No, the citizens of Pelican Town are not having a debate on baptism; I’m talking about the state of being completely absorbed in a game and Stardew Valley has succeeded at this more than many larger open world MMOs with “realistic” graphics that I’ve played. I know I’m not the only one who has been charmed by this single player farming game either, and I suspect that many of its fans feel the same way I do about the game’s capacity for immersion. Stardew Valley excels at drawing the player into Pelican Town and into the lives of its inhabitants as its newest community member.
Stardew Valley hasn’t cornered the market on immersion though, Black Desert has also received a lot of love on this front, and I can understand why. The game is visually stunning and the mechanics (or lack thereof with regard to fast travel) are intended to draw the player into the vast and breathtaking world. However one thing Black Desert and most open world MMOs will always lack is a sense of place and belonging. Whereas in those titles adventuring is the name of the immersive game, in Stardew Valley it’s about exploring your own backyard. If the typical MMO is expansive with regard to breadth, than Stardew Valley takes the opposite route and draws the player in deeper and deeper into an otherwise minor local.
The value of this for immersive gameplay struck me when I discovered something new this past weekend about one of the inhabitants, Penny. One of the features in Stardew Valley is the option to befriend and ultimately marry one of the single NPCs in town. I’d playfully considered a few of the female candidates—Abigail because of her affinity for all things adventurous and nerdy; or Hailey because quite frankly she seems to despise my character and I like the challenge. Then I came to realize that Pam, the old drunk who lived in the trailer down by the river did not live there alone; Penny was her daughter. I liked Penny, she was quiet but kind, tutoring a few kids from town but otherwise found at the library or with her nose in a book under a tree. I didn’t realize why she loved her books so much until I became aware of what she was trying to escape. The realization made me want to get her out of that life and onto my character’s farm instead.
See what I mean? How easily these characters and this narrative can draw you in overtime as you get to know the individuals who make up your new community? At first you know very little about these characters and lack compassion or interest toward any of them. But as you have conversations with them and learn of their familial ties and friendships that begins to change.
And this social and narrative gameplay is only one portion of what I find immersive about the game. Ownership becomes a large factor in this as well. One of the key activities in the game is that you develop a thriving farm, slowly but surely over several years. There are other activities you can pursue as well—fishing, adventuring in the mines, making sure the big box corporation doesn’t steamroll the town. Basically, you have this sense of daily ownership and responsibility on the farm and in the community. By the end of spring I really began to feel a sense of belonging within the community with the produce I was providing and I had developed a routine of my own for daily, rural life.
For example, each time I would wake up to another day in game I found myself going about my routine in the following manner or similar: watering my crops, visiting Pierre’s shop if I had anything to sell, stopping by the library or one of Penny’s other preferred hiding spots to say hello and possibly give her a gift, checking several of my crab pots on the waterfront, and then fishing a bit with Willy before stopping by the local saloon and then heading home for bed. It’s as ordinary as you can imagine and it’s refreshing. I absolutely adore the gameplay of this title because of how quant and ordinary it is. It’s a storybook kind of ordinary though, isn’t it? Not the kind we actually experience, but the kind we oftentimes wish we could, which is of course the premise of the game.
Immersive gameplay doesn’t require a big budget, photorealistic graphics, and boundless regions of content. No, immersion can be found with a touch of the everyday fantasy of quiet living and a whole lot of heart. Stardew Valley has both of these in spades. From the personal connection to the growth and success of your farm, to the ever growing intimacy experienced with the townsfolk as their stories unfold, there’s a lot to get lost in, in Pelican Town. If you ever come for a visit, you’ll find me at the docks fishing or on my farm just west of town. I’ll keep another cold one in the fridge just in case you stop by.