You might not expect a $15 farming game to be what inspires you to live better, but that's exactly what I found after playing for a few hours. Stardew Valley follows a world-weary character from their emotionally draining office job back to the countryside to take care of their late grandfather's farm. Upon arriving in Stardew Valley, the player quickly discovers that the farm and the little town next door are in bad shape. The greedy Joja Corporation has established itself there, and is siphoning off morale and business from the townspeople. Stardew Valley allows the player to take possession of a large plot of land to build on and maintain as they see fit, as well as offering numerous other ventures such as fishing, mining, exploring, and combat. The true value of the game, however, comes in the complexity and relevance of its characters. Eric Barone, aka "ConcernedApe", handles dozens of intricate relationships masterfully, carefully developing each character and following them through love, loss, and social anxiety. I took a moment to consider some of the lessons found within the game, and was able to quickly recall seven incredibly touching examples.
1. Life gets busy, but relationships matter.
If you want to get anywhere in Stardew Valley, you'll probably need to get your farm up and running. As in real life, the days can pass quickly before you realize you haven't taken the time to reach out to anyone for a while. The game really seems to capture the delicate balance between trying to keep up with your responsibilities and creating meaningful relationships with the people around you. People matter, and your experience is only made complete when they become a regular part of your life.
Sometimes people who seem scary really aren't.
One of the more common themes of the game, the player is faced several times with people who seem angry, dangerous, or rude, only to learn later that the person is dealing with overwhelming issues of their own. Whether you've stumbled into the homeless Linus as he digs through a garbage can or you've decided to befriend the chronically depressed Shane, Barone makes it clear that each individual person is reacting to the pressures and expectations of life, and that they often don't like who they've become.
Families don't all look the same.
Sebastian's mom has remarried and had another kid. Marnie is raising her niece and nephew by herself and is in a complicated relationship with the mayor. Jodi's husband has just returned from a rough time in the military and barely knows his two sons. Alex lives with his elderly grandparents. Today's families are diverse and complicated groups, and the same goes for those in Stardew Valley.
Take time to discover new things.
New discoveries keep the game flowing in Stardew Valley. Whether you're uncovering artifacts lost by the town's ancestors, catching a fish you've never seen before, or stumbling upon someone doing something you never expected, the anticipation of the unknown presenting itself to you is what keeps you moving forward. Life, too, is full of unexpected events and exciting potential.
When you leave for a long time, things aren't the same when you return.
After completing your first year in Stardew Valley, the character Kent returns home from serving in the army. Kent's struggle to find his place in Stardew Valley is one of the heavier parts of the game. His traumatic experience has left him distant and vulnerable, at one point exploding on his wife Jodi because she unwittingly pops popcorn that triggers his PTSD. The family survives, however, as Jodi fearlessly reaches through Kent's pain for the man she fell in love with. Their sons, Sam and Vincent, struggle to reconnect with the father they hardly know.
Community matters more than saving a few bucks.
Joja Corporation is not only undercutting Stardew Valley's local businesses, it's coercing the residents into mindless, unhappy servitude. The people have lost the hope and joy that they once kept alive around the little town, but the player can choose to change that. By investing in small business, community growth, and personal relationships with the townspeople, the player can bring Stardew Valley back to its thriving, friendly atmosphere and push Joja Corp out for good. Sure it costs a little more, but the people are well worth the investment.
Even the best people fall into conflict with each other.
People fight when they don't understand each other. In Stardew Valley the player finds themselves caught in the middle of arguments frequently and asked for advice. Most of the time it's pretty hard to decide who to side with. Each character generally has a compelling reason why they're doing what they're doing, it just happens to agitate another well meaning person.
If you haven't had the chance to pick up a copy of Stardew Valley yet, I highly recommend you do so. Its cheap price tag and pixelated art style contain a masterpiece of human interaction and satisfying tasks. For further reading in the same vein, I suggest this article by Nadia Oxford.