A New Type Of Farming Game
The past few years whenever I’m brainstorming a new game I always have an idea relating to farming. For example, in Anodyne 2 (SPOILERS BELOW THIS PARAGRAPH........),
Click for anodyne 2 spoiler
during the Dustbound arc (originally 3D) we had the idea to have some kind of farming. It was drastically simplified into the final form - “weeding” Elegy’s gardens in the form of mini-dungeons.
In my current game, codenamed S, early on (September 2019) I had some vague. After gathering data from plants/animals, one idea that I brought up for 5 minutes was “What if you somehow farmed with the data you get from creatures, to do something?” Well, that’s vague, and the idea didn’t go further than that as we homed in on other concrete ideas. But other Idea Guy ideas I threw out were “farming maybe could affect the areas in the game?” and “farming could change your stats!” or “farming could be a grid-based puzzle to open doors…" There's no farming in S, but ideas around ecosystems and human/ecosystem connections remain.
I have this game idea, M2020 (Melos 2020 lol), which includes my “Shuffled World” system. It's all just ideas and some algorithms on paper. One of my ideas is having a “Home” and “Exploration” modes. In the “Home” mode you do stuff like farm, living in a small house, do menial chores like buy movies from the local Amazon outlet store. You can do this loop over and over if you want, forever. There’s a character you’re in a relationship/cohabitation with there, maybe a community? You can stay on the surface forever if you want. But there’s also a big old mine you can go down in to make money! You’ll have to go down there to make money! You'll have to mine with a drill... like... Mega Man Legends! You fight walls, because... you mine walls. Cops block the way from the mine to the Shuffled World, but you can rob them and get past them to start the game proper.
Even if I were to start working on M2020 immediately, I don't think I'd ultimately add the farming systems. The reason for farming in M2020 is to establish a 'routine life' that contrasts with the Shuffled World and its various inhabitants’ stories. It's also kind of interesting to have a lot of content in the farm/town "Home" area that some players miss entirely... but I don't think I'd have time to make that.
Harvest Moon's Addictive Legacy
I played a lot of Harvest Moon growing up. It's hard for me to play nowadays, I usually get bored in the first summer (about 4-6 hours into the game). Harvest Moon has - for better or worse - deeply controlled and dictated imagination about what a farming game looks like. The general flow of a Harvest Moon-like goes:
You inherit a lot of land. Land is divided into tillable squares of soil. You need to pull weeds, chop logs, and break rocks to clear your field. Then, you need to till the soil, buy seeds, and plant the seeds. Then, once a day, you must water each square of soil separately. As you progress, you can upgrade your watering can and other tools to make tasks more efficient using money from your crops. You can make friends and romantic partners and play minigames or mine or raise animals.
It's very incremental in that sense: as a kid, I enjoyed figuring out the little mysteries of the game - 'How close can I become with this character?' and 'Can my watering can get stronger?' To give a sense of the incrementalism, in FoMT, your watering can waters 1 square of soil at first. But by fully upgrading it, it can water 252 squares simultaneously! You may already know where I'm going with this, but... the way Harvest Moon's game loop is designed is to push you towards min-maxing your farm. In FoMT you can hire little elves to automate farming. It's a proto-idle game, in that sense.
Money helps you progress in the game. That is, the path the game pushes you down is creating a rigorous, grueling routine of watering your plants, foraging for goods, giving items to people, and taking care of animals. If I were to play Harvest Moon now, I'd have to actively avoid doing this, because the length of an in-game day only becomes longer and longer as you make your routine longer. Any time you want to spend doing something else in the game, you have to have enough real-life stamina to do it AFTER you've taken care of the farm! I find a lot of 'relaxing' games tend to trap me in these loops. Animal Crossing becomes a nightmare of greeting everyone and checking the store. It's partially my personality to blame, but also the games' design.
I'd say there are elements of a proto-treatmill (see previous post) in the way Harvest Moon sets up daily routines and chores that you must do, or pay the consequences (sick animals, upset lovers, missed-out-resources, wilting crops). At their best, Harvest Moon-likes are digital garden to which you tend over a long period of play. You find little new nooks and crannies each time you play the game. But I think they all have that sort of questionable loop at their core. Not to mention, the actions you do in the game can be pretty repetitive! The problem with the addictive loop is not just something we can see as an issue with one game - but is a plague extending to almost every single farming game in existence borrows conventions from Harvest Moon. Perhaps Stardew Valley de-emphasizes the loop (I haven't played much), but surely the loop is still there (pop onto YouTube and you easily find various types of Stardew Valley farm min-maxing - 1000s of butter churns lined up in a row, etc...).
A future for farming games
After all I've said, maybe it sounds like I hate farming games. But I really like them in theory! There's something great about a relaxing, short routine and calm digital space that you poke at and uncover over a long time. Maybe my ideal Harvest Moon-like would be one with a smaller town, easier-to-pass-time, and a farm size that doesn't enable my worst tendencies. Stardew Valley-lite.
But then there's my personal designer issues. I could obviously just design a game like that! But why not? Well... while I might like playing it, it wouldn't feel satisfying as as designer. I think most people like their casual farm sims to be complex to the level of Stardew Valley. The game 'works' for most people because there's a lot of possibility... and I don't really like to design stuff with a high level of undirected play.
But I don't want to abandon 'farming as a game idea'. When I drill down and think about why I like the idea of farming, I come to these ideas:
- The "magic" of agriculture's science: seed plus fertilizer plus water plus sun and time somehow gives birth to food. Farming is an 'interface' between humanity and the raw Earth, it's knowledge passed down for thousands of years.
- The disrespect that the USA/Japan's (and other countries, I'd wager) system of food distribution has for agriculture, farmers, their communities. We waste tons of food, don't know how it's made, flaunt expensive and flashy versions of it on the internet.
- Repetition, routine as a gameplay 'texture' to build other ideas branching from. I generally find repetition boring, but I do appreciate how - by having a few repetitive moments in a game, the stuff in the game that does change, can feel more meaningful.
- Hard-to-explain systems of incremental discovery, that gesture towards intractable mystery in a minimal way, but are localized to just a few screens (Mountains, the farm, the town, a cave.) In Harvest Moon for Game Boy, there is a really tiny cave that has a few secrets that are confusing and hard to attain or figure out, like bombing a wall to find a hot spring (I think? Been a while...) In Harvest Moon 64, the way you upgrade tools feels obscure - sometimes it's using an item 300 times, other time some NPC has to upgrade it. In HM:FoMT, you have to find certain ores at deep levels of the mine to upgrade, but it's never indicated how deep you have to go or what the upgrade ceiling for items is. There's no 'ending' to the games, so there's always a sense that there's some territory you've yet to find in these games. In a way, the farm itself is actually a very complex interface for the player to discover and create changes in the game's world.
In the USA, there's a deep lack of appreciation for food. A lot of food is made by the labor of undocumented farmers (around 50% according to farmworkerjustice.org !), and a lot of it is wasted (30-40% according to usda.gov!). The professionals creating our food - who pass down an carry that knowledge - aren't even given rights or citizenship, and are portrayed negatively on much of the media! I feel like, taking farming as a subject for a game, there's a lot more designers could do than just have a very relaxing/idealized loop of farm life. Not necessarily a 'woke statement' piece, but I do think that farms inherently have something really interesting to them that Harvest Moon-likes are unlikely to ever get at.
Of course... I don't really know where to go from here! While I like 'mysterious game worlds', I don't necessarily like obtuse systems that are hard to progress in (see SimEarth, lol). My ideal farming game probably isn't really even scientifically accurate. My "answer" to farming games is definitely not something where you accurately simulate farms. I also value interesting and pleasant design... I like designing stuff that results in interesting kinds of encounter/level design. Taking Even the Ocean as an example, I value 10 interesting, but easy uses of a single platforming gimmick, over 10 super hard kaizo masocore platforming rooms.
I would not really be satisfied designing something that is like a light gardening sim, an idle game, or something like Mutazione (a point and click adventure with a gardening/music minigame that makes sense narratively but I think mechanically comes off as perfunctory without the incremental loops that allows the perfunctory systems of Harvest Moon-likes to work). I can appreciate a slow, mechanic-minimal game, but I wouldn't be interested in designing it. I also don't think the solution comes in mashing up Harvest Moon with action or something, like Rune Factory, or roguelikes, or whatever.
Anyways, I have literally no idea what to do (at least not without more thought), but I do think there is something exciting out there in the game design multiverse that could be created with a farm setting, with farming themes, without having to fall back on Harvest Moon's shadow... someone just has to find it.
One thing that comes to mind is Le Guin's magic system in Wizard of Earthsea. I like the way she describes the world's balance, and the way that weather can be manipulated (there was one passage about manipulating rainclouds early on I liked a lot. Also manipulating fog, etc.) Perhaps that could be some kind of inspiration. While I take issue with the 'idealized farm life' of Harvest Moon-likes, I don't think that shifting a game about farming into the fantastical necessarily implies that the game would be idealizing farming as a subject.
Well, off to the new year! Maybe I'll check out Harvest Moon SNES (I never did play the one that 'started it all'!)
Shoutout to FOGU.com, my go-to Harvest Moon site as a kid (still running!). The info with in helped keep me mystified and invested in the Harvest Moon games I would play with my sister.