Saturday, January 20, 2018

Once Upon a Pixel: Stardew Valley and the balance between magic and mundane.

I was going to wait on this one, but since I spent about seven hours playing this game the other day, I might as well tackle it now.

Lately I’ve been hooked on a game called Stardew Valley.  Stardew Valley is a farming/life simulator.  The idea is that you play a character that after getting tired of a life of corporate drudgery, inherits a farm from his or her grandfather.  The farm is in a place called Stardew Valley right outside of Pelican Town.  The farm is overgrown and it’s up to your character to clear it out and plant crops.  You can also fish, chop down trees, work in the mines, make friends with the locals (and eventually date and marry the single ones), cook, create artisan goods and raise animals.  All that basic, domestic, agrarian goodness.
And did I mention that there’s a wizard’s tower on the edge of the valley.? There are also little nature spirits living in the broken down old Community Center.  And there are monsters infesting the mines.  There are even rumors and evidence of dwarfs living in the mines. 

Yup.  Magic and fantasy exists in this game and no one seems too bothered by it.  And that’s why this game reminds me of fairy tales.

Fairy tales, like Stardew Valley involve magic but often find themselves most concerned with everyday problems.  The parents in “Tom Thumb” are concerned with the possibility of having a child.  Jack and his mother in “Jack and the Beanstalk” are worried about poverty and where their next meal is coming from.  “SnowWhite” and “Cinderella” are concerned with abusive family situations.  “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and “Bearskin” (among others) are both concerned with soldiers building some kind of life after a war has ended.  Don’t even get me started on all the ones that hinge on the idea of marriage.

If anything, the goals in Stardew Valley are even more tame than the ones in fairy tales.  Other than marriage, which is a common goal between both fairy tales and Stardew Valley.  Most of the goals in the game are things like planting and harvesting in keeping with the seasons.  Saving up enough materials and money to build new farm building.  Stuff like that.  But even that isn’t so far off from how fairy tales function.  The seasons and growing things are an issue.  The Tale of Tales had a story built on the changing of seasons called “The Twelve Months”.  I once read a French folk tale titled “The Wooden-Clog Maker and the King’s Daughter” in which one of the more miraculous, magical elements was a peach tree that bore fruit even in the winter (doesn’t seem like such a big deal today when we can get produce shipped from all over the world, but it’s a big deal in the story and it would be a big deal in Stardew Valley).
Fairy tales have kind of a strange double identity.  On one hand, they’re widely considered the hallmark of fanciful storytelling.  Someone saying “that’s just a fairy tale” usually means someone’s being unrealistic.  Yet, fairy tales are often the most grounded and relatable of all fantasy stories.  I mean, I’m sure there are relatable things in other fantasy genres.  Epic fantasy, for example, is about things like war and politics and I’m sure someone can relate to those things.  But fairy tales are about the things that happen between the war and the politics.  Things like getting married and planting crops and selling your cow and making sure you have enough food or money.

Fairy tales aren’t about the magic within the everyday or magic replacing the everyday.  They’re about magic existing alongside the everyday, like some kind of unusual neighbor.  All the while, the question of belief never even comes up.  It’s just not an issue.

I’m not quite sure I really managed to tease out a point here, but I think I may have at least provided some food for thought in regards to the unique qualities of fairy tales.  This relatability and groundedness might account for their continued staying power.  It might also be what makes Stardew Valley so damn addictive.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to harvest the crops and tend to the animals before the winter comes.

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