Haunted Chocolatier preview shows ConcernedApe’s evolving style

Haunted Chocolatier evolving style of Eric Barone

They grow up so fast

Stardew Valley is one of my most-played games of all time, so when I heard a few years ago that its creator, Eric Barone — or as the fans know him, ConcernedApe — was working on a new project, I was over the moon. Now that we’ve had an official preview of the game, that anticipation has increased tenfold. After hearing about the hell he went through to create his first game, a feat he accomplished all on his own, I was pleasantly surprised to hear he was ready to go another round with Haunted Chocolatier.

Stardew itself is obviously a great game, but one of the things I find most interesting about the buzz surrounding it is this mythos that fans have attached to Barone. This is likely because he’s done quite a few things to endear us to him.

For one, creating the art, music, code, and everything else you could imagine for one game is insanely impressive, and something only a few have managed to do themselves. I like to think that this alone bolstered him a lot of respect.

Walking outside the bakery in Haunted Chocolatier

Then in Jason Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, which chronicles the behind-the-scenes happenings in various games’ development, he devoted an entire chapter to how Stardew Valley was made. This gave the already cult-like following that Stardew had a greater insight into the passion that Barone brought to every aspect of the game’s creation, and it just snowballed from there.

After Stardew blew up, I wouldn’t be surprised if Barone let it get to his head, which is something that can happen to spotlighted creators in the games industry.

But from everything I’ve seen, he’s remained super humble and cares that issues with the game are taken care of. On more than one occasion, he’s been known to fix a bug that a fan has brought up to him on Twitter within two hours (which is in part because he’s a one-man development team, but it’s amazing that he does it all the same).

An invitation from Lily

Something else that I think is unique about the situation Barone is in is that his socials are not some faceless marketing account that’s completely detached from development — instead, he can tell us firsthand how it’s going, what he did to fix a bug, etc. This level of one-on-one interaction isn’t something many developers can achieve. If he’s just one guy, we can talk to the artists, the composers, the programmers, and the director all at once.

He can also see what the community is talking about, and what changes they might want, and implement them himself without all the red tape. I bet, too, that because he pays such close attention to how Stardew Valley is received and talked about, he’ll have a good sense of how to make Haunted Chocolatier even more refined than Stardew right off the bat.

Recipes for a chocolate bar and simple truffle in Haunted Chocolatier

So personally, I’m really rooting for Barone. He seems like a genuinely kind person who wants to make games because he loves them. If you need any more convincing, just go take a look at how wholesome the Stardew Valley subreddit is. All of this is basically just to say that while I am super excited to get a whole new game from Barone, I’m equally as excited to see how his development skills have improved over the past decade or so.

From a side-by-side comparison of screenshots from Stardew Valley versus Haunted Chocolatier, we can already see a difference in how polished the visuals are, let alone how it will feel to play. Something else I think is cool is how we can still see Barone’s style, even with a whole new game. Of course Haunted Chocolatier looks quite different from Stardew (I for one am very interested to see a more urban setting), but through all of the new bells and whistles, we can see the fundamental components of Barone’s signature style.

It’s familiar, yet novel at the same time.

New NPCs meeting at a bar

Stardew is already a game that has an intricate set of mechanics and systems, and they work so well together that players can enjoy the experience for hundreds of hours. From the looks of it, Haunted Chocolatier has plenty of staples from Stardew‘s design that we love, like gift-giving and foraging, for example, so I can imagine that the implementation of new mechanics on top of what already works will only heighten the experience.

So many of the choices developers make in big franchises that make us go, “why would they keep implementing this same awful design choice year after year,” is usually because there are way too many cooks in the kitchen.

Barone’s severing of ties with publisher Chucklefish tells us that he’s not willing to compromise on what he wants for the game, which only gives me hope that he’s dedicated to making the game as fun as possible, without any other ulterior motives.

A fire lookout tower in Haunted Chocolatier

Because developing games is such a collaborative experience, this is such a rare opportunity to continue seeing one man’s impact on the games industry. Watching the trailer for Haunted Chocolatier feels so nostalgic and yet so refreshing at the same time, and the cynic in me wonders if something like this would be possible at a studio of any decent size.

Stardew Valley will forever be a classic, but there’s something refined about Haunted Chocolatier that I find intriguing. It has style, it has atmosphere, and it feels like it has a newfound maturity. Barone knocked it out of the park with a lighter, more wholesome feel, so his take on the darker, haunted aesthetic is one I look forward to.

Noelle Warner