Several years ago I wrote a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer about something we decided to call digital literature. The idea my editor, Frank Wilson, had was that since a new kind of literature was emerging the paper should cover it, and he gave me the job. I reported on pieces of work that I considered to be nonlinear in a distinctly digital way—such as stories that you could click through into different layers, Wikipedia-like—or things that seemed to sit at the intersection of literature and … something else.
Sometimes the something else was automation. I learned about the existence of MEXICA, an artificial intelligence-based computer system designed by a Mexican researcher named Rafael Pérez y Pérez that could construct short stories. On its own this was not a brand new idea, but Pérez’s system was unique because it tagged characters for their emotional connections to each other, which in turn drove the plot of the story. This made the stories—as simple as they were—into something more robust than strings of sentences, something a little more human. As he told me, models like his one are interesting, not because they are intended to replace human creators, but because they can teach us about the nature of that creation. It’s kind of like reverse engineering, if you will—in order to teach a machine how to set the creative process in motion, we first have to take it apart into its components. Once we’ve put it back together, we’ll have a better understanding of how it works.
People were, and are, making some interesting literature using new technologies. As I researched them, I found that some of these stories seemed like games to me. When I wrote about Inanimate Alice, an animated, interactive story in installments that “readers” experience on a computer or tablet by making choices for the main character, watching videos, listening to music—and, yes, reading text—I talked with its creators a good deal about what makes something a novel (they consider Inanimate Alice to be an “interactive novel”) and what makes something a game. There are lots of answers to both of those questions, of course, but some of those answers overlap. For instance, book can be interactive, one simple example being a “choose your own adventure” novel that is both read and played like a game in the sense that the reader controls some of the story’s movements and outcomes. But just as interesting is the fact that most games have a narrative, and the pleasure we get out of playing them can be similar to the experience of reading a good book. I said something to this effect in my article about Alice because I understood that some games featured characters, unfolded like stories, or changed some of their features with the passage of time. But I’d never really played a video game, so for me it was just an idea.
Now I would like to tell you about a game called Stardew Valley and my obsession with it, and how it has come to broaden my view of the ways in which a story can live inside your mind.
A few months ago, my husband—a person who always has at least one game on the go—gently nudged me to try playing a video game on the Nintendo Switch. He told me several times that he thought I’d like it, which isn’t something he says about any of his other games, which he plays on the Switch, on the computer, and on his phone. Eventually I agreed to let him show me how the controllers worked and how to play the game itself.
Stardew Valley is a farming simulation game, which couldn’t sound more boring. It’s not, though. Your character, who is “you” (which is almost always the case in video games, but is a fascinating concept in itself), begins the game slaving at a desk in a hive of cubicles, weary of your grey, empty life. You then receive a letter telling you that your grandfather has died and left you his farm, so you leave your corporate hell behind and travel to Stardew Valley, where your little homestead is nestled. You learn to plant crops there, take care of your animals, cook food, and forage in the woods for mushrooms and fruit. It makes sense that the character that is you has never worked on a farm before, because you, the player, have to learn how to do all these things, too.
There’s a town nearby, and you’re supposed to meet the people who live there and get to know them. It’s a real cast of characters and most of them are kind of rude to you at first, since you’re new and they don’t trust you yet. Because they put you off in the beginning they seem fairly uninteresting—all surface and no depth—but as you get to know them you see how varied they are. They slowly reveal their stories, habits, feelings, and quirks to you, just like the characters in any other kind of story, or people in real life.
Because the game is based on farming, the change of seasons is significant. Each new season looks different, you can grow different fruits and vegetables, and the music that plays is particular to the time of year. As you get better at all your tasks you gain access to superior tools—a shovel for digging up your crops, an axe for chopping down trees, a pickaxe for breaking rocks in a nearby mine—which makes you even more successful. There are practical incentives to becoming closer with the other characters, too. They might send you a cooking recipe in the mail, or gift you with some lumber that you can use to build a chicken coop or barn. You get to name your animals, and when you touch them a heart appears over their heads, indicating that they feel happy and cared for—unless they’re mad at you for neglecting them in some way. In that case, a scribbly little storm cloud appears in the thought balloon instead. The animals never die and you don’t slaughter them, thank goodness, but you can sell them off, and some of them will occasionally give birth to a baby.
Eventually you can get married in the game, and then your new spouse leaves their little house and comes to live with you in your little house, which by now probably has a wine cellar and some other fancy additions. As I got more into the befriending-other-characters aspect of the game, I found I had my eye on a woman instead of a man, and I decided to go with it because it’s a game and what the hell. Her name was Leah, and she lived alone in a cottage in the woods just south of my farm. I’d go down there to fish in the river beside her house—oh yeah, there’s fishing in the game too—and I admired the wreaths and other seasonal decorations she always had up, thinking maybe she was a witch and feeling drawn to her solitude. I talked to her often, brought her gifts, and eventually earned enough closeness with her that I was allowed to propose, with the gift of an amulet that I bought from a salty old sailor who skulks around the beach on rainy days. Yes, really.
Ridiculously, my heart—my real-life, actual heart—was pounding with nerves and excitement on the day I proposed to Leah. You’ll be happy to know that things went well, and she now lives with me in my farmhouse and makes her sculptures in the yard. (Not to brag but she’s cute and she’s an artist.) I hasten to point out that you don’t have to get married in Stardew Valley. You can also choose whether or not to have kids with your spouse. Just like in real life, this option did not interest me at all. Every time Leah asks if I want to adopt a baby, I select the cop-out answer, complete with chickenshit elipses: “Not now…”
Since playing a game like this was new to me, getting a response to my actions from the other characters felt like a lovely surprise. It was also a little unnerving, as if the game console I held in my hands somehow contained real people who had feelings and could talk to me, though I was perfectly aware they are computer programs and not real people. Somehow, the emotional response is the same. I’m reminded of the early days of the Internet, when my mind didn’t yet have a category for that kind of communication. It was freaky to send “instant messages” and talk to someone in real time, not on a phone but in front of a screen, with text you could read: a conversation that was visual, not audible. It puts me to mind of a scene from Sex in the City, when technophobe Carrie tries chatting online for the first time with a guy. When his answer pops up on her computer screen she feels exposed, and yells “Oh my God, he’s online. Can he see me?” and ducks her head down under her desk to hide.
As I have learned, some games are considered linear, which means there’s only one way to move through them. Your character is guided along one direction, and you must complete one goal at a time before being allowed to pass through to the next portion. Stardew Valley, by contrast, is an “open-ended” game that is not linear. You can spend your time each day doing whatever you like, and there’s no way to win or lose, though there are lists of goals you can accomplish, which will lead you to a feeling of completion. You don’t have to do them if you don’t want to, though. And you could keep playing long after you’ve crossed them off your list. Unlike a book, you’re the one who decides when it ends.
I guess it’s possible I’m trying too hard to relate this game to the structure and experience of reading a novel—and believe me, it isn’t the case that I think the novel should be held up as a standard by which all works of fiction should be judged. It’s not the 18th century! Still, I find it interesting to think about how stories can be shared and accessed, and the different ways they inhabit our imaginations.
I like thinking, for instance, about a game that is a simulation of life as opposed to a novel that is meant to capture real life. Realist fiction is supposed to feel familiar and “real,” but not usually in a moment-to-moment, repetitive sort of way. In Stardew Valley you are living a life, not reading about it, and this means, for example, that you have to complete things in the course of a day before time runs out, and then you have to go to bed. (You’re supposed to go to sleep by midnight, but there’s some leeway with this. You’ll only pass out if you stay up until 2 am, and there are penalties for letting this happen. If you pass out on your own property, employees of Joja, the jokily evil corporation that looms over the town like a vengeful god, will bring you safely inside—but they’ll charge you a fee.)
The most obvious thing to say about all this is that playing the narrative of a game like Stardew Valley is more like being in a novel than it is like reading one. And I’m surprised by how engrossing I find this. I’ve been playing Stardew Valley for a few months now, and I still feel a part of that world. A good novel is over too soon—you’ll blow through it in a day or two or three if you’re really into it—though of course you can read it again. A really good novel gives you a new experience each time you re-engage with it, but even still, the words are always static on the page. In real terms, no two people can have the exact same experience of a game like Stardew Valley. That is to say, it’s dynamic. There is a finite and fixed set of things that can happen—just like in real life? Maybe. Must return to this question another time—but depending on what you prioritize and how you spend your time, you will encounter things at different points than someone else will, which affects how you feel, influences the decisions you make, and gives shape to your experience.
Anyway, I love this game. I love its cozy atmosphere and pretty music. I love the way it looks and sounds on rainy days, and the fact that magic and monsters are mixed in with the mundane features of everyday life. I even love the pacing of the game, which, as with a novel, might be one of the most important things for the creator to get right. There’s never so much going on at once that I get overwhelmed, confused, or frustrated, but time moves quickly enough that there’s a sense of urgency that keeps me engaged. (A “day” in Stardew Valley lasts for about 20 minutes, and you can see the time click by in ten minute increments on a clock on the screen.)
I think it’s worth noting that the game’s creator, Eric Barone, made this thing entirely by himself. He thought up the concept, then taught himself how to do everything he needed to make it. He spent years building this world—he even wrote all the music for it—and as a result, it is very robust, despite being intentionally simple and cute in many ways. As I have learned, most games that are as highly developed and successful as this one are created by companies that put lots of money and teams of people behind them. Besides the sheer impressiveness of Barone’s solo feat, I wonder if it also has something to do with how deep and compelling the game’s narrative is. One guy wrote it, just the way one person writes a novel. They have a deeply personal experience of making these things, so when you enter these stories we enter the fully-realized world of someone else’s imagination.
I recently read an interview with Barone in which he said that he began making Stardew Valley because his all-time favorite game, Harvest Moon, had changed in a way he didn’t like, but he still wanted to play it. In essence, then, he made the game he wanted to play, which reminds me of something else bookish, that famous remark by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”