Stardew Valley & Slowing Down

Athena ScalziA little over a year ago, I started playing a video game called Stardew Valley. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a super cute game in which you inherit a farm in a village called Pelican Town. After moving to the farm, you spend your days farming crops, tending to animals, fishing, foraging in the forest, crafting items, building friendships with the townsfolks, and exploring. There’s also mining and combat, but it’s largely avoidable if you’re going for more of an Animal Crossing vibe rather than a Minecraft vibe.

Anyways, Stardew Valley has a rather large fanbase, and with this comes a wide variety of ways that people play the game. There are some people that only care about crops, and won’t really bother doing things like exploring or fishing. Some people want a lot of combat, so they’ll traverse the mines in search of a fight, and not really care about making friends. Others try to complete things as quickly as possible, like leveling up, maxing out friendships, and basically climbing the ladder of success ASAP.

If you go on YouTube, you’re bound to see countless videos telling you “here’s why you shouldn’t waste your time planting cauliflower”, or “the BEST person to marry”, or “how to unlock this without having to do all this other stuff”. Basically, there’s a lot of videos telling you how to make the most money, as quickly as possible, and be the most efficient at everything.

But, is that really the point of the game?

The whole message of Stardew is laid out for you in the very beginning of the game by the grandpa that leaves you the farm: “There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life, and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness. When that happens, my dear, you will be ready for this gift.” The gift of course being the farm, which he tells you to go to and in doing so make real, human connections and reconnect with nature.

Now, don’t get me wrong, video games are meant to be enjoyed, so there’s no right or wrong way to play them as long as you’re having fun. But Stardew feels like the one game where we shouldn’t necessarily be grinding so hard to get everything done as quickly as possible, or short ourselves of some of the experiences just to make extra cash.

Stardew intentionally feels like it’s made to be played slowly, or played in a way that lets you enjoy the process of getting to the goal. There is joy in the simplicity that comes with watering your crops, not just joy in the selling of them. There is joy in the process of making friends, not just in receiving things from them once you reach a high enough level.

And yes, while you can do things like buy a machine that picks up all the eggs in the hen house for you, is there not a smidge of fun to be had going around and picking the eggs up yourself? Is gathering up the eggs a waste of our time in the game? In real life, even? Maybe. Maybe not.

When I originally started playing, I told myself that I didn’t want to use the wiki at all for help. I wanted to find out everything myself, and not ruin any of the “discovery” aspect of the game. But then I started gifting people things I found in the forest, like daffodils, and… they wouldn’t like it. And this genuinely made me sad. I found this daffodil, and it’s so pretty, and I could’ve sold it for 30 gold, but I saw you and wanted you to have it, and you don’t like it?? What’s wrong with it?

So, I started looking up what things people did and didn’t like on the wiki, so I didn’t have to feel such a sad sense of rejection, and also didn’t waste my items on people that didn’t like them. This was the start of my fall into the “looking everything up” mentality I was trying so hard to avoid.

Specifically because I wanted to romance a character named Sebastian, and I couldn’t figure out to get the cutscenes with him after leveling the hearts up. I had to look up how to trigger the cutscenes, even though they’re supposed to be something that you figure out on your own throughout playing the game.

If I had been patient, and not tried to be with him literally as soon as humanly possible, I probably would’ve figured it out eventually, but I didn’t want to wait potentially years to romance him. But isn’t that how romance is supposed to go? Aren’t you supposed to like them for a while, occasionally give a gift, and once in a while have a special moment (cutscene) with them, all leading up to actually dating/marrying? Instead here I was chasing him down all hours of the day, spamming giving gifts to him to get him to like me ASAP, and looking up how to have these nice moments with him.

Am I taking a game romance too seriously? Yeah, what else is new?

Anyways, the romance thing isn’t my point, my point is that I kept looking up everything in the game, and left none of the fun of exploring or discovery to myself. Nothing felt organic, I was just doing specific things I’d read online to do to get a certain result. Where’s the fun in that? The joy of actually playing the game?

So, I took a break from the game after I finished my first year (the years consist of Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter). I just started a new save file a couple weeks ago, and I actually forget all the stuff I looked up before. I forget if Caroline likes amethyst, maybe I’ll try gifting it to her and see what happens? I forget if potatoes or cauliflower sell for more money, maybe I’ll plant both and figure it out myself? I forget if chickens are more profitable in the long run than cows, maybe I’ll just have both and give them all names and get five hearts with them anyways? And maybe I’ll enjoy the game even more this time around.

If you’re someone that enjoys playing Stardew in a way that gets you what you want as quickly as possible with as little time wasted as possible, that’s great, and I’m genuinely glad you enjoy the game. If you’re someone that only plants a handful of crops a season, has never been in the mines, and spends most of their day picking daffodils in the forest and giving them to people that don’t like them, that’s good too!

There really is no wrong way to play, and I’m tired of these videos and narratives that say I’m wasting my time or not making as much money as I could possibly be. I want to play how I want to play. And I don’t want to feel like I’m missing out just because I had the potential to make 50 gold instead of 30 gold, or because I married someone that has less benefits than someone else. I’ll figure it out, eventually. Maybe it’ll take a while. That’s okay.


28 Comments on “Stardew Valley & Slowing Down”

  1. If you like Stardew you should check out My Time In Portia & it’s sequel My Time In Sandrock.

    Super cute, lots of storyline & ability for romance. 🙂

  2. I’ve played through Stardew a couple of times, years apart. To get back into it the second time I felt like I had to install mods that addressed the things that bugged me the most about the first playthrough.

    Mostly the repetitive tasks are what kept me from returning, and I found some mods that took care of the worst of it for me (as I personally interpreted the worst bits).

    The game is a lot of fun, and the 1.5 update added interesting new content.

  3. The idea of “just having fun for fun’s sake” and “free play” are somewhat at odds with the constant vibe of “competition” and “self-improvement”. Dan Olson elaborates quite a bit on that (he’s not in it for the short videos) in his latest piece “Why It’s Rude to Suck at Warcraft”:

  4. Looks like a simple parable, Athena: “In all things, be what you are, become what you want to be, and ignore all the nonsense about being and becoming what other people say you ought to be or what they want you to be.” I don’t play video games, but I would say learning to play a video game the way you want to play it, and enjoying that, is the ONLY way to play any game.

  5. It’s great that you took a long break from it! Sometimes, that kind of reset can bring you back to the point where you really enjoy something again. I had to do that with reading years ago, because I read so much for my job that it began to feel like work. It was work!
    Your thoughtful essay reminds me very much of the book by Gabriel Zevin, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. She looks at not only the process of building a game, but the idea that a game can be played in many different ways. As you describe, you can play for the pleasure of it, you can play for a particular aspect of the game, like fighting, or you can play to get good at it as quickly as possible. All very interesting to me as a complete non-gamer.

  6. I picked up Stardew Valley after not playing it for about a year, and was immediately lost in the sense that I was obviously doing a lot, but I had no idea what it was. I have a cave full of mushrooms? I have 15 chests full of…random stuff for some reason? What was I doing? What was my plan?

    The sense of trying to continue what I was doing, and having to figure out what that was, was too much, and I stopped playing again.

    I ought to pick it up again with a new game.

  7. “I started gifting people things I found in the forest, like daffodils, and… they wouldn’t like it.”

    Like you, Athena, I found this counterintuitive and a little disturbing. Did you ever figure out why you were getting negative reactions to gifts?

  8. Good morning.
    This is a problem in the few games I have played.
    There are people who are obsessive about WINNING! and get very upset when I point out that I am in it to have fun.
    I hope you manage to enjoy yourself without worrying about such people.
    You write rather well, bye-the-bye.

  9. I’m not a gamer, but your comment re gathering eggs made me curious: does the game include “pecky” hens?

    Real life does…

  10. Ooooh I love Stardew Valley! I generally take a pretty relaxed approach to the game, but I will look up what people like and sometimes where they are at a specific day/time.

    If I feel like optimizing something I’ll start factorio, if I want to relax I’ll play Stardew Valley or Dorfromantik. No need to start trying to have the most ideal run in Stardew, that kills the fun for me

  11. I really enjoyed reading this Athena! I think especially as a companion to your piece about your recent birthday it’s a fantastic reminder to follow our own timelines, and no one else’s.

  12. I enjoyed that game on my iPad white watching some shows. I liked the relaxed nature of it. I tried not looking up too much online, though during some frustrations I gave in.

    This is one of those games I don’t try to win, I just play and enjoy the moments and the little virtual community that I’m a part of.

    I haven’t played in over a half year so wasn’t aware of the 1.5 update. Hmm, I might have to revisit that world.

  13. @Andy Just like in life people have preferences.
    The 1.5 update added a whole extra place to do and new things to do and is lots of fun.
    @Peter Fortunately the hens don’t peck, and cows don’t kick when you milk them!
    I really enjoy it but have to say I’m also looking forward to the new game he’s developing.

  14. I’m very much the “slow and steady” type of gamer a lot of the time – I’m busy ambling my way through a lot of games, including Stardew Valley. I haven’t yet got to the point where any of the various games I started have enough hearts with anyone to think of marriage, although I have managed to make five-heart friends with ten of them. The thing I enjoy most is the fishing mini-game, mostly for the element of chance in it.

    I’ll be honest, the main thing that drives me in most games is figuring out all the stuff in them – things like finding all the various items, noting down all the various conversations, figuring out what all the things can do and so on. I’m very much about the exploration and story side of things, rather than the “rush to the end to get the bonuses” side of them. (Means I don’t really enjoy most team stuff in MMORPGs, to be honest, because most of that seems to be about rushing through places at high speed and rushing to the end boss, rather than finding out what’s there along the way).

    It’s nice to learn I’m not the only person who’s interested in ambling through games, rather than running flat out from go to whoa.

  15. Hey Athena,

    I haven’t been a “gamer” since Sega Genesis. But after reading your Stardew Valley post I… didn’t want to play the game but I seriously enjoyed reading your thoughts about it. I think this is a really good piece of writing! You have more skill and direction than a lot of people your age. You keep writing and I’ll keep reading!

  16. One of the reasons why I’ve been playing Stardew Valley on and off for years is that you never really miss out on anything. Didn’t get X done this season? You can always do it next year. Didn’t make it to Y? You can always go next year. Didn’t manage to get enough hearts with your beau in Year 1 before there’s no more Z? You can always marry them next year. Gave your beau a gift they hate (on their birthday, no less!) because you didn’t go to Pierre’s and actually accept the quest for the thing they “wanted”? You can make it up to them later. (Yes, I actually did that once!)

    My best friend and I meet up online once a month and play co-op Stardew; she’s not a big fan of the caves but loves having livestock. So after we get the crops done in the morning, I head off to the caves, she goes fishing, and we figure out what to do later in the day; that way, I can bring back stuff from deeper in the mines that helps her out, and she can catch fish for the Community Center that I might not get for years. (The one caution I have about co-op is that the clock doesn’t stop when you pause or when you are in a cut scene, which can cause problems sometimes. I’m not specifically thinking of Emily … yes I am) If you have a like-minded friend, it’s a nice way to do some co-op gaming that doesn’t involve constantly trying to beat each other.

    Like you, we don’t really care that much (in our co-op game, at least) about what the best crops are or what the fastest way to X is. It’s fun to plant different kinds of crops, it doesn’t really matter that much if we don’t make the exact best use of our land or if we have some days at the end of a season where we’re not growing very much. It’s fine for other folks to want to maximize their returns on their crops, but I love that it really doesn’t matter much if you don’t.

    I’m glad you’re getting another save going, it sounds like you’ll have some fun with this one as well. Good luck and enjoy it, and thanks for the writing that you do here! I always like reading your stuff.

  17. FYI next Wednesday afternoon speedrunning marathon Awesome Games Done Quick 2023 has Stardew Valley on the schedule. It’s listed as a “Seeded Crafts Room – Glitchless Race — PC” — I don’t play SV so I’m not sure exactly what “Seeded Crafts Room” means.

    You could watch it live on or a couple days later on YouTube. And it’s for a good cause, raising money for Prevent Cancer Foundation. January 2022’s event raised over $3.4 million for PCF and I expect this January’s event to raise a similar amount.

    Sometimes it’s fun watching all the crazy and amazing stuff speedrunners can do.

  18. I don’t play video games at all, but what you wrote put me in mind of the movie “Free Guy” of 2021. Among the characters are a man and woman who designed a video game that, I think, is much like Stardew Valley in its goals and pacing, and they also developed a form of artificial intelligence for the game’s characters (ordinarily such would be non-player characters, but in their version NPCs had a real role). Anyway, their ideas were basically stolen by a greedy game developer (he hired one of them) and folded into that person’s very popular and money-making game of excess, continuous violence where the human players basically murder and rob the NPCs, blow up the town, &c. The corporate bad guy buried the good guys’ AI in his game, but it was there, and as the game was played for a few years, one of the NPCs developed a real, self-aware personality, although it takes the involvement of one of the developers, who actually played the game, to realize it and make the character aware that he lived inside a virtual reality.

    So the contrasts in that movie are similar to those in Stardew Valley. In the “real” world we have greed and the insane contest to acquire more and more, at a faster and faster pace, versus the game developers’ interest in creating a game that was fun to play, could be played at a slow pace, had no violence, and didn’t really depend on acquiring anything. Within the game the contrasts are between the players (the actual humans) whose goals seem to be nothing more than perpetrating violence and the acquisition of objects, and the NPCs who just want to live their lives (even if their lives are mostly repetitive – until, that is, they become aware that they have more control over their lives than they thought).

    So, back to Stardew Valley, I wonder what that game’s developers had to go through to sell the idea to get the thing produced?

    And, lest there be any doubt after I have written all this about “Free Guy,” I liked the movie very much. (I mean, after all, the movie itself does have lots of loud violence that looks great in 4K and sounds great in Dolby Atmos!)

  19. As I understand it, it’s an indie game, so the game’s developer (there was basically one at the time; he’s since had some help with the multiplayer and I think the ports to console, since it was originally just on Steam) did the lifting himself – the upside was there was nobody to convince to greenlight it, the downside was that if it hadn’t taken off so quickly, it probably would have been buried on Steam and few people would have ever seen it.

  20. Thank you for this article. I agree that the joy comes from discovering on your own. I made the same mistake of looking everything up in Stardew Valley and in No Man’s Sky and wish I had just let the games carry along at a slower pace.

  21. Thanks for reading, everyone! I’m glad so many of you enjoyed it.

    @Tanya-Jayne Park, thanks for the recommendations!

    @Measure, hating the repetitive tasks is totally valid, and after watering 50 crops with a one-pour watering can I understand it completely haha. Personally my least favorite task is walking around, even though you walk faster than all the villagers, it still takes forever to get from one point of the map to another.

    @Roberta, I have the same problem as you when it comes to reading! Reading is work because school made it so, and unfortunately I stopped enjoying it, but I’m also trying to get back into it and learn to love it again.

    @Buddha Buck, okay I have a horrible hoarding problem and like twenty chests full of random items too. Finding a sense of direction in games with vaguer goals like Stardew can be tough! A lot of it is setting goals for yourself, which some of us (me) are not good at.

    @Andy Baird, some people just don’t like certain things! There are some things that NOBODY likes, and some things that basically everyone likes! It’s pretty similar to real life in that way, but unfortunate to waste items and get bad responses nonetheless.

    @Glenn Webster, thank you!

    @aymm, I will say that looking up where people are during a certain time of day is totally valid in my book, because sometimes they’re not where they say they will be during certain hours (I’m looking at you, Marnie)

    @Anna, thank you so much! I appreciate that.

    @Megpie71, ambling is great!

    @Tim, thank you for your kind words! Glad to have your readership.

    @Dave DuPlantis, I agree one of my favorite aspects is that you can just do most everything the next year! I really appreciate that about the game. And I’m glad you enjoyed reading my piece, thanks for the support!

    @Timothy E O’Sullivan, I like Free Guy! It was a very fun movie.

    @Brandon, I have been wanting to try No Man’s Sky for a while, so I will keep your comment in mind if I play it!

  22. I picked up Stardew Valley about two years ago and have been addicted to it since (even to the point of writing a couple mods, albeit really small ones). The latest version (1.5) was finally released for mobile this month, and hugely expands th3 variety of places to go and things to do.

    For newer gamers especially (I hadn’t played much of anything except free Flash games for many years), I do recommend starting by going in cold and just trying things and seeing what happens. (Stardew has lots of hints in-game, plus lots of little flavor things: the stuff on the shelves at JojaMart, the letters on people’s tables, the plant in Harvey’s lobby). Everyone has a different amount of patience for “go slow and stumble onto stuff eventually” and if/when yours runs out, the wiki and a million guides are out there waiting.

    But even then, you don’t have to micro-optimize every little thing. Everyone also has a different threshold for what parts to optimize, and how often, and what parts to just do something and declare it Good Enough. Do you prefer to cook new dishes as soon as you get the recipe, or wait till later and burn through a few dozen at once? How much of your day do you want to spend setting up and running money engines, versus racking up other achievements, or just doing X because it’s relaxing? The answer may vary from one save file to another.

    If you’ve pretty much done it all, and want to play more but are worried about burning out on the same old same old, then I recommend looking into mods (think free DLC). New places, new NPCs, new items, new activities? Make X easier, or harder? Change up the graphics? You name it, someone’s probably built some form of it. Version 1.6 is slated to make it even easier to build mods, including major I put from the author of the mod loader.

  23. Awww, this was such a great blog post!

    I just started playing Stardew Valley for the first time, and I’m absolutely loving it. And like you, I would try to avoid looking things up too much, because I wanted to be able to play as organically as possible. I also wanted to play slowly, not in a “grinding way”, because I already have other games where I do that kind of stuff and I wanted to have a game where I could just breathe and live. But I must confess that a little more recently there were times I would end up looking up the gifts each people would like too, because I also would be disappointed whenever they wouldn’t really like my gifts for them, as well as kind of speedrun through achievements… but this was a great reminder to remember how I wanted to play the game in the first place; slowly, as if I actually lived in Pelican Town, discovering things on my own, at my own pace, without the rushed, “competing” feeling. Developing friendships as organically as possible, and learning on my own the kind of gifts each person likes as if they were real people and facing the disappointment as if they were real, too. Focusing on the journey instead of just the end result, and enjoying the simple moments of fishing, farming, and earning the bigger ones naturally.

    I loved this post a lot. We definitely need more games with the option to play like this. Thank you :)

  24. “There is joy in the simplicity that comes with watering your crops, not just joy in the selling of them. There is joy in the process of making friends, not just in receiving things from them once you reach a high enough level.”

    Your thoughts, these lines in particular, reminded me of the zen practice of samou, doing work simply because that is what you are doing in this moment rather than to get it over with, gain advantage, or otherwise have a “better” future.

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