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?
Story of Seasons, the most recent localized release of the Harvest Moon series as envisioned by Marvelous Entertainment, is a game that hooked me in for a long while. I wouldn’t exactly call this game and the other games in the series progressive, and I certainly don’t purchase it for any other reason than fun farming times. Yet, for a series that seems to try its best to stay away from anything too, perhaps, “controversial”, I find it interesting that in SoS they reintroduced a character type that could be seen as stereotypical and offensive, at least from my Western perspective. While the characters of Animal Parade’s Julius and SoS’s Marian present a potential conversation about non-binary gender identity and how they interact with the small, rural farming town they’re a part of, this is something that is never exactly discussed. Certainly, this can be seen as a positive thing–that no one treats them any differently because of how they choose to express themselves. In some ways, that’s probably even true, but much of the conflict here is simply untranslatable to mass marketable Western audiences, and in this case, that may be okay.
Speaking as someone who admittedly doesn’t know all the nuances of gender identity and LGBTQ+ life in Japan, there will be some things I mess up on. As such, take my analysis with a grain of salt. If you, yourself, have more experience with these topics, please feel free to chime in!
As I further put off playing games that I should be trying to review for this blog and instead play games that I’ve beaten roughly a quadrillion times, I find myself coming back to one game in particular. Rather, one series. Harvest Moon has been one of my favorite titles in video games for a while now, and while there are several other virtual farming sims mixed with dating sims now on the market, none have had the same charm as this particular series. However, in the tone of this blog, I wouldn’t necessarily call the series feminist in and of itself; I would be willing to give it feminist-friendly, on the other-hand. What’s the difference? It’s the difference between an actual, conscious effort being put into a game’s female characters to make them well-rounded, and that result merely being coincidental. Now, this point is purely subjective, so we could argue it until the cows come home, however this article is not about me arguing this point (we can do that in the comments if you really feel that passionate about it). It’s about me celebrating my favorite game in the series and the diversity in in characters.
Out of all the Harvest Moon games, the one that has kept my interest the longest—indeed, I’m still playing it to this very day—is Animal Parade. In this game, the player character starts a farm in Harmonica Town (which is not ideal for farming at first) and is tasked with completing several objectives to ring a set of magical bells and bring back the Harvest King. While the plot isn’t the important part of the game—although by doing it, you do open up different areas—what is important are the characters you meet, become friends with, and maybe even marry.