MMTO: Stardew Valley

I’ve had to uninstall Stardew Valley.

It’s a wonderful game, well-designed and charming, but it was too much of a good thing, and not just from the perspective of entertainment.

It made me think of how much I want a self-sufficient existence away from the city. I live in Shanghai, by some metrics the most populous city in the world. It’s difficult to ignore the problems of city life when you play a game like Stardew Valley: overcrowding, the precarious situation of modern urban supply lines, the fact that I cannot just build the things I think about, or be really alone in the times I want to be. There is no real option for being self-sustaining, even if you want to. Yes, there are community gardens (although not, to my knowledge, in futuristic Shanghai) but they lack any sense of ownership and as such retain the same emotional qualities of shopping at a supermarket.

Frankly, in the city, you develop a pattern of thinking and feeling that is very much incidental, very much just a small part of the whole picture. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, of course. It’s good to feel like a part of something, especially if that something is a vibrant and rapidly-changing megacity of nearly 25 million people. But many have written about the loneliness that comes with being part of something this huge. For my day job, I work at one of the largest companies in the world, with nearly 200,000 employees, and I can attest that you never feel important. I suspect that even the higher-ups feel the same way.

I’m not from the city. I was born in northeast Texas and raised in a few small towns between there and central Kentucky. You can hear that part of the country in my voice, if you listen carefully and I’ve had a few drinks. I hated it back then. The idea of “the country” wasn’t appealing to me, and capital-C County as a genre of music, style of architecture and cooking and, yes, lifestyle always repelled me. I dreamed of the city, of the sophistication that came with knowing lots of people from different places, few of whom preferred Coors Lite to any other beverage save the venerable Bud Lite. I wanted a way out of the hole that racists, homophobes, and televangelists have dug for themselves and all of us in that part of the world.

I moved to Austin for university, which was a good halfway house between the country and the city. It had the charms of the country (farmer’s markets, straw hats, folk music, legit Mexican food) with the emotional and spiritual resources of a city, and without most of the things I detested about Country (as a lifestyle, et cetera ad nauseum). After five years there, I moved to Asia.

Relatedly, I used to think I hated country music, but as I am getting older, I’m increasingly aware of how much I enjoy artists like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams (as well as his grandson, less so Hank Jr.), as well as the poppier folk-rock outcroppings they inspire such as Shakey Graves, Old Crow Medicine Show, Mumford and Sons, and Ha Ha Tonka. I still hate mainstream country, which at this point seems to have become a parody of itself, pedaled to people either too disengaged to realize they’re being made fun of or, conversely, to those with a wildly inflated sense of irony. Country music is supposed to be the music of heartbreak and of reconciling the shame of the past with the modern reality, and party songs about trucks, cold beer, and “keepin’ it country” just cheapen the whole goddamn thing.

To return to Stardew Valley, this game has reignited some weird coal, never quite a fire, in me. I’ve begun reading books like Back to Basics and The Encyclopedia of Country Living from the couch of my downtown Shanghai townhouse. It’s bizarre. I’ve planted 10 potted plants, half of them from seeds, in the past week, growing them on our balcony. I find myself captivated by news about beekeeping, permaculture, homesteading, even apocalypse preparation. I take tally of my  skills (quite few) that would be helpful in such a situation.

And why?

Perhaps I’ve hidden too long from my roots. They must not have been hidden too deeply, since they could be exposed by an indie video game about farming virtual crops which look, as 16-bit-inspired sprites, like artisanal fruit snacks.

Stardew Valley makes me think of how far I’ve had to go from home to understand it.  The place that I came from, the people I wanted to escape, they’ve all chased me here halfway around the world in the form of a video game.

I played it for a couple of weeks, racking up a bit over 40 hours of gameplay, before I realized that I would have to uninstall it if I wanted to get anything else done. It’s just too addictive, too simple, too appealing, too charming to leave alone for too long. But I don’t regret spending those 40 hours that way. In playing a game about these things, a whole world of dreaming has been reopened to me.

And who knows? Maybe I really will return to the country, to the wilderness, to raise bees and vegetables, make my own bread, and go days without seeing anyone I don’t want to. Perhaps, in that situation, I would miss the city. But who can say?


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