How Stardew Valley Bridged a Connection to My Grandfather

Sometime around September 2019, my boyfriend was trying to convince me to do something I had no interest in: learn to play video games. To be polite, I took the Nintendo Switch controller from his hands and, for the next several hours, snapped with considerable anger whenever I forgot the difference between A, B, X, and Y, or the godforsaken purposes of ZL and ZR. I have made a concerted and largely successful effort to stay away from pursuits that require hand-eye coordination in all my years.

In high school, I hid from the ball during soccer scrimmages. I developed a reputation during college sessions of Mario Kart with friends for picking up the controller and immediately driving my car into a ditch. Everyone else raced through valleys and mountains and wacky cities while I stabbed the controller with impotent rage.

My boyfriend, however, is smart. The game he’d chosen for me to play was Stardew Valley, an appealingly structured game ideal for neurotic, anxious completionists. The player’s avatar inherits a farm in Pelican Town from their deceased grandfather, and in addition to farming a variety of crops, they can fight monsters in the mines, restart an abandoned bus service to the Calico Desert, and revitalize a dilapidated community center through various tasks.

I liked watering my digital parsnips, I enjoyed angering Mayor Lewis, I loved my electronic cows and sheep and chickens and goats (whom I named for various figures in leftist history, like Karl Marx the goat and Trotsky the cow). I derived great pleasure in plopping fruits and vegetables into preserves jars and getting jam and pickles. As a committed communist, I also liked the game’s focus on fighting a corporation known as Joja Mart; if the player rebuilds the community center and chooses to side against Joja, Pierre’s General Store can banish corporate goon Morris and his top hat from the Valley forever.

But because of my terrible hand-eye coordination, my learning curve was incredibly steep. So instead of memorizing what all the controller buttons were, I simply memorized what they did. Like lots of people, I died in the mines quite a bit, and rage-quit the game dozens of times overfishing. I’d angrily hand my boyfriend the controller if I was trying to fish, nearly in tears, enraged by how stupid the game made me feel. But I didn’t give up.

I’m an expert fisherwoman now. I can complete the community center tasks within Fall of Year 2. I’ve created games in all varieties of available farms (the fishing-rich and foraging types are my favorites), and the most recent update was issued to Switch right as I quit my job. With great delight I explored Ginger Island, though I almost rage-quit when finding those goddamn Golden Walnuts proved tricky. Still, as before, I didn’t give up. Mining on Ginger Island is occasionally frustrating, but creator Eric Barone’s commitment to giving the game repeat value is, I think, wholly successful. The game is a comfortable bed and I am Goldilocks. Just last month, when my boyfriend picked up the game again, I was giving him pointers on how to play.

Of course, I’m not the only person for whom an ordinary activity gained brand-new context during the lockdown. Millions of people learned to cook and/or bake for the first time, causing the Great All-Purpose Flour Shortage of 2020. My mother, noticing my fervent attachment to Stardew Valley, asked why I didn’t help her in the garden with the same tasks I was performing in the game. I couldn’t argue with this logic. She was impressed with my arm strength and my willingness to do anything that didn’t involve reading the news. I built her a pollinator garden, full of native plants adored by bees and butterflies. I grew herbs and attempted to grow vegetables from seed. I researched non-industrial pest control and tracked fertilizer prices. I showed my mother how to spray her plants with neem oil to ward off bugs. I even ordered live ladybugs! Releasing them into the yard was a hoot, but despite my best efforts to maintain an ideal environment, they fluttered off after killing all the pesky insects.

Cooking and baking are not new pursuits for me. While everyone else was making a cake for the first time, my boyfriend and I made fresh pasta, using the starchy water in bread dough the day after. My depression, ever-present, worsened, and I randomly burst into tears at least once a day, without any provocation.

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