Stardew Valley opens with a scene, in which you grandfather, on his death bed, hands you a sealed envelope which he instructs you to open, only when you've become exhausted with modern life. Very abruptly, the scene transitions to a dirty, factory-like office facility where hundreds of workers, including the player, toil away in cramped cubical, watched by security cameras. The player character opens their desk and pulls out the letter their grandfather gave them and realizes their grandfather left them his farm in Stardew Valley, in the hopes that your character would try and reconnect with what is important in life. Stardew Valley deals with this of this idea of freedom and what is important throughout the game and ends up being both, enormously fun and a meaningful critique of Western values.
I think a good place to start with Stardew Valley is in understanding what a farming simulator is. Harvest Moon is a series which finds its roots in 1996, with its first game, Harvest Moon, released for the NES. From this Harvest Moon (now Story of Seasons) has supported a respectable 21 year run with 26 games, excluding the series' spin-offs. Harvest Moon both established and defined the qualities of the farming sim. The gameplay includes growing crops, raising animals, foraging, cooking, fishing, mining for ore, and interacting with townsfolk. The series always struggled with how much to impose a storyline on this format. How much was too much and how little would leave the player adrift. 21 years later, the series still struggles to find this balance.
Stardew Valley has all of the defining characteristics of a farming sim from the raising of livestock, to fishing, to befriending the villagers, Stardew Valley borrows borrows much from Harvest Moon and executes it with the same, if not better, skill which has kept the Harvest Moon series successful for over 20 years. With Stardew Valley, Barone has crafted a reward loop which is extraordinarily successful. When you are just staring out, you own a farm, filled with debris, an empty cave, a broken down greenhouse, and a tiny farmhouse where you sleep. You are then set loose. From there, you as the player are able to create your own goals and achieve them however you want.
In my first playthrough I wanted to build a barn. In order to do this I needed lumber and enough money to pay for the labor. At first, this felt like a very difficult goal. I would do about 4 things before it was either the end of the day or my stamina meter was too low to work anymore and I had to go to bed. But, Stardew Valley has a leveling system which means, as you practice something, your character gets better at it. You can do more every day and this cycle of working, in order to level, in order to work more efficiently kept me pushing towards my goal until, finally I had my barn and it was extremely satisfying. As I continued on, I slowly expanded my farm, rebuilt my greenhouse, re-purposed my cave, and on and on. Every time, I unlocked something new, I felt accomplished.
The cycle of rewards at the center of Stardew Valley makes it a very interesting game. Hard work is always rewarded and isn't being rewarded for hard work something we all want in life? With this technical core, paired with strong writing, good art, and even better music, Stardew Valley is a great game, worth playing. It has my highest recommendation. But, maybe, not for the reasons you might think.
Google, "tips on how to start out in Stardew Valley" and you will find about 1000 articles trying to help newbies get acclimated to the game. These give helpful tips about where things are, how to access hidden features, and other stuff worth mentioning. But, there's also another 1000 articles which detail how to spend your first few months in order to optimize profits. These articles will tell you which crops have a higher base yield, which make the most lucrative wines, etc. Hell, some of them even suggest ignoring animals completely, as they are not the "best" way of making money. If you follow these guides, you'll have all the money you could want and your farm built to the nines within a matter of a few in-game years but, if that sounds tempting I want you to think about something.
Why do you recreate the environment your player character escapes from on the farm, meant to be their refuge? Does it matter if you get your barn on Saturday or on Monday? Consider what Stardew Valley is trying to communicate. And, what it's saying about Western values surrounding how to work. Then, give yourself a break.