This article contains story spoilers for Stardew Valley.
Taken at face value, Stardew Valley is a very happy little game indeed. It lures you in with the promise of a new life as a farmer, away from the pressures of the big city. Bunny rabbits, companionship, and a cutesy retro aesthetic give the impression of a rural paradise ripe for the picking, but as you delve deeper into the town of Stardew Valley you soon come to realize that all is not what it seems.
Much of the game’s dark underbelly is only revealed to the player via subtle hints and passing statements, alluding to but never quite revealing the sadness buried within. The most readily and frequently teased of these revelations is the ugly truth that war is prevalent, even in a world as idyllic as this. By talking to several characters in the game it can be gleaned that there is a war raging somewhere far away, one with ‘major casualties’ and one which has drawn away one of the town’s fathers. Kent is a soldier who, after returning home, struggles to settle back into the quiet and simple life that a small town dictates. It becomes clear that he is suffering from PTSD from his time at war, remarking that he is having trouble sleeping and being startled by the sound of popcorn being cooked. He also makes brief mentions of a prison camp and can be found standing alone outside of his house contemplating his existence.
Something which you come to realize about Stardew Valley is that despite being designed as escapism for the player, it often contains all of the things which make real life so unpleasant. This extends as far as the entire extinction of a sentient species. The dwarves can be studied by finding artifacts from their once thriving civilization. It seems that the dwarf race once dominated the lands surrounding Stardew Valley until they were all but extinguished during a long war with the Shadow People. You can find what is alluded to being the last living dwarf by progressing through the game. He is simply utilized as a merchant but will occasionally remark on his loneliness and yearns for his deceased family. One of the aforementioned Shadow People also inhabits Stardew Valley, hiding out in the sewers. The game does a great job at reminding us of the effect that war can have on a small community such as this, without ever beating the player over the head with it.
Despite its small town sensibilities, capitalism looms around every corner in Stardew Valley and around the player’s own farm in particular. There is an argument to be made here that it is possible to play the game in multiple different ways and while that could certainly be said for a very small section of the player base, most choose to play it in a very specific way. This is to try to earn as much money as humanly possible, making the farm bigger and better in the process. At the start of the game it is revealed that the player is moving to escape a life in the big city, away from the rat-race so to speak. It’s funny then, that when faced with the quiet and self-sufficient lifestyle of a farmer, so many choose to become consumed by the urge to earn more money. Players quickly fall into monotonous and obsessive routines with these types of games, planting and harvesting, shearing and milking, making this a very odd style of escapism from their monotonous and routine lives.
Another facet of real life which the game explores is that of the small business. Upon starting the game, the player is told that a new JoJo mart has moved into the town and is threatening the small businesses in the area. From the general store to the saloon, all of the town’s long-established businesses are now under threat from a mega-corporation that threatens to undercut them at every turn. The player can either choose to go along with this new regime or rebel against it, with the latter option being the much more time and effort consuming of the two. Sticking a finger up to the man will lead to them being forced out of town, however, so it’s not all bad on the local business front. Anyone who grew up in a smaller town will know the woes associated with encroaching capitalism all too well. The rise of readily available goods delivered to your door has rendered the local Mom and Pop store obsolete. Often, these small establishments will rest upon their lineage within a community and the quality of their products. Stardew Valley weaves this dynamic into its gameplay systems in subtle ways. For example, the JoJa Mart is open for much longer each day than Pierre’s local store, and is open 7 days a week. The game makes it clear from the get go just how much easier your life on the farm would be if you just bought a JoJa Mart membership, given that you can simply purchase the community centre upgrades and open up parts of the game early. The other side of big business is shown too in that the opening of the new store gives a few characters jobs where previously there were none.
We all have our personal demons, skeletons in the closet, a simple fact of life which is incorporated into several of the game’s characters. Misconceptions are often drawn when first meeting someone as in general, we forget that every person has things they are struggling with under the surface. The player’s introduction of one character in particular highlights this. When first talking to Shane it becomes immediately clear that he doesn’t want to talk to you. He is stubborn and comes off as kind of a jerk, enforcing an initial judgement on the player’s part. I’m willing to bet that a lot of people simply wrote Shane off at this point, choosing to focus their efforts on other , more welcoming characters. The sad thing is that this is how so many people end up lonely, depressed and forgotten. This loneliness is part of the package of living in a small town such as this. Despite being in such close proximity with other people, it can be so easily to feel isolated. Only by persevering through Shane’s initial prickliness do players uncover the real problems he is burying. An encounter part way through the game sees the player discovering Shane passed out in his room surrounded by beer cans. Those around him are worried but unsure as how to do so. Things get worse, as they often do until Shane faces a crossroad as to how to continue living. This heartfelt showdown atop a cliff is a necessary bridge to cross for Shane’s rehabilitation, just like so many suffering from anxiety and depression also experience. The game manages to tell this compelling personal story with very little dialogue and exposition. Regardless it still manages to get across the very important message that with good people around you and the acceptance to seek professional help, you can learn to deal with these demons.
In every small town, there is a single person who’s life seems dominated by tragedy. It’s often the town’s worst kept secret that this person is struggling with personal demons but people seem reluctant to help regardless. Whether this is because they have their own issues to deal with or because the individual’s strife contradicts the idyllic rural dream they are striving for is irrelevant as the outcome is always the same. In Stardew Valley, this unfortunate honor falls to a character called Pam. Pam used to drive the bus until the service was shut down. She now spends her days living in a cramped trailer with her daughter Penny. Her interactions with the townsfolk are limited and brief with the closest thing to a friend being the owner of the saloon who chooses to ignore her ever-growing bar tab, despite being in financial trouble himself. Because Pam is not a romantic option, her situation never changes, meaning she is stuck in the same loop of drinking and being hungover forever. Despite Pam’s problems being so openly obvious, the town merely sees her as part of the furniture, something which happens all too often to those we deem too far gone to help. Saddest of all is that even the game can forget about her. Due to a long-running bug, Pam will sometimes just disappear completely, leaving her daughter alone and no one to drive the bus. Her disappearance goes completely unnoticed as the town continues on with their individual routines, showing the other side of the coin to Shane’s rehabilitation.
Love is a big part of Stardew Valley. The game allows you to grow closer to and then marry the majority of its characters, regardless of gender or age. But with love, especially in a community as small as this, there is always heartbreak. There’s very little privacy in a rural town such as this, characters interrupt romantic moments and the entire town turns out for your wedding. In settings such as this, heartbreak is amplified. Divorce is an option in the game and its implementation after effects are appropriately sobering. The player must pay out a hefty fee to start the process and is then given the opportunity to think their decision through overnight. In the morning, the relationship is dissolved and the player receives full custody of any children they have had together. Life is mostly the same, but you do start to miss the little things like having a partner to share your space with and someone to talk to in the mornings. Stardew Valley being as close-knit as it is, you will bump into your ex eventually which leads to several melancholic exchanges in which they question why you ever got together in the first place. We all like to think that we can stay friends with those that we have previously loved, but this is almost never the case. After divorcing your spouse in Stardew Valley you can no longer be friends with them, with only negative interactions to be had in the future.
In hindsight, none of this darkness should really come as a surprise. The beginning of the game involves a death in the family, an event which stays with the player in interesting ways throughout their first few years on the farm. The idea of a passive, farming sim having a darker side is nothing new also. Games like Harvest Moon and Minecraft all have an air of sadness about them, and maybe that’s what makes them so endearing. There’s plenty of fun to be had in Stardew Valley but just as in life, you take the good with the bad. Let’s hope that with the upcoming additions to the game, some of the town’s problems can be solved and let’s hope to God that Pam finally gets some good in her life.