The Economics of Stardew Valley
It’s the best adulthood simulator I’ve ever played.
Stardew Valley is a farm simulator game with an emphasis on building relationships and a hint of open-world sandbox. It’s kind of like Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, and Minecraft mushed into a supergame with JRPG elements plus a really endearing friendship/dating sim.
It is everything I ever wanted in a game plus a gob of things I never knew I wanted, and although a lot of us have been playing—and raving about—Stardew Valley since it released this February, it only released for Mac at the end of July, so I only just started the game.
It is also, already, my new favorite thing.
Stardew Valley works, in many ways, like real life. (Minor spoilers ahead.) You have to get your basic household chores done every day, otherwise your farm falls into disarray and it becomes harder for you to earn money.
You have to earn money. There is technically a way to play this game where you elect not to farm, or forage, or mine, or raise animals, but until you start earning money, there isn’t much you can do. You can walk around and talk to people, and if you talk to them enough you will start building friendships, but all of this becomes easier if you have money. (Even your household chores become easier if you have money, because you can upgrade your tools and automate your workload.)
You cannot do everything. This is one of my favorite parts of the game; it doesn’t necessarily force you to choose a career (farming vs. animal husbandry, for example) but if you want a decent income, you need to specialize and focus on leveling up one skillset.
You can play Stardew Valley like a lot of us played our own early adulthood: running around, trying a bunch of stuff, seeing what you like best, and making just enough to buy a cup of coffee or a beer. (Coffee and booze play huge roles in Stardew Valley. This game is not for children.) If you play it that way, you have a lot more time to hang out at the bar and make friends.
That’s how I played my first spring. I ended it broke, and decided to spend my summer building my skills in planting and foraging. The choice was, in part, made for me; I didn’t have enough money to buy any animals or build the barn and silo they’d need to stay alive. But everything I had done in the game thus far—including spending nearly every night at the bar—had led me to this point.
My options were limited both by economics and by my own choices.
I don’t regret pouring my first spring on Stardew Valley into friendship, though. I’ve written many, many times on The Billfold about the economics of friendship, and Stardew Valley works within a similar—if simplified—economy.
To make friends with someone, you have to talk to them. As much as possible. Ideally, you’re supposed to talk to them every day—your friendship slowly degrades if you and your friends do not communicate regularly—but, as I mentioned earlier, this game does not let you do everything. There’s a timer at the top of the screen, counting down the hours before you have to go to sleep (or collapse from exhaustion), and you do not have time to make friends with everybody.
So you have to choose. Sometimes the game chooses for you, much like real life; if your path regularly crosses another person’s, you’ll have a higher chance of becoming friends—or at least casual friends, which is where I am with maybe a third of Stardew Valley’s characters.
To form deeper friendships, and to move your daily conversations from small talk to actual discussions on hopes/dreams/fears/feelings, you have to do things for your friends. Sometimes, there are opportunities for you to perform tasks that help your friends, but the primary way of increasing friendship in Stardew Valley is by buying people gifts.
“Eew,” you might say, “that sounds weird and creepy and not like real life at all.”
How about I rephrase it this way: the primary way of increasing friendship in Stardew Valley is by talking to people regularly and buying them a cup of coffee or a glass of wine once in a while?
Yes, because this is a computer game set in a fantasy world where talking mice sell hats, you can also give your friends other kinds of gifts. But the “buy them a coffee or a booze” mechanic is pretty strong—and most importantly, you have to know whether your new friend prefers coffee or tea, beer or wine, salad or salmon. If you get it wrong once, you’ll learn for the next time. If you get it wrong multiple times, you’ll lose friendship.
Emotional labor is about paying attention to other people’s needs and desires.
You can also elect to romance one of your new Stardew Valley friends. The game does not prescribe heteronormativity, so any of the five single women and five single men are fair game. You can play the game without romancing or marriage, but you’ll miss out on a few options and you won’t get as much approval from your relatives, which is… yeah, kind of like real life.
I elected to romance Elliott, which—okay, I want to talk so much about Elliott, and about how this game approaches characterization and emotional depth. (Here come a few more smallish spoilers.)
First of all, Elliott is the guy who spends most of the day holed up in his shack working on the Great Stardew Valleyian Moderately Successful Genre Novel, which, um, that whole thing about how we date the people we want to become.
But Elliott is also one of the few people who is nice to you right from the beginning—some dateable characters are legit rude—and who has conversations with you that are about you and not about him.
After you earn four hearts’ worth of friendship points with Elliott, he shows up at the bar and offers to buy you a drink. The scene is so great because it can be read as just friendship, but since I want to go all the way (to ten hearts) with Elliott someday there’s also the option to read it as a first date, or a “maybe date,” or that thing we do every once in a while where we meet a friend at a bar not knowing whether it’s a date but kind of hoping.
More importantly: Elliott buys your character a drink. Elliott performs emotional labor towards you.
I also earned four hearts’ worth of friendship with Leah, and her “four heart event” involves you providing comfort and emotional support after she gets an (unwanted) phone call from her ex. When I earned two hearts with Shane, I provided emotional support as he told me a little bit about his depression and anxiety.
So yeah, Elliott at this point is the only character who is reciprocal, which is totally hot. However, I’m curious if he’ll ever open up. Can you get super-far into romancing and dating someone before realizing that the emotional labor they bring to the relationship is primarily surface-level, and they’re not really interested in sharing their thoughts and feelings with you? (I should mention again that this game is just like real life.)
Lastly: JojaMart. We’ve been having a lot of conversations on The Billfold lately about the idea of moving to a small town and revitalizing the local economy, and that is one of the things you can do in Stardew Valley.
But—as with the rest of the game—you can’t do everything. You can choose between spending your money at JojaMart and spending your money at Pierre’s General Store, where everything is slightly more expensive. If you make certain choices, Pierre’s General Store will go out of business. If you make other choices, the local economy will grow—but those choices will cost you time and money, which means spending less time on your farm, earning less money, buying your friends fewer coffees, etc.
I love this game so much. I’ve never played such an accurate simulation of adulthood.