up in dense urban populations. But what about North America, which isn't lacking for long stretches of forests and farmland?
Well, the player's activities in Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley don't stop at farming. There's another, irresistibly human activity you can perform as well: Courtship.
Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley both challenge you to get out and meet people. Farm life can be lonely, so you're encouraged to woo a partner who'll keep you company. In time, you may even end up with a little nipper.
Though virtual farming offers its own rewards (especially in later Harvest Moon games and Stardew Valley itself, which allows for more variety in the animals you raise and the crops you specialize in), there's something primitively satisfying about looking for love — especially when the process is simplified (out of necessity, of course). Each prospective mate has their own likes and dislikes, which draws you to them from the beginning. Elli likes cows? Hey! So do you! Just a few more gifts and you'll be hitched in no time.
To be fair, winning over a mate is a little more complicated in Stardew Valley than it was in the earliest Harvest Moon titles. Even choosing is a bit more involved: Each bachelor and bachelorette has a back story that's easy to get invested in. Penny is a shy, lonely woman who's stuck looking after her alcoholic mother. Harvey is a docile dude who's an empathetic doctor, but is ultimately living someone else's dream. Leah is a free-spirited artist who's being hounded by an ex-boyfriend. And the moody Sebastian is an over-emotional basement dweller, but hey, he's got a motorcycle.
Stardew Valley doesn't limit your relationships to your avatar's opposite gender, which makes the chase that much more fun. Interestingly, social media also makes the romantic aspect of Stardew Valley compelling. You probably won't get much of a response on Twitter if you post a screenshot of your farm's earnings, but go ahead and declare you love Sam, a happy-go-lucky marriage prospect. Chances are good you'll receive an enthusiastic chorus of "OMG ME TOO!!"
In the same vein, you won't find too many fanworks (fanfic, fanart, etc) that depict your avatar toiling by themselves on the farm. You will, however, find plenty of pictures and stories that depict said avatars cuddling (and beyond, cough) with the game's bachelors and bachelorettes.
In our heart of hearts, we know the process of scoring a partner in games like Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley are overly-simplified — much like those games' take on farming. None of us really believe that you can spark a healthy long-term relationship by gifting someone with a piece of quartz day after day.
But that's what games are about, really — making the impossible possible. Guitar Hero and Rock Band let you mesmerize stadiums full of people even if you can't actually play a note on a guitar, Skyrim lets you slay dragons with a handful of well-shot arrows, and Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, and its ilk let you forge relationships that you can jokingly treat like a trophy without hurting anyone's feelings. It's all a bit dark when you think about it, but it's also undeniably fun.