After completing three tough years of University, I decided it would be a good idea to do a Masters degree straight away after. 'It's only for a year,' I thought, 'how hard could it be?' Completely unsurprisingly it turned out to be the most difficult year of them all and, in all honesty, I really struggled to cope.
My MA was media and technology, meaning that I could write about video games for pretty much all of my assignments. Of course this was super fun and interesting but the type of assignments I had to complete weren't always so much. The thing about Masters degrees (at least the one I did anyway) was that you get significantly less contact time with the university, but a hell of a lot more work that needs to be done in a shorter space of time. This saw me doing massive practical/creative projects alongside writing lengthy theory essays and quite often losing my way due to lack of direction. During this time I was also working in a pub, meaning that my sleeping and eating habits were in terrible condition so my health was far from what it should have been.
I was stressed and very miserable. Reece and I were living together in a house share at the time and for the life of me I have no idea how he, or my other flatmates, were able to put up with me. Chronic stress is something I suffer from quite badly and can frequently cause irritability, fatigue and mood swings. Truly a recipe for disaster. Nothing was really helping me to unwind and I just couldn't figure out how to relax. After a weekend away together, I was already panicking about having to go back to normality. Once we'd got home we switched on the PS4 and Reece tells me about a game he'd seen people talking about online that he thinks I'd like. It's just a simple farming game, but everyone had apparently been raving about it. 'I'm far too busy to play games right now' I thought, but I decided to get it and have a go anyway.
I learned that Stardew Valley was the passion project of a solo developer that goes by the name Concerned Ape. This game took him 4 years to make and he still updates/fixes things by himself to make sure all players get as much as what they want as possible. At it's core it's a simple farming game in which your character moves to the country after quitting a menial job to take over a farm your grandpa left for you in his will. You learn to grow crops, fish, mine, forage and loads more, all whilst getting to know the variety of townsfolk that also reside in the valley. The style of the game pays homage to retro 32-bit arcade games but of course has a lot more range of movement, colour and interactivity. It's very slow as games go in terms of progress pace but it was designed as such so the player could (quite literally) stop and smell the flowers - It was created to be something for longevity, rather than a flash-in-the-pan; a game that you could constantly be coming back to, whether it was to reload an old file or start a new one. There's no time limit on this game, it's basically endless.
Farm games have never really been considered amongst the 'greats' due to their simplicity. The only other real notable title was perhaps Harvest Moon, but that in itself was a relatively niche game that only those in the know have played. I suppose in terms of sheer popularity for its time Farmville could also be a contender, but seeing as nobody has talked about that game since about 2009 we won't go there. From the get go Stardew Valley had a lot to prove to me if it were to be taken seriously.
So what does a simple farming game have to do with me struggling at university? Well like I said, Reece thought this game would be something I'd enjoy playing and encouraged me to give it a go. Looking back on it, it really didn't take me long to get hooked on this game and fall madly in love with it. The stunning design had me from hello and everything else followed suit. The soundtrack was also something that drew me into this game and, again, was all composed and created by Concerned Ape himself. The music is etherial and atmospheric, really capturing the essence of life in a vast valley filled with mystery and wonder. Each season, life event and character has their own theme so you can begin to sense when something exciting might be about to happen. Speaking of the characters there's a lot of different personalities you get to know in this little town you move into, and that's what really sums them up - Personality! Each character is different, some you might hate and some you might love but they all end up playing a part in your journey through this new life of yours. You even have the option to pursue marriage with another character (you can either marry someone of the opposite or the same sex, nice one!) adding another potential layer to your adventure.
Overall this is a wholesome and pure game, but with just enough of a sarcastic edge that it keeps you laughing and coming back for more. Within only a week or two of getting Stardew Valley I found myself clocking in around the 50-60+hr play time. I'd never put so much of my time into a game before, so why now? And why this one?
When you're going through a stressful time the best thing you can do is find a distraction. Anything will do, as long as you have access to it at that moment. It's not a method of repression, just simply something to take your mind off what's causing the stress at that time so your brain can relax. Seeing as I was at home a lot working on my assignments, I found it easy just to switch on the PS4 at the times when I needed it, play maybe half an hour of Stardew Valley and then get right back on with work. Of course there were the days where I felt worse and would spend quite a few hours on the game, but in retrospect I think this really did help a lot when I needed it to.
One of the odd ways in which this game helped me is that it gave me a sense of routine again. Your life in this game is dictated by hours, days, seasons, years etc. so timings and regimes have to (most of the time) be adhered to. For example when growing crops, the day you plant them has to be right so that when you're watering them they can sprout at the correct time etc. This is perfect for anyone who is currently feeling out of control (a common thing of stress) as it grounds you and brings you back to (32-bit) reality as much as possible. Any kind of routine is good for anyone suffering with stress, even something as simple as this. Stardew Valley also doesn't really have any real enemies so it doesn't induce that sense of danger. Now I'll admit, there's nothing more exciting that the adrenaline rush you feel when battling a large boss that you've been building up to for the whole game, but when you're just needing to relax all you want is the good parts. Unless you plan to go deep in the Stardew Valley mines and have to defend yourself against some (relatively) easy enemies, there's nothing bad that can harm you in this game. You're free to enjoy the good things in life without the worry that it's going to come back and bite you in the arse. Eradicating the sense of panic is great in helping you calm down. The final way I feel this game helped me was down to how immersive it is. This game is all about escape to a better life and in those moments where you feel most stressed of all (particularly at university) that's all you can dream about. Throwing yourself into a game and into a world where life is so good and you're free to choose your own goals is a lifesaver when you're feeling low. It perks you up, clears your mind and allows you to get back to what you were doing with a more positive outlook on your own, real life.
It might be just a game, but I owe a lot to Stardew Valley. At the time I just saw it as a fun distraction from my work without realising how much it was actually helping me. Looking back on it now it was a great way of getting me out of some pretty sad times. Nowadays I don't suffer from that level of stress half as badly, but on days where I might be a little sad from work, feeling unwell or just fancy a bit of lighthearted fun I'll happily sit down and check up on my farm. To demonstrate the true endlessness of this game, in the year and a half I've owned it I have now accumulated 80+hrs play time and am still nowhere near discovering all the secrets Stardew Valley has to offer! I am however very much excited to find them out though.
This is the kind of game I would recommend for everyone to have on their shelf. Whether it'd be something you play a little of each day or hardly touch it at all it's a great way to help anyone relax and unwind. I fully understand farming games are not everyones cup of tea and some may get frustrated with how slow the game can be, but trust me when I say it's worth the effort you put into it. If you ever wanted that warm and fuzzy feeling manifested into a real thing, this would certainly be it.
So all I have to say is thank you so much Stardew Valley. You truly have no idea how much you helped me.