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PenguinFactory avatar 12:38 PM on 02.26.2013  (server time)
Harvest Moon and the art of doing more with less

When I was a kid I had a fascination with games about unusual subjects. They were a lot more visible back then, before the mainstream started to converge on first person shooters and third person action games as the only viable genres. And those games are good too, but it was the game about surviving on a stranded island or driving a train that really got my attention. If you've ever looked at a game like Bus Driver and wondered who in their right mind would pay for something like that, well, look no further.

One fateful day I walked into my nearest game shop and saw a Gameboy Color game called Harvest Moon. It was about farming. Some small but highly endorphin-productive part of my brain immediately lit up like it never had before.

I could play every single Harvest Moon game back to back and not get bored, even the ones that are almost indistinguishable from each other (which is to say most of them). Part of it is that same childish "I'm pretending to be a FARMER, check me out" glee that made me impulse buy Harvest Moon GBC all those years ago, but after playing through one of the DS titles again recently I wanted to try and figure out just what it is that's so appealing about the games.

If you stop to think about it, Harvest Moon games really do offer an astonishingly wide variety of gameplay options. Even the earliest and most primitive entries gave you a blank plot of land and some tools and told you to fend for yourself. There are no minute-to-minute gameplay objectives. If you decide to just sit around all day and watch the seasons pass, the game will just shrug it's shoulders and say "fine, try explaining this when the Harvest Goddess comes knocking". You can upgrade your farm with entirely optional buildings that open up completely new gameplay mechanics, such that two people's gameplay experience might be very different. Later games have added relationship building systems, mining, fishing, min-games, town building elements and even, in A New Beginning for the 3DS, the ability to completely customize the layout of anything on your farm. And all of this is presented not with the esoteric interlocking systems of a strategy game or a Simcity, but with simple controls that even the most casual player could easily pick up.

Over the last year or so a lot of conversations have been occurring about the apparent regression of the industry in terms of complexity, with higher development costs leading to shorter, more linear and more heavily scripted experiences. Many developers in the mainstream game world are increasingly doing less with more, utilizing breath-taking graphical and computational wizardry to make games that feel smaller and less complex than their more primitive forebears. I feel like Harvest Moon turns that on its head in a way that developers could learn from. For a long time the handheld games (the only true way to play a Harvest Moon title, in my subjective but also correct opinion) avoided 3D graphics completely, most likely to keep the cost of development down and avoid this very issue.

Harvest Moon is also relevant to other discussions that have come up recently, such as emergent gameplay and storytelling, how to encourage player-driven experiences and potential ways of lessening gaming's reliance on violence.

Could this design philosophy be applied to other genres and types of games? Not universally. Design of a roller coaster thrill-ride like Modern Warfare probably isn't going to borrow much from Harvest Moon. Still, I like to think valuing more open ended gameplay and building complex systems with simple components might be able to breathe fresh life into other genres.

Let's see more games that try to do more with less.

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