Every night I close my eyes, and it’s there again. Cabbages, cauliflowers, farmyard animals with affection rankings, ore, iron, rock, wood, villagers in need of help, pickaxes, shovels, and a constant need to make more money. You know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about farming games, the once-niche genre that, in the last decade, has exploded in popularity, and is now approaching peak saturation.
If you don’t believe me, you only need to check out the September 2022 Nintendo Direct, the Wholesome Games Direct from earlier in the summer, or even the first night of Gamescom 22. Each presentation was full of agricultural titles, all with their own spin sure, but all clearly draw inspiration from the Stardew Valley formula. Even Disney aren’t above it at this point, and though our Disney Dreamlight Valley review deems the sim worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as ConceredApe’s blockbuster title, there’s no denying it wouldn’t be here without Stardew.
Now, I’ve never actually worked a day on a farm – the closest I’ve come is planting onions in my grandma’s allotment – but if it’s anything like that, it’s seemingly the most boring thing on the planet. In fact, if you offered me a farming life simulator prior to my time with Stardew Valley, I might have troubled you instead for Paint Drying Tycoon, a toenail clippings collectathon, or quite possibly, even Balan Wonderworld.
Fortunately, I played Stardew Valley, or should it be said that I lived Stardew Valley, with over a thousand hours amassed between my multiple save files and time spent on friend’s farms. I’m not the only one either, with ConcernedApe’s solo developed title helping to form a sort of indie pantheon that includes other breakaway titles like Undertale, Hollow Knight, and others. At this point, there’s even Stardew Valley competitions with actual cash prize pools, with the winners clocking in incredible bundle completion times.
There’s something about Stardew Valley that makes it magical, and wannabe indie developers seemingly know this as well as those who can’t get enough of ConcernedApe’s indie life sim. For me, it’s a comfort I hold close. It got me through some heavy times, with the balance of quaint rural life and twenty-minute days that go by in a flash by the time you’ve reached your second summer. Furthermore, it’s clear it’s not just my comfort food video game equivalent either, with over 20 million copies now sold.
So, with that sort of success, the slow trickle of copycats was to be anticipated, especially those of the low-budget variety that you can only find on Steam and which are seemingly developed by someone with as little skill for game design as they have shame. Don’t worry. I’m not missing the delicious, farm-grown irony of Stardew Valley’s not-so-subtle lending of Harvest Moon’s core premise, it’s just that Stardew Valley acts as the evolution of the genre fans craved while the influential series itself meandered through a strange spot, rather than appearing to leech off something that had already been done almost to perfection.
I’m writing this article, as if at some point, this is all going to come to a head, but it’s clearly not. If it had, it would have been back in early 2021, when the first trailer for Super Zoo Story arrived. This time, the nature of the similarities between the new animal-orientated life sim and Stardew Valley is too much, with Barone accusing the developer of “ [taking it a] little too far and that their attitude about it has rubbed me the wrong way, too”.
I don’t blame you, Eric. As someone who frequently sees their work reposted to bot-ran content sites with words switched out in place of those that don’t quite make as much sense, I really can relate to how the developer must have felt. Inspiring others is great, and you should relish it if anyone tells you that you’ve inspired them, but having your work copied from feels a little dirty, and it’s no surprise that the sole developer of Stardew decided to speak out.
What is a little more surprising is how Stardew clones have been even more prominent since the Super Zoo Story debacle. It doesn’t help that Stardew’s consistent success got muddled with the early pandemic boom of Animal Crossing: New Horizons to form a super-monsoon of “cosy games”. There’s a kind of checklist of things to include in your cosy game if you’re going for the Stardew demographic, from romanceable neighbours, to an abundance of resources, all the way to Stardew’s anti-capitalist leanings that are far too unsubtle to be called undertones.
Weirdly, Stardew Valley makes me think of Nirvana. In this case, Eric Barone, the sole developer at ConcernedApe, stands in for Kurt Cobain. He made something incredible, something he enjoyed, and was catapulted almost by surprise into the cultural limelight, inspiring doubters, imitators, and grovelling fans in equal numbers. Now he has to sit and watch everyone do what he has done to a lesser standard as they try and get a chunk of change from the farming sim pie, often without even the vague attempt of making something playable, let alone enjoyable.
So, I guess, I just don’t want to farm anymore. It seems that Stardew Valley’s developer and I are at least on the same mental path. He’s now concentrating his time between Haunted Chocolatier and another unofficial project, while I sit and think about both of those things. So, to my fellow farmers, I look forward to meeting you again under sweeter, chocolatier, circumstances, but until that time, I’m putting down the hoe, and I’m playing something else.