Learning to walk (and work) again in Stardew Valley

On a warm October night, I woke to find my leg felt like it was on fire. My ability to walk around had been deteriorating for the last month, to the point of being sent home from work. Eventually getting out of bed had become a herculean task, my knee swollen to unnatural size, and my back locking up at the slightest motion. At the unusually young age of 25, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), a chronic autoimmune disorder that aggressively attacks the body's joints.

Though my doctors have told me I'll recover with time, the past months have been an excruciating reevaluation of how I spend that time, and how much I took for granted the ability to hop from task to task. Unable to walk unassisted or return to my day job for the better part of a month, I fell into depression, lamenting my inability to focus on my work or the world around me.

Until, that is, I visited the rolling pastures and shimmering beaches of Stardew Valley.

With its rows of corn, baby chickens, and charming librarians to woo, Stardew Valley has uniquely tapped into the sense of pride that comes with a hard day's—and a hard year's—work. From the opening moments as you flee your dreary office job for the untamed fields of your late grandfather's farm, Stardew Valley pins all your hopes and dreams on your willingness to work slowly towards a goal, one step at a time. It's been instrumental in recentering my drive to get better.

Perhaps the smartest thing the game does is push you out that cabin door with almost zero guidance

I've never been one for life simulators. The warm charm of early Harvest Moons couldn't capture my Pokemon-obsessed attention, I enjoyed visiting friend's homes in The Sims more than making my own, and the anthropomorphic debt collectors of Animal Crossing couldn't sell me on a new mortgage. Why play out a normal life when you can live a high-flying fantasy? It's an easy perspective to have, until your sense of normality is threatened or outright taken from you. Suddenly, the ability to build the ideal living space or the ideal routine is as much a fantasy as hunting robot dinosaurs.

Let's see if this sounds familiar. It's 6 a.m. and time to hop out of bed. You take a minute to check the weather, step out, breathe in the air, and then it's off to your daily tasks. There's the matter of what to do with your afternoon, but for now, those rows of tomatoes need watering, your chickens need feeding, and those eggs aren't going to magically transform into mayonnaise themselves. As much as Stardew Valley's activities are farm-based, its most universal diversion may be the moment you just stand on your porch, thinking of how much you can cram into the day's schedule. 

If there's one thing real life has over Stardew Valley's small-town charm, it's that my doctor is infinitely more available. But for those first few weeks, even my regular physician was stumped by my rapidly expanding kneecap. With my family insurance only covering one busy rheumatologist, the following weeks were a torturous blend of waiting, uncertainty, experimentation, and more waiting. After my leg was drained of inflammatory fluid, I was ordered two weeks off work—which only gave more time for aimless thoughts.

I'm sure the protagonist of Stardew Valley had their share of questions (both actual and existential) when they first arrived. A new stage of life, unfamiliar tools, and a feeling that nothing will ever be quite the same again. Perhaps the smartest thing the game does is push you out that cabin door with almost zero guidance. There's the occasional letter from a neighbor, but other than that it's on you to learn the steps to grow and maintain an entire farm, to say nothing of integrating into Stardew's tight-knit community. 

Even after my diagnosis, and with the direction of a trained specialist, I still felt that uncertainty and inexperience gnawing at me. What does my immediate and long-term future look like? How will the medicine and tools given to me impact my physical and mental health? Is this something I'll have to worry about forever?

And like Stardew Valley's protagonist, I've come to find comfort in the small gains I make each day. In planting rows of corn I'm strapping myself in for one of the game's lengthier waiting periods. At times, it can feel like the plants are mocking me, barely growing over the course of 24 hours. But after 14 long days of labor, I finally have these majestic stalks of gold. Since my social pursuits mainly consist of fawning over Penny the redhead tutor, I also grow a small grouping of poppy flowers just for her birthday.

Stardew Valley reminds me that the most meaningful goals are things you have to wholly dedicate yourself to

Many days, though, it's not about some great payoff. Sometimes you just need to chop wood and chisel stone until you can't anymore. Stardew takes it one step further with your energy meter, forcing you to calculate just how much you'll need to save to make it home from your fishing trip. Any kind of personal upkeep is like that, really, laced with days and days of menial, repetitive actions meant to keep a simple wheel turning, hopefully with enough foresight to account for tomorrow's work. From time to time I still need to remind myself that I'm not quite the semi-invincible man I once was, bounding upstairs for a fourth time because I forgot my keys or hustling from customer to customer at my day job.

Stardew Valley's cycle of honest living has become my (hopefully temporary) fantasy, but it's also grounded me in reality in a way no game had the chance to before. The thrill I get from hiking into town for the annual festival or exploring the beaches for treasure—simply moving about my day at an energetic pace—is one that still feels like something I can eventually return to in real life. And sure, those fantasies are something that can explored in any game with a wide enough world to journey through, but coupled with my responsibilities as a caretaker of self and soil, Stardew Valley reminds me that the most meaningful goals are things you have to wholly dedicate yourself to, even when their fruits are but bumps in the earth. 

A seed becomes a farm, an unexpected encounter becomes a loving bond, and with enough work, an injury becomes a distant memory.