Playing ‘Till the Cows Come Home: Why Stardew Valley is the Game of the Decade

When asked to consider what I feel my “game of the decade” is I had to truly scour my brain — delving deep into each fold and scavenging through my memories from the last ten years to come up with some sort of list to narrow down my pick from. 

The first place to start was asking myself what in the world was I even playing at that time? What was I playing even on? The introspection sent me on quite the nostalgia-filled feels trip. 

Read: Why Bungie and Destiny 1 & 2 are Developer and Game of the Decade

In 2010, I was away at college and living on my own in newfound independence (read: a shared university dorm room). For the first time in my life, I was comfortable being open about enjoying games and not being embarrassed that my love of franchises like Pokemon and Harvest Moon had carried over from my childhood into adulthood. I worked as a GameStop worker bee for a few years and I was surrounded by other young adults that were just as engaged with games as I was and I was in the throes of discovering new games thanks to a laptop that could just barely run Steam and League of Legends

I went from playing games primarily on consoles through the first 18 years of my life to PC gaming for the better part of the last decade. My childhood was retrofitted with an introduction games thanks to the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, both of which I adore, but my real love affair with games began with the Gameboy Color and Pokemon Yellow. 

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I played a lot of computer games in the 90’s, most of which I could purchase at the local computer-related store in my hometown and were educational in some form with the Jump Start! series, Math Blaster, Arthur’s Reading Race, Humongous Entertainment (Putt Putt, Pajama Sam, Sly Fox, etc.). This ventured onto games like Zoo Tycoon which gave me a love for simulation games that survives to this day (I’m looking at you, Planet Zoo). There was also so much Neopets in my childhood that I have to force myself to leave you with this single sentence reference, but browser and flash games were a big part of my technology-connected adolescence. (Getting to chat with Tom Fulp from Newgrounds for KakeBytes was a teenage dream come true.)

Despite the fact that I did play games of some sort on my computer growing up, I don’t refer to myself as a life-long member of the often-joked about PC gaming master race. Instead, I enjoy the fact that the last decade has been a foray into PC gaming; this includes a graduation from a laptop (that put up one hell of a fight) to learning how to build a computer or two and growing a Steam library that includes a longer game backlog than I care to admit to. 

I think that the development story of Stardew Valley is a perfect example of one of the major ways the video game industry has evolved in the last decade. 

It may be hard to remember with the buzz of news about Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all acquiring a ton of smaller game development studios in the last few years, but PC was where I was first connected with indie games and developers in the early 2010’s. 

I caught the very first announcement of Stardew Valley on Steam’s now-defunct Greenlight in 2012 and was instantly enamored based on what little information could be shared by the game’s sole creator, Eric Barone AKA ConcernedApe

Barone said in a 2018 profile by GQ that he never intended to make video games professionally but between a practical degree in computer science, a desire to expand his skill-set in a creative way through programming games and a wish to see an improved-upon Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley was born. 

Between the code, art, music and all the facets of game development in between, Barone took on each and every responsibility typically delegated to a team that includes more than a single person.

“I put in thousands of hours on pixel art just to get better at it and better at it,” Barone said in his 2018 interview. “I just persevered and forced myself to learn. You realize the thing that you thought was good actually isn’t. You realize why and you improve on it. And that’s just an endless cycle.”

The game launched to great success on PC in February 2016, with ports for Playstation 4 and Xbox One by December of that same year, Nintendo Switch in October 2017, Playstation Vita in May 2018, and iOS and Android in Oct. 2018.

Stardew Valley’s first publisher, Chucklefish, assisted Barone in the multiplayer development (which had a delayed and staggered release across all consoles), console ports with the exception of the Nintendo Switch in addition to non-English localisations. Barone severed ties with the video game publisher in Dec. 2018. 

“When I first released Stardew Valley, I was a complete novice to the video game industry. Chucklefish, as my publisher, oversaw the distribution, console ports and translations of the game. They set up the official wiki and helped me redesign the website, to great effect. And of course,Tom Coxon did amazing work adding network code to the game, making multiplayer a reality,” Barone said in a developer update on Nov. 30, 2018. ”But I’m at a point now where I’m ready to move forward on my own. I think self-publishing is the dream of most indie developers, and I’m happy to be in a place where that’s possible!”

[Barone also addressed Stardew’s relationship with Chucklefish following allegations the publisher engaged in unfair and potentially abusive labor practices]

The game has undergone some massive upgrades since it launched almost four years ago and it has had me captivated in every iteration. Functional upgrades, like that of multiplayer, completely changed the way that I could enjoy the game through the years and the added content has finely tuned an already charming and enthralling game. (And for gamers who enjoy mods, Stardew Valley has an extremely extensive mod library that caters to additional story, aesthetic improvements, new characters, added marriage candidates and more.)

Barone built a world with immense depth and players that choose to build relationships with the residents of Pelican town are rewarded with a diverse cast of backstories that tackle loss, addiction, post traumatic stress related to military service, abuse, blending families, homelessness, personal tragedy and other narratives that are astonishingly emotional. The core mechanics of the game are a beautiful blend of combat, relationship management layered with the anxiety of perfecting my farming workflow and aesthetics.

Barone has continued to build within the world he created, adding additional map types, relationship cutscenes, streams of agricultural revenue, and items in addition to fine tuning or updating the user interface. The most recent major update dubbed “1.4,” that dropped at the end of November, is the first to be the work of a team dedicated to the continued development of the game, he said. 

The developer announced on the game’s second anniversary in 2018 that he had begun work on another solo-project, but by the end of the year he said it was put on hold because he felt Stardew needed more of his attention. 

He ended a recent 1.4 dev blog stating that although he has finally brought on a team to assist in the continued development of Stardew Valley, the still-unnamed new game remains a ConcernedApe concept from start to whatever state it is in currently. 

Stardew Valley and ConcernedApe are likely to be the most obscure pick for game and developer of the decade by the team here at Cinelinx. I endeavored on this outward assessment of the game because I realized that if I have been in love with this game for more than half of the last decade, then there have to be others as well.

I am part of multiple online communities dedicated to sharing content, questions and stories about the game and have been since the inception of /r/StardewValley. I have watched it evolve from sharing farm ideas to searching out multiplayer partners and witnessed all of the whining about when MP or major content updates would launch in between. I’ve taken the time to answer newbie questions over the years that I asked myself on launch day and I often find myself discovering a new secret or trick that changes the way I play, even today. 

I find myself looking towards 2020 and eagerly anticipating a new tweet ConcernedApe’s very active twitter announcing what is next in store for us in Pelican Town and beyond. 

Honorable mentions: Journey, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Rune Factory 4, The Witcher 3, Don’t Starve Together, Binding of Isaac, Ark: Survival Evolved