Whereas most video games are primarily about overcoming obstacles, avoiding fail states while chasing victory conditions, Stardew Valley is mostly about comforting routines. The player is allowed to choose their own focus, and there is never any pressure to make the choice that the game considers to be correct. It is a uniquely relaxing simulation that I have found personally to provide a big mental health boost.
Stardew Valley is a game about inheriting a farm and having the freedom to work on it (or not) in isolation from the stress of bills or a day job. Day 1 starts with your character facing an ocean of debris covering what could one day be a well oiled crop producing machine. As you clear a space of rocks, tree trunks, and weeds, plow the dirt, and plant your first small patch of parsnips, you get the first inkling of the farm’s potential.
A Stardew Valley player tending to their animals and crops.
While at first much of Stardew Valley is an exciting mystery, it quickly settles into comforting routine.
A player will probably start the day by waking up, watering the crops, and feeding the farm animals. Then, the rest of the day is open. There are several activities to do, and all of them benefit the player in some way. Heading down to the docks or up to the river to fish can be a lucrative way to get some extra capital to invest in more seeds for the farm. Diving into the monster-infested mines with a packed lunch yields valuable materials for upgrading tools. Even a nice nature walk can be a good opportunity to gather some wood to build new buildings or useful items like storage chests, as well as harvest some wild food like mushrooms or berries.
The player is free to choose any direction they want.
The great thing about all these activities is that the player is free to choose any direction they want. There are a number of ways to progress, but specialization is not punished. While it is more efficient to gather one’s own ore by fighting in the mines, players who prefer a pacifist run can buy most of the upgrade materials in the game elsewhere. While chopping trees is a lot cheaper than chopping one’s own wood, those that can’t stand woodcutting can simply spend a day fishing, sell the fish, and use that money to purchase the wood they need to build a barn. There are exceptions to this rule, but most of the things that require the player to do a specific activity are optional. Fun in Stardew Valley is self-directed, and the game is very good about rewarding players for accomplishing things on their own terms.
A player spends a relaxing day fishing in the lake.
Stardew Valley is very low pressure.
While the player might become overly ambitious and plant enough crops that watering them all completely exhausts the stamina bar (not that I have ever done this, of course!), the only punishment for abandoning the project is losing the gold put into the seeds that die. Unlike real life, running completely out of money does not mean losing the farm; it just means that the player needs to fish or forage to get their hands on enough for some new potato seeds. The player does not need to eat, though it does help get more work done. Opportunity is abundant in Stardew Valley, and taking a mental health day to walk through the woods is always an option.
Stardew Valley also provides a sense of community.
The premise of the game is that the player has moved into a small rural town with a thriving community of neighbors, each with their own day to day routines and inner lives. Villagers are friendly and usually happy to talk, and having a short conversation with them each day will improve their opinion of the player. To gain favor faster, it is possible to give each villager occasional gifts. However, doing this is risky, because each villager has individual tastes that must be accounted for. Sometimes, talking to a villager will yield a clue as to what they or another NPC like to receive as a gift. As the player gets to know the village better, it will become easier to tailor these gifts more accurately and get fewer weird looks.
More like a real community than most games of this style.
As the player gains rapport with villagers, they will often reciprocate by giving gifts back, many of which can be very useful. They will also, at certain points, give the player more of a glimpse into their private lives. While the specific content of these cutscenes constitute spoilers, I will say that they range a wide variety of topics, including dreams, fears, and situations like abusive exes or mental health struggles. These interactions add a lot of flavor to the game, making it feel more like a real community than most games of this style. What was once a bunch of strangers who felt like inconsequential NPCs becomes a deep and diverse cast of characters with whom the player is intimately familiar.
At night, many of the villagers gather at the Stardrop Saloon, making it an excellent place to hand out a few gifts.
Stardew Valley’s routines are calming and comforting.
The thing I like most about Stardew Valley is the relaxing vibe of carrying out a day’s routine. I suffer from depression, which can often sap my motivation and make it difficult for me to get anything done. Stardew Valley is great to coax me into just doing something. It’s easy in the game to get out of bed and give my cat and crops water, feed my chickens, and check on my mushroom farm. Before I know it I’ve wandered down to the beach to see if any rare seashells have turned up, and while I’m there I might as well catch a few fish. Oh, I haven’t given Leah a gift today, and I think she’s at the Saloon tonight! I’ll buy her her favorite dinner (salad). There are a few other villagers here that need gifts, I’ll buy the bar a round of drinks as well.
An affirming, meditative experience.
Before I know it, it’s time to run back home, stick my fish and seashells in the sell box, and get some sleep before the next day. Stardew Valley days are bursting with opportunities, and almost seem to fill themselves. Long term goals help to keep the player focused on getting things done each day, and accomplishing those goals always feels good. Really, though, the day to day routine of Stardew Valley is what makes it such an affirming, meditative experience. After playing a productive day or two of Stardew Valley, I often feel more ready to get things done in my own life as well.