Note: Minor spoilers ahead. Turn back now or else!
It’s 6 AM in Stardew Valley, and for the first time in over four years, I have nothing to do. I asked the people, creatures, and spirits of this enlightened valley what they needed done, and I dutifully fulfilled every task. I moved here a jaded office-worker ready to undertake the then-colossal goal of turning my grandfather’s old farm from an overgrown and dilapidated mess to a functioning agribusiness, and now I’m leaving an insanely-wealthy magician who commands the power of teleportation and bends forest spirits to his bidding.
I’m the most popular dude in town, and it’s not even close. The people of the valley may complain about Pierre’s tall tales and Sebastian’s status as a terminally-brooding emo, but they have no gripes about me. They don’t even care that I set out to find the most efficient route to their hearts, thereby learning that while Caroline won’t consider me her best friend for anything short of a 18th-century royal boudoir’s supply of diamonds, Pam will do it for about 30 turnips.
Making the decision to sprint to the finish was strangely uncomfortable – I normally play Stardew files until I naturally peter out, so acknowledging that I was going to reach the end was kinda rough, involving a sense of closure I usually avoid in sandbox-style games.
To be fair, I haven’t killed Stardew Valley. I can still play through the whole main story farming on behalf of the capitalist Joja corporation, an option so reprehensible that only 3.3% of players on Steam have taken it to completion (versus 18.2% for the community-friendly alternative).
I can play the game again on one of the several alternative farm layouts that I’ve so far refused to acknowledge in the name of efficiency – I don’t like to consider myself a min-maxer, but a game like Stardew drags it out of me.
I can delve into a new relationship with one of the game’s bachelor(ette)s, I can complete my achievement list by finally beating Journey of the Prairie King, the in-game arcade cabinet that has no right to be as challenging as it is. And I can do all of it in co-op.
But barring these more minor extensions on playtime, and by the game’s own definition of completion, I’m done. It’s a little weird. I don’t usually make it all the way to a point like this in games. Normally, it’s the end of the main quest or campaign that marks the end of the road for me. Helping a cat down from a tree or stopping to sell berries doesn’t feel as effective once I’ve saved the world from annihilation.
But I suppose that’s what makes Stardew different. Obviously there’s no dragon threat imposing doom and destruction on the valley, and the closest thing to a main quest is the completion of the Community Center, which isn’t necessarily difficult. That said, I should acknowledge that it still took me two or three playthroughs to do. Once it’s down, though, completion is the only thing left on the horizon.
Making it all the way to the end changes the game a little. I play with mods that alter the experience slightly, including one that gives access to an in-game wiki (the min-maxer’s bible) and one that places the location of NPCs on the map, removing all confusion and speculation of where to find Lewis or Leah on any given day. In most of my playthroughs, I view these additions as necessary, but making it all the way, I see how changes to the game’s formula affect its end – having previously viewed the goal of obtaining maximum friendship with all of Pelican Town’s citizens as disproportionately time consuming, I was a bit surprised to have, for the first time, finished the goal far before most others in the game. For the final two years of my journey, I barely talked to anyone, which made my loner’s sprint to the top feel unlike my prior three year stint as a productive member of the social community. I built up an entire town to expect biweekly gifts and then ghosted them for two years.
Similarly, while Stardew Valley is a game where one of the only limitations is the amount of time you have in a day and it feels like a cardinal sin to waste a whole planetary rotation, the endgame dragged that out of me too, once my final goals became churning out enough wine to generate a staggering 10 million gold and making it to Spring to purchase the final crafting recipe (a barrel of flowers) to complete my collection. My family, including my wife and two kids, who had grown to expect a lifestyle led by their loyal father’s affection and unending productivity, saw him magnetized to his bed for the in-game equivalent of four or five months, only to then watch as he motivated himself to rise from this cycle of apparent depression, not for family or friends, but for a cottagecore-themed DIY project.
All this, of course, took place after I spent all of the family winery’s yearly earnings on a solid-gold clock, thereafter leaving the entire farm’s remaining supply of fruit and wine to rot (read: ferment) in sales-free perpetuity as I condemned myself to that bed, apparently uninterested in funding food or necessities for my wife or children, both of whom suffered from a terminal illness that left them eternally three years old, permanently condemned to speak only in heart bubbles and run around the house at mach speed, burying themselves between chests in my bedroom closet.
But cut me some slack, I’m no deadbeat. They have more than enough food to keep them thriving. The catch is that it’s all buried deep, unrefrigerated in a series of wooden chests. Most of it comes from my two-week stint as a master baker during which I donned my white hat and cooked every recipe the valley’s pescatarian residents could throw at me, no matter how expensive or bizarre. Of course, mine aren’t the brightest kids, so they might accidentally pull from the adjacent chest that contains every food item anyone has ever given me, perishability be damned. Every time Evelyn sent me cookies baked with love I callously threw them into a pile shared by Meaty Man pizzas Shane stole from his company’s storage room. The smells and flavors mix competitively, every breakfast, fried fish, and dessert. To be fair, it can’t be much worse than the Luau soup, a gargantuan pot of gruel made from whatever the townspeople throw into it. Sure, it’s nice to let the community all contribute toward a goal, but do we really want to eat from a pot that’s shared Caroline’s home cooking, Willy’s catch of the day, and Sam’s microwaved hot pockets? That’s not to mention Pam’s penchant for spiking the town’s festival fare with a hard beverage or two. Vincent’s getting crunk tonight.
My ascent in the valley was motivated by a dream to become a hardworking icon of rural work ethic, but the last couple years of the journey taught me the real money and intrigue is hidden in the arcane arts. Crop harvesting is a fool’s game in a world where the infinite labor of ancient forest spirits is cheaper than bus repair. My legs have started to atrophy as I balk at the very idea of using them for transport – I didn’t pay two million gold for these massive teleportation obelisks just to have them take up space on my densely-packed money farm. And no matter how few steps away my loyal horse Charlemagne is from me, you can bet I’m using this enchanted flute to thrust him through a tear in the fabric of the universe just to have him more immediately accessible. I didn’t spend this much gold and that many cult gems to still have to exercise.
I worked the land dry to produce every possible crop and animal product it could, immediately marking them for sale. What worth does the simple life hold without extreme riches and luxury?
I’ve overfished the lakes, rivers, and open ocean waters of the valley again and again in pursuit of every marine life form hidden beneath. The general rule in fishing is to throw back anything you’re not going to eat, but I say fuck that – you never know when I’m gonna need sixteen carps, and after duking it out with my iridium rod for fifteen full seconds, it’d be inhumane to send this eel back to deal with that trauma. Scuba divers take note: want to experience all of the underwater sights of the valley for cheap? Look no further than my garden shed. Bring your own snorkel and dive right in to the only chest that smells worse than the rotting food, rotting vegetables, and rotting weeds.
I delved deep into the local mineshafts and killed everything I could find. Mercy was a word I’d never heard as I ripped and tore through bug, crab, and the reanimated undead alike. My cause? The defense of the valley, of course. Ignore the fact that these cave-dwellers never bothered to exit their cavernous domain long enough to pose any threat to the people of Pelican Town and that it was only when I invaded their own homes that they threatened me – their bodies blocked the way to the metals with which I forged my tools of profit, and for that, eradication was necessary.
But even when I had more than enough iron, gold, iridium, and stone, I had the local Adventurer’s Guild to deal with – a pair of elderly roommates with no other connection to the community asked me to lay waste to thousands of living beings. Did I ask questions? Maybe I would have, if they didn’t keep me supplied with cool swords and a spooky skeleton mask I made Charlemagne wear for the better part of a year. I think my son is still wearing it – who needs triple shot espresso when you wake up to a two year old in a Halloween mask standing over your bed?
Like I said, most of my murders were necessary to enrich my own coffers, and, by unfortunate coincidence, those of my neighbors. But if Marlon and Gil want me to kill fifty absurdly-rare and near-extinct dinosaurs? Who am I to say what’s ecologically ethical?
For all of these feats and accomplishments, the valley rewarded me, feeding me rare and mysterious stardrops whose consumption made me feel stronger, energetic, and resilient, qualities that somehow remind me of Christmas. With each bite, I careened toward completion.
But even as I grew closer to everything the valley had to offer, I knew my journey couldn’t be complete until I satisfactorily destroyed the ecosystem of an even more pristine environment, so I set sail for the Fern Islands.
Disembarking on a quiet, white sand beach, I wandered the island’s few accessible areas, stopping on occasion to pluck a massive walnut from a tree or, by happenstance, dredge one from beneath the sand. I offered these mega-seeds to the individual members of the sapient bird population, who, in return, cleared obstacles or constructed human-quality dwellings. Once again, for very cheap, I’d bent the forces of nature to my will.
My first farm was inherited. My second I stumbled upon. I didn’t get permission to emulate the early Americans who laid their eyes on a pristine, independent Hawaii and thought “pineapple plantation”, but I did it all the same. Look, it’s not like there’d be anyone to protest – the island’s only human denizens are an eight-year-old kid who thinks he’s a bird and a Professor who owes me his life. I guess there’s also a woman who lives right next door and may have been reliant on my land for sustenance, but she hasn’t complained to me directly, so I’d say we’re in the clear.
I put myself in harm’s way by undertaking the insane journey of walking into a volcano, and I kept doing it until I made it to the top. I built the island up bit by bit, and reintroduced a stranded friend to civilization.
When winter came, I took to calling my new island cabin my seasonal home, spending days or weeks at a time there without so much as a call to the valley. What’s that? How did my wife and kids like the island? Are you kidding? They don’t allow kids here. To be fair, I guess I never asked, but I’m sure they don’t. Besides the eight year old, obviously, but he gets grandfathered in because of his sad story. Anyway, I already told you I’m not a deadbeat dad.
And what would you have done? There were walnuts to collect. I was doing the birds of the island a service. Of course, when I’d traded away all the walnuts they’d asked for, I did continue to collect them. I would have left them for the birds to enjoy later, but a stranger who offered me snake milk in the desert said he’d buy them for the holistic crystal equivalent of 25 cents. Then I can give the crystals back to him for prizes. Four more and I can get a novelty T-shirt!
I’d seen this man a number of times during my travels. At first, he led me on a wild goose chase through the valley, fulfilling a variety of odd tasks that led me deep underground and into the Mayor’s refrigerator. He claimed a sort of mystic background and promised that when I’d done enough to win his arcane favor, he’d show me his lair. Imagine my excitement when he finally bestowed upon me his blessing, a talisman that would allow access into this cavern of secrets. And then imagine my disappointment when his den of power turned out to be an unregulated casino above a gas station.
This man, this mysterious Mr. Qi, continued to pop up when I least expected him, offering sage bites of advice, likely in hopes that I would gamble away another ten thousand gold at Calico Jack. I started to doubt that he had any sort of tangible powers at all until I met him again on Ginger Island and he started giving me quests to complete in exchange for his patented pyramid scheme points. When he asked me to turn a few beans into five hundred in under four weeks, I spent the better part of an entire season fervorously shaking trees and splitting rocks, praying that this bizarre traveler had somehow hidden a bean in their branches or at their cores. And, lo and behold, he sometimes had.
But the more quests I completed, the more I’d begun to feel duped. Not for the prizes – they were everything I’d hoped for, much to the chagrin of my friends who’d claimed I was neck-deep in a pyramid scheme and my wife who’d claimed that my children deserved my attention. But the money had to be coming from somewhere, and it didn’t add up. A payment for giving my friends and family members fifty of their favorite items in one week? Another bag of gems for meticulously color-coding the junk I’d accumulated in my chests and placing it neatly in a non-descript box? It didn’t make sense. Until I thought about it some more. I’d been had by an internet prankster. Mr. Qi had preyed on my naïvety and eagerness to complete a task. When he told me that the now-extinct legendary fish I’d conquered from the valley’s waters had actually had secret family members who’d just arrived all at the same time, did I suspect that he had simply put hats and accessories on common fish, hoping that I wouldn’t notice?
I didn’t. But his audience did, and they laughed as I loyally completed these meaningless and menial tasks. And I’d had no way to learn about it – I’d given up on the internet when I left my desk job, and the only one in the valley with access was Sebastian. Hours of emo monologues set against a backdrop of My Chemical Romance isn’t worth the reward I’d get for checking my email. The prizes I’d claimed were beyond satisfactory, but I would no longer be a pawn in Mr. Qi’s game. I left his supervillain lair/walnut enthusiast club resolute, and returned only just now to look upon the decorative cat upon which he keeps track of my progress. Even as I’ve turned my back on him, Mr. Qi can’t help but to keep up his stalking. I’d find it pathetic if it wasn’t so flattering.
I looked on at the board with pride, the 100% completion indicator telling me that my quest through the valley was finally, once and for all complete. I could put down my iridium tools and give myself a rest. I could finally spend a few moments at the spa or the resort I’d convinced a squadron of parrots to build. I could even have a conversation with one of my children.
As much as I can pretend the game turned me into a callous, profiteering madman, though, even after pouring an insane amount of time into it, Stardew Valley is one of my favorite and most endearing games. The decisions to delve deeper into profit min-maxing and time skipping felt so uncomfortable because they interrupted a time cycle perfectly established by the game’s developer. Nearly every corner of Stardew Valley feels polished and cared for, like it’s been handcrafted by a person/team with a real love and passion for the project.
As I harvested my two hundred and fiftieth bottle of wine for the fourth week in a row and as I stood from my bed only to crash back into it for the following 23 ⅞ hours, I felt momentarily attracted to the idea that the point of completion, the absolute end of Stardew Valley would be my chance to explore other titles and my personal goodbye for the game. Now, only days out, and having had the chance to reminisce, I know I’ll be back. This is a game that released at a time I really needed it, ticked all the right boxes, and then continued to fit in the years that followed. Every update has breathed new life into what is for me a tremendously unique and satisfying game. I’ve been back before, and in all likelihood, I’ll be back again.
Until next time, Capricorn Farm.