The Rhythms of Limitation: Learning about Self-Care in “Stardew Valley”

It’s six in the morning, on the dot, and Pabu wakes like a cuckoo, leaping out of bed, suspenders already clipped on, to face the day. It’s windy outside. Leaves of orange, red, and yellow are dense in the air and Pabu makes his way from his modest front porch to the neighboring coop, almost as big as his own home though it houses only a few chickens. Their names are Lady, Sweetie, and Mama; they each laid one egg in the overnight. The brown egg is enormous – double the size almost of the others. Pabu greets each chicken like a friend. The chickens regard him affectionately and seem happy. He leaves the coop, opens the chicken sized door beside the human-sized one, and heads out into the rest of the day, maybe to dig in the mines, maybe to fish on the coast, maybe to check in on his friend Leah who he has come to hope thinks of him when she makes her charming, if provincial, paintings.

Pabu has lived in a hidden away corner of the world called Stardew Valley, just outside the small fishing village of Pelican Town for almost a year. Fall is winding down, and despite his recent arrival, his spread of crops, jams, and gems from the mine took second place at the Harvest Festival, just behind Pierre the local shop owner who struggles to stay afloat in the face of a new mega-chain grocery in town. Not long ago Pabu worked a futureless office job, cliched in its anonymity and deadening effect on the soul. Desperate for an out Pabu reached for envelope from his grandfather, like a lapsed Baptist reaching for a disused Bible, and found therein the deed to a dilapidated farm. Feeling himself sinking in the malaise of American corporate rhythms, Pabu took hold of his grandfather’s lifeline and departed for the old, out of shape farm that was his birthright.

Pabu is a character in Stardew Valley, a video game made by a single developer that released almost exactly a year ago. More to the point, Pabu is a character in my game of Stardew Valley, no one else’s. I chose his swoopy hair, gave him and his dog, Naga, names from my favorite TV show, and dressed him in suspenders that he never, ever takes off. Details on Pabu are sketchy. At the outset of the game I knew nothing about him other than his dissatisfaction with life in the big city and his relative inexperience with agrarian work. Like many, many other games character customization helped forge a slim bond between myself and Pabu, but the rich inner life that I have come to know in Pabu comes from sharing in his pastoral rhythms for dozens of hours. These rhythms are mundane and restrictive and yet evoke a broad sense of possibility with each new sunrise. Stardew Valley transforms restriction into freedom, such that despite its limited scope – there are no cataclysms to stop, no world ending villains to defeat – it can feel daunting in its openness.

This is because the only hard limits Stardew Valley puts on you, the player, are in the form of time and exertion. While you can play Stardew Valley forever, continuing to develop your farm and your relationships to the people of Pelican Town for decades, each day lasts only a certain amount of time. No matter what, Pabu always wakes up at 6 am. The latest Pabu can go to bed is 2 am at which point if I haven’t gotten him back to bed he’ll simply pass out where he stands. Ideally, I try to get Pabu to bed between 11 and midnight so he has enough sleep to get him through the next day. This sleep schedule means that each day only has a limited number of hours with which to work. Alongside those limited hours Pabu is further constrained by his own limited reserves of energy. Almost every action in Stardew Valley uses up your character’s energy, such that no matter how quickly I move from place to place, there is a hard limit on how much Pabu can accomplish. Sleep replenishes that energy, but it only fills back up if enough sleep has been had. If Pabu works too hard, he’ll collapse of exhaustion and wake up sheepishly in his own bed the next morning with a letter of admonishment from a kind passerby who got him home.

These hard limitations are part of what gives Stardew Valley its profound sense of rhythm. The passage of time and the depletion of energy operationalize in clear, unambiguous terms our own limits as people, laborers, and friends. If I push Pabu too hard the game simply says “stop.” Because of this I know Pabu’s limits exactly. I know when it is ok to dig down just one more level in the mine and when to call it a day and head to the saloon. Stardew Valley trains you to be attentive to the needs of your character, to remember their humanity, and to filter your own relationship to the farm and Pelican Town through your character’s capacities instead of your own. Simple though they may be, the daily structure and limited energy of Stardew Valley are profoundly humane game mechanics that force us to recognize the people for whom farms, food, and labor are for. What, after all, is the point of abandoning the coprorate world if the pastoral is unable to bring any peace?

Self-care has become a somewhat contentious buzzword in the year that Stardew Valley has been available. Self-care is a way to talk about how to make sure that in the midst of your work, your relationships, and your politics you do not forget the borders of your own body. Some have argued that self-care is nothing more than the indulgent entitlement of millennials who don’t want to work as hard as their forbears. Stardew Valley teaches us otherwise. When Pabu wakes up in the morning after a fresh seven hours, energy meter replenished, watering can in hand, the day stretches before us in all its rich possibility. I know that though we can’t do everything today, we can do some things, and those things will be good and worthwhile. They are worthy because I have chosen to do them. Among many other options I have chosen to fish, or to talk, or to wander and forage instead of something else. Knowing Pabu’s limitations as I do means that every choice is consciously made. Even the decision to do not much, to, for instance on a rainy day, simply pay Leah a visit and maybe give her a flower from Pabu’s garden, is an attentive one. And if the day slides by without any tangible production, Stardew Valley refuses to punish you. It simply says, “go to sleep, and see what the new day brings.” For Pabu, there is always work to be done, but none of the work exhausts because it is all work that he knows he can do, he knows he has time for, and he knows he has chosen for himself.

For sure, parts of Stardew Valley are escapist in their nostalgia. At first glance it seems to long for a bygone nowhere of rural America and its retro pixel art aesthetic evokes an innocent time for video games when we were children yelling at each other for a turn on the controller, not doxxing feminists on Twitter. But Stardew Valley is careful to puncture those nostalgic tableaus. Not all is well here. Penny must bear with her verbally abusive alcoholic mother, living conspicuously in the only trailer in town. Harvey, the town doctor, worries constantly about his own job security and his inability to integrate socially with his peers. Clint the blacksmith sometimes stays in the Saloon until 1 am, sitting by himself, because he both cannot bear to talk to Emily who he loves and cannot bear to not talk. Pastoral though it may be, Stardew Valley refuses to offer the farm life as the panacea to postmodern ennui, and instead points to carefully cultivated, humane attention to the needs of people, whatever they may be. This is what self-care means, and this is why, I suspect, Stardew Valley has been so well received in a year where everyone has found themselves exhausted and exasperated by their world. The rhythms of Stardew Valley are not really about crops or livestock. They are about staging a “revolt against the homilies of this world.”[1] They are about breathing, listening, and what it means to live another day.

[1] “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather

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