It’s very tempting to assume a postcolonial bent to Stardew Valley. The game marked the start of the cozy, wholesome movement of video games and so marked a space opposed to the hyperviolence often typical to video games. However, in its pastoral politics are some very clear colonial overtones and I would like to take a moment to unpackage them and consider alternatives.
Homesteading vs Community
The most fundamental change that one has to make to move towards postcolonialism is to move from homesteading to a community. Stardew Valley places the player in a self-sufficient role, reliant on no one but themselves for all their needs. It channels the fantasy of the homesteader, a rugged individual who meets nature on their terms, but not only has the homesteader always been more fantasy than reality, it’s also a rather depressing fantasy to have.
You shouldn’t have to do everything by yourself, all of the farming, mining and cooking that you need, when you could be doing it as a community instead. Rather than putting everything together that you need, imagine being able to set projects as a community and band together to feed yourselves and improve the community. Imagine that instead of inheriting land, you’ve been invited to join a community.
Let’s start with the idea of work shifts. Rather than growing your own crops to feed into an insatiable shipping bin, imagine taking shifts in helping grow only enough food for everyone to be able to eat. Instead of making a gold pickaxe that you have to get by yourself and then only use twice a week, imagine being one of the people who take a mining shift to improve tools for the whole town to use.
By the same token, imagine benefiting from the work of others. Imagine being able to dedicate a few days to finishing a poem that you’re working on, knowing that other people are handling the daily chore of watering the crops. Imagine coming back from the fields to find that someone else has harvested wood to expand your house. It just feels nice to help and be helped.
From this, you can then imagine needing to get multiple people to work together to run the forge and the entire village banding together for harvest. You can try to take the same shifts as the person you have a crush on. You can take responsibility for a key part of the village thriving.
Community in Stardew Valley
The bones of this are already in Stardew Valley. The core quest of the game has you fixing up a community center that everyone then uses and a lot of the pleasure of completing the quest is seeing everyone use that community center. Similarly, it feels very good to build Pam a house and to see her get her job back.
We also want spouses that do things. It’s very attractive to see Penny put so much effort into her teaching. It’s similarly attractive to see Maru building her gadgets or Leah making her art. Seeing your romantic interests do more around the village makes them into much more appealing people.
Also, the game does want you to feel connected to the people of the community. It already wants you to learn about them. These connections can become much more meaningful when there’s interdependence rather than having other people just be subjects upon whom you act.
Through mechanics like this, we can move away from the dynamic of other people as vending machines. The skew of Stardew Valley is for people without autonomy, for whom change can only come from the player’s actions. It’s unsurprising that players go most for Penny and Abigail, both written as cute girls in need of a strong man.
With the idea of shifts comes that of more sustainable living. If the game is no long centered around ever-increasing profits, then you can represent things that the philosophy of constant growth would rather forget. The first of these is spoilage. Let food spoil after a while if uneaten and ask the player to deal with the responsible disposal of the waste. Show something of the responsibility that the constant growth of capitalism would like to be forgotten.
Furthermore, we can ask the player to think more about the land that they grow their crops on by bringing in features like crop rotation or leaving the fields fallow for a season, both quite trivial features to represent and ones that fundamentally change the relationship between the player and the land. Ask people to think about what they are giving back to the land instead of viewing it as a constant source from which they take.
Without ceaseless growth, you may begin to ask how the player is supposed to fill their day. Instead, you should ask what is the point of a life of nothing but work. One of the most depressing dynamics of Stardew Valley is that you will get married and then only see your spouse for five minutes in a day.
Instead, I should have the space for leisure activities. Let my character read a book or go on a date. Let them spend a whole day staring at ants like Thoreau. Support activites that do not result in material gain.
The player should not just be able to impose themselves upon the world. There needs instead to be negotiation. You must ask what should be grown where and what should be left untouched. Ask yourself where the only development should be a small shrine. Ask yourselves what spaces are better even without that.
One of the main benefits of rural living is that you can go experience nature freely. It’s always nice to go deep into the forest south of the farm. It’s such a shame that you only ever go there when you need something.
Let there be damage to the environment that cannot be reversed and cannot be fixed. A core tenet of capitalism is that it’s okay to break things as the profits from doing so will allow you to eventually repair what is broken, and so capitalism writes more and more checks that it never intends to be cashed. Let players ruin the world in their greed. Let spaces become polluted beyond repair. Let wildlife and fish go extinct. Let people be so hurt that they leave. Give players a world and not a theme park.
An Oasis for the Revolution
Finally, I want to talk a little bit about theming. The cottagecore dream that Stardew Valley implements comes with a particular history, Instead of so isolated a fantasy, let’s imagine an oasis for the revolution, a place where people can come to rest and recuperate from the trauma of fighting for a better world. Such a place maintains the coziness of the farm sim genre, but imbues it with a meaning that it otherwise often seems to reject.