I started playing Stardew Valley this past weekend, because I'd heard it had all of the elements I liked from Minecraft (farming, being in a "outdoors" setting) but with RPG elements, as well as some really cute and rather well-written NPCs.

If you ever watched Gilmore Girls (at least the first season) you might be tempted to see quite a few similarities between the idyllic representation of the agricultural-fictional Stars' Hollow, Connecticut and Stardew Valley's Pelican Town. Both communities feature a cast of characters dealing with small town economic and social issues (such as agriculture, tourism, food and hospitality, the lack of "good schools"), and both the television show and this videogame feature a tiny community of quirky characters living out their days in relative harmony. I lived in (or, better described as, "near") a small rural community in Connecticut for a few years, and even worked on an organic potato and squash farm for a little while—when I watch Gilmore Girls now, I sort of understand where the television show's extremely romanticized vision of small-town Connecticut comes from. In Stardew Valley, a similar "hyper romanticization" of farming and agricultural communities takes place, in a town so small it would make sense in one of the early Pokémon Game Boy games. I've become pretty interested in how videogames represent farming. I worked on this topic before; in particular with Minecraft and its representations of our "companion species"—chiefly chickens— on a project somewhat cheerfully called the Big Fried Chicken Company.

I will try not to spoil too much of the game's plot, though I do discuss some mechanics in detail, because some of the little quirks in the plot are worth discovering through the gameplay. However I do talk quite a bit about one of the characters (Linus) and his backstory, but not in too much depth.

My barn, my two chickens and my cow

While playing the game, I kept thinking of my all-too-brief time on a farm in Nova Scotia this past summer (some Instagram pictures of the experience) and of my conversation with several older people, of my parents' parents' generation, who maintain farms and spend most of their days outdoors working with the land, or with animals. They were all concerned about how to interest their children and grandchildren in taking over their farms one day (most of those who shared these concerns with me had children who had moved to urban centres in either Nova Scotia or New Brunswick), and how to get young folk (such as myself) more interested in agricultures and building sustainable livings with the environment.

Almost all of the people I met that weekend on the south shore of Nova Scotia are pretty much rockstars at being environmentally conscious, and quite a bit of that environmental friendliness is the heritage of a century of relative hardship—to put it mildly—in Atlantic Canada. They reused/recycled, and composted, grew their own food, were concerned about their septic tanks and water supplies, raised their own animals, as well as worked on "greening" their houses and making them more energy efficient in winter as in summer. The farmhouse was within sight of one of Nova Scotia's national parks and the people running the farm were very aware of climate change and notions of environmental stewardship and conservation.

So when Stardew Valley wraps up its introduction and drops the player character, a young person with agricultural ambitions and some tools, onto an overgrown plot of land that's gone a little wild with the years, I couldn't help but wonder what the farmers I met in Nova Scotia would think of a game like this. I'm sure they'd probably find it very strange that so many of us "young folk" are playing at farming, when one of the main anxieties shared with me was that it seems like there are no young people who are truly interested in living on the land.[1]

While much of the farming in Stardew Valley is firmly rooted in the imaginary, there are some interesting expressions of farming, nature, and community that shine through the game. The passage of time and the importance of seasons is one chief concern that is immediately noticeable. During gameplay one learns to keep their attention focused on the clock and the "E" bar (I believe the "E" stands for "energy") on the left side of the screen, because time does run out and so can the player character's ability to expend physical energy. Farming is backbreaking work in Stardew Valley. This is quite unlike Minecraft, where as long as you've got something to munch on you can go without rest or sleep for years on end. In Stardew Valley there is a pretty concrete limit to how much farming and physical labour can be done during a single day.

Very early in the game, before I'd really left my farm and gotten acquainted with most of Pelican Town, I made the mistake of ignoring both the "E" bar and the clock, as well as the little flashing warning that my player character was becoming fatigued. It was late at night, and I kept running out of space in my inventory, and I really needed to build a chest, which meant I really needed to collect more fallen wood with my axe, and—

To my immense surprise, I passed out.

My home in Stardew Valley, including a picture of the cutest Turnip Head and my mail-in-mailbox notification.

I woke up the next morning in my bed, which is another event I found quite surprising. When I went outside, I discovered that someone had left a letter in my mailbox explaining how he'd found me out cold in the fields and brought me back home.

That someone was a character I had not met yet: Linus.

I was immediately intrigued by Linus. Who is Linus? I started wandering Pelican Town, trying to find him. He wasn't in any of the houses I checked, and I could not find him walking around town.

I ended up finding him just a ways outside the town, standing by the river, explaining that he has chosen a life in the wild:

You can learn to survive in the wild. I have. I think we all have a hidden urge to return to nature. It's just a little scary to make the leap.—Linus

Let me introduce you to my best friend Linus.

Linus quickly became my favourite. He was quite suspicious of me at first, and I felt rather indebted to him for helping me out when I'd passed out in the field. I started bringing him parsnips, and then leeks, and quickly maxed out the "two gifts a week per NPC" rule the game sets out for you. When I got myself two chickens (the very cute Heneroceros and Pepp) I started bringing Linus eggs, too.

And then one night in the fall he shared with me a recipe for sashimi in the mail, and I realised with joy that Linus and I had become friends at last!

When in doubt, give Linus eggs!

During my first few village events, I noticed that Linus was always excluded from the festivities and other characters' kept their distance from him. Robin, the village carpenter who can often be found outdoors, was the only one who ever mentioned him to me, and she called him "a weird man who lives in a tent behind my house". It became clear the other villagers mostly consider him a social pariah. One of the first cutscenes in the village was a moment in which the player character finds out that Linus is dumpster diving.

I didn't even realise that one could dumpster dive in the game. I thought this was really exciting, and I started dumpster diving every chance I got.[2] Apparently most of the villagers in Pelican Town thought that was pretty gross, and more than one character came up to me exclaiming: "eeeeeeeeeew!"

We live in a land of plenty—and in a land of great waste—as any peak in a dumpster will tell you. Behind every apartment building and retail business in this country sits a harvesting opportunity. [...] Selective diving will yield selective results, whether your scavenging interest is food, building materials, books, clothing, or furniture, you can find dumpsters to serve your needs. On top of all these personal benefits, you will also be lessening the load on landfills. And that is a very good thing. (The Urban Homestead 198-199 )

Dumpster diving in Stardew Valley could be pretty profitable sometimes. I mostly found junk, though I did once find an entire intact chocolate cake which I then sold to the town grocer for... probably far too much money...

I did have a moment of guilt, though, when I realised that if Linus and I were both dumpster "shopping" through a finite (but renewable) amount of garbage, I might be taking away resources from him. Especially in the dead of winter, as my chickens were producing a lot of eggs and for some reason the mayonnaise I was making out of those eggs was selling incredibly well, I started feeling really guilty thinking of Linus all alone on a tent on the side of the mountain, dealing with blizzards at night.

You're not born with dumpster etiquette but you do learn that other people rely on the same trash. If you take all of the bread in the dumpster, the next person won't find any. If you leave a mess and the dumpster becomes locked as a consequence, you and everybody else will be out of luck! (How and Why 172)

My farmland in spring, Nature comes back with a vengeance despite my efforts at "grooming".

But the best part of Stardew Valley is the way nature constantly regenerates itself. If I cut away too much, and cut down too many trees, the process is slow, but even one tree is constantly dropping seeds that are constantly growing into saplings. Grass and leafy shrubs spread across the farm quickly, most notably in spring when nature returns from the stillness of winter with a vengeance. There's also a sense of decay as trees drop branches and fences fall apart within seasons. And given the limits placed on the player character's time and energy levels, it actually is a daunting task to clear away all of the trees and stone from the farm—the player runs out of energy very quickly, especially at the start of the game.

But clearing the farm isn't that interesting of a goal, even if your plan is to collect hundreds of logs to build a new barn, it's not necessary to cut down every single tree in sight. The game is quite happy to let you work with land that is a little "ungroomed"—though it doesn't seem to affect the quality of the soil (nor is there a real option for the game to let the player engage with the material realities of agricultural waste) but it's actually beneficial to let the cows and chickens wander in the tall grasses. The cows and chickens both prefer wandering and eating in the green grass to being cooped up in a barn with some old dried hay, and their "happiness meter" is directly correlated with their financial worth in the game, as well with their "productivity" in terms of producing good quality eggs and milk.

It's a sharp contrast from Minecraft which lets you build all sorts of "infernal" machinery to "spawn" chickens and then cook them immediately in lava once they get large enough. While all the ethical concerns when dealing with animals in agriculture are obviously not all addressed in Stardew Valley (I find it interesting that the game simply doesn't let you kill or butcher your own farm animals, though in 2013 it seems it was a planned mechanic), it's still pretty excellent that the game mechanics seem to agree with the wisdom of keeping farm animals as content and comfortable as possible, as well as giving them room to roam in fields and pastures. The game also allows the player to name each individual animal, and the player can check in on each animal's happiness by petting the chickens and cows. It was pretty interesting, when in the middle of winter, despite having a heater in the coop and plenty of hay to get all the chickens through the winter, one of my hens got depressed, and for several days the little message pop-up expressed that she was very sad! It was quite mysterious, but she eventually recovered. (I... admit I was very worried...)

Once my schedule clears up a little bit in early May, I think I would like to take a crack at modding for Stardew Valley. One aspect of the game I'd like to address is the option for gender-neutral pronouns so that I can play as the gender non-conforming farmer Gersande that I am! Especially with the possibilities of playing the game in co-op mode, this is a rich game with lots of ecocritical possibilities for thoughtful gameplay and I'm looking forward to playing it (and writing about it) some more.


Footnotes

References

  • Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen The Urban Homestead 2009
  • Matte Resist How and Why: A Do-It-Yourself Guide 2011

  1. If you ever want to work on a farm in exchange for a place to stay and food, you should look up the Harrison Lewis Centre in Nova Scotia and just go do it. I was there in August 2015 for an all-too-short weekend, and it had been over seven years since I'd worked on that potato farm in Connecticut, and I have to admit I'd really forgotten how physically intensive farm labour (err... I tried to help fix a fence in a cow's pasture...) was. It's worth noting that none of the farmers I met were "commercial farmers", but essentially subsistence farmers who shared their produce and resources with their communities. ↩︎

  2. For dumpster diving in real life, if you're interested in reading about it, check out this blog post by Ran Prieur. Also worth checking out is John Hoffman's The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving —for a local Montréal example of the practice check out this La Presse article from 2013 "L'archeologue des poubelles" (en français) ↩︎