I first happened across Stardew Valley during my undergraduate studies and, over the years, this whimsical little RPG-cum-farm-simulator has become a go-to means of escape in times of anxiety, illness, and now, social isolation. After creating and naming a unique character, players assume the role of an office worker who is disillusioned by the bleak monotony of working for Joja Corporation, an sort of Costco-Walmart hybrid that owns and operates a chain of Joja Mart department stores. In the game’s introductory sequence, they find out they’ve inherited a plot of land from their grandfather, leave their jobs at Joja Corporation behind, and set out to begin their new lives in Stardew Valley.
As players plant their first crops and become more familiar with the people who live in the seaside village of Pelican Town, it’s clear that the local Joja Mart is causing problems. Pierre, the owner of a modest shop in the village square, can’t keep up with Joja Mart and is distressed because the locals are being enticed by the corporation’s membership program. The owner, Morris, purposely antagonizes Pierre by making a spectacle of his plot to undercut the humble shopkeeper’s prices. Part of the game’s main story involves making a choice between buying a Joja Mart membership (effectively supporting big business) or else driving Joja Corporation out of town and doing labour to repair the run-down community centre. This quest is directly tied to the discovery of Stardew Valley’s forest spirits, making the game’s critique of capitalism quite clear: life goes on either way, but choosing life under Joja Corporation and replacing the community centre with a joyless warehouse quite literally drains the world of some of its magic.
That said, this critique isn’t always embodied in Stardew Valley’s rules and systems. The game continues to push players toward the ownership of private property, the development of land, the continuous expansion of their farming operation, and the accumulation of wealth and material goods. While the multiplayer version of the game allows players to farm communally, the single-player experience insists upon labouring alone (with the exception of limited aid from spouses and magical forest spirits). Escape from the city doesn’t mean escape from capitalism; rather, players are encouraged to participate in a meritocratic progression where hard work brings them success and each action they take improves their wellbeing and can advance their relationships with the townsfolk. Pelican Town seems like a veritable utopia: community members rely upon one another, you are encouraged to seek out support from the community to complete the quest to repair the community centre, and it seems like no one in Stardew Valley has any reason to go without basic necessities. The exception to all of this is a man named Linus. Unlike the majority of the villagers, who reside in houses and apartments, Linus lives in a small tent near a lake at the base of the mountain. He is an older man with a long white beard and clothes made out of leaves. When approached, he talks about how much easier it is to live outdoors in the summer, how bathing in the lake makes it possible to live without running water, and how nature gives him everything he needs to survive. At a certain point in my last play session, I was presented with an option to fix up a small building on my farm and invite Linus to come live with me. However, when I extended my invitation, Linus refused, insisting that he lives in his tent not because he must, but because he wants to. The conditions of Linus’ existence, the only example of poverty in Stardew Valley, are framed not as the result of systemic inequality, wage suppression, rent increases, or the erosion of worker’s rights, but as the result of individual choice. This point is regularly reinforced in conversation: “The crisp air of the wilderness is all I care to know. I live out here by choice.” “I don't like to stay in one place for too long. There's just too much to experience in the world.” “I have everything I need to survive, and more. Nature plays a wonderful tune if you can only learn to listen.”
However, while Linus has “everything he needs” to survive, there are dark undertones in his story. Early on, he is suspicious of me for trying to connect with him: “I don't know you well enough to trust you. Sorry.” “...Have you come to ridicule me? I'm just minding my own business.” “I have to be wary of strangers. Most people don't like a 'wild man'.”
He occasionally mentions that, apart from me, he has no positive social relationships with anyone in town. There is even evidence that he has been the victim of violent crimes:
“Please don't destroy my tent. It's happened before.”
“Someone was throwing rocks at my tent last night... I just had to wait it out.”
“Some joker sprayed paint all over my home during the night... It took hours to scrub it off this morning.”
Evidently, when violence is directed toward Linus, he is targeted for what sets him apart from every other villager: his tent or, rather, his lack of a “proper” home.
The game reinforces the idea that Linus’ suffers because of his personal choices in more ways than one. When using the map to look for villagers, deliver items, etc., hovering over each house reveals a list of the people who live there. For example, hovering the cursor over Pierre’s store shows that Pierre lives in the adjoined apartment with his wife, Caroline, and their daughter, Abigail. Linus’ tent is visible on the map, but hovering over it reveals nothing, suggesting that, unlike the aforementioned apartment, the tent is not really a home. Being houseless means Linus does not fully count as a resident, giving him more in common with the magical beings and creatures that popular the valley than the other townsfolk. Additionally, there is the issue of privacy. Making friends with villagers requires giving them their preferred gifts to increase their friendship meter along a scale of 0-10 hearts. Players can enter almost anyone’s house during the day but, if they don’t have enough hearts, they cannot enter a villager’s bedroom and will receive an on-screen message letting them know that they will have to get to know the villager better first. Linus lives in a single room and players can enter his home regardless of whether or not they are his friend, reinforcing the idea that those who don’t have “proper” homes do not have the same right to privacy. For choosing to live on what nature provides, thereby refusing to own or rent property, Linus expresses an investment in different set of values than the rest of the community and so is labeled an outcast. Because he is not a “productive member of society,” he does not fully belong and is, in many ways, not regarded as fully human. In the future, I think it is important to discuss the colonial overtones and implications of the way that the game positions Linus as a “wild man” who is in tune with nature, exists outside the realm of modern society, and is punished for it. However, with the time and space available to me now, I’ll leave readers with the following thoughts. Despite the fact that Linus’ wisdom and appreciation for simplicity are framed as moral and virtuous qualities, there is a certain extent to which he comes to represent the “fail” state of the game: players who do not work hard and make the effort to develop the property they own can’t and won’t form the same social connections to the other villagers and, as a result, will end up like lonely Linus. Yet, Linus has provided a few kernels of wisdom that have altered my own approach to playing Stardew Valley. In past playthroughs, I’ve become wrapped up in efforts to optimize my farm and use my inherited plot of land to turn a quick profit. More recently, however, I’ve left many of my completionist tendencies behind, abandoning the sort of playstyle one might associate with a “power gamer” in favour of playing “against” the game by embracing a degree of inaction and stillness, rejecting designed milestones in favour of a more gradual pace. I’ve stopped trying to maximize my seasonal efforts to repair each room in the community center; I no longer rely on the Stardew Valley wiki to look up everyone’s favourite gifts and just started accepting that if I give a villager something they don’t like, I can try again later. This stillness is “injected” (a term borrowed from Rainforest Scully-Blaker) in that I am actively making the effort not to rush, despite the game-day lasting 12.5 short minutes and near-constant reminders that I should be upgrading my home and growing my family. If reaching those goals as quickly and efficiently as possible is what winning means, then I’m not sure I want to win at all.
I don’t want to exert mastery over this world. There will always be another spring, another year. I can always live off of berries and mushrooms if I run out of money. I can survive with very little, so there’s no need to let my savings accumulate endlessly. I do not need to leave behind more than I inherited, even if this flies in the face of my in-game grandfather’s legacy. Perhaps Linus puts it best:
“It's so easy to get caught up in the noise of modern life. Your best years will pass you by in a formless blur. That's why you've got to learn to slow down.”
References: Barone, E., and Sickhead Games. (2016). Stardew Valley [multi-platform video game]. Chucklefish. Scully-Blaker, R. (2020). Stasis and stillness: Moments of inaction in games.” Press Start, vol. 6, no. 1. http://press-start.gla.ac.uk