Dopamine is a helluva drug. One of the “big four” brain chemicals for happiness, dopamine is largely controlled by reward-seeking behavior. Finish a task, and get a hit of dopamine. Some games are better at manufacturing happiness than others. So which game gives us the most brain bang for the buck? And is it cozy?
Yes and yes. Stardew Valley is a labor of love from ConcernedApe (a.k.a. Eric Barone), a one-man game dev dynamo. Originally released in 2016, this cozy farm sim has hooked millions of gamers with its depth, its vibes, and its heart.
Odds are you’ve heard of this game, but may not know exactly how deep the rabbit hole goes. On its surface, Stardew Valley looks to be a spiritual successor to the popular Harvest Moon franchise from Natsume. Spritely graphics and farm sim mechanics make for a very fun game and it’s wholly possible to spend dozens or hundreds of hours toiling away on various farms, growing crops, and making cash. But there’s much more to Stardew Valley than reviving some SNES aesthetics. The story of a young farmer who inherits their grandfather’s ruined homestead goes to many places.
There is a wide-open relationship system that allows you to befriend (and potentially romance) almost every NPC in the game. Give gifts, have conversations, and remember crucial dates like festivals and birthdays and you’ll soon be the talk of the town.
If that wasn’t enough, there’s an entire dungeon crawl to explore. This is no mean feat either. There are 120 levels! Things get tougher the deeper you go, and a local adventurers' society will even supply you with special tasks and rewards for slaying heaps of monsters. It’s a surprising challenge to find in a game that is so abundantly chill.
Stardew Valley succeeds because it manages to make grinding pleasant. It is a well-designed time sink. You may not intend to put in dozens of hours, but the aesthetics are so lovely, the music so sublime, the gameplay loop so balanced that you really can’t help yourself. Planting, tending, and harvesting crops is the main driver to start, but you are able to refine things exponentially thanks to a massive crafting system full of upgrades. One year you’ve got a few patches of fruit, a few seasons later you’re running a successful winery.
There’s always more to do in Stardew Valley and, more impressively, you always want to do it. But it's also a race against the clock. Despite wanting to do so many things, there are only so many hours in a day and, crucially, only so much stamina your character can expend. Don’t be surprised if you get distracted trying to catch some fish and realize the shop is closed and you can't buy those extra seeds you wanted. Or a busy harvest day causes you to miss the festival where you were hoping to dance with your crush.
This is alleviated by the near-endless replayability Stardew Valley offers. ConcernedApe has been updating the game regularly since launch, adding loads of new features and fine-tuning the mechanics. There are different types of starting farms that help you focus on specific objectives, like an archipelago designed for players who really can’t stop fishing.
Layer that on top of the myriad relationships to pursue or farm configurations to construct (Dairy farm? Winery? Mayonnaise empire?) plus tons of mods and this becomes one of those games you can play for months on end. It’s got multiplayer too, in case you want to drag someone else into your dopamine schemes.
Stardew Valley is available now on mobile, PC, Switch, PlayStation, and Xbox. It’s also on Game Pass.