Skip to main content

Games that defined the Decade: Stardew Valley lovingly perfects an age-old genre

(Image credit: Eric Barone)

We're celebrating the end of an incredible decade for games, movies, and TV shows. The Witcher 3 is one of the games that defined the last 10 years of play, placing 12th in our 100 best games of the decade rankings. Read on to find out why...

Stardew Valley is no mere game. To say so would be to undermine the slightly unnerving power that Eric Barone's farming masterpiece has of getting under your skin and staying there. To have played this village and agriculture 'em up is to have woken up in your IRL bed in the middle of the night, sweaty and tousled, desperately reaching for a pen to draw out the epiphany of a new sprinkler layout for your greenhouse. 

Of course, it all starts off so simple. There you are, doing the right thing taking over your grandfather’s old farm in the charming village of Stardew, and, the next thing you know, you’re 200 hours in, obsessed with creating duck egg mayonnaise, and wondering if there was ever a world in which you weren’t saying good morning to digital chickens you’ve helpfully named after serial killers. 

 Blissful infinity 

(Image credit: Eric Barone)

"It might be the end of the decade but Stardew Valley is happily coming with us into the next"

If it wasn’t all so charming, you could say that lone developer Eric Barone's passionate continued support for the game since its 2016 release is relatively life-destroying. The recent free 'Everything' update is a perfect example of just how he isn't planning on letting go of you any time soon. Fish ponds, 60 new items, and a new '14 heart event' for my spouse, you say? How delightfully insidious. And not bad for your first game, Eric.  

Making a home, planting, fishing, and juggling relationships with quirky characters wasn't anything groundbreaking in 2016. Yet Barone, who had decided he didn't like the direction the Harvest Moon series had taken and wanted his own game to fix it, single-handedly created one of the most compelling gameplay loops of the decade. Waking up every day in your cosy house, checking the weather on TV, and heading outside with the welcoming chirpy soundtrack like an aural hug, the potential of Stardew feels gently endless. 

Initially, farming life seems frustratingly limited by your stamina bar. Grandfather's sprawling land is strewn with rocks and trees and you and your axe are hungry to tidy things up. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Every patch of land that you clear, amidst trips to the village to pick up seeds and say hello to the locals, feels like a victory. The in-game days that it takes to plant, build, and craft suddenly disappear in your quest to create your very own small patch of ordered bliss. 

Suddenly you’re thinking about backpack upgrades, relieved at the days it's raining so you don’t have to water the crops, and trying to work out if you can be without your favourite tool while it gets a coat of new hard-earned metal at the blacksmith, but the important thing is that it’s never stressful. Don't worry, you've got time, Stardew seemingly says, and anything you don’t get done today, you can do tomorrow. Well, as long as the season doesn’t change and destroy your entire crop of potatoes. #JustSaying 

The good life

(Image credit: Eric Barone)

And, if you do want something stressful, you could always head down the mines for some dungeon crawling. Crops, hay management, and selling your wares are only the surface of Stardew's surprising depths. Dig deeper with your (iridium) shovel and you'll find relationships to cultivate, secret spells, arcade games to play in the pub, a not-so-subtle corporate message as you choose whether to aid the community centre or the nefarious Joja Corporation, and, oh yeah, runes to turn your in-game children to doves when you inevitably get bored of them. The choice and potential means everything always feels fresh. If you’re doing the same thing every day, that's not on Stardew, it's your choice.   

Finally, it's how Stardew Valley feels that make it one of the games of the decade. Amongst the compelling busy work is a true emotional heart. Spring and summer bring hope as green fills your screen and the villagers celebrate the Dance of the Moonlight Jellies, while a strange sense of happy melancholy pervades the sparkle of winter. It might be the end of the decade but Stardew Valley is happily coming with us into the next.      

Louise Blain is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in gaming, technology, and entertainment. She is the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s monthly Sound of Gaming show and has a weekly consumer tech slot on BBC Radio Scotland. She can also be found on BBC Radio 4, BBC Five Live, Netflix UK's YouTube Channel, and on The Evolution of Horror podcast. As well as her work on GamesRadar, Louise writes for NME, T3, and TechRadar. When she’s not working, you can probably find her watching horror movies or playing an Assassin’s Creed game and getting distracted by Photo Mode.