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?