by Jesse Gazic
In the opening scene of indie darling farming sim Stardew Valley, the your character’s grandfather offers a stern prophecy: “There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life.”
The very next scene fulfills that prophecy: your character sits in one of a sea of endless cubicles in a grimy office, toiling for a faceless, authoritarian megacorp. Yearning for a sense of meaning, you move to your grandfather’s old farm to start your life anew with a focus on “real connections with other people and nature”. Similar escapes to peaceful rural settlements underscore the openings of genre predecessors like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing.
But why does making connections with other people require a pastoral setting?
Stardew Valley offers through its gameplay ways of being that are supposedly denied to the modern (urban) player. You can grow all manner of food on your wide open acreage. You can learn all of your neighbours’ names, likes, and backstories. You can perform acts of service to maintain or improve the well-being of your community. And you may even find love.
All of these goals are possible in cities, to a degree. But games with urban settings instead tend to focus on themes of macro-scale management, systems architecture, or resource control. Those that do feature individual stories often paint the urban setting as bleak and sterile, or perhaps as a hostile cyberpunk dystopia. In a lot of ways, video games’ depictions of urban living can be quite limited.
Why is this the case? While an argument could be made to link this fantasy with concerns around postwar industrialization, the dream of a simple life also neatly captures the attention of millennial economic anxiety. Stardew Valley’s rent-free farm and freely foraged fruit are undeniably soothing to a generation struggling with housing bubbles and precarious contract work.
But does this fantasy require us to paint city life as one giant cubicle farm? And what do we lose by doing so?
I’m not necessarily suggesting that this bucolic dream is inappropriate, or that urban malaise and alienation aren’t real issues. But I do think that as a trend, this genre might do our urban communities a disservice.
When we demonize urban living as vacuous, cruel, or meaningless beyond redemption, we limit our ability to imagine urbanisms that might help resolve (or at least address) these issues. If the city is something we run away from--and, mind you, something we are privileged enough to be able to run away from--then we’ll never be able to fix it.
Why shouldn’t we be more daring in our depictions? Why can’t we have a farming sim that takes place on an urban green roof? Why not a community management game revolving around the operation of a place of worship? A library? A community garden? Or even just a game set in a city painted in colours besides grey, that includes parks and parades and magic?
When will we get to move to Stardew City? ◒
Jesse Gazic lives in Toronto, where he makes games, stories and a mean vegetable stew. He likes roleplaying games and immersive theatre. His work has been featured in Mooney on Theatre and The London Reader, and he tweets @gazictron.