It’s curious that I jumped back into Stardew Valley on the evening of Tuesday, November 8th, because while the majority of my Twitter was in a panic, I farmed and built friendships in the tranquil Pelican Town. I’ve explored caves, partook in festivals, and became strong friends that, as of the time I’m writing this, is about to blossom into a marriage. It’s an idealized life, one where being a farmer comes with few risks, and a welcome contrast to the chaos of the real world.
You spend enough time playing a game (a handful of hours almost every evening since) and you take away a few things. I wanted to focus on two: how Stardew Valley handles relationships and how it subverts character expectations.
Building relationships in Stardew Valley is not unlike how other games handle it. Each character has a bar that represents their friendship with the player’s character, which is improved by talking, using gifts, and accomplishing tasks assigned by them. Alternatively, ignoring characters and handing them gifts that they dislike hurts the friendship, but I haven’t found it difficult to remain in someone’s good graces.
This shares similarities to how the Dragon Age series handles relationships. Both use a meter to represent a character’s feelings towards the player’s character, which can fluctuate considerably with dialogue choices and presents. (Dragon Age: Inquisition, the most recent game, removed the ability to see any approval meter.) The difference is that three companions join the player during adventures, meaning that they’re able to be influenced by conversations they’re not actively part of.
Building the approval and, by extension, friendship eventually opens the possibility of romance. Similarly, most companions will leave the party if approval drops low enough, and even betraying the player depending on the circumstances. BioWare altered this in Dragon Age II so that companions with low approval become “rivals,” giving them more aggressive dialogue with the player. It’s possible to enter into a romance with “rival” characters, which makes as much sense as trying to rebuild a relationship with someone you’re getting a divorce from.
Dragon Age ran into a little snag, which saw players spam gifts to quickly grow approval, which feels more than a little artificial. Stardew Valley sidestepped that by restricting the quantity of gifts that a resident may receive. Only a single gift can be given to each character a day, with a limit of two gifts per week. To contrast, BioWare limited the number of gifts that exists in Dragon Age II and Inquisition, but using them begins a special cutscene focused around that item.
Raising approval in Stardew Valley also unlocks events, not unlike events that come up in Persona 4 as the player increases their social link. These scenes range from charming (the final event with Abigail is cute as hell) to surprisingly vague (was my character at all involved in Emily’s second event?), but they’re a fun treat, especially when you don’t realize that you’re heading into one.
Events in Stardew Valley are dependent on certain conditions, generally requiring being at a general location within a set time-frame, instead of simply walking up to that character and chatting them up (as in Dragon Age or Mass Effect). It feels a bit more natural, even if I had to jump into the Stardew Wiki to figure out a few (like, what does Maru spend time in the local clinic?). The game doesn’t always say where to view the next event, and the characters don’t say a lot.
Although dialogue changes as characters become friendlier towards the player, there’s still a little too much repetition. That’s understandable to a point, but I expected something after my character and Abigail began dating. Some flavor text about their advancing relationship, but I saw nothing of the sort. Marriage understandably brings additional dialogue, but not dating?
Giving Abigail the bouquet (used to signify a romantic interest in someone) was a weird moment. I found her staring at her television, and her remark after handing her the item was something like, “Oh, that’s nice. Thanks.” Um, am I interrupting a TV show? Call me a romantic, but I expected a little more from that encounter. I even checked her approval to confirm that, yes, she’s now my farmer’s girlfriend. And with no additional events outside of a wedding, the conclusion to this relationship feels a bit flat.
And now I’m wondering how much of a dork I’m coming off as by complaining about a fictional relationship between non-existent people in a farming game.
My initial impression of Abigail was something of a goth. She wears dark clothes with dyed purple hair, spends time in the local graveyard, and vanishes on the few times that it rains. Her mother sometimes expresses worry over how often she stays in her room. Abigail is friends with Sebastian, a boy who spends most of his time in his bedroom, isn’t particularly social, and also wears dark clothes. In many games, that’s as deep as the characters get. Not interesting, not surprising. Flat.
Except, I was wrong.
The first Heart Event with Abigail has Jakob, my character, walk in on her while she’s playing the video game Journey of the Prairie King. Frustrated, she suggests playing cooperatively. I saw the SNES-like game console in her room before, but I figured that was a pointless detail, like the various Nintendo home consoles included in the mainline Pokemon games. Nope. We jumped into the overhead shooter and completed the level together.
Apparently Abigail is a gamer. That’s awesome, I thought.
The next event with Abigail happened during the rain. Predictably, she wandered over to a spot close to the mine. Not as predictably, she pulled out a flute and played as Jakob closed the distance. The Heart Event ended with the two performing together, shielded from the rain by the tree.
She’s a musician now? I never expected that, but cool.
The third Heart Event features Jakob finding Abigail sitting in a graveyard. Surely she’s doing something odd, like talking with spirits and… Wait, she’s not. Apparently she’s only in the graveyard because it offers her the privacy to practice her swordsmanship. Someday, she’d like to brave the mines and find adventure. Do something memorable, she says. That’s the hidden motivation underlying her events, actually. I only realized that after reading on the Stardew Wiki that those who beat the game might win a prize.
Anyway, her father appears immediately after and asks that she help her mother with dinner, claiming that graveyards are “no place for a young lady!” She argues that he’s being sexist before running off with Jakob following behind. They end up hiding in bushes (of all places), where she lets off some steam.
I’ve read that the best novels are simple stories with complex characters capable of surprising the reader. There’s a thread of a story running through Abigail’s Heart Events, but she turned into a more complex, surprising character than I expected, bearing only a surface level resemblance to a goth, and that’s admittedly a bit of stereotyping on my behalf. I do wonder if that conclusion was deliberate by the developer.
One writing book suggested intentionally stereotyping your characters, and then coming up with ways that subvert the stereotype as a means to surprise audiences. Might as well take advantage of stereotyping, right? Everyone does it, whether we mean to or not.
Of course, other characters get the same treatment. Sebastian, who I mentioned above, suffers from the identical stereotyping. Doesn’t like interacting with people, wears dark clothes, and spends most of his time on the computer in his room. He barely leaves the house so earning the two stars to become his friend proved tricky.
That first Heart Event revealed that the reason he’s in his room so often is because he’s taking little jobs as a freelance programmer, hoping to earn enough to leave Pelican Town for the big city. That’s a reasonable explanation, actually. That’s as far as I’ve gotten with him (since I don’t often see him wandering around town, he’s easily forgotten), but I expect similar surprises.
A few more examples includes Maru, who works alongside her father Demetrius along with helping Harvey at the clinic despite the lack of patients, and Emily, who works at the saloon, is a hippy who enjoys fashion. (Also weird, in the two Heart Events I’ve unlocked for Emily, my character is never technically present, making me wonder what future events will be like.) Alex, the cocky gridball player, manages the small ice cream stand during summer.
The scientist that helps the doctor who lacks patients. The saloon worker who believes that someone appearing in her dream is somehow significant. The big-headed athlete selling ice cream. I never expected any of that, but they’re awesome details. For storytellers, those awesome (and not-so-awesome) details are important. They’re the flourishes on a painting that we’ll remember later on.