Game-Design TBLT Review: Stardew Valley

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That’s some quality ideational feedback there.

Introduction

I first started playing Stardew Valley in July of 2017. It has been on my list of to-play games for a long time and after finally watching some gameplay from a truster streamer,  I decided I needed to try it out. Since then, I have logged over 100 hours of game play and only recently achieved the “soft end” of the in-game three year mark. And I have achieved less that half of the possible achievements, according to Steam.

Perhaps this is a bit premature, but Stardew valley is one of the best games I’ve personally played and I think it would be arguably the most appropriate game for Second Language Teaching and Learning (L2TL).

The Game

SV Town map
A small forest community. Also wizards.

Stardew Valley is, per the description on its website, a “country-life RPG”. It was the production of a single developer named Eric Barone who created the game and work in collaboration with game publisher Chucklefish to launch it. It is available on all major game consoles, including Nintendo switch, as well as all windows, linux and Mac computers.

In addition to giving players a sense of small agricultural towns, SV allows players to farm, fish, build relationships with their community, mine rocks and minerals, forage, and explore supernatural mysteries. SV starts with the premise, “what if you inherited and old family farm in a small town and gave up your city job and city life?”

SV borrows heavily from previous games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing for its task management and goals, while also giving players Zelda-like freedom in a more modestly sized world. The real draw, however, for SV lies in the way it structures the game tasks within the world itself. SV allows players to broadly do whatever they want, provided that they do not run out of energy during the day (they will faint, probably lose some items and have to pay a hospital fee) and make it back to your house at night to sleep (again, failure to do so will result in exhaustion and a hefty hospital fee). Time, in SV, becomes the critical feature that motivates and restricts all other tasks and goals in the game, simulating the feeling of real, day-to-day life.

SV farm animals
Plan, build, protect and nourish

Planning how you will spend your mornings, afternoons and evening is then, the fundamental task of SV. Execution of that plan will result in either good days, so-so days and bad days. Making daily goals and achieving them is the player’s choice, within the restrictions of the game design. And just as each day is time limited, each season too has a limit. Each with their own unique possibilities and secrets.

The game does provide some grand goals for the player. At the end of the third game-year, you are asked to visit the shine of your grandfather who will judge you. The game certainly doesn’t end there, with relationships to build, townspeople to help and a general RPG story-line to discover, all within a non-linear space.

The Game Community

At the time of this writing, 12,141 players were actively in the game on Steam alone. SV’s primary website is moderately active, with two or three posts active any given day. Steam’s community hub for SV is much more active, with daily discussions, videos, guides and screenshots posted daily. SV continues to be a moderately popular game for video steam on Twitch.tv as well.

Because the game open and the linear stories are in a non-linear fashion that the player chooses, not every player will experience the game the same way. There are at least two major story points that force the player into mutually exclusive paths. As a result, much of the discussion in the community space revolves around the different options players have and their value. In addition, because the game is heavily economic in its task, a huge portion of player time is devoted to discussing the optimal or most efficient form of making money.

On the RPG side however, SV, like other simulation games like MyCafe, allows for a wide range of player personal expression. Unlike MyCafe, and other work simulation games, SV allows for much more personal investment in the players choices. Players therefore enjoy many of the same activities as the MyCafe community. Players post screenshots of their farm or of them doing something interesting in the game. Pictures of their in-game family and other things. Additionally, players who video-stream their gameplay are often popular because of their unique style and progress.

In addition to the communities mentioned, there also exists an extensive and available wiki that can help players make the best decisions for themselves, if they don’t want the thrill of discovering things for themselves (I found myself only looking at the wiki in the winter of my 2nd year, to plan for my third spring).

In summary, players discuss a range of topics related to: economics, design, efficiency, style and philosophies of rural life and consumerism.

Usefulness for GB-TBLT

To begin, I will present my existmations of the overall usefulness of Stardew Valley to GB-TBLT.

Tasks and Goals| Not useful………………………………………………………X…….Useful

stardew-valley-collectors-edition
In-game assets

Tasks revolve in two interrelated circles. The first is the daily-time cycle. Players have a range of tasks they can attempt to complete, but only a specific amount of time to complete them everyday. Importantly, as the game goes on, there is very little time to complete all the things players may want to complete, forcing choices between good options. The second cycle is the season cycle. Every 30 game days, the season will change and with it, many of the possible tasks will also shift. The fish will be different and the crops will usually be different as well. Some tasks can only be completed at certain times of day and in certain seasons.

√ Besides time, the game also includes two other assets: money and health/energy. How you want to spend your time is also related to how you will spend your energy. Chopping down trees for example, won’t take all day but it will take all your energy. Leaving you useless unless you have some food to gain more energy. Because of these assets and limitations there is always something to do, and always something being left undone.


Feedback| Not useful……………………………….………………………X……Useful

SV fishing
Fishing is extremely satisfying in Stardew Valley

√ The sound design of the game provides most of the useful feedback. Successful interaction with the game space will have distinct sounds for the given task. Unsuccessful interactions will also, have a distinct sound. Fishing is a great example. As you cast your line into the water, a small scale will slowly fill up, changing from red to green as the distance of your cast changes. A “Max” cast will give a distinct sound indicating good performance. As the line hits the water, there is a satisfying splash. As you wait, the bobble goes up and down and you periodically hear a “whoop” sound which commands your attention until you either pull up trash or a sharp “CHING!” sound erupts and you see the word “HIT!” appear on your screen next to another scale. This time a fish has appeared and it will move in predictable patterns (as you learn the characteristics of each fish) and you must click the mouse to keep your green bar over the fish. Do this for long enough (another green bar above your pole indicator) and you will catch the fish. All of this feedback is immediate, multimodal (sound and visual) and dynamic.

√ Other activities like farming and mining will get easier as you improve both your skill at these activities (by doing them more) and by upgrading your equipment in a a very RPG style. And like other RPGs, the combat feedback is dynamic, such that you will know quickly if you are sufficiently prepared to encounter specific areas based on the quantity of damage you can inflict and the amount inflicted on you.

√ / X While simplistic, the relationships the player chooses to have with the townspeople is also dependent on the types of interactions you choose to have. This is primarily done through gift-giving, or as some in the community describe, “bribing”. Indeed, the relationship building mechanic is simplistic (do quests for people or give them things that they like, which you can either find on the wiki or discover for yourself.) Your relationship is also dynamic and requires upkeep. Building up a strong relationship with someone and then ignoring them will eventually drop your level of relationship with that character. Providing one more asset that much be maintained by the player.


Interactivity| Not useful……………………………….……………X………………Useful

SV hoe
Character is indicating that they will strike the ground, facing the correct direction, red square indicates where the mouse click happened, the green boxes represent the tiles that will be hoed.

√ While not everything in the game can be interacted with, there is enough diversity and surprises that interaction with the game world is constant and rewarding. Players can, perhaps unrealistically, chop down almost all the trees, hoe most patches of dirt and talk with all the townspeople, even going into their homes unannounced or uninvited (though, unless you have a good relationship with them, they will not let you into other parts of their homes, where story-lines can be hidden). As the player goes about their daily activities, they will without doubt, come upon a worm to be hoed, or plants to be foraged. A rock to be mined or minerals to be sifted from the water.

√|X As of yet, SV is still a single-player RPG. Therefore the player-to-player interactions occur only on the community websites. This will change later this year (2018) when a multiplayer mode will be added to the game, letting players do all the important features of the game, only together now. This social aspect of small groups of players working in the same game world is probably one of the most exciting GB-TBLT features of the game.

Some of the controls in the game (particularly the combat controls) can be unweilding and difficult to learn. I still often fail the water or hoe the correct tile. This has to do in part with how the game chooses the spot to hit. The player must be facing a correct direction and then the player must select the correct tile. This directional pad control is a bit blocky in the combat stages of the game and can be annoying when trying to milk a moving cow in the grass.


Context and Narrative| Not useful……………………………………………………X….Useful

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√  SV bridges the gap between the real and the mysterious in a very lighthearted, but dangerous, way. SV is also most definitely a game for our back-to-nature times with a story context of leaving the city and going back to the earth (as a farmer, miner and fisher). The game represents real things that should be recognizable to most teenagers and adults. Very motivated children would have very little difficulty figuring out the game, provided they can take advantage of the helpful hints, which are given mostly through written dialogues.

√ And while the game narrative is very good, SV shines in the emergent narrative that the player imparts on the game through their own choices. Far beyond simple avatar customization, players really do have to stop, think and consider, “who am I in this game?” and, maybe even more importantly, “who do I want to become?”. This future-oriented, and yet vague, perspective allows for self-actualization of the players desires inside the game space. Yes, there are restraints. The player cannot go simply anywhere, or do absolutely anything. But in many ways, that’s exactly what living in a community is. Individuals don’t get to choose what the town holidays are, when the festivals will be or if it is going to rain.

√ / X Game community narratives are, as of yet, only in the attendant game spaces. Players spend most of their time discussing how to maintain or achieve specific goals in the game, while also sharing their personality via aesthetic choices. When multiplayer launches, a whole new player-to-player dynamic will emerge, and hopefully some exciting narrative options.


Motivation| Not useful…………………………………………………………X….Useful

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√ Motivation is one area most games I have reviewed to this point, fail. SV is not one of those games. Because of the relationship between the player’s agency and the limited assets and resources they have, even players who are not invested in game through the story, can and probably will become engrossed in the daily-task time-limit mechanic. Every day is an opportunity to 1) plan 2) execute 3) evaluate. Players may have good plans, but their physical ability to click the right places, drink the right things and move in the right directions might actually foil their plans, at the end of the day, you see just exactly how much money you pulled in. The next day they do it again. Plan, execute, evaluate.

√ Because the game encourages so much player agency is both the selection and execution of specific tasks and goals, true endpoints in the game are nonexistent. This is fantastic, but could lead some players to lose their way, not figure out what they want to do and give up before getting sufficient buy in. SV counters this a strong opening tutorial with enough hints to motivate the player to pursue specific goals. In addition, the player will often be asked by the townspeople to do some small tasks (often related to finding specific items), which gives players very linear and clear momentary goals for a very specific reward (often money and relationship status). And if this is not enough, the Community Center acts as a sort of clear goal-creator for the player, where very specific items are asked for. Giving the player somewhat uncontextualized reasons for doing specific tasks (like growing a specific plant).

Possible Implications For L2TL

As can probably be guessed from the scores, I believe SV to be an almost ideal choice for GD-TBLT and L2TL. It has very well structured and dynamic tasks and goals which are related to real-world and concrete vocabulary (though maybe not very applicable to students daily life). The story is text-based, giving students time to read and understand the story and can be paused at anytime they need to stop and think. “Death” or getting hurt is consequential, but not permanent or devastating.

SV reading
Here’s the governor using polite language with the country-folk.

From my view, the key design mechanics that should and can be explicitly leveraged for TBLT relate to 1) how to maximize the efficiency of the time mechanic and 2) exploration and discovery of the narrative.

To the former, all manner of science, economics and logic can be applied (along with their linguistic forms of agreeing/disagreeing, logical sequence of ideas and giving commands). Players will need to be informational and be able to decipher other players information in order to achieve (1).

To the later, secrets and parallel universes allow for story-telling that changes from player to player. Regardless of how a single player plays, their playmates will have different stories and outcomes that will be new to everyone. Leading to motivated and interested storytelling and listening.

In addition, the attendant discourses allow for every available form of digital community. Players can share screenshots of their farms, write meaningful and truly impactful reviews or create guides for how to achieve their same playstyle. In addition to the possibility of live-streaming their own play via twitch to classmates in-between classes.

Possible points of trouble lie in the possibility that the tasks and goals of the game are too open for some students or that the openness makes some students feel uninterested in the game. In this regard, I imagine the new multiplayer feature may help out a lot. Students who are not entirely motivated to play alone, can play with their classmates, and perhaps from their discover their own way through the game.

Conclusion

In my opinion, SV is possibly one of the greatest games for extended and intensive classroom-based GD-TBLT. Whether in an academic English class (writing fiction, informative and expository texts) or communicative-based language classes (daily living, concrete vocabulary and divergent stories). I think SV could be the name of an English class, not simply a tool for helping teach one specific aspect of English.

Anything that needs to be taught in an English class could easily use SV to assist and do that thing. In addition, reflective practice on game-play sessions will assist player’s cultural-awareness, as the game does make value-judgements on our world and exists within its own culture.

One, possibly most exciting, feature with the new and upcoming multiplayer option will be the opportunity for small-group collaboration, which will force players (i.e. students) to negotiate with each other to perform all the tasks in the game, which is task-based learning at its heart, but is intimately and truly authentically situated into a defined context.

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