Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Stardew Valley - 5/20 hours

I may be jinxing things by saying this before getting to the late game content, but Stardew Valley is so close to being a perfect game. The only thing holding it back is the monsters that populate the mines (well, that and the fishing, but I downloaded a mod that took care of that problem).

The monster-fighting aspect of the game isn't bad, but, when so much of the rest of the game is a conscious rejection of the "video game" aesthetic, it feels like an unnecessary concession to a more traditional way of engaging with games. On one level, this is about violence. Most games rely on violence as their central gameplay mechanic. Their tension and sense of challenge comes directly from the possibility of bodily injury and death and you clear away obstacles by dealing harm to your enemies. Stardew Valley largely eschews this, except for the mines.

But that's not the entirety of the issue. There are a lot of non-violent video games. Things like SimCity and Rollercoaster Tycoon. But generally speaking, pacifist games about building are not character-driven. SimCity is not "Mayor: The RPG." You usually play as some disembodied world-shaping force or, in the case of something like Ship Simulator Extremes, an empty presence that is only capable of piloting a boat. That's because character-driven games also tend to be story-driven games. Even the ones that allow for a pacifist option still operate under the assumption that your character is living in "interesting times."

Which is where Stardew Valley feels so different from almost any other game you could name (with one obvious exception that I'm not going to mention because I promised I wouldn't). It is not based around "interesting times." In fact, it attempts to create a calm, pastoral atmosphere that is decidedly not "interesting."

Stardew Valley divides itself into a series of days, each one very much like any other. You have certain chores you have to do every day (water crops, feed animals, etc) and your goal, ultimately, is to discover a sustainable form of repetition. Things will change as time goes on, your relationship with the townspeople will improve, you'll acquire new animals and better tools that will allow you to water, sow, and harvest more effectively, but that progression always takes place in the context of your daily pattern. One day is very much like any other, and that is the point.

In the past, when I've tried to explain the appeal of a similar game, I've been met with skepticism. Yet Stardew Valley's way of doing things is appealing. In its own way, Stardew Valley is just as much of a power fantasy as your typical blood-drenched shooter or orgy-of-mayhem open-world game. It's just that its particular power fantasy is much more relatable.

In this game's world, your work has meaning. You know with certainty that tomorrow will be as good or better than yesterday. And, granted, I'm still very early in the game's content, but I would be shocked if there were anything like a cancer scare or a foreclosure crisis. Stardew Valley promises something that is rare in the modern world, security.

One way that Stardew Valley differs from that other game I'm going out of my way not to mention is that it has an antagonist. In the game's prologue, you work for the Joja Corporation, a soulless conglomerate. The very premise of the game is that you are trading your depressing cubical job for a life of substance and connection to nature. But Joja Corporation follows you to Pelican Town, starting up a glossy, fluorescent-lit megamart that threatens to drive the local shops out of business.

But in adding such a sinister presence into the peaceful farming community, Stardew Valley is simply making that other game's subtext into text. I'm not going to speculate about the nuances of Japanese culture that went into the nuances of the original game, but I will talk about some general observations from the perspective of a modern, post-industrial information and service economy.

Games of this type deliberately evoke the myth of a pre-capitalist past, and thus they implicitly act as a critique of capitalism. Notice one thing that is largely missing from (fuck it) Harvest Moon is work for wages. Even among the NPCs it's elided. The mailman and the mayor are probably drawing some sort of salary from the municipal government, but virtually every private business (I'm hedging because I'm sure that in 13+ games there has to be at least one exception) is a single-proprietorship staffed by family members. And the towns in Harvest Moon games just work. Everyone, with the occasional exception of the sexy, brooding loner with the heart of gold, is friendly and well-adjusted. People are healthy and happy and materially well-off, and the town hosts several festivals every year that are both well-run and organized purely out of a healthy spirit of community.

It's a reactionary fantasy, but it is a reaction against the modern neoliberal consensus, and thus one of those weird areas where conservatism overlaps with marxism (there are few, if any workers who do not themselves own the means of production, and the occasional bar waitress or mailman is greatly overshadowed by the prominent main character). Indeed, I won't be the first person to point out that Karl Marx's vision of post-capitalist man as a kind of pastoral generalist is suspiciously Romantic for such a noted urban radical.

The interesting thing about Stardew Valley is that it straight-up acknowledges this. I mean, you're not going to have characters running around ranting about dialectical materialism or class consciousness, but you can talk to the employees of the Jojamart and they are miserable. Morris, the Jojamart's manager is a profit-driven schemer who doesn't care about the fabric of the community (hell, I was inadvertently spoiled on one of the choices later in the game and if you buy a Jojamart membership, he straight up destroys the nature-spirit-inhabited community center, which is, as a metaphor, perhaps too on the nose).

There is even an unemployed character. And it is important to note that this is very different from a loveable hobo who lives off the land (though there's one of those too). Pam doesn't have a job because she was laid-off. The bus she drove broke down and the bus company decided it was more economical to shut down the route than to repair the the bus.

And while it would probably be too grandiose to call it the game's theme, Stardew Valley does repeatedly highlight the idea that the alienation of labor brings about unhappiness. The world of Pelican Town is ultimately sweet, but there is that hint of bitterness there. I'm not sure whether this a deliberate political message or just the incidental result of a developer who was trying to ground their Harvest Moon homage in a slightly more realistic world, but I'll be interested to see whether the game ends up with a victory against or a rapprochement with modern capitalism.

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