For the love of farming games
With the recent release of Coral Island, I've been sucked into another game in one of my favourite genres: farming simulators. It's a genre that I first fell in love with as a nine-year-old playing More Friends of Mineral Town on my Gameboy Advance SP, and especially since the release of Stardew Valley, it has only grown in popularity. Perhaps too much, were you to ask some, but I personally can't get enough of it.
I was puzzling over exactly why that is, because frankly, I have little interest in the particulars of real-world farming. In fact, a more realistic farming simulator game (such as the type of 3D games you see on Steam with "Simulator" directly in the title) would be a bore to me. I've never been the outdoorsy type and have no particular interest in tractors. Any horse girl tendencies I once had were crushed by one week of horse camp, where I faced the reality that these mighty beasts will stop and take a crap while you're riding them. And then bend over to smell it for good measure.
So, why farming games? When I was younger, I think the appeal was largely in the cute boys. I had never played any games with dating sim mechanics in them before, so getting Cliff to swoon over me by tossing curry at him every day was enticing. When I had married my candidate of choice, I often considered that a game clear and would start a new file. I didn't give a damn about the useless baby or clearing the mines; I was studying on that farm to get my MRS.
But now that I play these games properly (ie. doing something other than stalking Skye the Phantom Thief around town every night) the appeal has expanded for me. I realized that these games present an antithesis to everything that stifles and crushes us in modern life. This is directly shown in the opening sequence of Stardew Valley, where you open an invitation to start a quaint little farm while slaving away in a dank, depressing cubicle. Wouldn't it be swell to give up the corporate rat race and reconnect with nature?
I think this is where the lack of realism is to these games' advantage. They're blatant wish fulfillment for those of us who want to imagine, just for a little while, that we're living a wholesome life in the countryside with naught else to care for but our chickens. There are no deadlines or debts in Rune Factory. There aren't even bills to pay, because you're a princess rooming with a magical dragon, naturally. And even if you go flat broke, you can always claw your way back up by selling foraged flowers and bamboo shoots. Nature provides everything you need to live; all you have to do is explore.
Beyond that, these games present thriving small communities where everybody is kind to each other and helps each other out. Even if somebody's a jerk at first, they can be won over with enough patience and farm-fresh vegetables. People shop at each other's mom-and-pop stores and love their local library. They organize fun community events with zero profit motive. They offer their neighbours a place to stay or a job when they're down on their luck. They can pursue their dream jobs, even if that job is making sculptures in a cottage in the woods. It's what a community should be. It's what a community could be.
While the genre has always included a love of nature and supporting small businesses, I've noticed that recent releases have more directly incorporated anti-corporate and environmentalist messages into the narrative. Stardew Valley was not subtle with its two branching paths: you can invest in the community, or you can invest in a multinational conglomerate. One is about restoring connections and exploring the land to fulfill the community centre's goals; the other is about spending lots of money. I can see a similar plotline emerging in Coral Island, where a recent oil spill has devastated the local beaches. You can put in the time and effort to clean up the land yourself (with a little help from nature spirits and merfolk), but the very company that caused the spill has set up a new office and is promising to revitalize the island by bringing in lots of money. It's obvious that their only intention is to exploit the locals and the land, and perhaps gain some good PR in the process by making it look like they care about the devastation they've wrought. Luckily, in these games, it's never too late to restore the community and the land, and make the corporate managers invading your town look like utter buffoons in the process.
It's such a nice, fuzzy, warm cocoon to wrap yourself into for a few hours, isn't it? Communities predicated on kindness and cooperation. Living happily with animals and nature. Undoing the damage caused by multinational corporations and human greed. No bills.
And, yeah, cooking delicious curry for cute singles. I won't pretend that still isn't an appeal factor.
So I'll always love farming games for showing me a world that's better than the one I live in, and reminding me to shop around the corner when I can instead of forking over money to Bezos' Big Funky Bookstore. And now that I'm done ruminating, it's time to care for my ruminants. (That's what cows are. Get it? Man, I am bad at ending blog posts.)