Video Gaming Meets Agriculture in Stardew Valley

by Matt Moore

If you’re at all attuned to the world of video games, you’ve surely heard of the latest game burning up the Steam charts: Stardew Valley. With early comparisons to the Harvest Moon franchise, I thought it would be fun to play and offer a review in the perspective of an agriculture student based on farm strategy and mechanics. A week into the game, my character was broke and friendless and had encountered wizards and slime monsters, which is when I realized the game is way more RPG than farm simulator.

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The Setup

Right from the start, I should have realized how involved and complicated the game would be based on the character creation screen that includes over 100 outfits and 30 hairstyles to choose from. You can also select your gender and “animal preference,” which basically determines which pet you’ll wind up with. Just know that these options apparently can’t be changed, so you’ll be stuck with a useless cat if you forget to change your preference to dogs like I did (although according to other reviews, the dog is apparently just as useless).

The opening cut scenes will excite anyone who dreams about ditching a monotonous, corporate “9-5” job to live off the land. Your character is shown working in a cubicle in the dreary offices of Joja Corporation (which represents an amalgamation of Monsanto and Walmart) before you decide to quit and inherit your grandfather’s farm on the outskirts of Pelican Town, which exists in the titular region of Stardew Valley.

After arriving at the farm, you see it is overgrown with grass, weeds, logs, and rocks that need to be cleared before you can use the rich soil underneath. At your disposal are an axe, hoe, pick axe, scythe, and watering can—the basics for any aspiring farmer. The interface consists of a journal that logs your ongoing goals, a running clock, an energy meter, and your current inventory of tools, crops, and other items.

The Gameplay

I quickly learned that while farming requires a bit of strategy, it mostly serves as a means of earning income to buy upgrades and help Pelican Town hold off the encroaching Joja Corporation. Of course, you also need to grow crops and raise livestock so you can produce food for yourself and to craft delicious meals to woo the town bachelor or bachelorette of your choice.

Yes, establishing both platonic and romantic relationships are a major component of Stardew Valley. It can a confusing and arduous process to say the least. Figuring out the best gifts to give to win friends or find a spouse is a maddening process of trial-and-error; daffodil after daffodil will not cut it. The fastest way to improve your relationships is to take on tasks that are either delivered to your mailbox or posted on Pelican Town’s job board. Most involve finding lost tools or delivering a requested plant or animal to a particular resident.

Exploration is central to the Stardew Valley experience, and the region is not limited to your farm and the town center. There is an entire mining system that plays like an old-school dungeon crawl game. There are enemies to fight and wild plants to forage. There are even regions beyond Pelican Town that you have to figure out how to reach. All of this needs to be done while monitoring your energy—and in combat scenarios, your health—which declines as you clear land, tend crops, fish, or fight enemies. Working to exhaustion will cause your character to stop working and start walking at a snail’s pace until you head to bed to get refreshed for the next day. Draining your health meter via enemy attacks will not only cause you to respawn at the start of the area, but you’ll also lose precious inventory that you just spent time gathering.

And then there’s the clock, constantly running. I was instantly stressed out by the clock. You only have a finite amount of time each day to accomplish the tasks you choose to do, so you need to start planning wisely from the beginning. While each morning can be spent on the farm, you’ll need to choose whether to hit up the town, spend a day fishing, or explore the mines with the rest of your time.

The Agriculture

While other websites will give you an in-depth review of the RPG and exploration elements, relationship building, combat, and other aspects of Stardew Valley, only The Sprout will offer you an analysis of the game’s agricultural system…

  • Before you dig into the soil, you will need to clear the land around your farm plot. The real-world preference of hiring help will become immediately apparent due to the time and energy required to clear the rocks, logs, and weeds from your land.
  • Joja Corporation truly represents every entity despised by the local/sustainable food movement. As part of its goal to control the food system and essentially the economy of Pelican Town, it floods the market with overpriced seeds and junk food. Its activities have also been linked to disasters like landslides.
  • The agricultural supply chain in Stardew Valley is invisible. Unless you hand deliver food as gifts or consume it yourself, your money is made by chucking crops into a bin that are picked up and sold as you sleep. No idea where it goes, how it’s processed, or if it gets wasted.
  • Fishing is the worst. You start with a basic rod, and after you get a nibble, a sort of mini-game meter pops up where you have to click and release the left mouse button in an effort to keep a sliding bar underneath a moving fish. While you can level up, purchase upgrades, or eat food to improve your fishing ability, it will take a lot of time and effort. Unfortunately there is no aquacultural career path.
  • I don’t think you can kill your plants or animals by being a bad farmer. Plants have a set amount of time to grow, although you can improve your harvest time and yield with the use of fertilizers. Crops won’t die if not watered, but growth will be delayed. Similarly, starved animals will halt production but won’t die off.
  • Just like in real life, farming is a long process that requires patience, money, resources, and experience. You can’t just jump into the game with the intention of running a sustainable chicken operation—or a CAFO for that matter. You can eventually build/purchase structures like barns, coops, and siloes, but you will always start from scratch with a batch of parsnip seeds.
  • Speaking of CAFOs, it’s interesting to note that you can’t raise animals for slaughter in Stardew Valley. The variety of animals you can raise will produce eggs, milk, and other products, but seafood is the only source of meat in the game (along with the mysterious “Survival Burger”). The game is a dream for pescetarians.
  • However, hipster farmers are in luck. You can’t slaughter your pigs, but you can craft special “Artisanal Tools” that will enable you to raise bees, pickle vegetables, brew beer, and produce gourmet truffle oil, among other specialty products. And yes, you can grow kale, hops, and bok choy.
  • All farming in Stardew Valley is inherently sustainable. You won’t be penalized for monoculture (it will even unlock an achievement), and you can till and cultivate the same areas without the need to rotate crops. You also don’t need to actively mitigate erosion, and pest management is solved with scarecrows. You can naturally ward off weeds with fencing. There are no apparent externalities based on the practices you implement.
  • You are limited to your watering can to start, which is time consuming but can be perpetually refilled with the everlasting pond on your property. No need to worry about water bills or riparian rights. However, watering can be so time consuming that you will need to upgrade to a sprinkler irrigation system to make things a lot easier. You could literally run out of time trying to water a large-scale vegetable farm by hand.

Conclusion

I’ll admit I’m not a true “gamer.” I am very picky. I prefer largely linear (as opposed to open world) games with puzzle elements but not sprawling side quests. For reference, the recent Tomb Raider reboot was perfect to me—the Fable or Grand Theft Auto games not so much. And apparently agriculture is still not interesting enough to be the sole focus of a modern video game. For these reasons, Stardew Valley is not the game for me or most grad students for that matter due to the time investment needed to work through it. But if you’re looking for a quirky, immersive RPG with agriculture in the vein of Harvest Moon as a major component, play it. You can’t get much more bang for your buck for $14.99, which is around 25 percent of the cost of the latest console games. And who knows, maybe you’ll pick up some valuable time management skills while you seek to maximize social benefit in the virtual world of Stardew Valley.

Matt Moore is a second-year AFE student who is wondering how he can possibly beat Bloodborne if he can’t handle a farming RPG. You can catch him on the airwaves along with Katherine Pett every Saturday morning at 8 a.m. on WMFO.

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