March 15, 2020 ☼ games

Farming Is Calming

Stardew Valley

I have a quaint farmhouse, two cows, seven chickens and a cat. In the spring I grow green beans. In the autumn I grow pumpkins. There are seasonal festivals in the town square and spooky mines in the mountains just waiting to be explored. I have spent, according to my Steam account, 68 hours making myself at home in Stardew Valley. Before that, there were different iterations of Amccus’ Harvest Moon series, spanning right back to my preteen days. These genteel farming simulators have always appealed to me, an outlier in my otherwise standard fair of violent RPGs which usually involve killing zombies. I’ve always felt sheepish when discussing video games, because I engage, more often than not, with the ones that offer me an opportunity to do something quite mundane: exist in a pure and uncomplicated environment, where the stakes are low and the people are pleasant.

The goal in these games is straightforward: prosper as a farmer. your character procures a smallholding, possibly from a deceased relative, and they relocate to a sparsely-populated but invariably charming and tight-knit community. These places don’t exist anywhere in reality - they are the sweet, sleepy towns, where the shops open and close like clockwork and everyone knows your name. You run errands, you water your crops, you feed your animals. And somehow, you look up to check the time, and the whole day has gone.

It’s a simple form of escapism compared to more lavish video games, but the beauty of these games lies in their ability to slow the world down. As someone who struggles greatly with my mental wellbeing, it’s necessary for me to find ways to distract myself - there is nothing more comforting, more serene than tending to a delicately configured virtual garden. By the same measure, it’s a manageable responsibility. If I am too unwell to load up the game and feed my virtual cat, that’s okay. The cat will not go anywhere.

There’s an old adage that states Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” In games like Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon, you do the same thing over and over again, broadly expecting the same results each time, in order to reach an ultimate goal. You sell enough potatoes to afford the barn extension, you cultivate friendships through smalltalk and gift-giving. These delicate approximations of the real world are simplified but safe, a respite from the often overwhelming reality. What’s more, they are so lovingly rendered, so detailed and meticulous realised, it really feels like there is a whole miniature world in the palm of your hand, in the harddrive of your computer.

And I am living my best tiny life fishing for bass, or cavorting with elves at the Midsummer Solstice - my time management on virtual farms is far superior to that in reality. My anxiety is alleviated by these rituals, by knowing the lifespan of crops or witnessing the changing of the season. Everything is just fine in Stardew Valley.

This article was originally published in LOST FUTURES 005

Hannah Woodhead