Ludus Novus 030 – Transcendentalism, Gentrification, and the Procedural Rhetoric of Stardew Valley (Transcript)

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.

There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness. When that happens, you’ll be ready to go to the woods and live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if you cannot learn what it has to teach and not, when you come to die, discover you have not lived.

Ludus Novus, Episode 030: Transcendentalism, Gentrification and the Procedural Rhetoric of Stardew Valley

Hello! Welcome to Ludus Novus, the podcast dedicated to the art of interaction. I’m Gregory Avery-Weir. Games offer experiences, that’s what they do. And in offering experiences they portray a perspective. Stardew Valley, a 2016 game by Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone, has you embodying a young person who quits their corporate job and inherits their grandfather’s farm. You live off the land and befriend and romance inhabitants of the nearby town, Stardew Valley.

If you look at the story and the aesthetics of Stardew Valley, it’s environmentalist, it’s anticapitalist, and it’s humanist in the sense that it considers, humans and people important. JoJoMart is the villainous corporation that both contributes to your sense of ennui that leads you to go to the town and also seems to be trying to control the town. You care for the land in the game. You cultivate it. The environment is portrayed as beautiful. You end up with a universally pansexual spouse by spending time with them, by understanding who they are and what they like, and by learning about their life.

But there’s more to a game than just story and aesthetics. In recent episodes, I’ve talked about my working lens for thinking about games: that they are interactive simulations with implicit or explicit goals.

In the past couple of episodes I’ve covered the interaction part and the goals part but let’s talk about the simulation. In his book Persuasive Games, video game developer and academic Ian Bogost writes: “meaning in videogames is constructed not through a re-creation of the world, but through selectively modeling appropriate elements of that world. Procedural representation models only some subset of a source system, in order to draw attention to that portion as the subject of the representation.”

So what he’s saying is: video games’ meaning doesn’t only exist in how they imitate the world, but what parts of the world they choose to imitate. So you can’t create a perfect simulation of the world. That’s… there’s fundamental rules of physics that say that it’s impossible, and especially with limited resources, and the length of the human lifetime, you have to pick and choose what parts of the system you’re going to simulate. Even if it’s a fictional system. Even if you’re doing Tetris, which is– takes place in some weird mystical block world.

You have to pick what things you’re going to represent and the choices that you make as to what is going to be represented in the simulation make it clear what the focus of your rhetoric is. Your argument. The perspective that a game has, as demonstrated by what it focuses on and represents in its simulation and how it does so, makes an argument about the way that that game portrays the world.

So a common criticism of games with the romance, like Stardew Valley, is that they just have you seek romance points to earn love. Right? You do certain things that somehow increase a meter and that… that doesn’t really represent the complexity of real romance, of real love. But that’s an aesthetic or a narrative criticism, really. It’s an argument that it didn’t feel enough like those points you are earning meant something. It’s not a procedural or mechanical criticism.

Everything in a game can be thought of as points. The way that simulations work is they take a set of gauges, they take a set of values, fuzzy or not, and use that to track state. There’s no way to make a game which simulates romance and not have it track it as some sort of number or collection of numbers. Everything in the game is either points or aesthetics and story. The issue is what the points represent in your story.

So in Stardew Valley, you can become friends with anyone, not just romantic interests. And the same rules govern both. So that has a good synergy between the story and the simulation where in order to be a romantic partner to someone you have to also be their friend. Talking to people does get you relationship points. If you talk to someone every day, your relationship will increase, but you can increase it faster by giving gifts. You’d have to talk to someone every day for 125 days straight to marry them in Stardew Valley. Using its calendar, that’s over a year of talking to someone every single day and using gifts would make that happen a lot quicker.

So we can see that, while Stardew Valley takes steps towards making its romance mechanics and romance simulation better reflect healthy relationships, it’s still, at its base, a situation where you’re giving people gifts in order to make them love you. And this sort of good-but-flawed simulation where the rules are just a little too simple to support what the, the feel of the game is going for, shows up in a bunch of places.

Writer, artist, and programmer, Gersande Le Flèche wrote a piece called “The gentleman farmer, labour and land” where they point out that Stardew shows an idyllic world where you get the romanticism of artisanal agriculture, using hand tools — no machines — without really looking at the realities of agricultural waste or animal welfare beyond whether they love you. Or, you know, transportation, how you get your products from one place to another. And those are the exact things that complicate farming under capitalism. That is what makes companies like Jojo Mart such an influential force on modern agriculture is because those economies of scale and those ethical considerations that the corporations tend to be more flexible on than a rando who inherits a farm from their grandfather.

Likewise, game designer, critic, and ethnographer Mattie Bryce says in her piece “My First Year in Stardew Valley” that Stardew feels like a “gentrification fantasy.” I mean, she loves games like Stardew Valley, but she sees this weird troubling contradiction in them. This is a relaxing game about befriending people where what you actually do is follow labor routines like clockwork. Do the same thing over and over as efficiently as you can, and bribe a bunch of depressed folks to like you.

On the other hand, there’s certainly viewpoints in which Stardew Valley does an amazing job. Writer and philosopher Brett Keegan has a piece called “Stardew Valley, Sorge, and Martin Heidegger” where he says that Stardew Valley portrays you as integrated with the community and with nature. You care for the town by restoring the community center and befriending people; you’re “entangled with the valley itself, its lands and moods” thanks to the importance of seasons, the weather, the landscape.

But like Bogost talks about with procedural rhetoric, it chooses what elements to represent and what elements it chooses, reflect a viewpoint and a perspective on how the game works, and about how the story relates to that simulation.

“Walden: a game” is a work by Tracy Fullerton and a bunch of other people, as part of the USC game Innovation Lab, which is a game retelling of Henry D. Thoreau’s “Walden; or, life in the woods,” that beloved work of Transcendentalism. It simulates food, fuel, exhaustion, and inspiration. It simulates the plants and animals that existed in those woods at the time at which the book was initially drafted. And it even, like, models the star patterns that were present at the time as compared to our modern time, even even though there’s only a slight difference.

Walden requires you to interact with nature and be in harmony with it in order to play. I mean, if you don’t spend enough time contemplating nature, you literally lose inspiration. The world goes colorless. You have to look at the trees and the lake in order to play the game smoothly.

But it’s also based on the life of Thoreau. And as sacrilegious as it is for I, who was raised Unitarian Universalist, to say this: Thoreau was a jerk. The extreme self-reliance fantasy that we see in Stardew Valley, the idea of living off your land and earning your living by the labor of your hands only, that’s a classic Transcendentalist concept.

But Thoreau had his adventure on land that was owned by his mentor and acquired from the Nipmuc people sometime after most of them were killed by smallpox and sometime before they were banished to Deer Island to starve and freeze to death. His more recent predecessors and neighbors there were, by his own description, former slaves, outcasts, and people so poor that they had to farm the sandy soil of the area. They couldn’t afford to live anywhere better, unlike Thoreau who, you know, had a mentor who let him use that land for fun.

As journalist and writer Kathryn Schulz notes in “Pond Scum,” a polemical piece that she wrote for The New Yorker, “For Thoreau… his fellow humans had the same moral status as doormats.” Which, like many things, you know, he hated. He despises the rich, the poor, the lazy, and people who work for a living. He romanticizes isolation and self sufficiency but he was literally 20 minutes’ walk from his mentor’s house. He had food brought to him weekly on visits for his sisters and his mother and his mom did his laundry for him while he was living self sufficiently and reliantly out in the woods.

And to its credit, “Walden, a game” does a great job of exploring this, this weird paradox. One of the first things you do in the game is to visit your mentor to borrow an axe. And when you do so, he asks, “Hey, I think you borrowed my copy of The Iliad and left it in the woods… could you track that down and bring that back to me?” And so “Walden, a game” both explores the laudable goal of living in harmony with the world and living deliberately and examining nature closely and also examines the weird paradoxical aspects of Thoreau hanging out in the woods.

So where does this leave Stardew Valley? Does Stardew Valley have the same sort of awareness and care about how it depicts this pastoral fantasy? Does it portray caring for the land positively and exploiting the community negatively? What does it represent with its simulation that shows what its perspective is and what it’s trying to argue?

So if we look at it, it’s a game where you totally can live in community and harmony with the townsfolk and the natural world, and you’ll flourish if you do so. But if you don’t do that, there’s no downside at all. You don’t even need to eat. If you don’t work, you’ll be fine. You can just hang out. The only time you actually need to eat is if you get too tired.

Stardew Valley shows a world with no downside to taking a day off. You can’t get sick; you don’t have to pay rent. If you clearcut the forest, cutting down every tree, the trees will be back in a few weeks. You don’t even have to plant seeds. Townsfolk will ask you for a cauliflower in mid-spring and they totally don’t mind if you wait all the way until winter to give it to them; they’re just really excited about making that curry.

But this doesn’t seem like the way that you’re meant to play the game. Why does it matter this is something that is possible in the game?

Well, in his piece “The Stanley Parable, Dark Souls, and Intended Play,” Dan Olson of Folding Ideas says, “What a game intends for you to do includes not only the things the fiction of the game tells you to do, but also the broader thing the game permits you to do.”

In that piece he’s exploring authored consequences of actions, story that comes out as a result of doing things, but you can also adapt it to the designer’s decision not to offer a consequence to an action. Stardew Valley chooses not to simulate parts of its world that don’t support its narrative of this dream life of farming.

The truth is: farming is a dangerous, risky job. One of the most risky jobs you can have, but to represent that would undermine this romanticization of pastoral life. Settling and cultivating land in modern times is really hard to do in a way that’s responsible, that protects the surrounding environment. But that’s not really a challenge that Stardew Valley is interested in portraying. And the capital that’s required to start a farm and the consequences of a bad crop? Those are a lot bigger when you don’t inherit land and when you buy seed on credit.

So this makes Stardew Valley a much more pleasant game to play and makes it more fun, but it means that its procedural rhetoric is akin to Thoreau’s arguments in the original book “Walden.” It presents this idea of easy, harmonious self sufficiency, while totally disregarding the complexities of our interrelated world or the experience of those who have to be self sufficient because they need to instead of because they choose to go off and leave their existing life because it’s not pleasant enough.

So I love playing Stardew Valley. But as far as an argument for that way of life, it falls flat because it’s unrealistic. It’s the vision of a simulation that doesn’t take into account the downsides of that world. And so it’s a pleasant escapist fantasy. But as far as how it makes an argument and shows a perspective with its rhetoric, it’s like being proud of spending a year in the woods alone in the house you built yourself when your mom is still doing your laundry.

This has been Ludus Novus. I’m Gregory Avery-Weir. I’m part of Future Proof Games, which you should check out at and the show is supported by my Patreon, which you can visit at …and please do. You can also check out my other podcasts, Audacious Compassion and the Future Proof Podcast, both of which you can find in whatever pod reader you use. If you’re listening to this in audio form, I’ll remind you that I’ve got YouTube videos that add visual aids to the last few episodes. And that’s something that’s been fun and it’s something I think I’ll keep doing but rest assured that if you just want to keep listening to the mp3s, you won’t miss anything vital.

The theme music for Ludus Novus is “A Foolish Game (Vox Harmony Adds)” by Snowflake, Admiral Bob, and Sackjo22, available on ccMixter under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Talk you later!

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