If there's one thing I've learned as a seasoned consumer of all things horror, it's that situations are rarely as innocent as they seem. Dolls will spring to life and kill you. That big, beautiful house you got for a steal is haunted.
You know how it goes.
I let my guard down with Stardew Valley. "A gentle farming sim," they said. "Get married and grow some artichokes, it's so relaxing." I should have trusted my instincts. As my artichokes grew, so too grew the terror.
It was a warm, sunny Spring day when I arrived in Stardew Valley. The bus ride from Zuzu City was a long one, but I was excited - and nervous - to leave my soul-sucking corporate job behind and become a farmer. I made an effort to become a valued member of the community. I didn't talk much, but I plied new friends with gifts, ran errands for them, and attended every event held in Pelican Town. At the Egg Festival, I chatted with my new neighbours.
"Mmm," said Leah, a redheaded sculptor who'd caught my eye. "This punch is unusually good!"
The transition from city mouse to country mouse was a difficult but satisfying one. During my first year I made plenty of mistakes, but along the way I learned a lot about farm life.n. Before I knew it, my second Spring had arrived and with it, my second Egg Festival. I arrived, eager to chat with my friends.
I walked up to Leah, whom I'd been stuffing with salad and wooing ever since last year's festival.
"Mmm ... This punch is unusually good!"
In an instant, my reality shifted and this new life I'd been building came crashing down around me. Everyone I spoke to parroted the same things they'd said the previous year. I looked around and noticed they were all standing in the same places as well.
Once again Abigail won the egg hunt. It was if nothing had really changed although a year had passed. Subsequent events during my second year played out the same way. I was the only one who noticed that everyone around me was essentially frozen in time. Stardew Valley was stuck in a repeating cycle.
Stardew Valley's annual Flower Dance, or a deleted scene from The Wicker Man?
Now, you could say that this is a limitation of the game, which has no official ending. You can play Stardew Valley forever if you want to, and because of this, there's no way a developer could provide endless dialogue to account for the endless gameplay.
You could say that.
Or you could say that Pelican Town, much like The Wicker Man's Summerisle or the village in Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, is a bucolic small town that hides plenty of dark secrets.
Talk to the townsfolk, and before long you'll notice that many of them are incredibly troubled. War veteran Kent suffers from PTSD, his trauma so close to the surface that the sound of popcorn popping is enough to send him into a rage. Shane is a suicidal alcoholic who frequently passes out in a puddle of sick and tries to think of a reason to live. And then there's Penny, a sweet young woman doing her best while living in a filthy trailer with her verbally abusive, alcoholic mother Pam.
If you work hard enough (and give enough gifts) you can help a few of them heal a bit. But since time doesn't truly pass in Pelican Town - children never grow up, animals never die - some poor folks are locked in battle with their personal demons for eternity.
If the family-and-farming life sounds like the life for you, Stardew Valley is full of eligible bachelors and bachelorettes ready to settle down once they feel exactly 10 hearts' worth of love for you.
I finally managed to marry Leah and we're happy enough, even if I find it incredibly disconcerting when I come home to find her standing in our dark kitchen late at night, silently staring at the oven.
Just a monster selling you otherworldly items, no big deal.
Should your marriage be less blissfully weird than mine, however, divorce is an option. Your ex will avoid you afterwards, as they're not interested in remaining friends.
Should their attitude irritate you, a simple dark ritual performed in a witch's cave can wipe the slate clean, quite literally: Yes, you can completely scrub your ex's mind so they have no recollection of ever having married you.
Even more disturbingly, you can re-marry them and they will act like it's all brand new. While the idea of Eternal Sunshine-ing a few exes out of my brain certainly holds appeal, the idea of purging someone else's memories is a bit terrifying.
And if you've had some kids, but ultimately long for a return to your carefree, child-free days, don't fret! There's a dark ritual for that, too, one that will turn your children into doves. They will simply fly out of your life forever, and everyone will forget they ever existed.
If the idea of a witch with these kind of powers living so close by gives you the heebie-jeebies, well, perhaps you should think twice before boarding the bus from Zuzu City.
Stardew Valley is also full of ghosts and monsters, some of which will stalk your farm after sundown depending on the plot of land you choose to cultivate. Most are relegated to the mines, however, which become increasingly fraught with ghosts, slimes, and other nefarious creatures the lower you go. Descend far enough and you'll find lava and fire as well.
Don't mind me, I'm just fishing on a lake of hellfire.
And so, the reason for Stardew Valley's problems both worldly and supernatural becomes clear: Pelican Town was built over a hellmouth.
Most troubling of all is the fact that you're the only one who notices any of this. You're forever the outsider, the only person with any kind of free will. Townsfolk simply go about their business from day to day and season to season, forever trapped, endlessly repeating yearly rituals in this pastoral purgatory.
Is it preferable to be aware of the horrors that surround you but unable to do anything about them, or would your existence be more blissful as a mindless automaton who looks forward to the Egg Festival every year? I'm in my third Winter on the farm and I still have no idea.
Meanwhile, monsters lurk in the dark and on the edges, quietly, just out of sight. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that Stardew Valley is located at the bottom of Silent Hill.