There are titles that come along from time to time that make us question whether the ever-churning machine of AAA titles that push the graphical envelope further and further are necessary.
FTL and The Binding of Isaac are popular not because they are graphically driven or realistic, but instead because they tap into a sweet spot of gaming that seems to evade most developers. They are enduring titles not because they had the newest technology, but instead because they somehow resonated with their audience. When this happens, the lack of graphics shifts away from being a potential hindrance and instead becomes a strength because of the longevity afforded them. There is no doubt that Stardew Valley has found this tap and has opened it completely, as it blends addictive gameplay, a beautiful soundtrack, and lovingly rendered pixel graphics into a package that will no doubt endure.
You begin with a sequence where your dying grandfather gifts you an envelope. He states that it should be opened only when you, “feel crushed by the burden of modern life and your bright spirit fades before a growing emptiness.” This is a strong message that propels the player forward, as it no doubt resonates with some, if not most, of the people playing. I know that as the opening sequence showed the dim office space that our protagonist works in prior to inheriting the farm, I could see parallels with my own life, which immersed me immediately and unexpectedly.
After designing a character with a surprisingly robust character creation system that includes a decision to list a preference between cats or dogs, you get started. The immediate parallel that can be drawn at the beginning is how much it feels like Harvest Moon, which is intentional by way of the developer. Your farm is overrun by rocks and trees that must be cleared to make room for crops, and you must partition out an energy bar that depletes rapidly while doing work with how many hours you have left in the day. It is in these first moments that I felt like I didn’t have enough time to get everything done. I felt surprisingly worried that I would not be able to finish all of the tasks in front of me and actually get crops started. It is in these types of moments that I felt more connected with my protagonist though, which only endeared me further every time they occurred.
There are so many elements present in Stardew Valley, that even when you have logged quite a few hours, you haven’t even scratched the surface.
You can and should focus on farming as a backbone to your overall experience, but even that element alone is robust in its scope. You will quickly find yourself trying to determine which crop is the most profitable at harvest with the lowest amount of initial investment upon planting. After determining this with a weird amount of math (or Google), you are faced with choosing what type of soil additive suits that crop best (Fertilizer, Speed-Gro, or Water Retaining), whether it would be good to have crop variance (it is), and how quickly you should expand into having animals on your farm. These decisions are for one aspect, and are evolving every season, but only represent a small aspect of the overall experience.
As you are working to maintain your farm, it is important that you also build relationships with the community that you now live and work within. This can be done by completing random quests assigned at the local store, or giving gifts to the townspeople as you encounter them. If enough relationship is built with the single men or women within the town, you have the option of marrying and either having a child or adopting with this person. The relationships you have with others can often lead to better results at festivals that are held throughout the year, or random events that occur within the world.
Let’s assume that you have established strong relationships, fostered effective and profitable growth on your farm, and still have loads of free time available, does that mean you have mastered Stardew Valley? Of course not.
There's so much depth that's still unexplored, such as a potentially haunted mine, sewer, etc. This is accompanied by a surprisingly robust treasure and combat system, a fishing mechanic that is actually enjoyable and extensive, and community center tasks that unlock new areas and gameplay elements as they are completed. Each of these elements take time, energy, and focus to complete, yet are enjoyable enough on their own that they could have easily been a primary component.
Instead of there being only one monotonous task, you're forced to decide if it is worth whatever energy you have left from doing your farm tasks to either build relationships, pursue adventure, clear out more of your farm for expansion, or fish. You can upgrade your tools to accomplish each of these tasks more easily, but you still only have a limited amount of time to complete each of them. Stardew Valley forces you to make decisions that you would most likely have to make if you operated a farm, but it does so in a beautiful and relaxing way.
You would expect something with so many elements that was designed by a small developer to have problems, or bugs, but there is surprisingly very little to dislike. It would be nice if the tools weren’t quite as finicky about where they hit, and some have bemoaned the lack of ability to choose when to save (saves only occur when your character goes to sleep at night), but these are easy to get used to and are by no means game breaking. Factor in that the developer has been quick to respond to issues, as well as the anticipated multiplayer support that is planned, and Stardew Valley should maintain a spot among the top sellers on Steam for quite some time.
This is the type of game that childhood memories are built on. Stardew Valley is so universally accessible and enjoyable that people who never thought about gaming will become gamers, and then spend the rest of their life wondering when the next Stardew Valley will come along. It is that good.