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The joy and pain of starting over in Stardew Valley

I’m moving on to greener pastures on Switch

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A quiet farm in Stardew Valley. The field has several three by three grid plots of land, growing crops like radishes, kale, and strawberries.
Stardew Valley

In Stardew Valley, a fictional place where my fictional character inherited a fictional farm, I have three cows, two sheep, a pig and a rabbit. I have a kitchen stocked with potatoes, olive oil, radishes and a lot of fish. I have three boyfriends and two girlfriends. I have many hats.

I’ve been playing, according to the in-game counter, for more than 70 hours. Many people on Reddit threads and wikis (one of my most-visited websites on Chrome is the Stardew Valley Wikia) have been playing for multiples of that, set up full-scale farming operations and raked in more gold per day than I’ve ever amassed.

But I am proud of my farm, modest as it is. I’m proud of the relationships my character, who is also named Alanna and also has red hair and also favors mustard-yellow clothing, has developed, and the prizes she has won, and the chickens she has raised. And that is all going to be hard to say goodbye to.

That is because the game, which has been available on Steam for about a year and a half, is out now on Nintendo Switch. It’s one of the the main reasons I bought a Switch; much as I’ve made do with hunching over my laptop night after night, Stardew Valley really isn’t suited to it. A few crucial buttons don’t work on Macs (I can’t, for example, bait my fishing rod), and it’s just the sort of game I want to be portable — repetitive, calming, perfect for morning commutes and in-between times. I am excited for this world to be the pocket size I always wanted it to be (and to eventually impress my friends into servitude as farmhands), but it does mean starting over. My game file won’t make the jump along with me to the platform.

I tend to replay games obsessively: I like retreading familiar ground, talking to familiar characters, achieving familiar victories. If I’m in the right frame of mind — anxious enough for Majora’s Mask, goal-oriented enough for Pokémon — a replay feels like visiting an old friend who knows you so well that you don’t have to explain yourself. But this isn’t a restart; it’s a reset, with nothing carried over beyond a little more knowledge of crop cycles and who’s actually worth dating. (NOT SAM.)

Make no mistake: Stardew Valley is not a complicated game. In fact, it’s almost mesmerizingly dull. You wake up in the morning, tend to your crops and animals, maybe go into town to shop or crack open some geodes or socialize with the locals, and then go to bed. Sometimes you explore one of the nearby mines and kill monsters. Sometimes you flirt, usually by walking up to people and, without introduction or fanfare, presenting them with their favorite meal. There is only one bus in Stardew Valley, and you are always the sole passenger.

There is a thrill of intimacy when you become closer with the other residents of the Valley; when you acquire certain numbers of hearts with each character, cutscenes are triggered that reveal new information and sometimes-funny, sometimes-sweet, sometimes-sad interactions. The neighbors, who used to just wish you passing hellos, are suddenly revealed to be alcoholics, suffering from PTSD or aspiring emo musicians. They confess their secrets and feelings to you, the forever-newcomer no matter how many seasons you play, and the previously sleepy town takes on a new undercurrent.

It’s a prospect as exciting as reaching new levels in the mines or planting a rare type of produce, which is why I’ve spent so much time, energy and gold racking up hearts with everyone I encounter. There’s not a tangible benefit as far as gameplay goes; sometimes your friends (and lovers) send you recipes or random resources in the mail, but the real prize is just that little jolt of connection, that break in the comforting, tedious ho-hum of watering plants and shearing sheep.

And the true fantasy of Stardew Valley, beyond its lulling sameness, is that there is no loss. No deaths, no disasters, no surprises, no shocks. Or if there are, my 70 hours haven’t been enough to witness them. There’s no entropy beyond the seasonal turnover of crops, no decay except for the occasional reduction of a heart when you haven’t given the town doctor his daily cup of coffee. You gain money, friendships and experiences without ever really backsliding. Time passes, to be sure — the seasons are rigid, and you’re constantly playing against them, calculating if you have enough time to grow the biggest prize pumpkin or the pomegranates you need to complete a quest. Sometimes you fall short, but you know that there is always next year.

I am going to be sad to say goodbye to this tiny life I’ve built up. I don’t think I will make the same choices in my Switch playthrough — no red hair and yellow shirt, no flirtation with the surly megastore employee, no futile attempts to set lobster traps. Maybe I’ll choose the cave full of fruit bats instead of the cavern of mushrooms; maybe I’ll finally learn to use the slingshot; maybe I’ll be a boy!

I’ll be glad for the change, I think, even as I mourn little Alanna in her quiet little renovated farmhouse. I’ll be glad to have it with me on the subway, at bars, whenever I need to duck into a place that’s simpler and saner than the one we’re contending with right now. In exchange for that sureness, that steadiness, I’m willing to make the switch.

Alanna Okun is a senior editor at Racked and the author of a forthcoming book about crafting and feelings.

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