Why Stardew Valley needs to be discovered, not beaten

Meet Yuna and Finn. These two farmers represent my first and my latest foray into the world of Stardew Valley. Yuna and Finn are both married ladies with kids, live in lavishly decorated homes (if my taste in 16-bit birch nightstands counts as lavish) and ride their loyal horses around their farms. 

My first character, ditzy Yuna, was basically me turned farmer: always forgetting birthdays, an impulse shopper, not a great gift-giver. With her, I always bought a few seeds too many. I went fishing when I felt like it and forgot other tasks. At one point Yuna got into serious money trouble because I didn't let the grass grow at least half a season in order to always have enough fodder.

I paid for this and other mistakes, but making and subsequently fixing those mistakes while slowly figuring out the intricacies of Stardew Valley was what made the hours fly by, especially since the game doles out very few hints, inspiring a whole host of "things I wish someone had told me" articles. 

Sowing the seeds of my downfall

My first time playing Stardew Valley I enjoyed a steady feeling of accomplishment, yet after over a hundred hours, I started to want more. In a sudden and completely atypical bout of git gud competitiveness I decided to have one of those farms, one of the bustling hives of productivity I always associated with other players. This time I too would sketch farm layouts and calculate field usage for maximum yield! I would succeed in Stardew Valley thanks to my most boring quality: being organized. This time, by the power of spreadsheet making, I was going to build a mega farm.

But the many small things easily forgotten in the hustle and bustle of watering crops and feeding livestock are a big draw of Stardew Valley. Building relationships and discovering the valley are what make it so rewarding—but they take time, lots of time if you develop a routine. 

Finn, my second farmer, was an attempt at starting over. An achiever, right down to her sensible beige easy-iron shirt. While she started off with nothing but rusty tools and an overgrown farm, I came prepared not only with the knowledge I had gained from my first outing, but also the near-infinite, unholy knowledge of the wiki.

...once I found that even after marriage Shane’s favorite hobbies consisted of gorging himself on beer and hot pockets, I swiftly replaced him with another member of my harem.

The list of best gifts by villager became my new best friend. In the same vein, the first piece of furniture I bought was a calendar so I would never miss a birthday again. It stopped feeling good pretty soon. Getting to know your fellow townspeople, no matter how ridiculous in practice, is one of the game’s most charming elements. The idea that everyone is slow to trust strangers and needs to be won over is believable, though some likes and dislikes can be nearly impossible to work out. It's obvious Pam and Shane like a good drink seeing as they hang out by the saloon most of the time, but without hints to go by I had previously simply ignored certain characters. Now, however, I sailed right past the sweet spot and made getting to know someone just another task on my list. 

Down with Joja Mart

Now that I knew what people liked I basically produced to order, stored all items in a dedicated chest and went to town twice a week to make sure everyone received the maximum number of gifts. I missed out on the anticipation of winning over a character I liked because suddenly I could have them all. I was making the rounds. I was collecting interactions. This became particularly obvious when, once I found that even after marriage Shane’s favorite hobbies consisted of gorging himself on beer and hot pockets, I swiftly replaced him with another member of my harem.

From day one I acted with the community centre in mind, putting away any item needed for it immediately. The wiki made this easy by detailing the conditions under which I could catch every fish I needed. Once the centre was restored, I was disappointed to discover that was it, nothing more than another item off my list. Worse, even all shiny and new it barely got used. I had been hailed as the saviour of Stardew Valley’s very soul and the best I got for it was a bus that allowed me to leave the valley sometimes. Nothing reflected the change I brought about save for a different decrepit building in town, having defeated the evils of capitalism represented by Joja Mart. Game over, I guess you won.

The feeling of achievement from digging up my first parsnip or welcoming Skeletor (my first chicken) into its coop did remain even my second time. It's still hugely satisfying to catch a big fish with the last dredges of your energy remaining, or to slide into bed juuuust before cut-off time at 2am. It’s all fun, but when it comes to making quick and steady profit, there are many better ways than ruining your back over a few potatoes. 

The importance of intrinsic rewards

Early on, I concentrated on fishing and mining, as many items are only found using those two methods, and became so proficient in such a short amount of time I nearly drowned in money. They say money can’t buy happiness, but once you’ve made it big in Stardew Valley, you’ll be wanting for very little. The time I had spent absent from my farm had turned it into an overgrown jungle, supplying me with a year’s worth of wood and hay. Stardew Valley rewards little acts of patience by overtipping like Nicolas Cage in It Could Happen to You.

I felt accomplished at first, rewarded as I was for implementing smarter processes. But finding the most optimal way to play is antithetical to Stardew Valley. Being chained to a monitor in the name of capitalism is what you're trying to escape from, so amassing riches via spreadsheet felt oddly wrong. 

I began to hate my second husband, who had so endearingly clung to me on our date in the hot air balloon, for watering fields that didn’t need watering instead of giving me a second child.

Additionally, while there are games that are a delight to play for achievements, some achievements in Stardew have nothing to do with testing your skill. While it can feel like quite a feat to catch every fish, there is nothing you can do to make the hunt for every item for the museum less excruciating. Anyone need another rusty spur? No?

I’m on the fence about the multiplayer for all these reasons. While I like the idea of meeting a friend for a chat and planting some melons, like Stardew and chill with actual chilling, it will also mean that with an extra pair of hands you’ll finish everything faster. I realize, however, that not every person plays Stardew Valley as if cursed to touch nothing else, and hope it can be a nice way for the evening crowd to share something with friends.

In the end, I never built my mega farm. For me, it's not worth it to own several barns and sheds dedicated to crystallariums spitting out diamonds just to prove to people you have the biggest... farm. As relaxing as Stardew Valley is, at the point where there’s no challenge left other than choosing pictures that don’t contrast with the color scheme of the tapestry, I’m off. 

With barns dispensing fodder automatically and sprinklers taking care of both my small field and my greenhouse, I was spending over half an in-game day just collecting the fruits of automated labour. At that point searching for my inner interior designer was nothing but a last-ditch attempt to stave off boredom. Finally, I began to hate my second husband, who had so endearingly clung to me on our date in the hot air balloon, for watering fields that didn’t need watering instead of giving me a second child. That was when I knew efficiency had turned me into a bit of an ass. I put Stardew Valley away. No matter how its open-ended design tries to tell me otherwise, we all put a game away eventually in favor of something else. I will try to unlearn what I know and get back to it eventually. 

Maybe I’ll play some Harvest Moon in the meantime.