It happened: I finally heard those familiar notes of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” floating around, so that must mean that the winter holiday season has finally started. Amidst the constant reminders of such-and-such shopping days until Christmas, I would be remiss if I didn’t do a little shilling myself. To be fair, though, this shilling is a long time coming.
One of the largest breakout hits of the year was Stardew Valley, a love letter to farming sims everywhere developed by one person, ConcernedApe, over the course of four years. Stardew Valley offers its players a true choice to approach the game however they want, and while there is a very loose main plot, you don’t really have to follow it if you don’t want to. If you want to spend your time chilling in the mines, you can do that. If you want to actually use your farm for farming things, you can do that, too. You can also choose to pursue a significant other in a way that isn’t limited by the typical heteronormativity of most dating mechanics. There are lots of ways in which Stardew Valley really shines in the farm sim genre, and one of the ways I wasn’t expecting was how it approaches the idea of community as aided by the valley’s supernatural inhabitants.
The Junimos (small Jell-O-like creatures) in Stardew Valley silently stand back and watch the town, gently guiding the player character through the main plot of restoring the town’s community center should the player choose to help them. Thinking about it a little, these cute creatures reminded me of the Harvest Sprites from the Harvest Moon series. While much more proactive and full of personality, these creatures, too, set the player on the path to saving the land, waking up the Harvest Goddess, or whatever else the plot needs you to do. Yet their main goals and how they intertwine with the mortals they watch over—especially through the player character who can actually talk to them—differ in ways that raises the question: does nature itself nurture and shape a community, or does a community shape the nature around them?
In terms of comparing the Harvest Goddess and her sprites to the Junimos, again I’ll be looking at the Animal Parade installment of Harvest Moon. Upon their arrival in Harmonica Town, the player finds the land in complete disarray: fires don’t burn hot, the soil is too poor to grow much of anything at all, the wind doesn’t blow, and so forth. However, the player has also arrived with a spiritual guide of sorts—the baby Harvest Sprite, Fin—who tells the player they need to speak with the Harvest Goddess ASAP. Upon doing so, she explains that the divine tree has withered away and to bring it back to life, the player must ring five bells that will stoke the power of nature once more. You would think that the people of Harmonica Town would know about this deal with the bells; however, their dwindling belief in the Harvest Goddess leads them to stop believing in themselves and their power as a community. People in Harmonica Town don’t necessarily get along with each other, and even some of the buildings and passageways between various parts of town are derelict and impassable.
It would not be incorrect to say that in most iterations of Harvest Moon, the Harvest Goddess is seen as a religious figure, surprisingly closer to Christian ideals than more nature-based religions. This is especially reflected in how Harmonica Town’s people literally cannot do anything to make the land around them more inhabitable—nature is beyond their control even in ways where they should have said control (i.e.: fertilizing the land to make it more suitable for crops). As such, Animal Parade’s sprites and Goddess show a land where nature influences its community. As Fin and the other sprites regain their power, more people move to Harmonica Town, paths are cleared, and the disposition of the townsfolk improves overall. If nature had been left on its own, the community would have surely withered.
Comparatively, the player’s meeting with the Junimos in Stardew Valley seems a little less… dire. The player isn’t met with a failing land and an exhausted community when arriving in Pelican Town. It’s pretty normal, actually; people are afraid they won’t be able to preserve their rural community in the face of modernity, but no one is literally afraid of dying. Players know both of the local market and the cheaper alternative, the big box corporation Jojamart, which has recently opened a branch in the small town. It’s right around then the player comes across the abandoned community center, now home to the small Junimos. These creatures make no claim to divinity, and only introduce themselves as keepers of the forest. In return for giving them gifts from the land (crops, fish, etc.), the Junimos use their supernatural powers to improve the community. By your efforts and their magic, the town’s bus is repaired, the minecarts begin working again, and a boulder is even demolished so that tiny gems can be found in the lake.
As opposed to the semi-religious, mystical undertones of Animal Parade, the fate of Pelican Town lies completely in the player’s hands. While you have the option to strengthen the community (and strengthen the Junimos in turn), you also have the option to go about it from another angle. By selling the community center to Jojamart, you’re still able to achieve the same goals re: bus repair and such, but the community center is lost for good and becomes a warehouse instead. If this path is chosen, the Junimos do not return. The game itself doesn’t paint either choice in a drastically better light, but it’s certainly implied that while modernity can be a simple solution, the impact it has on nature and smaller communities can be detrimental in the long run. Losing the community center for good adds this feeling of finality that the true spirit of the Valley has been lost for good, and that nature may very well follow suit—I mean, who needs to farm when you can just buy produce from other places, and who needs to support small businesses when you can get things for cheaper at big chain stores?
Both the Junimos and the Harvest Sprites want to bring life back into their respective towns, although for different reasons. The life in Harmonica Town is a literal sense of life. The town and the land is dying, and only by fixing the land itself can the town begin to heal. Meanwhile, Pelican Town’s death is a very slow and long death of indifference. The town will survive no matter what you do, but the community and what it stands for will begin to die as people start to forget what the community once was, and as that happens, the land, too, will begin to change into something the Junimos no longer recognize and can no longer live in. Both are interesting perspectives from which to view the relationship between humans and nature, and both can be taken as their own spiritual/religious journeys (especially since the player is the only one who can ever see these mystical creatures). So, as the nature around us heads deeper into its yearly slumber, maybe it’s time to step back and take a look at our own communities to see what we can do to help them thrive—maybe not by doing something so fantastical as talking to magical creatures and doing what they ask, but by seeing what’s hurting and doing our best to soothe the ache.