It's like having one last short to get your head straight before you leave the bar, or necking an espresso to bring you down as you head up for bed. It makes no sense, and it makes you feel horrible. Stardew Valley is a PC game that repeatedly needles you about how detached you are from the natural world and how soul-voiding it is to live your life through a screen. "There will come a time when you feel crushed by modern life and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness," says your bed-ridden grandad, stretching his hand towards you with a serious-looking envelope. Cut to: your character, skivvying miserably at a computer for the oppressively cheerful Joja corporation. Cut to: my heart withering in ashy despair as I realise I too am hunched over a screen.
But the answer to your wage-slave woes are right there in that letter from gramps. In it, your grandfather gives you his old farm in Stardew Valley. Of course, it needs a bit of work. Actually, it needs a lot of work. You are deposited in an overgrown shrubbery littered with rocks and bits of wood, and given a handful of tools to get started with. Chop down trees, break rocks, till soil, repeat. The cheery 8-bit look with searingly bright colours cannot hide the fact that you've been dropped into a world of chores. Chop, break, till. Forage as you go, selling your finds for in-game cash. Buy seeds. Chop, break, till. Plant your seeds and water them. Chop, break, till, water.
Four game days pass. I get tetchy. Chop, break, till, water. Visits to Pelican Town break up my serf life: here, you can investigate the shops, make friends with the townsfolk, and poke around their homes. "You're not good enough friends with Pierre or Caroline to enter their bedroom," I'm told at one point, and I feel embarrassed, like I showed up at my neighbours in a negligee and carrying my best dildo only to realise that the "evening mixer" was really just an evening mixer. Later, I try to give a present to someone. Anyone. My gifts disgust my neighbours and they turn away from me, made ashamed by my shame. A man gives me a fishing rod. I catch several blobs of algae and then bin the rod from my inventory in a rage.
But then, something wonderful happens. After days of tender care, I grow a parsnip. I harvest my parsnip, and sell it to the shop. I feel proud of my parsnip. Immediately, I buy some more seeds and rush home to till more land and get planting. How will my kale turn out? Beans take a long time to grow, will they be worth it? And how many potatoes should I put in? I take up my axe and pickaxe with renewed enthusiasm and start hacking my way through my farm in quest of clear fertile ground, and as I hack, I pick up new resources: coal and geodes tumble out of rocks, seeds and sap fall from trees, and of course the wood and stone can be collected and either sold to other characters or hoarded for your own home improvements. In my head, I start feverishly calculating how long I'll have to work and how much I'll have to sell to afford my kitchen extension. I want my kitchen extension so badly I can almost taste the delicious pancakes I will make in there once I have it, and after I've added "pancakes" to my crafting inventory.
Now I'm in the grind, dashing about the valley to get the most out of my finds - to the blacksmiths to crack open geodes and release precious ores, to the beach to gather shells (and look ruefully out at sea thinking about all the fish I can't catch since I junked my rod), to the woods to forage for wild leeks and radishes. I creep into my bed at the end of every day, my energy meter run down from my exertions, happily planning the next day. The postbox outside my little farmhouse offers information and quests to be undertaken for other characters, which help me get past the awkward unwanted swinger phase with my neighbours and into something like normal human relations (most encounters don't involve dialogue options for you, so your social life is determined by who you chat to and the gifts you give them).
My little world has grown, and small as Stardew Valley is, it pushes towards the unknown at the edges. There are the mines, full of rocks to crack (oh how I love cracking rocks now) but also beasties to fight; a run down community centre inhabited by nature spirits that want me to collect things for them; and most sinisterly of all, a branch of the Joja supermarket, where the manager enticingly tells me I can join them for a low, low price. In a moment of excitement, I buy some wallpaper from Joja and decorate my house with it. The brand leers down at me from the walls and I feel oppressed until I get some nice floral pattern from the friendly local store: Joja, it seems, hasn't given up its designs on your soul just because you've stopped working there.
I've become protective of the world I'm building, and want to keep Joja far away. When funds run low during a particularly busy day of forestry, and I have to resort to a Joja cola to keep my energy up, I feel soiled and treacherous. How could I have been too weak to even dig up a wild leek? Stardew Valley is gentle escapism, but with enough bite to be engrossing. Chop, break, till, tend, harvest, sell, improve - a sweet bucolic rhythm with a sweet sweet soundtrack, as you try to outrun the man from Joja and his blandishments. Modern life is so soul crushing. Let me stay in front of my computer, safe with my lovely parsnips.