Stardew Valley: Pushing The Boundaries of Farming RPGs


This story was first published on Feb. 23 here.

Imagine merging the game mechanics of Terraria and the flexibility of Harvest Moon, and you will come close to envisioning Eric Barone’s new “country-life RPG,” Stardew Valley, the culmination of four years of development. In the game, the player inherits his late grandfather’s farm — sound familiar, Harvest Moon fans? — and has the ability to bring the overgrown farm back to life, form relationships with Pelican Town residents, explore deep caves, improve various skills and make life-changing decisions in the community — among countless other opportunities. Moreover, the dynamic character dialogues, changing seasons and quests from the townspeople foster an altogether engaging and immersive experience for the player.

Creating a complete game is a lot of work for a solo developer, but Barone definitely pulled it off. I had the privilege of beta testing Stardew Valley for the past month, and I have been exceedingly satisfied with the gameplay, original soundtrack and design — all of which Barone created entirely by himself. As a long-time Harvest Moon fan, I stumbled across the website for Stardew Valley two years ago and immediately decided that I desperately needed to play this game. The only issue was that, for a while, it had an indefinite release date that kept me — and many other eager gamers who turned to forums for answers — waiting for years.

But the wait was clearly worth it. Stardew Valley solves the stagnation and repetition of gameplay in recent games in the Harvest Moon series and offers so many more spatial possibilities and customizing capabilities than similar precursors in design, such as Pokémon and Animal Crossing. In Stardew Valley, if I want to detonate a cavern wall, I can do that. I can also place crafted appliances and furniture virtually anywhere, thanks to the clearly discernible gridded layout of the farm. Barone acknowledged these key differences, stating that “Stardew Valley looks to the classic Harvest Moon games for its roots but then attempts to reach well beyond and bring that gameplay into the modern era.” Specifically, he regarded Harvest Moon as being “very linear in the way you built up your farm,” whereas Stardew Valley gives the player a greater extent of freedom — a sentiment that I share without a doubt after playing the game for a month. He supplied some examples that sparked my interest: “If you want to raise 300 rabbits, you can. If you want to invest in a huge field of crops with automated sprinkler systems, you can do that too. The gameplay is flexible and open.”

When I asked Barone about his inspiration for the game, he cited Harvest Moon as a game he played growing up, mentioning that the “unique gameplay and immersive atmosphere left a lasting impression” on him. However, he also felt the numbing dissatisfaction that many gamers, such as myself, faced after each subsequent Harvest Moon title was released. “I felt like the series had gotten progressively worse after Harvest Moon: Back to Nature,” Barone said. “I searched all over the Internet for a fan-made alternative but never found anything satisfying. So when I set out to make a game of my own, I decided to make the Harvest Moon-esque game I had always longed for.”

At the time that he began creating what would become Stardew Valley, he had only made games that were “tiny in scope” or made with the help of software, such as GameMaker. Through developing the game, Barone’s programming and design skills vastly improved, and he found himself redoing the entire game multiple times, which is why development took so long. In the end, he programmed it in C# using the Microsoft XNA framework, as well as using Paint.NET to draw all the art and Propellerhead Software’s Reason to compose the music and create sound effects.

Probably the most impressive aspect of this four-year project is that Barone worked alone yet managed to make Stardew Valley a game with something for everyone. As an open-ended RPG, it offers enticements for the achievers, explorers, killers and socializers of gaming.

What I love about this game is that it will still undergo development after already attaining a great level of satisfiability. Barone will continue working behind the scenes, even after the game is released, to add additional features and make multiplayer co-op available to users in the near future. Being a beta tester, I had access to Stardew Valley Trello boards for gameplay feedback and bug tracking. Through that, I was able to witness how he actively moves various reports and comments to different cards to work on later or mark as resolved, so I can absolutely perceive that he genuinely cares about making this game the best of its kind and bug-free for release.

As a solo developer, Barone loved that he had total freedom to implement his ideas, which enabled him to “bring a cohesive vision to life.” Elaborating, he said, “I also enjoy all the aspects of making a game: coding, drawing, making music, and writing…I would get bored doing just one thing all the time.”

Under the alias ConcernedApe, Barone has kept his identity practically a secret; I remember watching a promotional stream on Stardew Valley gameplay, in which the host hesitantly asked Barone if it was alright to call him “Eric” on the stream. Previously, all the fans knew was that ConcernedApe was the mysterious creator behind Stardew Valley, and once a month an update on the game would appear on his website. I idly checked the Stardew Valley site every month for that very reason, and I was probably not alone in my keenness to read the latest news about the game as well as my growing curiosity about the maker.

As a result, I couldn’t resist asking him a few personal questions about his own favorite games. Barone replied, “When a game can give me an entirely new and immersive experience, that’s something I really cherish. For that reason, the most memorable games for me have intricate, imaginative worlds that go beyond normal reality.”

While I played the game, I also noticed some game elements that alluded to famous film characters, and I wondered whether certain movie directors or artists inspired him to design Stardew Valley a certain way. In particular, one item was reminiscent of the scarecrow in Howl’s Moving Castle. He responded, “I love Miyazaki; he’s a genius, and I’d bet a lot of people who are interested in Stardew Valley feel the same way. His style is a big influence for me. I try to take my favorite things from all over the place and blend them together in my own way.”

Whether you’ve played every Harvest Moon game out there or you’re new to gaming, don’t miss this gem of an RPG. 

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