Christmas, for me, is a time to catch up on all of the great games I've missed throughout the year. I've dabbled with Tyranny, I've spent several hours driving into 1337 multiplayer hackers in Watch Dogs 2, but, for my money, the biggest surprise of the year has been Stardew Valley.
I've been playing it with my partner, and it's proven to be remarkably compelling. I didn't expect to be so invested in building our tiny San Junipero farm — pilfering the name from an episode of Black Mirror we'd recently watched — until we got a couple of days in and suddenly we were quite invested indeed. Farming is fun; you can fish if that's your bag, and apparently you can romance the whole village located next to the farm, but our sole interest in that place is trips to the local shop and having a rummage in people's bins.
We've got eight chickens now, and, as nothing grows through the winter, we've also got a horse named John McClane, after I got back to my partner too late about potential horse names and she decided to go with a name designed to make me laugh. Yippie yi neigh. These little details, and the catch up sessions over text, in the kitchen, or when one of us is trying to sleep, has built a frisson around the game. We're excited to tell each other about all of the little tasks we've done, but also terrified the seasons will change suddenly and we'll lose everything.
Of course, we're at the end of our first year now, and nothing has burnt down, no big tragedy has befallen us. Well, except for the time we accidentally got too tired toiling away in a mine and woke up confused in our bed, with a sarcastic note from the doctor suggesting I take it a bit easier.
Typically the end of the year is a time for reflection, and as it's the end of the real year and the virtual one on my farm, I can say without any doubt on my mind that Stardew Valley is one of the finest games I've played all year. I haven't spent all of my time with it, and admittedly my playtime is a little below half of our total time playing the game together, but there's something about the cutesy graphics and the apparently sedate pace of the game — which very quickly becomes a tense and stressful thing when you need to do more than water your plants or cut down a couple of trees — that makes me feel good playing it. It's no match for the wealth of AAA smash-hits we had this year, but it's carved itself an important niche in games, that of being able to build something meaningful at your own pace, and it works at this better than many other games I've seen, because it has a mechanical complexity behind the scenes that is missing from so many of the freeform builders that I've often amused myself with.
Simply put, there's a kind of magic to Stardew Valley, and it's something I'm really glad I took a chance on.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and put a new batch of eggs into my mayonnaise machines, and those trees aren't going to cut themselves down. Do enjoy some pictures of my farm, though.