6 years later, ‘Stardew Valley’ is still the best relaxing game of all time
Dopamine is an infernal drug. One of the “big four” brain chemicals for happiness, dopamine is largely controlled by reward-seeking behavior. Complete a task and get a dopamine hit. Some games build happiness better than others. So which game gives us the most bang for our buck? And is it comfortable?
Yes and yes. Stardew Valley is a labor of love from ConcernedApe (aka Eric Barone), a solo game development dynamo. Originally released in 2016, this cozy farm simulator has attracted millions of players with its depth, vibes, and heart.
Chances are you’ve heard of this game, but you might not know exactly how deep the rabbit hole goes. On its surface, Stardew Valley seems to be a spiritual successor to the popular harvest moon Natsume franchise. Animated graphics and farm simulation mechanics make this a very fun game and it is quite possible to spend tens or hundreds of hours working in various farms, growing crops and earning money. money. But there is much more to Stardew Valley than reviving some SNES aesthetics. The story of a young farmer who inherits his grandfather’s ruined farm is set in many places.
There’s a wide-open relationship system that lets you befriend (and potentially romance) nearly every NPC in the game. Give gifts, chat, and remember crucial dates like festivals and birthdays and you will soon be the talk of the town.
If that wasn’t enough, there’s a whole dungeon to explore. It’s no small feat either. There are 120 levels! Things get more complicated the further you go, and a local society of adventurers will even provide you with special tasks and rewards for killing loads of monsters. It’s a surprising challenge to find in a game that’s so abundantly cold.
Stardew Valley succeeds because it manages to make grinding enjoyable. It’s a well-designed time sink. You might not intend to put dozens of hours into it, but the aesthetic is so beautiful, the music so sublime, the gameplay loop so balanced that you really can’t help it. Planting, tending, and harvesting crops is the main starter engine, but you can refine things exponentially thanks to a massive crafting system full of upgrades. One year you have a few plots of fruit, a few seasons later you are running a successful winery.
There is always more to do in Stardew Valley and, most impressively, you still want to do it. But it’s also a race against time. Despite want to to do so many things, there are only a limited number of hours in a day and most importantly, the stamina your character can expend. Don’t be surprised if you get distracted trying to catch fish and realize the store is closed and you can’t buy the extra seeds you wanted. Or a busy harvest day causes you to miss the festival where you were hoping to dance with your crush.
This is mitigated by the near infinite replayability Stardew Valley offers. ConcernedApe has regularly updated the game since its launch, adding many new features and refining the mechanics. There are different types of starter farms that help you focus on specific goals, like an archipelago designed for players who really can’t stop fishing.
Add to that the myriad of relationships to pursue or farming setups to build (Dairy Farm? Vineyard? Mayonnaise Empire?) along with tons of mods and it becomes one of those games you can play for months. There’s also multiplayer, in case you want to drag someone else into your dopamine schemes.
Stardew Valley is available now on mobile, PC, Switch, PlayStation and Xbox. It’s also on Game Pass.