I remember playing Harvest Moon for the very first time. I was in DC — had just moved there, and Elaine and I were living in a crappy little apartment in a crappy little highrise a few blocks from the National Mall. I remember a lot about that place because it was my first home away from home, far more than college. I had a job I hated. I walked to and from l’enfant metro past huge rats on the sidewalk, a police station, a church, all the brutalist concrete buildings that DC favors. Sometimes at night I’d decide I wasn’t ready to go straight home and would get off at Metro Station, walk home from there through the Mall in the twilight, or from Connecticut Ave where my office was, past the white house, the federal buildings, past the stately neighborhoods of fine federalist homes.
I loved DC, but god was I lonely. I’m not really a people person — don’t like going out — and I was working with people decades older than me. So my solace was in books and video games. I played the Sims 2, brand new at the time, whenever I could. I had also brought my little gamecube with me and I bought Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life. I spent an entire weekend playing it, barely noticing the passage of real time as my tiny little farmer hoed rows, milked his cows, and presented flowers to his beloved. I was hooked. I wanted that world. I wanted to be that little farmer — or a female version of him, I suppose — where life was simple and friendship easy.
I’ve played plenty of other Harvest Moon/Song of Seasons games, and they all hook me for a little bit with just as a barbed hook as the first one, especially when they land at times I’m not really feeling my best, most sparkling self.
And then there’s Stardew. I don’t know why it took me so long to pick it up. Everyone said: oh, it’s the very soul of what Harvest Moon wanted to be. Everyone said: but better. Everyone said: you’ll love it. But there were so many other games to play, and then I was on my quest to finish my backlog of games, and then …
And then I finally could play it. And I played nonstop for weeks, every free second. And I had a lot of time to wonder why I adore this type of game so much, why I love Stardew so much in particular.
Part of it is the waiting — the same forced slowness I love in Animal Crossing games. You aren’t going to finish any of these games in a weekend, or even a week. You might not ever really finish it, unless you give yourself some arbitrary completion goal. And really, the game play doesn’t vary much from day to day, from season to season.
Every morning in Stardew is the same. My little farmer gets up, finds her husband and gives him a smooch, finds her children and gives them a hug. She heads out the door and checks the plants, pets her livestock and lets them out. Takes the harvest or the eggs or the milk and processes them — fresh cheese, fresh mayo. Is it someone’s birthday? Does someone need a present? Is it a festival? What is her goal this day — plant more ancient fruit in the greenhouse? Gather materials for more sprinklers? Or is it just a day to spend chopping down trees, foraging for nuts and berries, fishing in the ocean?
You do repetitive tasks. As you play more, the tasks get easier, not harder — sprinklers take care of your crops instead of you with your watering can. There’s an auto-feeder installed in your barns and coops. Your sword is better for killing monsters, your fishing pole better at keeping the feisty fish hooked. You are rewarded for the dedication and discipline you showed earlier in the game. And that’s what gets me about this game: sometimes life isn’t half as kind about rewarding dilegence. It feels good to see the fruits of your labor in a video game world.
And it’s contemplative and soothing — or, it became so for me once I fully grasped that there was no time limit here. I didn’t have to make 1 million gold my first year, or even my tenth. If I’d rather fish all day then harvest crops, I was free to. It’s ok if it takes five years for you to make friends with Elliot, the hermit on the beach — or if you never do, at all. The endlessness of time is its own kind of freedom, once you realize you have it.
The truth is I like maintenance in video games. I like leveling my professions in WoW, or working on a rep grind. I like the feeling of having a project, some goal to work towards, but one that doesn’t require me to finish at any specific time. It scratches an itch I don’t know how to explain. I worry sometimes that I’m using the game to give me a false sense of contentedness, but then I remember I treat real life the same way. I always have a project going, and I love the little daily tasks that I do to bring it even close to completion.
And just like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, I put Stardew down — but the desire to play it is still there, just sleeping, waiting for me to want to pick it up again, to lose weeks of time to it again.