I studied Stardew Valley as a digital games case study. Below are my field notes followed by the case study.
Session 1: Before Playing | 15-30 minutes
Each of these questions aims to get at a general notion, “what expectations (about this game) am I coming in with?” The goal in this reflection is not to test the accuracy of your predictions; rather, the goal is to identify and reflect upon the assumptions and biases you, as an observer, are bringing into the experience, as catalyzed by the games’ promotional material, introductory screen, any other descriptive or suggestive information.
Answer the Questions
With this in mind, respond to each of the following questions:
What will I like / dislike about it?
I tend to like simulation games, and the low res graphics give me positive nostalgia of playing old Nintendo games when I was younger. As a city dweller, I also daydream occasionally on especially loud and busy days about “getting away from it all”, so it looks like this game can fulfill that fantasy to some degree.
What will I find interesting about it/boring or tedious about it?
It looks easy to play and understand, I am curious to see what the gameplay mechanics are like that keep it interesting. I am also interested to see how they create conflict or if it is just a slow, relaxing game. Looking at the reviews/comments people seem to love it which is promising. The description explaining that I inherit a family farm also hints that there will likely be a strong narrative component.
What will I need to do in it?
The description on Steam says that I have inherited my grandfather’s farm and asks “can you learn to live off the land and turn these overgrown fields into a thriving home?” and uses the tags “farming sim” and “life sim” so I am guessing I will be building a farm and a life in this new town, growing and harvesting vegetables and trading. In the promotional image there are also two characters so there may be some kind of relationship building as well or perhaps I am managing multiple characters, or accumulate a party through a central character.
What will I need to learn within it?
I will need to learn how the world works in the game and what strategies I can use to build my farm and get the resources I need to succeed.
What will it be like / similar to (other games I have played)?
I have never played a farm simulation game before, but I have played games (long ago) like Age of Empires or Warcraft that require accumulating resources and building. I have also played the Sims where I need to direct a character through life, and have played RPGs like Red Dead Redemption where I explore a massive world and make choices that affect the character’s reputation and the outcome of the game. I think Stardew Valley will have elements from all these games in some configuration, an RPG-like building and simulation game.
At the end of your fieldnotes for session one, craft one or two sentences (no more) that, for you, summarize your expectations prior to playing, and what these expectations are based on. Include one image that catalyzed and/or supported your expectations.
In Stardew Valley I will inherit land and need to build it into a thriving farm by growing, harvesting, and trading resources.
Session 2: Solo Playthrough | 45 to 60 minutes
Play the game on your own: familiarize yourself with the controls, mechanics and interface; get an initial understanding of the game’s narrative and its aesthetic. Your goal is to “get a feel” for what it is asking from you, in terms of: inputs, emotion, and attention.
Note: If you use outside help at any point, make a note of that. The effort here is not to do anything “correctly”, but to diligently record whatever you do as you try to get a ‘handle’ on the game.
a) Descriptive Notes
Just write as you play — write anything descriptive, records of objectives, hints, fragments of ideas, anything. You may elect to write as you play (i.e. pausing the game) or right after you have completed a play session.
Try to get at least 60 minutes of play time.
- I loved the initial cutscenes, adorable and humorous. Immediately made me feel emotionally connected to the game and invested in my character. Also, the skeleton in the office cubicle was hilarious.
- The in depth character customization made me feel very connected to my character and excited to build their life.
- I have not played a game like this on PC in a very long time, took some practice to get used to the controls. I think I missed the instructions at the beginning where it explained right click to investigate objects so I only realized that after about 30 minutes of putzing around.
- I found it strange at first that I could not use the arrow keys to move my character.
- I found gameplay slow at first, but also addictive. In the end I played for 3 hours, since after 60 minutes I was just starting to get into it and figure out how to do things.
- It took me two hours to realize that I could chop down the big trees on my lot after I had harvested all the tiny logs, which was a major game-changer!
- I love all of the music and sound effects. The wood chopping and stone smashing sounds are extremely satisfying.
- There is a strange ghoulish sound that plays infrequently.
- I am a big fan of the little animations when interacting with objects, like how you can shake bushes and trees. I also love watching my character swing the tools.
- Chopping up multiple plants at once with the scythe is incredibly enjoyable.
- I found myself getting tunnel vision, going off on certain tangents or self-directed missions: obsessing over harvesting wood for 30 minutes here, exclusively focusing on clearing my land for 3 [in game] days there. The autonomy to choose how to spend your days in this way was enjoyable and immersive, I have not lost track of time like that in awhile and it was fun.
- The fishing gameplay mechanic is totally uncomfortable to me and I do not think I understand it still.
- I found myself drawn to foraging. Picking up vegetables and flowers was enjoyable.
- I still do not know how to use items on myself, like eat a vegetable, although I am sure it can be done since the descriptions say things like +Energy and +Health.
- The attention to detail in the game is really impressive to me, I expected a lot less. There are so many directions you can go with your character: side quests, crafting, interacting with the villagers, building your farm, ranching/livestock, upgrading tools. It is very stimulating and makes me want to keep playing to explore all these aspects of the game.
- The journal is an interesting way to present missions, but I am confused by a cutscene that seemed to suggest I should talk to Gunther about getting a key to explore the sewer. It never appeared in my journal, and after talking to Gunther multiple times, it seems there are no new interactions available.
b) Analytic Notes
After playing, consider your experience more holistically — What problems did it present me with? What options did it give me (to address those problems)? When and how does the game invoke gender, class, race, violence in ways that might be problematic? What about learning? Does anything stand out as a ‘defining’ or ‘unique’ feature of the game?
Identity and class are central to Stardew Valley, you are ultimately a property owner working to build wealth. You inherit land, which shows that your character is privileged by intergenerational wealth, coming from a lineage of property ownership which eventually allowed your parents to move to the city and you to get your previous office job. While your character has little money at first, you work hard to improve your socioeconomic status. In a sense this becomes a story of meritocracy and social-mobility, important cultural stories of hegemonic capitalist societies. The central questions you must answer through your choices as a player are “who will I become?”, but moreso “how can I get more property or improve my property?” as you build and sell your way to success. From this perspective, Stardew Valley could be interpreted as a hegemonic narrative, but the game also subverts other dominant narratives as you cast aside your corporate job and move to the country.
In the end it is up to you how you live with the tension of the capitalistic world you inhabit and direct your choices accordingly; you may live a simple life and spend your days fishing and bonding with Willy, or dedicate your time to building up a profitable and industrious farm. Maybe this is one of the charms of the game, these are choices we all make these days to some degree.
I did not get far enough in the game to see if my character was exclusively allowed to have heterosexual relationships, but I noticed that it did tell me characters of the opposite sex that were single, so I imagine there is some heteronormativity at play. In terms of gender, in the initial character customization you only have gender binary options, selecting either to be a man or a woman. This is problematic that there is no intersex option. Race in the town is also homogenous, with one token darker skinned couple.
c) Affective Notes
Playing and analyzing games are subjective activities — as you played, you were likely: engaged, irritated, startled, sympathetic, angry, bored, etc. Identify the affective responses you had while playing, and do your best to account for the in-game circumstances that gave rise to them (i.e. where, when, intensity, etc.) Don’t worry about being exhaustive, just mention what you think matters.
- The initial cutscenes and character customization set the stage for me to feel emotionally connected to the game and my character.
- The overall sound design made me feel engaged and excited, particularly the sound effects when interacting with objects.
- The music set an aspirational and hopeful mood which reinforced the gameplay and made me want to keep playing.
- I got bored of continually going through some of the smaller passageway maps in the game that offered little opportunity for foraging or interacting and created little visual interest.
- I was frustrated by fishing and had little luck with that aspect of the gameplay and subsequently avoided it.
- I felt intrigued and curious about the mysterious parts of the map, I was motivated to keep playing by the possibility of uncovering new aspects of the game.
- Some in-game days felt mundane and tedious when nothing seemed to happen and no new missions or problems were introduced. I would just chop wood and go to sleep.
- I was excited by learning about elements of the game like crafting or when other NPCs would share useful clues with me, for example the blueprints for building a furnace.
- The combination of finite in-game days, time, and the depleting energy bar created a feeling of urgency for each day which kept the game moving along.
- Upcoming events on the calendar motivated me to keep going to see what would happen.
At the end of your fieldnotes for session two, craft one or two sentences (no more) that, for you, summarize your experiences of learning this new game, and what specific elements/skills/etc., based on your experience of solo play, to be the most important in getting a ‘handle’ on the game. Include at least one image that demonstrated this/these crucial game elements/skills/characteristics.
Stardew Valley is a game where you choose how to spend your time in order to gain resources and improve your life and farm while also building relationships and completing missions in your journal.
Session 3: Video observation | 45 to 60 minutes
Watch an online video of your game, either via live-streaming (Twitch.tv) or conventional video (YouTube). Get a sense of how an expert plays that game: see how they understand and react to the game and how that differs from YOUR playthrough; see what it is like to watch the game not just as a viewer, but as a mass media spectator. Again, organize your account into three kinds of notes.
I watched the first hour of Gab Smolders playing Stardew Valley.
a) Descriptive Notes
Document what the player is doing, paying attention to, ignoring, prioritizing, but also what they are talking about (i.e. what they verbally frame as important during the playthrough). Make notes of what the player is paying attention to, prioritizing, and/or ignoring and if and how that is different from your play.
- Player notices the sound effects and seems to enjoys them. This is similar to my experience, I love the sounds.
- Player notices that seeds must be planted within range. Smolders realized this much faster than me, but it appears that she is also getting suggestions throughout the stream from viewers.
- Player focuses on gardening/farming from the beginning, this is different from my strategy of first breaking stones and logs to sell.
- Player notices journal and sees missions similarly to my session.
- Player notes “so many things” to pay attention to, referring to energy bar. This is similar to how I was impressed by everything simultaneously going on in the game world.
- Player wants to interact with and talk to all the villagers. I did not focus on this at first.
- Plays “prairie king” mini-game at the saloon. I did this as well, I was impressed by the detail that they made this game playable.
- Notes how fast the day has gone by and that it is getting dark.
- “The music’s nice”. I also enjoyed the music and found it created a motivational mood and reinforced the gameplay well.
- Waters all of the plants each day similarly to me.
- Player notes how hard fishing is at first. Later, she exclaims “god I need to focus so hard” on fishing. I was sufficiently annoyed by fishing that I stopped doing it entirely, however Gab Smolders experienced some success and continued to fish throughout her session.
- Exclaims disappointment and frustration at inventory being full
- Expresses disappointment at the cost of buying the backpack upgrade. Interestingly, she did not get the backpack upgrade and instead crafted a chest to store her items in. In my session, my strategy was to sell more resources until I had the money for the upgrade.
- Chopped down big trees much sooner than I did, took me longer to realize I could do that.
- Player understood crafting much faster than me. I wonder if this is because she knew to chop down trees faster and so had an abundance of wood?
- “What are the sounds?” Gab Smolders also comments on the weird ghoulish background sound that is occasionally heard.
- Player did not sell anything until 43 minutes in, this is very different from me as I was selling materials from the first day.
b) Analytic Notes
Review your descriptive notes and consider the problems the player encountered and the strategies/ solutions that they enacted. Furthermore, consider how the player navigated/commented on issues/ structures of race, gender, class, and violence. What did you notice about the game when you watched, as opposed to when you played? Hold off on making any big conclusions for now.
Gab Smolders chose to focus more on growing, harvesting and interacting with NPCs in her first hour of the game than I did. This led her to make different early decisions regarding inventory space and crafting. It also shows that she saw the main problem of the game differently than I did. While I focused on accumulating money mostly through selling wood and minerals, Smolders paid attention to gathering a variety of resources.
The player did not comment on any issues of race, gender, class or violence.
My experience watching rather than playing was very different, I noticed how Smolders’ attention and focus were on different problems and her solutions were also different to similar problems faced, such as fishing. This emphasized the richness of the game world, it can be played and explored in a wide variety of ways and also highlighted that social interaction and community around the game is possible.
c) Affective Notes
What affective responses did you observe the player having while playing? What evidence did you have of their affective response/s? What did they choose to focus on? How were they different from responses and focus/foci you had? Pay specific attention to instances where you were surprised by something the player said or did. And if possible, reflect on how affective responses impacted the ‘learning’ or ‘engagement’ you think can be recognized and documented from this observed play session.
A few affective moments stood out to me:
- The player expressed enjoyment verbally and by smiling while wood chopping
- The player verbally expressed enjoyment of the music
- The player expressed verbal frustration at the limited space in her inventory
- The player expressed verbal frustration at how difficult fishing was at first
- The player expressed disappointment at the cost of the backpack upgrade
Pleasing music sets an overall mood and helps to take the player into the game world. Sound effects and animations help to make interactions feel more real and enjoyable, motivating players to explore and interact with objects.
Some of these affective moments were responses to problems or activities in the game and can be linked to the decisions that the player made next. For example, the player was motivated to learn how to fish or the player decided to build a storage chest to address limited inventory space and not wanting to pay for the backpack upgrade.
At the end of your fieldnotes for session three, craft one or two sentences (no more) that, for you, summarize your observations of a more skilled player playing this game. Include one image that supports your conclusions.
There are a variety of ways to play and move forward in Stardew Valley.
The final “bridge” is to put all that together in an analytical and summative “case study” of the game that should be no more than 1000 words. Make sure you make careful and direct connections to both Bogost and Taylor.
Stardew Valley (SV) is a third-person farming simulation game. To study the game, I first noted my preliminary assumptions and expectations, then played a session of the game, and finally observed a Youtube video of a previous livestream of Gab Smolders playing SV. The following case study examines my experiences and observations.
Initially, I anticipated an 8-bit “The Sims”-like game set in a farm environment. To some small degree, this does describe the game but actual gameplay has more classic RPG elements such as the missions found in the journal, other informal mysteries to solve, areas to uncover on the world map. SV also differs from my schema of The Sims with more of a focus on acquiring and growing a range of resources and building, crafting, and selling.
A new game of SV starts with a fairly thorough character customization, followed by an extensive cutscene providing your character’s backstory: your grandfather has left you the family farm in idyllic Stardew Valley, and it is your ticket out of your soulless corporate work. The introduction’s cutscene can be thought of as a vignette, “a brief, indefinite, evocative description or account of a person or situation” (Bogost, 2011, p. 23), and sets the tone for the game.
After constructing my character and watching the introduction, I was emotionally primed to play and began a three hour journey into SV’s world. I focused largely on mining minerals and chopping wood at first, selling resources for money while interacting with villagers and foraging here and there. My early focus on resource extraction can be at least partly attributed to the satisfying sound design and animations SV uses to create pleasing interactions with in-game objects. In my observations, Smolders also expressed pleasure in chopping wood, the game’s sound effects and music. SV’s audiovisual presentation and storylines exude kitschiness, “urging overt sentimentality, focused on the overt application of convention, without particular originality” (Bogost, 2011, p. 83). Ultimately, the mundane kitsch fantasy of SV’s world is what makes it so charming and engaging; the hero character and tasks are mundane enough to be relatable, but different enough to be pleasurable, interesting, and even relaxing. In fact, the title of Gab Smolders’ Youtube video is “Time to Relax – Stardew Valley”. This relaxed engagement is similar to Harvest Moon, described by Bogost (2011):
The daily reaping, milking, chicken lifting, and related chores require precision, duty, and calm. Crop watering is my pick for the most calming act, especially on the Gameboy or DS where the tile-based graphics more explicitly frame which square is which. Harvest Moon emphasizes the repetition of simple tasks as much as, if not more than, their outcomes (p. 93).
The continuous slow paced movement of the game world is why I can theoretically imagine myself endlessly playing SV, I do not even know if there is an ending to the game, much less care to achieve it. Part of the joy of SV’s gameplay is repetition of simple actions. These habituated actions motivate players to keep going and make it catchy (Bogost, 2011).
Bogost uses the term catchiness (2011, p. 133) rather than addictive to describe games that keep us coming back for more. To me, SV was a surprisingly catchy game and this can be partly attributed to how it habituates players to the game world, “finding receptors for familiar mechanics and tuning them slightly differently, so as to make those receptors resonate in a gratifyingly familiar way” (Bogost, 2011, p. 133). Bogost explains that “habituation builds on prior conventions” (2011, p. 127) and SV does this: after inviting players in through familiar imagery and tropes of urban and rural life, they are put to work building an in-game life and routine. While I struggled with the controls at first, this did not matter since it was easy enough to figure out the mechanics and navigation, and I was sufficiently motivated by the game to make that effort since the controls were similar to my pre-existing mental models. This is similar to how Bogost (2011) remarks that “mechanical simplicity is less important than conceptual familiarity” ( p. 128), and the game is conceptually familiar enough to me that it is both comfortable yet exciting.
A downside of SV’s use of kitsch and conventions is that it presents a largely homogenous light skinned, cis-gendered, and heteronormative world. Those hoping to create a non-binary character for example will be disappointed to see that they can only choose male or female options in the character customization dashboard. Such affordances demonstrate how the game reflects the broader society in which it was designed and developed. Nevertheless, players find their own ways to interact and engage with the game and form community, emphasized to me through watching another person play the game. It is in these spaces of user generated content and relationships built around SV that the greatest potentiality exists, where players can ”create authentic meaning, make social connections, and can enact real transformations”(Taylor, 2018, p.262).
Upon examining Smolders’ session, it is clear that SV is enjoyable not only to play, but also to watch. Notably, observing Smolders highlights the generative and social possibilities for the game which I failed to identify in my solo play. How much of this is due to Smolders’ existing audience of over 650,0000, her personality and way of performative play and interaction with her audience is unclear, but it is evident that she had an engaged audience interacting with her as she played. Even without live interaction, the “Time to Relax – Stardew Valley” video has over 600,000 views, indicating that there is a networked audience (Taylor, 2018) for the game consuming and engaging with content related to it. My experience was that watching Smolders play was very interesting to me as a player to see the choices she made, and I learned from watching her in a way that was both aspirational, educational, and entertaining (Taylor, 2018, pp. 39-40).
Taylor, T.L. (2018). Watch me play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming. Princeton: Princeton University Press.