I've put hundreds of relaxing hours into farming in Stardew Valley. Sure, there's more to growing crops than chucking some seeds in the ground and giving them a quick water, but Stardew's romanticised approach to country living is what makes it so charming. But now I'm ready for the real deal.
Well, as close as you can get to it on PC—let's not get carried away. I want to reach the next level of hardcore farming, and what better game to try than an agricultural sim named Real Farm. That's gotta be as real as it gets, right?
The first decision I need to make is what difficulty to play the game on, of which I choose the hardest because I'm a virtual farming expert. Believe me, I've hand-planted 100 individual seedlings in Sakuna Rice and Ruin and actually had fun doing it.
After loading into the game, I'm greeted by Matt Davis, an old geezer who is kindly going to show me the ropes. He then gives me my first job: ploughing a field to get it ready for planting seeds. The biggest difference in Real Farm is the big, hulking machines you get to control. You can get a tractor with Stardew Valley mods, but they are entirely absent in the base game, meaning my beloved farming sim has not prepared me for controlling heavy machinery. But when Matt tells me I can borrow his tractor for the job, I can't help but get excited. Time to say goodbye to energy metres, and hello to an epic two-tonne farming machine.
I hop into the tractor and it takes me a while to work out how to actually turn the engine on (a real feature of the hardest difficulty). After turning the key and attaching the plough to the back, I make my way to the marker on my map and get to work. Tilling the entire field should take no time at all, but ol' Matt has given me only 20 minutes to do it—looks like the old man is more of a hard-ass than I thought.
Stardew Valley and other sims are known for their laid-back vibe, and it's the same in Real Farm. It takes a while to get used to controlling the tractor with each contraption in tow, but after ploughing a field at 10mph to the sound of twanging country guitars, it becomes pretty peaceful. Even on the highest difficulty, Real Farm doesn't mind you leaving gaps in whatever field you're treating, but my inner Stardew farmer can't let go of the inconsistencies in my work. It goes against my instincts, even if it is a hassle to turn a metal behemoth around to plough a tiny space I missed.
I go through the various treatments Matt tells me to do, using new contraptions to cultivate the soil. It all takes time, and I quickly grow tired of looping around the same field over and over again, but Matt informs me my next job will be harvesting crops—a farmer's favourite activity—and that's not even the best part. I'll be ditching the tractor for the Comet 11KL, a giant yellow combine harvester that slices through crops with ease. It's a beast of a machine—the ultimate throne for a farming queen.
After completing the jobs for Matt, he tells me he no longer wants to run his farm anymore thanks to his old age. I pray for a Stardew Valley scenario, where he'll just give me his entire property for free from the kindness of his heart, but unfortunately not. This is real farming, and the old man says I can have it for $350,000. For perspective, the jobs I did only paid somewhere between $5,000 and $7,000. Looks like I have a lot of farming ahead of me.
After I finish wheezing from Matt's price, I'm free to drive around the neighbourhood, picking up odd jobs at other farms. The idea is to earn enough to buy your own farming equipment and then eventually the farm itself, which will then let you grow crops and keep animals. Part of Real Farm is also having to manage your money. The lump sum you start with is just a loan until you get off your feet, and that's on top of interest, increased product prices, and maintenance costs for equipment.
It's a hard life and one that's acres away from Stardew Valley's fantasy. As much as the residents of Pelican town will break your heart in two if you don't give them the right fruit, your neighbours in Real Farm are on a whole other level. I once needed to quit a job halfway through and the owner was so displeased they took back the tractor I borrowed, making me walk all the way across town to get to my truck—brutal. Maybe they see me as potential competition and want to break my spirit before I've even started.
Stardew Valley did not prepare me in the slightest for the tough living in Real Farm. As much as I appreciate its loyalty to accurate agriculture, I think my time with it has come to an end. Its farming is too much of a slow burn and having to constantly balance my chequebook is stressful. The normal and easy modes put less pressure on earning money, and there's even a creative mode that gives you an entire base farm to work from if you want to jump right in.
Although driving huge machines never gets old, I'm going straight back to my old cushy lifestyle in Stardew Valley. I'm just not cut out for the real thing.