by Tyler Gausvik

The “farming simulator” genre is not a new one—in fact to many who play them, it is a genre that has gotten a little tired with age and lack of new ideas. The Harvest Moon series is the clear contender for the most known in the genre of games set in rural hamlets where the bulk of the gameplay is farmland living and cultivating relationships with whatever cast of characters happens to live near you. It is a charming premise, capturing all the magic and charm of rural life with a more passive and productive style of play that can be relaxing at times while also greatly engaging – and sometimes even a little chaotic!

However, to those folks who have played the games since their inception, things aren’t quite as enchanting as they used to be. After playing numerous iterations of what basically amounts to the same game with trivial differences to market, I personally became a bit disillusioned with the genre. I had my favorites, but otherwise it felt as if the genre, particularly the aforementioned Harvest Moon, had merely become a cash cow and instead of producing games with interesting mechanics and substantial characters that I wanted to befriend and connect with. I felt like I was being assaulted with gimmicks and superficial features that were aimed to distract me from the fact that I’d not only played this game before, but I hadn’t liked it the last time either.

So when I first saw Stardew Valley, my expectations were pretty low. Another game, beating the dead horse of this genre? Still, despite what I thought was my better judgement, I caved in and bought it. Something about it seemed promising—maybe since the developer was independent, they’d be able to approach it with a fresh mind. Regardless, I hadn’t played anything in the genre since the perhaps inappropriately named “Harvest Moon: A New Beginning” so I was ready to try again. Worst case, I’d be out a few bucks and I’d have satisfied my urge to see if maybe, just maybe, things had gotten better.

Things started pretty typically. My beloved grandfather passed away and left me a farm in a little town he called home. The first few days of the game encouraged me to introduce myself to the many denizens of the town, all of whom fortunately have their name, sprite, and affection rating in your menu for easy access and recognition. It all seemed pretty standard, and as I carried on I wasn’t expecting much out these characters beyond utility and simple archetypes.

As I ventured around town, desperately seeking to get the quest out of my notebook that mandated I introduce myself to all the folks in town, I began to notice some interesting things. Characters would go into their rooms, and unlike the general decorum of these games, I couldn’t follow them. “You aren’t good enough friends with X to enter their room,” the game would tell me. Sometimes, I couldn’t even enter the homes of characters for the same reason. While in reality this isn’t an unusual premise, it came across as odd in a game where part of my task was to meet and get to know these strangers. I carried on as best I could with these bounds performing the usual song and dance of connecting with characters. I met a can-do, good guy mayor, a gregarious and friendly barkeeper with exceptional culinary talent. These were all staples; I’d seen them before. As I started memorizing these characters and their schedules,I started to notice some surprising and unusual trends when I would talk to them and ply them with gifts.

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Although Stardew Valley’s cast of characters and the world they inhabit can seem superficial, another reflection of a genre that has sacrificed depth for flash, the game leaves much of the characterization and background to be found by the player’s own will. Town events, character events, developing closer relationships with characters to gain access to their space and to more intimate information about them—in Stardew Valley all of these require the player’s initiative to uncover and interpret, which makes the experience of “getting to know” these characters more realistic, organic, and satisfying.

Stardew Valley uses a slew of subtle clues and tips to make what seem to be mundane and trite characters into fleshed out and storied people, and these clues are very often things you must seek out of your own accord. Much of the novelty and effect comes from having come to the revelation on your own. The discussion ahead will feature what could be construed as spoilers and knowing ahead of time will certainly take the magic out of finding this information out yourself, so only read on if you don’t mind.

Perhaps one of the most evident examples of this kind of characterization that the player must seek out and draw their own conclusions about is the secret affair between Marnie, the gentle woman who sells you supplies for your ranching lifestyle, and the mayor of Pelican Town, Lewis. Despite the game featuring many couples that are married and will clearly tell you so, and despite it even allowing the player character to get married themselves, the game never openly states the relationship between Marnie and Lewis. The two stand together frequently at the bar and at town festivals, and Lewis’ schedule often brings him to Marnie’s home and place of business to “make sure her business needs are being met.” To the player who doesn’t take the time to cultivate a closer relationship with either of them, things might seem as simple as a healthy friendship between the two.

However, if you go beyond the surface, you can find out that these two are engaged in a romantic relationship. Lewis will eventually give the player character a quest to find his missing shorts, a quest he asks you to handle with a great deal of delicacy. Where do you find the shorts? Marnie’s bedroom, which you can’t have access to until you’ve gained two hearts with Marnie, which requires giving her gifts for a decent period of time due to the game’s two gift a week limit. Additionally, gaining two hearts of affection with the mayor allows you to enter his own bedroom, where you find a letter from a mysterious “M” asking him to spend more time with her. At six hearts of affection with both characters, the player can get an explicit confirmation of the relationship between the two by stumbling on a secret meeting between the pair.

From this, other more subtle bits of information begin to make sense and you start to see a bigger picture of who these two people are. Lewis is a man who puts his duty before a lot of things, but at the same time he is someone who, like anyone else, is trying to find love. Marnie is a woman in a secret relationship that she can’t talk about – perhaps for fear of scandal, or perhaps out of a genuine desire to keep things under wraps – who yearns to spend more time with the one she loves. They’re both still the characters they were when you first met them, but now, like real people, they’re myriad and more interesting – and you did the legwork required to come to those conclusions.

Other characters in the Valley also have hidden depths that are revealed through careful examination of their lives and continued friendships. Jodi is a homemaker who does her best to tend to the needs of her two sons, but underneath that she is a woman who is just trying to hold her home together while her husband is at war. Her family is no simpler: an event between her two sons, Vincent and Sam, reveals that the young Vincent, who we often see playing with his friend and attending day school, fears that his father might never return after overhearing the horrors of the war his father is fighting in. This requires Sam, still only a young man himself and also without his father, to stand up and be supportive of his little brother by giving him the hope that any bad things he hears do not change the fact that his father is coming home. Sam himself is a bit of a listless youth who skateboards, works at the local superstore, and plays pool and video games in his free time. He seems to straddle the line between a young man and a teenager.

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All of this information isn’t readily available to you unless you look for it by befriending the characters, going to certain locales when they’re present, talking to them at the many festivals that occur during the year, and through the player’s own inferences.Ultimately, this method of characterization proves very effective to the playing of the game. You can experience a pretty basic life in Stardew Valley by just farming and undertaking the tasks that are entailed, maintaining a minimal relationship with anyone you stumble across. Or you can engage more readily with the game, befriending the townsfolk by finding out their schedules and their favorite items and developing deeper relationships with them. This will lead you to engage more deeply with the game’s functions, like participating in the festivals, growing a wider variety of crops so you have some for your neighbors, and upgrading your home and farm so that you can craft or produce the items you need to strengthen the bonds with them. Not only does this method of earned characterization give the player something to chase after beyond the more immediate goals, but it also gives the player an added reason to enjoy and engage with everything the game has to offer.

Stardew Valley definitely exceeded my expectations in many ways—it took many farming simulator conventions and built on them and improved on them in ways that were incredibly gratifying. However, to me, the most striking thing is the characterization. Where other games like it tend to rely on a town populated by likeable character archetypes that give off a great initial appeal but end up feeling hollow, Stardew Valley gives the game a feeling of community by incentivizing interactions with the characters who seem simple at first, but provide rewarding and enticing hidden depths when you put a little effort into getting to know them. Games have always struggled with making relationships between the player character and others not seem too mechanical, but Stardew Valley’s system of earned characterization really makes the relationships that develop from it far more human and organic.

Tyler Gausvik is a games writer with an interest in narrative design and writing in games. He can be found on Twitter @griznergames