It's not often that I get the chance to go into a game blind. With a daily routine of cycling through gaming news outlets and checking in on the latest trailers, I've somewhat forgotten the feeling of selecting a game from the store shelves with no preconceptions beyond the artwork and screenshots on the box. I will never forget picking up a second hand copy of Baldur's Gate from Cash Converters, only because it came in a (blank) massive 6-CD sleeve. Or, spending three months' worth of pocket money on Dragon Quest VIII because I was enamoured by a vibrant cel-shaded art style, the likes of which I had never seen. It's sad, really, that the childish sense of mystery and discovery slowly gives way to expectation.
After spending significant time with some dense RPG's (completing Dark Souls II, Drakengard 3 and Final Fantasy XV back-to-back), I had hit somewhat of a plateau with games. Lacking the energy to commit to another massive RPG, or the attention span to stick with something shorter and sharper, I picked up some of my childhood favourite books (Robin Hobb's sensational series, which I highly recommend).
Getting lost in these worlds again has been an absolute delight. Returning to the first book's Buckkeep Castle took me straight back to the many nights spent as a primary (elementary) school student, staying up till midnight trying to push through a couple of more pages before my eyes gave up on me. Going back to these books felt like travelling through a portal to a more comfortable time - where bed-times were there to be subverted and truly 'living' in other realms was possible. But then something happened. I made it past the point at which my reading habit was thwarted by homework and school texts as a youngster. At book three, I was in uncharted territory. And it was glorious. These books were feeding a thirst for discovery that I had not known I had. A craving that video games had not sated for me in a long time. At the time of writing, I am up to book number ten in the series - with a growing fear that it must all come to an end soon.
I sit at one of many desks within a large, faceless company pondering these things. Just as games have become exercises in repetition and expectation, so too have my working days. I know that I will only receive a handful of calls today. I know that my company is losing money quickly due to a lack of market interest (I cannot blame them.) I know that my clients will ignore previous advice and ask me to solve the same problems that I have solving for them the past twelve-months. I dream, as I have for some time, of packing up and relocating to a more rural part of Australia. With acres of land, I would escape the hustle-and-bustle of metropolitan life to the intimacy of a smaller community. I dream of cattle, chooks and plots of vegetables that I would tend to each morning and night. If I am lucky (and manage to save enough), my property would back onto a body of water where I could fish to my heart's content. Though there will be things to work out along the way - like the matter of fostering a career that allows me to provide for my family and my partner's desire to be close to her family - this is my dream. A dream I am actively and currently working towards.
Having finished the ninth book of the aforementioned series just two nights ago, I decided to switch on the Playstation in search of inspiration. This was not the first time I had done this since finishing Final Fantasy XV a few weeks ago. Although my previous efforts had resulted scrolling through my library of games, deciding nothing piqued my interested and switching the console off. This time, I scrolled through the 'Deals' section of the Playstation Store and noticed a little game with a vibrant pixel-art logo for 40% off. Stardew Valley. Due to its explosion of popularity on Steam some time ago, I knew this was a farming game of some sort - but little more than that. On a whim, I decided to pick it up.
After creating my farmer whose favourite thing is (what else?) cows, the game's introduction cinematic begins. My bedridden grandpa is speaking to me. He hands me an envelope. A gift. Though I am not to open it yet, he says.
"There will come a time where you feel crushed by the burden of modern life", he tells me. "And your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness."
Fast-forward to my character sitting in his cubicle, amongst many others, staring at a screen that I know is filled with numbers and emails. Logos and branding permeate the office, just as they do from where I currently sit. I imagine his company, Joja, tells him that he is special. That he makes a difference. He looks at his screen in despair. Discontented with his sterile existence he opens a draw to find the letter imparted on him by his grandpa. My girlfriend, who had been tapping away on her thesis research proposal, looks over at me. She is concerned that the reality of Stardew Valley's premise has hit me hard. It has. She comes to sit down next to me and we open the letter left to us by grandpa. My face lights up. He has left me a farm.
The next thing we know, my character has packed up and is taking the bus down to Stardew Valley. Natural greens and brows rejuvenate following the greys of that all-too-real office. I hop off and walk down to my lot. The house is run-down and the property is littered with fallen branches, rocks and overgrown grass. It doesn't seem like much. Though, in a mark of community that often eludes metropolitan life, there are people waiting for my arrival. They welcome me and encourage me to make myself known in town. They look at my property and see potential, not poverty. With some hard work and perseverance, they tell me, I can turn this little plot into a thriving farm.
Taking their words to heart, I get started on clearing some land to plant radishes. Using a rusty old pickaxe, I start breaking down the rocks that litter the land. It's tiring work, but I persevere under the vision of a working farm. Satisfied with the rocks I have removed, I start chopping away at the logs and trees that litter the property. But before I get to tilling the soil, my farmer drops to the ground in exhaustion. City life has softened him, it appears.
Waking up in my bed the next day, I decide to plant my radish seeds and wander into town. I start chatting to the locals. Some welcome me with open arms, others worry about the things they have going on in their lives. The young people, in an all-to-real despondency that can emerge from growing up in a small town, seem distant and dissatisfied. Though they seem to want that which I am desperately trying to escape, I cannot blame them for chasing the fulfilment that seems to stem from attaining that which one does not have. I hope to get to know them better.
A kind man gives me an old fishing rod of his, in the hope of spreading the simple joy of fishing. I spend the rest of the day with a line in the water - pulling out sardines, seaweed and rubbish. Life is good. As the sun subsides and rain begins to fall, I pack up and head back into town. Light spills from the windows of the local bar and I duck in seeking shelter from the rain. Putting a coin in the jukebox, I introduce myself to more of the locals, play games on the arcade cabinet and bask in the ambient atmosphere. Life is good. After a few hours in the pub, I brave the rain and head home to my own bed.
Waking up the next morning, I continue the process of clearing the land, watering my budding crops and visiting town. I haven't been here long, but I'm already settling into a comfortable routine. The tranquillity of my surroundings and the sweat on my back bring a rewarding sense of peace that I have not known in some time. On the surface level, the notion of "routine" seems to contradict that fleeting sense of life's mystery. But it is the little unknowns that fall within this routine that I am looking forward to discovering. Who are these people around me and what makes them tick? Which crops am I going to plant in the summer? What lies at the bottom of the town's mine? And most importantly, what will I make of this big, little dream of mine?
Though I have only just arrived, Stardew Valley already feels like home.