Stardew Valley has a lot to teach us about work/life balance

A screenshot of Stardew Valley multiplayer.

I’ve returned to Pelican Town with the release of the new Stardew Valley opt-in beta, and I’ve remembered what a perfect source of self-care this game can be. Plenty of people have celebrated the game for its relaxing atmosphere, its manageable to-do lists, and its bite-sized days, but the more I play Stardew, the more I realise that its tendency towards self-care runs deeper.

Making a new save file means being given a quest to speak to everybody in town at least once. Cue trekking back and forth, trying to remember where everybody spends their days: working, reading, gardening, exercising… In addition to their jobs at the various Stardew Valley stores, each NPC has some hobbies. Some like to socialise in the saloon after the sun goes down, while others play music, go fishing, or explore nature. Nobody spends all day working, and many NPCs explicitly encourage you to follow their lead.

Do you ever take breaks? NPCs ask. They remind you that farming is hard work, and it’s important to find time for other things. One even tells you about the benefits of regular exercise - and you can see this advice in action every Tuesday during the regular town yoga session.

And in doing so, they remind you that it is okay to take breaks from your own work. It’s okay to be playing Stardew instead of spending yet another hour working on that paper that never seems to be finished, or whatever it is that you do all day. It’s okay to take a few in-game days to yourself, learn to balance your time, and then take those lessons into your real life.

Games that have objectives and to-do lists can be fantastic teachers of balance. I’ve heard from multiple people that The Sims has helped them see life from a new perspective; trying to play as ‘yourself’ in The Sims and then realising that your ‘fun’ or ‘social’ meters are eternally in the red can quickly hold a mirror to your own life and choices.

Thankfully, Stardew can help me to refuel both my ‘fun’ and ‘social’ meters nowadays, as I can log in with friends and explore Pelican Town with company. There are still some bugs to be ironed out - like the intermittent crashing to title screen that happens in co-op - but it’s lovely to have the once-solitary experience of farming become a social activity.

Self-care isn’t always about easy things, like going for a walk or drawing a picture. Sometimes it’s about making major life changes. It’s about reflecting, and turning things upside down. It’s about doing something difficult for the greater good, rather than what’s easy in the moment.

And Stardew can teach those tricky lessons too. There are deep and meaningful conversations with townsfolk the more you spend time with them; they ask you why you have chosen to come to this farm, or tell you about their own journeys. Answering questions about why I escaped the city and moved to a quieter place full of flowers and farm animals made me reflect on my own living situation; why do I stay where I am, and is this space conducive of a contented life?

This is the sort of game that has something for everyone: exploring, collecting, combat, customising, relationship building… And when many of these activities need to be engaged with in any given day, having up to three helpers running around town can certainly speed up the process. There’s only so much energy that can be used on watering parsnips, after all.

I’m glad that this beta has Stardew Valley on everybody’s radars again - and is allowing people to share their self-care experiences with friends. Hopefully we can all spend a little time farming, and remember that it’s okay not to work all the time, no matter what capitalism says.