[Editor’s Note: British spellings have been preserved upon request.]
Recently, I fell hard for Stardew Valley. Somehow, I’ve already put in almost two full days of playtime, gotten well into my second year, and even reached the bottom of the mines. And all the while I’ve been thinking about how, at its core, it’s a self-care simulator.
The game begins when your character moves to their grandfather’s old farm just outside the rustic Pelican Town because they have reached a point of complete disillusionment with their old life. Along with improving their new farm, home, and village, they improve their basic wellbeing through consistent, careful attention to their own needs.
This isn’t something that you’re told to do, nor explicitly rewarded for, but it’s baked into the mechanics of the game. By playing Stardew Valley, you are performing a self-care routine for your character over and over again. It’s one of the things that makes Stardew such a happy game, and this positivity at its core has certainly contributed to the game’s runaway success.
Every day in Stardew is full of opportunity. There is far more to do in a day than can ever get done, but time is not the limiting factor; your energy levels are. You’re only given a certain amount to get you through the in-game day, and each action uses up some of that energy. If you use up too much energy, you’ll become sluggish and have less to use the next day. As in real life, rest and recuperation is vital.
The way that this mechanic is used in Stardew Valley also lines up closely with the Spoon Theory, a common concept in circles discussing disability and chronic illnesses. The theory uses spoons as a metaphorical unit of energy, and when one has used up all of their day’s spoons, they often have no choice but to rest. Or, if they overspend these spoons, they are borrowing from the next day’s reserve.
Although Stardew does not use another key aspect of this theory—that the amount of spoons allocated per day is random and may sometimes be so low that even getting out of bed is a success—it nonetheless means that the game relies upon moderation and careful consideration of what is best for yourself. This is a core tenet of self-care, and by making this the player’s daily key concern, it sets up this theme that underlies the entirety of the game.
Energy can be regained in Stardew through eating, drinking, and sleeping. Taking care of the basics is vital, but greater rewards come from greater effort. For example, you can get by on basic foodstuffs, but if you can combine them for fuller meals, more of your energy (and health, if you’ve lost some of that through fighting monsters) will be restored. And, just as in real life, sleeping enough and eating well is often easier said than done, but equally putting effort into these essentials will give you a strong foundation to move forward.
This effort management is almost Stardew’s daily routine, but it is occasionally broken up by in-game events such as the Flower Dance, Spirit’s Eve, or Festival of Ice, or you can visit the spa for a full energy top-up. Taking breaks and days off is also a nice reinvigoration when it comes to real life self-care.
So, you’ve gotten the hang of balancing your energy levels. Now you have to decide how to use up your allocated energy points. The world of Stardew Valley is full of options, and each is as valid as the next. I’m a collector at heart, so I’m working on restoring the Community Centre. I also love the mining and foresting, but I’m not a huge fan of the farming—even if this is nominally the basis of the game.
These decisions are a mechanic that result in the player character gradually taking better care of themselves as they learn what’s best for them as an individual. Whilst we always have to do things we don’t want to sometimes, it’s also often possible—and good for you—to say no to things at other times. At first, I did plenty of fishing in Stardew because I feared missing out on this aspect of the game, but since I didn’t actually enjoy it, I stopped.
You will also have to make choices about what you upgrade with your profits. Do you want a new coop for your birds, or a shiny new pickaxe? Making these kinds of decisions enables you to tailor the self-care routine at the core of Stardew to your personal tastes by improving the parts that you enjoy. Equivalents in real life could vary from buying that bath bomb you’ve been eyeing all the way through to speaking to your doctor about treatments for mental health. Personalisation is at the heart of self-care, and it’s no different in Stardew.
Finally, a pair of mechanics seal up Stardew into one big self-care package: high levels of rewards, and low levels of punishments. You will be enthusiastically rewarded for putting in the effort. Reached a new milestone in the mines? You get a new piece of equipment. Completed a quest for a villager? Have a big pile of gold. Finished a Community Centre collection? Well, I won’t spoil what happens, but let’s just say it’s cute.
Sometimes you have to do difficult things for rewards, but sometimes they’re easy. This is vital in a self care routine; sure, treat yourself when you ace that exam or project, but also for the smaller victories like making a difficult phone call, helping a friend out, or even just getting through a tough day.
On the other hand, there’s no fail state. Your farm can be gorgeous and organised, but if it’s a haphazard mess (like mine is), it’s no big deal! And whilst it sucks to run out of health in the mines and lose gold, items, and levels, it’s very easy to gain it all back and more by jumping straight back in.
In other words, you can’t lose at Stardew, just as you can’t lose when you treat yourself with kindness. It’s a wonderful message and mechanic in a game that is also extremely enjoyable overall. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better go and gather my turnips.