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  • Writer's pictureZak Barouh

Stardew Valley & Roots

I ignored the clamorous crowds shouting Stardew Valley’s praises for a long time. Very soon after the original release in early 2016, I had friends telling me I should play it, and it wasn’t long until “should” became “needed to.”

Well, they were right — eventually.

In the first half of 2016 I was struggling through the final year of a master’s degree at university, and coming to terms with the fact that my long-held plan of moving into a PhD afterwards was not going to happen. I wanted to find a career path that suited me and desperately felt that I needed to get out there, be creative, to have my voice be heard and make my mark on the world. I’m writing about this now as if it’s ancient history; of course, it’s only four years ago, but my perspective has changed a lot in four years. Stardew Valley provided a necessary part of that shift but not until later, not until it was needed.

That time came a couple of years later, in the winter of 2018. In the intervening years, I had struck out into a creative industry, and had a surprising amount of early success writing for tabletop RPGs. After a period of flitting between North Devon, my birthplace, and Bristol, where I studied, I moved to Nottingham to take up a job with a tabletop games company.

I had also, at some point, purchased Stardew Valley on Steam, no doubt at a ridiculous discount in a sale, but I’d never installed it. I bought the game again when it was released on Nintendo Switch in 2017, thinking that being able to play comfortably from my sofa would be the catalyst I needed to finally enjoy the game in all its highly recommended glory. For almost a year I owned two copies of Stardew Valley but played neither.

That year I began to realise that something was missing. Although Nottingham was unfamiliar to me when I arrived, I had an active social life and regular contact with plenty of friends new and old. I was working in a career that I had always wanted to, and living by myself in a nice flat (something I had been keen on).

I struggled to figure out what was missing. Now was Stardew Valley’s time. I didn’t know I needed it at the time, but for one reason or another in late 2018 I finally booted up the Switch version and dropped myself into Pelican Town.

The game starts with a short intro sequence, setting up the player character as an exhausted office worker, tired of the daily grind, who moves to the countryside to live on a farm that has been in the family for some time. This scenario presented in Stardew Valley is one of fantasy — it’s certainly not within most peoples scope to drop everything and move to a farm they’ve conveniently inherited; that’s part of the pleasant escapism the game provides.

I quickly found myself whisked away into this idyllic rural life, taking care to arrange the area of my farm directly outside of the house into a quaint vegetable garden. I didn’t set about immediate total terraforming of the farm area — I loved the feeling of having wild nature so close. It wasn’t long before I was immersing myself in the valley life, embracing a relatively solitary but peaceful existence. Somewhere between the foraging, forestry, and friend-making, I began to see why I needed to play Stardew Valley.

Playing the game didn’t make me want to do Stardew Valley in real life. In the game, it is trivially easy to plant, water, and harvest rows of crops when compared to the hours of physical labour that would be necessary to do the same in the real world; chopping down trees, selling goods to market, and finding true love are similarly simple tasks.

Even so, I came to realise that Stardew Valley is not necessarily a relaxing game. It presents you with many opportunities, and if you tried to capitalise on all of them, you’d quickly find yourself rushing from field to village to mine, trying to balance all the growing, chatting, exploring, and upgrading that is available. The game gives you all these opportunities but doesn’t force you to achieve them; to me, it’s a way of presenting choices. You can’t do everything perfectly — what will you prioritise? What will you pour your energy into? Stardew Valley didn’t make me want to drop everything and start a new life — it made me realise parts of my life that I had left behind, and what I was prioritizing.

I was born in North Devon, rural England, and lived there for my entire childhood, only leaving for Bristol when I graduated from school and went to university. I was never an outdoorsy kid, in-fact I complained almost every time I was made to endure a long walk on the moors, and I was much more likely to spend my free days inside playing games than out in the garden. Only after I moved away did I begin to realise how much I appreciated the natural surroundings of my youth, but it wasn’t until I played Stardew Valley that I realised how much I missed that nature, and how much I needed it in my life.

Over winter 2018, an opportunity arose back in North Devon. I’d have to leave Nottingham, leave my full-time job in the games industry, say goodbye to friends, and doubtless pass up the opportunities that would have arisen if I had stayed. It would be overdramatic and stretching the truth to say that Stardew Valley alone drove me to make that decision; it was a complicated one with many factors involved, but as I pondered it, I couldn’t help but think of taking the bus to Pelican Town, a place with family history, and enjoying rural life.

Luckily, my new life in the country allowed me to continue writing freelance and in-fact opened up some more opportunities in that direction. It’s likely I still spend too much time indoors playing games, rather than out there in the countryside, but now it constantly surrounds and inspires me. Stardew Valley is a lovely game, and I recommend anyone to try it if they can, but more than that it is a game that invites us to reevaluate our priorities. For me, that invitation set me on my way home, something for which I am forever grateful.

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