As I write this article, I can look to my right through the sliding glass doors to my apartment balcony and see snow on the cars outside. It’s not an impressive snow – a few inches accumulated on vehicles and in the grass, but it’s above freezing outside and so the roads are covered in water from the melting snow. There was enough to take my son outside to throw a few snowballs with the neighborhood kids but not much else. Still, it’s our first snow of this size for the year, and this kind of water always puts me in the mood for a very specific genre of video game: farming sims.
I think this mental association began when I played Harvest Moon for the first time. I was in high school when I first saw Harvest Moon in the Wii e-shop and thought “I’ve heard of this game – why the heck not?” It was during a winter break and a snow probably much like this one filled the yard of my mother’s house. I’d never played a modern Harvest Moon title and only started with the original because of the convenience of having it as a digital purchase, but I quickly found that I drew a lot of enjoyment from the simple mechanics. Clearing the land on my farm, watering the crops each day, talking to the villagers; I couldn’t quite pinpoint what I enjoyed about it but I liked it enough that I decided to preorder the next game in the series, which at the time was Tree of Tranquility.
I’ve played a few Harvest Moon titles over the years, as well as picking up games that I heard were similar such as Rune Factory and Stardew Valley. I enjoyed some more than others and found in general that as I got older, whatever magic charmed me about the genre originally has worn off. None of the games feel quite how I envision feeling when I play the game. The sensation I have when I look out my window and see the snow on the ground, thinking back to those first memories of playing Harvest Moon – no farming sim quite captures that feeling for me. I think I know what kind of game could, but I doubt sincerely that it would ever be made.
There’s a song by Billy Joel called “My Life” that tells the story of a man dropping his whole life to move across the country. The piano sounds a little bit like the bar music from one of the Harvest Moon games that I’ve played, but the emotion captured by the song is much closer to my vision for a farming sim than the idyllic portrayal of rural life in the games. In the song, we hear the story of a man who is running away from something, the story of someone starting over again and assuring his friend from home that everything is going to be okay. There’s a determination to the song, a sort of middle finger to the people in life who want to try to tell the singer how to live. But there’s melancholy, too, the inevitable sadness that comes with the loss of the life from before. It’s hopeful and lonely all at once, beautiful and bleak like a snow-covered landscape.
All the farming games I have played have portrayed rural life as a charming alternative to living in a city. The community is tight-knit and happy, the people live off the land like our noble ancestors before us, and sometimes magical elves or a lovely goddess personally take an interest in the farming protagonist. The main character of Stardew Valley leaves behind a life of corporate drudgery in order to start over on their grandfather’s farm, and finds hope alongside the idyllic villagers as they enjoy their simple lives together. This is an overly optimistic view of what it’s like to live in a rural world, one that clashes harshly with my own lived experience.
The small town I lived in wasn’t a community of happy villagers working hand-in-hand to survive together. We were hateful and isolated, living in cliques separated by socioeconomic status or hobbies and interests. The lack of opportunities meant many of us chose to leave to go to college or find work. Some who stayed found success, but every time I visit home I hear stories of another person who overdosed on heroine or was pulled out of a burning meth lab. Holiday get-togethers are just opportunities to mournfully discuss the state of the nation, griping about the latest social movement that’s “ruining the moral fiber of our world.” To be rural is not always to be living in blissful oneness with nature; just as often, it’s poverty and resignation, impotent frustration and a steady influx of grief that slowly leads to numbness.
And THAT is what I want a game about.
The farming simulators I have played are always about adult characters, people who can get married and have children while living on their own. However, the games rarely handle adult themes. You don’t have to figure out how your character is going to eat if a typhoon blows away half of her crops. The mayor’s son never goes into rehab after overdosing on his mother’s pain medication. Your paramour never asks about the life you came from or the things you lost in order to live in the simple farming village. More people show up instead of more people leaving. The challenge in farming sims doesn’t come from scarcity or hardship – the games are about growing a small successful business into a large successful business, covered in the trappings of rural living without any of the substance.
What I want is a truly adult farming sim, not in the pornographic sense but in a way which shows the character struggling with the challenges of life as a farmer. Give the protagonist an established history and personality rather than simply being a window for the player – let us see that history come out during play through conversations with the other villagers. Show a town which may try to appear idyllic on the surface but in reality struggles with the difficulties of rural poverty and limited economic opportunity. Rather than having a town and a farm that flourish and grow throughout the game, have a community that by all appearances is dying and show how the characters in the world are dealing with that. This sort of game could capture the stubborn melancholy of rural life, the beautifully bleak world reflected in an evening snow.
Interestingly enough, the game that gave me the idea for this wasn’t actually a farming sim at all. My inspiration came from Deltarune, a follow-up to the indie classic Undertale by Toby Fox. Deltarune is spiritually similar to Undertale but is set in a different world. The monster characters we know and love – Undyne, Alphys, Sans, Toriel – are all living quite different lives, and some of them aren’t as happy as we might have hoped for them. The new characters, too, have complicated and difficult lives. After visiting Rudy at the hospital and speaking with Asgore in his flower shop, I thought to myself “this is how I want Harvest Moon to feel.” Speaking with the characters truly gives you insight into their lives, and those lives aren’t filled with rainbows and sunshine.
Now I understand that this desire is not a realistic one for the genre. Deltarune is able to tell stories in this way because it is a chapter-based roleplaying game. The NPCs really only have one major conversation to have with you until the next chapter. Conversely, in farming sims conversations tend to be shorter because you’ll speak with those villagers again day after day. The players who are drawn to these sorts of games tend to play them to escape – because the genre has been established as one that is lighthearted in tone, one that went for serious content would be hard-pressed to find a niche. “Harvest Moon but Depressed” isn’t exactly a great marketing pitch.
I think the indie market would be the best place for this sort of game to come out. Titles like Celeste and Gris that tackle difficult topics in their games already lay the groundwork for a heavy indie title, and a smaller studio has perhaps more freedom to be experimental in the style of gameplay they incorporate. With no history behind them the way an established franchise might have, they can try new mechanisms that maintain the core of what a farming game feels like while still pushing it in a new direction. I imagine in this darker sort of game, the cycle is reversed. Typically in Harvest Moon and games like it, you start out with few resources and as you make money is becomes easier and easier to farm on a larger scale. I imagine in this game, you would start out in spring with all the resources you need to maintain your farm successfully, but as time goes on businesses shut down and incidents like animal attacks and storms slowly whittle away at your supplies, and you have to make do with less as the harsh winter sets in.
I’m not holding my breath for a farming sim in the style I desire. Chances are the genre will keep doing what it has done best and I’ll have to move on from it as my tastes change. The great thing about games is that there are so many different types of them, perhaps I can get my fix with a different experience entirely. And those who don’t want the same experience that I do – those who love their farming sims to be idyllic and to portray rural life as a happy escape from the horrors of the modern world – can continue to enjoy that experience. After all, while those games may not reflect my life in a rural town, they may very well be accurate for someone, and they should get to see their version of home too.