I have always secretly harbored a desire to be a farmer.
There’s something to be said for a lifetime of backbreaking labor and sun-tanned skin. I take delight in thinking about the endless toiling in fields that stretch as far as the eye can see and the comradery that develops over the years between neighbors working the same trade. They live close by in my dreams, but not too close, because I believe that no self-respecting farmer wants to be anyone to keep tabs on them on them except the harvest gods and their watchful eye.
My farming aspirations stem from a couple of things. The bucolic prose of Breece D’J Pancake, with his undeniably earnest stories of West Virginian hunters and laborers, have been constant companions since entering high school. Weekly trips to a gigantic orchard near the small town I grew up in introduced me to the world of apple picking and farm-grade machinery.
More than any of those influences, Harvest Moon: Back to Nature informed my agrarian aspirations. To this day, Back to Nature and its astoundingly detailed strategy guide are among the best gifts I have ever received.
Admittedly, I was a weird kid. During the PlayStation/Nintendo 64 heyday, plenty of kids my age got interested in video games. For me, video games were more than an exciting way to spend a rainy afternoon or an activity to occupy the long, sugar-fueled nights of sleepovers. Video games were a passion of mine before I even know what defined an actual passion. I quickly moved past the “entry level” games of my generation. Final Fantasy VII was a transformative experience, and I played through Ocarina of Time a handful of times during weeklong stays at my friend’s house. I wanted more than the games that my peers and I were already exposed to. I recall tagging along with my mom on trips to the mall, just so I could hunt through the wire-framed shelves of EB Games with the kind of tongue-out determination that only a child can possess. I was a weird kid because I wanted to know everything about every video game. I didn’t care about much else, simply because I knew that games were all that mattered to me.
I was probably eleven when I came across Harvest Moon: Back to Nature. The simple art on the cover – depicting a farmer who I instantly knew was one rad dude because of his backwards hat, some dopey looking farm animals, a chill ass dog, and some little sprites that always reminded me of miniature pig-men – caught my attention as I stood in the EB Games’ PlayStation section (back left corner, in a sort of nook between pillars, if you must know). The “back to nature” subtitle, along with the aforementioned radical-looking farmer piqued my interest. It didn’t sound like any game I had played before. By the time I flipped the game over to check out the back of the box, I was sold. A video game about farming where I can live my life as farmer with a backwards hat? Be still, my young heart, we’ve found what we were looking for.
Because Back to Nature was a game that I had never heard of before, I became infatuated with it. I didn’t beg my mom to buy it for me – I’ve always felt uncomfortable asking for things that I don’t need – but I never let Back to Nature escape my mind. I wanted to farm and feed chickens. I wanted to be the radical farmer, backwards hat and all.
A few weeks later, I got my chance to live out my farming dreams. My mom returned from a shopping trip, and after helping her bring some bags in from the car, she handed me a plastic bag that I hadn’t seen before. It was from EB Games. With the kind of energy that only an eager kid could ever muster, I pulled the bag open, anxious to find out what was hidden inside it.
There was Harvest Moon: Back to Nature, corny (in retrospect) cover and all. To sweeten the deal, my mom had also picked up the game’s strategy guide, because I’m sure she succumbed to the full court press sales style championed by EB Games and eventually GameStop. I was thrilled. To this day, I don’t recall ever mentioning wanting the game to anyone but my brother, so I guess I should thank him sometime.
I spent the next couple of weeks playing nothing except Back to Nature. The game’s charming aesthetic captured my heart in a way that few games have managed to since. The gameplay flow of farming – which was broken into simple mechanics that walked a fine line between mundanity and suspension of disbelief – harvesting your bounty, and developing relationships with the residents of Mineral Town, was perfect in its slice of life structure.
Back to Nature quickly became more than a video game diversion to me. I saw it as a window into a life that I could never have. The simplicity of life in Mineral Town and the burgeoning success of Wolf Farm (named so because even as a kid I knew wolves were the best animal) were an introduction to living vicariously through fictional characters.
The strategy guide that I got with Back to Nature kept me hooked on the game months after my attention towards it should have waned. Harvest Moon games, Back to Nature especially, are packed with different special events and conditional moments that require either some notable foresight or dumb luck. Being a kid, I had neither of those in spades, so the strategy guide became a way to get the most of the game.
I became the most beloved man in Mineral Town. My farm was raking in tons of cash. I was a radical farmer with a dope backwards hat who all of the bachelorettes fawned over. I kicked ass at mining, caught the biggest fish, and had a dog that was really good at fetching a red ball.
Harvest Moon: Back to Nature came into my life at the perfect time. At eleven, I was already destined spend the rest of my life entrenched in the video gaming scene. Harvest Moon represented my first major jaunt into a game that prided itself on having a much slower pace. There were no heroes with magical swords, no time-travelling teens on a journey to save the world. In Back to Nature, there was farming, fishing, and emphatic conversation with my neighbors. It was truly a special title that introduced me to a new type of video game and a new way of life.
But more than the myriad reasons I loved playing Back to Nature, the game has earned a special place in my heart because of the fact that my mom gave it to me as a gift for no other reason than I was her son and she wanted to make me happy. She didn’t need to do that, but she is a great lady, and I can’t thank her enough for that.
*Bonus Anecdote* Because of Harvest Moon I started a garden. I grow tomatoes. Shifty deer jump the fence and eat most of them.