I feel something special whenever I hear the opening track to Stardew Valley, “Stardew Overture.” You can listen to it in the video above, if you’d like.
It’s similar to the sensation at the end of a long bus ride, when you finally see your destination coming into view. It’s that feeling where the longing for something begins to pass as you get closer to it. I feel it every time I load Stardew Valley up on my PC.
The game’s introduction generates a calming buildup to play. There’s a bit of magic that happens as the overture gets into full swing, and you see the familiar and charming logos of the game’s creators and publisher. The pixelated valley then sweeps across the screen.
The game’s logo then slowly descends from the top of the screen, coming to a gentle halt that reveals the menu. You’re already in the embrace of Stardew Valley before you even begin to play.
All of these sights and sounds do an incredible job of pulling you into the game’s “magic circle.”
What is the magic circle?
The magic circle is present in most forms of entertainment. It’s the boundary we cross to immerse ourselves in a story. It’s the boundary where the normal rules of reality end and the new rules and norms of a game or narrative take over.
You’ve crossed into the magic circle before if you’ve ever sat at a campfire at night telling scary stories. It’s the feeling that takes over when you’re in the crowd at a concert and everyone begins to sing along. The magic circle is the place where the ordinary world falls away and we enter into a new experience or sense of consciousness. The best rides at places like Disneyland feature lines that shepherd you across the magic circle into the fictional world of the themed attraction.
The concept of the magic circle is fleshed out well by Extra Credits:
The magic circle is invoked by the best console and PC games too. Some games do it simply, like Metroid Prime’s sparse intro that invokes feelings of tension and isolation. Super Mario Bros. 3 does it by literally pulling back a curtain to let you know you’re about to enter a strange and wonderful world. And Hearthstone’s intro makes you feel like you’re settling down at a table in a tavern to play a card game with the various denizens of the World of Warcraft universe.
All of the build up and theatrics are essential for making you feel like you’re entering a different world when you’re really just sitting in front of a screen. It’s a door into the new experience.
The concept of the magic circle is an essential part of the Stardew Valley experience for me. And for many who have spent countless hours tending to their farms, the music and title screen go a long way toward moving them through that boundary. It’s part of the experience.
What went wrong on the Switch
I noticed something was missing after pouring a couple dozen hours into the Switch version of the Stardew Valley. The Switch allows me to suspend gameplay, so I’ve only seen the game’s intro once since I’ve started playing it on the console. I’ve lost the ability to get pulled into the game’s magic circle in a reliable way. The path to getting lost in this world had been at least slightly obscured.
One of the most important aspects of the PC version was how you ended and started play sessions. The only way to stop playing without losing your progress on the PC is to rest at your home. From there, you can save and ultimately close the game. You’ll start the game with a brand new day when you return.
You’re always met with a familiar scenario when you return to the game. You wake up in bed with fresh money in your wallet and full energy. What happens next is up to you, but the path across the magic circle is always the same.
It’s totally different on the Switch. I no longer need carefully plan out gameplay sessions. The Switch turns Stardew Valley into a pick up and play game due to the system’s native ability to suspend gameplay.
It takes away much of the routine I’ve grown accustomed to when playing on the PC. It used to take a few minutes to begin play, and you had to know when you wanted to end in order to save and walk away. The Switch allows you to start a game at home, pause it, get on the train, play for a few minutes there, pause it, walk to the office and then pick up where you left off. It’s more convenient, but there is no longer a set path into or out of the world.
While I’m grateful for all the conveniences offered by the Switch, I miss sitting through the intro every time I loaded up the game. It was an important part of the experience.
Crossing the magic circle is a vital aspect of any game. So much of Stardew Valley is about losing yourself in a different world. Stardew Valley is a place where many of us go to relax, focus on the tasks and relationships we want to focus on and take life at a slower pace.
That still exists on the Switch, but the door into that world is now situational, instead of mandatory. Convenience isn’t everything, and in this case you’re losing out on an important part of the experience. I didn’t realize just how important it was to my enjoyment until my favorite console took it away.