After platinuming Death Stranding (something I recommend only masochists do) I started Grand Theft Auto V. I had played it a year or so ago but never fully got into it. I was doing good for about a month — it’s a fantastic game — but it couldn’t stand up to the release of Stardew Valley version 1.5. This updates adds a whole new area to the game as well as local multiplayer on the Nintendo Switch. My wife and I started a game and me being the old pro at the game proceeded to boss her until she got the gist of the game. This has been my all-consuming addiction the past two or three weeks.
I can’t shrug off the feeling I get mid/late game though. I get depressed and bored while playing it. I already made a post complaining about video games endings and how games like Stardew Valley are especially depressing because they don’t have a hard ending. You can play the game literally forever raking in cash, fucking around, and whatever else you can find to do. Eventually nihilism comes in and you wonder what exactly it’s all for; does your in-game person even have a purpose in their life or is it just to make as much money before you
die get bored and quit?
Having already written about that particular topic I didn’t think I’d have much more to say about it, but Stardew gives me a few more things to muse about because it tosses a bunch of capitalism and automation into the “everything is pointless” nihilism of late-game.
Stardew Valley, if you’ve never played, is a farming simulator. On it’s surface it’s a kid’s game; it’s easy, you can’t really die or fail the game, and if you want you can ignore your farm and fuck off the entire game with zero penalties. Sure, you’ll be poor, but since you don’t need to eat food or anything it’s fine. The music is cute, the art style is that of mid 1990s SNES games, and the whole thing basically shits cute/friendly/laid-back vibes. Until you get to the plot that is.
You inherit your farm from your dead grandpa. You leave your soulless, life-draining corporate job at Joja Mart (basically a stand-in for Walmart/greedy capitalism in general) to farm in Stardew Valley. The game stresses the importance of hard work and community, making real connections with real people doing fulfilling manual labor to contribute to your society. If you look slightly past the pretty/cute surface, the game emits anti-capitalism vibes and seems to be a statement against our current society where making money seems to be the most important thing to do in life. Why can’t we all leave our Joja Mart jobs and go farm in Stardew Valley?!
Now I don’t know if this is intentional on the video game creator’s part, but it seems most playthroughs end with you becoming exactly what you’ve been fighting against the whole time. Somehow I don’t think this was intentional. Game progression has to come from somewhere and starting with a quaint farm and turning it into a fucking money making machine makes sense progression-wise. But looking back on my current playthrough I wonder what the real message of Stardew Valley is, intentional or not. Is it that you can’t escape the rat-race? That every wonderful dream-fulfilling career turns into a slog? That there’s no escape from this? That eventually all you care about is making as much money as efficiently as possible? That you want to make the farm as easy to manage and as automated as possible because work fucking sucks?
At the start of the game, you’re a hard working farmer. You only have about 20 plants and you need to water them every day. You chop down trees, water, harvest the plants, and go to bed at like 5 p.m. because you’re so damn exhausted. This is fun for the first few seasons, but as the farm grows the work load increases. The chores start to feel like chores. You naturally want to make as much money as possible — who doesn’t? — so you upgrade your tools to make the job easier. You can eventually water 3, 5, and 9 plants in one go, so you expand the cropland. You now have 100-200 plants and diversify your farm into animals and artisan products. You make some fish ponds, start brewing wine and aging it, and before you know it you’re rolling in more money than you know what to do with. You endlessly farm for iridium ore so you can make the best damn watering sprinklers in the game — you’re sick of watering the damn crops everyday and just want enough sprinklers so you don’t have to do a damn thing on the farm anymore.
You also start doing a bunch of math to find out the best crops on a gold per day basis; some crops just aren’t worth fucking around with. You start growing only one or two crops to maximize your income. You know not to turn iridium-tier goat milk into cheese because you’ll take a slight loss on it. Let’s not forget the opportunity cost of making cheese either! You install junimo huts on the farm so you don’t even need to harvest the produce anymore: let the
illegals junimos do all the work! You invest in the ‘auto-grabber’ tool so you don’t need to pick up eggs or milk the cows anymore. Hell, there’s even an ‘auto-petter’ that loves on the farm animals so you don’t even need to interact with them to keep them happy anymore. In a few short years you become Capitalism Incarnate.
Yesterday while playing my wife took care of everything on the farm and mentioned that she didn’t use any energy in the day. It was time for bed, she had been busy, but her energy bar was still maxed out. Holy shit, what happened? Remember the good ole days when we had to actually work on the farm and chop trees and pick vegetables? It was only a few years ago, but now our farm is so automated and easy to run that there’s not even a game to play anymore. Everything is a chore; you wake up, check the wine casks in the basement, sell and restock as necessary and that’s about it. I think that’s the point I’m trying to make here. The game wants you to use these fancy upgrades because that’s how it shows progression, but the progression is all about making the game easier and you lazier as time goes on. And as this happens you just don’t care anymore. As the work becomes easier, it becomes less fulfilling, and after the end of the third year you can’t help but feel that something went wrong, that this wasn’t the dream you had, and that you’re working another Joja Mart-type job, and worse, it’s a fate you walked into thinking it’d be better for your mental and spiritual health.
Like I said, I don’t think think this is exactly what Concerned Ape, the creator of the game, was trying to say, but the game is saying it anyway, and is saying it better than any other games trying to make this point. You try to escape corporate hell by farming but end up making your farm into a massive cash-making machine. All you care about is how big you can make that number at the top of the screen even if you have nothing to spend it on. You’re just as bad as Joja Mart, aren’t you? And by making things easier for yourself with better tools/automation, you take the achievement out of what you’re doing, but you’ve been wanting to get out of work all along, weren’t you? But now that the hard work is past you realize you don’t have shit to do, so you do what I’ve been doing in game. You set up a bonfire and some chairs around it in a quiet, unused portion of your farm, and sit ponding your purpose at 3 p.m. “My life in Stardew Valley sucks now. I’m rich but I’m bored. What the hell am I supposed to do now…?”
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