I mentioned last week that I’d been playing Stardew Valley – it’s one of those games that’s sucked up all my attention and spare time. It’s even torn me away from Dark Souls 2 – although it’s not as hypnotic a game as 1, so that’s possibly less of an achievement. Anyway, I’ve finished off my first year (in Stardew Valley), and I wanted to talk about it almost as a ‘Part Two’ to what we discussed last week. Mainly, I want to focus on the passage of time.
So last week I talked about the difference between anonymity and isolation in Assassin’s Creed, basically making the point that if you just stand around, nothing changes around you. You seem to be the only force in the game that can actually change the shape of the environment – which is ridiculous, when you think about it, because you’re living in a city with this huge population and yet nothing changes unless you get on and change it. For me, this is one of the biggest things holding video games back – they’re great with procedurality, but all the processes seem to revolve around the player, which means that there’s a lot of potential that to my mind is missed out on.
Running counter to this player-centric procedurality is something like Stardew Valley, which has time as a central mechanic. There’s X amount of hours in the day, and travelling takes time, and watering the plants takes time, and if you run out of time that stuff’s just not gonna get done – and then the crops don’t grow, you don’t get money, your animals can get sick, et cetera. The seasons and the turning of the planet mean that the player has to accommodate their schedule to ‘external’ factors – it’s not just a matter of doing what you want when you want. There’s a world outside, and you are not at its centre.
Of course, there’s heaps of games that have time as a factor – racing games and the like. In each of these games, time is invoked as something to compete against. Arguably you could say the same about Stardew Valley – that you’re racing to get things done before the timer runs out. That’s sort of true, but in some ways there’s not really a lot of pressure. If your crops don’t get watered, they’ll just sit there and not make any progress – so you’re not necessarily punished very hard (if at all) for failing the time factor. I think if you stay out too late and don’t get to bed you have less energy in the morning, but all told it’s a pretty gentle curve.
So the difference between Stardew Valley and some racing game – say Gran Turismo or whatever – is that in Stardew it’s not necessarily a quote-unquote competition. It’s not like a down-to-the-wire stress-inducing adrenaline-fest, where you have to optimize every individual step and movement in order to get the most out of your day. That’s kind of the opposite of what Stardew Valley‘s about – it’s big on the whole blissed out, back to nature & peaceful routine kinda thing. The point that I’m trying to make is more that time is a factor that doesn’t depend on the player’s actions. It keeps marching on, regardless of what you’re doing. That’s what’s at the heart of my complaint about Assassin’s Creed – if you left Ezio standing outside the Colosseum, and came back an hour later, nothing would have changed. Rome wouldn’t be any different to how it was when you left. In Stardew Valley, you’d have the passage of several days and nights, probably some crops would have wilted, maybe a cow starved – stuff would have gone on without you, because the world of Stardew Valley doesn’t revolve around you. There’s processes that exist without your input.
That’s also the distinction between Stardew and Gran Turismo – in a racing game, everything’s still built around you as a player. The clock only exists for you to race against – that is, it only exists as a form of competition. You could say that the seasons exist as a form of competition in Stardew, which is partly true, but also there’s a significant aesthetic factor that moves beyond ‘mere’ competitiveness.
Now, Stardew‘s not necessarily that exciting, because it’s only really seasons and days. What would be really cool would be to see a shift to characters who can do stuff without regard to the player. That’s how you start moving towards agency, and, I suspect, real depth of personality in video games. One of the big questions in any medium is how best to tell a story in that medium’s own terms. You shouldn’t treat film like theatre, right, and the characters in films therefore need to be expressed in ways appropriate to film rather than ways appropriate to theatre. There might be some overlap, but the general point stands – and the same is true of video games. We need to find a way of expressing character that’s appropriate to the medium. We know that games are good at showing processes, and maybe that’s where good character is going to come from: NPCs who’re able to carry out processes without regard for whatever the fuck you’re doing with your life.
Regardless of questions about character, the idea that the world exists outside of reference to you is going to be important for simulating deeper and more complex games. It already exists in things like EVE Online – there are other players out there, and regardless of what you’re doing, they have the potential to mess with your shit. Or not – their actual actions don’t really matter. What matters is that you’re not at the centre of the fictional universe. Multiplayer games are kinda different though, because they’re drawing their you-not-being-at-the-centre-ness from the fact that there’s multiple players. It’s kinda ‘The world doesn’t revolve around you because there’s a million other yous’, rather than ‘The world doesn’t revolve around you because we’ve given agency and (the illusion of) choice and autonomy to things that aren’t users.’ I haven’t actually played EVE Online, so this is just my impression from what I’ve read. I think the basic idea is there though, even if the example doesn’t fit.