When ConcernedApe’s Stardew Valley trotted its way onto Steam’s virtual stockyard just over a month ago, it immediately became notable for three things: receiving massive amounts of critical and popular acclaim; revitalizing the ailing farming sim genre; and allowing the player to defeat capitalism with the help of some magical forest sprites.
Maybe you don’t believe me; fair enough. Still, the subtext is hammered home as clearly as the game’s kitschy wood-panel logo. Armed with the veritable cornucopia of items you’ve pumped into your local economy, the sprites rebuild your town’s dilapidated community center, causing the encroaching megacorporation to cease operations and clear out of town. One could certainly fuss over this characterization of one of the game’s many arcs; after all, it’s not like your goods spell out a hammer and sickle symbol. But still, when it comes to games like Stardew, even the most minor deviations constitute a statement worth considering.
Outside of perhaps The Sims, the life simulation genre generally isn’t recognized for arch commentary, instead minimizing the hardships and inconveniences of life for the sake of a compelling content curve. Nobody gets evicted in Animal Crossing; none of the cute villagers grind out a seventy-or-eighty hour week in Harvest Moon; and no canines meet their untimely end in Nintendogs.
While this omission may seem curious at first glance, it’s hardly inscrutable. After all, most people play games to forget about the unfortunate realities of the human condition, not dwell on them. In particular, Marvelous Entertainment’s Harvest Moon—Stardew’s closest cousin by a fair margin—offers a vision of the farming life defined by bucolic nostalgia and not much else. Translated literally, its Japanese title means simply “farm story,” a clear demonstration of its limited scope.
It’s not enough to say that ConcernedApe’s work and Harvest Moon are cut from the same cloth; one should say that Stardew Valley succeeds by brazenly repurposing the shredded rags Moon left in its wake. However, despite its reliance on Harvest Moon’s well-worn template, Stardew endeavors to take its Pelican Town one step further than the idealized hamlets that Marvelous’ franchise is known for. Stardew might lack the threadbare charm of games like Harvest Moon 64, but its world feels much more filled out, if only by comparison. Characters possess at least the flicker of an inner life, and the interpersonal dynamics of the village can occasionally surprise. No Harvest Moon game ever even alluded to trysts or love affairs; here, the mayor recruits the player character to retrieve key evidence of one.
One could applaud these flirtations with increased realism as a boon to the sub-genre—an attempt to move towards an approach with a bit more teeth. And when it comes to the game’s evil Joja Corporation, ConcernedApe certainly isn’t afraid to bare those teeth, either. Make no mistake: Stardew Valley may traffic in pixelated nostalgia, but it wears its progressive heart on its sleeve, striking out against corporatism at every turn. Your character works for Joja at the beginning of the game, a role that the game depicts as soul-destroying in its tedium. The player then opens a long-cherished letter, which reveals that their dead grandfather has bequeathed them his old farm as a safeguard against the corruption of the hum-drum office life.
Once in Pelican Town, the player finds that Joja has opened its own store that undercuts the local mom-and-pop, complete with unhappy employees and a duplicitous manager, Morris. If the player chooses to buy a membership card from “Joja-Mart,” the community center where the magical sprites live will be converted into a warehouse, and the opportunity to chase the company out of town goes with it. The rewards that the sprites would offer are subsumed into Joja-Mart’s normal wares. However, instead of purchasing them with diverse bundles of seasonal goods, the player simply buys them outright for massive amounts of cash. All incentive to experiment thus evaporates; the player’s winning strategy amounts to little more than growing the maximum amount of the most profitable cash crop season in and season out. The takeaway isn’t exactly subtle: pure capitalism leads to monopolies that discourage innovation.
When held against the rote simplicity of the core play patterns, these statements seem a bit incongruous. Despite its simulation label, the farming itself is basically Harvest Moon Plus Plus: a game where you hug your cow to get it to produce better milk, where you ply your way to marriage and friendship by giving the locals all sorts of ill-gotten goods. There’s fertile ground for allegory here, but it becomes hard to take seriously when the game beats you over the head with it so relentlessly. Morris in particular is the stuff of anticapitalist parody, a superhumanly diligent employee who possesses no personality outside of his commitment to Joja.
And regardless of the player’s choice to purchase the membership, the farming still devolves into a never-ending quest for the most efficient layout—sprinklers and cranberries as far as the eye can see, all producing a fountain of money that only sees use at the genre-standard evaluation at the end of the game. As the credits roll, one gets the sense that ConcernedApe’s devotion to its inspirations vastly outpaced its desire to render commentary on the systems it has created.
But what’s most disarming about all this is that Stardew itself feels like a product of capitalist accretion. It’s a handful of proven if shopworn mechanics refined into a supremely approachable version of an old favorite—in other words, a product through-and-through. Worse still, the Cinderella story that shadows the game’s incredible success feeds all the old myths: a lone mega-talent giving the people exactly what they want for nothing but the sweat of his brow, working a menial job to help pay the rent, waiting until everything is just so before deigning to ask money for it. As we try to get a sense of what Stardew’s great success means in an increasingly fraught industry, it seems that it isn’t enough for the basement developers of the world to devote years of their lives to the games we slaver over—no, they must also prostrate themselves before the mass of consumers, in the snow, naked before us all. Stardew puts in a sincere effort, but it can only push against the tide so hard. And that’s what it gets right; in a world like this, perhaps we do need magical sprites to help us undo the damage, little by little. At least they come cheap.
Steven T. Wright is a long-suffering Southerner now displaced into a strange land of milk and beer. He wanted to name his novel after a city in Final Fantasy, but his friends talked him out of it. He’s written for The Atlantic, Vice and more, and can be found on Twitter @Pseudagonist.