I really like Stardew Valley. I’ve sunk a lot of hours into the game. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about the narratives that make up the game while I play it.
I’ve also noticed an interesting pattern in the way I play. Around the third in-game year, my interest in the game drops. I abandon it and start a new game, either on Stardew Valley or in a different game completely. Why does this happen? Well, I decided to look at the narratives within the game to try and see if the answer lies there.
Stardew Valley, if you have never played it, is a farming simulator. The main character inherits the grandfather’s farm and the objective is to bring the run down farm back to life, while also interacting and connecting with the inhabitants of the nearby Pelican Town.
Telling stories in an open world
I found a great summary of the basics of storytelling in the book Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games by Robert Denton Bryant and Keith Giglio. They refer to a quote by famous screenplay writer, Frank Daniel, which states that a story can be broken down to this simple phrase:
Somebody wants something and is having trouble getting it.
This applies quite nicely to the stories told in Stardew Valley. The main character in the game wants the farm to be the best it can be – but they are going to have to work for it! Of course, there is a lot more than just farm-work in Stardew Valley. What about mining, fishing, exploring, talking and falling in love with townsfolk?
In a blog on Gamasutra titled: The Four Basics of Open World Storytelling, Benjamin Jaekle suggests that to design engaging stories for open world games, we can’t rely on traditional three, four or five-act storytelling structures. In the game world, the player can choose go anywhere at any time. This will cause havoc with the structure and pacing that these types of storytelling rely on. He suggests an alternate model for open-world games. This model includes ‘the Big Plot’, which encompasses the main story or quest, and then a series of ‘microstories’ alongside it. Microstories can be quests, environments, conversations, collectables, encounters and missions – all of which are found in Stardew Valley.
This Big Plot, and each of the microstories, can be broken down into more traditional story-structures – or if you like, each can be described as ‘Somebody wants something and is having trouble getting it’.
In Stardew Valley, ‘the Big Plot’ for the main character is to return their farm to its former glory. Everything else – restoring the community centre, romancing characters, explorating the caves – comes under the ‘microstories’ suggested by Jaekle.
But there is another layer to the narratives experienced in Stardew Valley. These are the player-created narratives.
In another post titled ‘Open World Games and Narrative‘, Ben Casey talks about how, in many open world games:
The story is not the direct creation of the game designers but a collaboration between the player and game.
In Stardew Valley, the player has a lot of freedom. They can decide how their farm looks, what they grow, wear and in what order they perform tasks (they can even decide not to complete a task at all). These player-driven narratives are a large part of what, for me, makes Stardew Valley such an engaging game.
Every character I have created in the game has their own distinct flavour and has approached the game differently through choices that I, as a player, have made on their behalf. Each created a different game-play experience and affected the overall narrative in small, but meaningful ways.
With so much going on narrative-wise for Stardew Valley, why have I always hit that three-year wall?
The Three-Year Wall
In researching for this article, I found out that Stardew Valley’s ‘Big Plot’ is built to last around three in-game years. At that point, the ghost of the character’s grandfather comes and evaluates the farm, giving it points based on how much the player has managed to accomplish in that time. I didn’t know that when I started writing this piece. I remember the ghost appearing and saying something, but it wasn’t an event which stuck in my head.
The game will continue after this event; there are more micro-stories to be experienced and completed. You can even get your grandfather to evaluate the farm again later down the line, for a chance of a bigger reward.
In the three-act structure of storytelling, the third and final act of a story ends in the climax and resolution. But, with the game continuing on after the ‘evaluation’, does the Big Plot ever get resolved?
Perhaps, then, it is the lack of resolution to Stardew Valley, and the slowly decreasing number of opportunities to create new narratives after this point, that leads me to disengage?
I did notice that after the three-year period, I was much more likely to look up information online, eager to finish tasks quickly. This not only ruined the immersion of the game but had the effect of turning it into a to-do list – ticking off tasks when they are done.
Eventually I would run out of something which is vital to good storytelling – plot.
To quote from Slay the Dragon again:
Plot is there so your character can change.
If my character can’t change, is there even a point to playing the game anymore?
The original Harvest Moon game on the SNES (it is very difficult to talk about Stardew Valley without comparing it to the game that inspired it!) finished after three years. It was over, whether the player wanted it to or not. This, in a way, provided a ‘resolution’ to the story of the game, and upped the tension, as the player would have to move quickly to complete tasks.
Could this lack of tension and challenge be the reason for my losing interest?
That being said, I’m not sure that taking the choice of finishing the game out of the players’ hands would be beneficial to Stardew Valley. Since the story repeatedly explores themes of freedom and choice throughout, implementing this sort of ending could be seen as damaging to the overall narrative.
Does it ever actually end?
We also have to take into account that Stardew Valley is a constantly evolving game. Very recently, a multiplayer-update was added to the game, along with new content. This allowed players to team up on a farm and create even more player-driven narratives with each other. I know that I poured in at least another seventy hours with my wife, just messing around on the farm.
Game creator, Eric Barone, posted on his blog in December 2018 that:
I am going to keep making new content for Stardew Valley. In fact, I’ve recently put my other game on the back-burner and have been in the process of creating a new free content update.– ConcernedApe, https://www.stardewvalley.net/blog/
So perhaps I’m looking at this wrong. Perhaps I should look at Stardew Valley as having a continuing narrative, in which the best might be yet to come.
Perhaps it is time for me to stop looking for the big ‘resolution’ of Stardew Valley. I should sit back, enjoy the relaxing time on my farm and just experience the stories as they come along. At the end of the day, Stardew Valley was made to have fun and I can definitely say without a doubt that I have had a lot of fun playing this game.
Thank you for reading.