Sowing Season Is Non-Competitive
My disc of Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life is missing. I opened the box with the intention of playing for the first time in almost five years, and it was empty. I’m pretty sure I left it in my Game Cube, the one my ex from college found in his attic crawl space and painted orange and re-gifted to me for Christmas the second unhappy year we spent together; the one my ex from after college made me leave in the basement of our apartment building that looked like a dirty sand castle because I never played it anymore and wasn’t it just taking up space and didn’t I have too many objects tying me to other people I’ve loved and what was the point of a virtual farm in the first place.
The disc to A Wonderful Life is missing, so I rip the shrink wrap off the Wii version I’ve had on a shelf for two or more years. It isn’t the same, and I’m not surprised. The cut scenes are endless. Getting started seems like it’ll take days. The mayor tells me I owe him 5,000G but can pay him whenever I want to. I wonder if he’s charging interest. I feel rudely misled when he insists I meet everyone in town before he’ll tell me anything useful. I talk to a few people who apologize for complaining about their misfortune in front of me and then return to city hall. “Have you met everyone in town yet?” the mayor asks again.
All townspeople I’m forced to interact with give me wrapped gifts: three fish, a scythe, a cookbook, a camera. They don’t seem to have much. The wizard is out of town and the priest on the hill has a graveyard but no congregation. There are stray cats and dogs without names. Everyone sighs heavily about how the harvest hasn’t been great lately. I don’t know what they expect me to do about it. I have fields to plow and cows to acquire and mushrooms to pick and I really don’t care much about fixing a bridge or bringing back local tourism. There’s a fairy buzzing around my head nagging me about going to see the Harvest Goddess who lives down some mine. I’m angry. The game I remember did not force me to engage with plot. A plot existed, sure, but there was no urgency. If I decided to stay on my farm planting turnips and cutting grass and feeding my livestock “magic potions” to make them reproduce, that was my business.
When I was in college, we had a farm on campus, but we weren’t an A&M school–just an accredited commune with no majors, grades, or exams. You could take a class that required you to sit vigil while the sheep gave birth in the spring and keep a journal about it. I never watched the sheep births, but I visited the cows a lot. I liked their smell. That isn’t entirely true. I knew objectively the smell was bad, but I couldn’t stop smelling it. Manure just happened and on hot days the smell would float down from the pasture to my house and I’d smell it while smoking a cigarette on the porch before bed. It reminded me of how I’d promised myself that if I went to school at all, it would be in a city.
The problem with cities is that people expect that you are waiting, dormant or asleep, whenever you’re not immediately interacting with them. It’s insulting. If you run into an acquaintance on the street, it often seems as if they’re in physical pain as they try to reconcile your presence in this place they never see you. It’s the reason I hate coffee shops. I don’t go out for coffee because it’s a near-guarantee I’ll be forced to small talk with someone. They will ask cursory questions about how I’ve been and try to make tentative plans when all I want to do is drown myself in iced tea. No one actually cares about the answers to these questions (What have you been up to lately? Will you bring me milk and a strawberry? Have you met the Harvest Goddess? Can you get my toolbox from the mayor?) but they ask them anyway to be polite. I have no use for politeness surrounding my caffeine intake.
I should admit that I work in a coffee shop. Maybe this adds to my distaste. No coffee is as good as the coffee I make for myself. I drink plenty of other coffee though, mostly to be polite. People always want to meet up where there are other people around, as if being social doesn’t count unless some third party sees you doing so. Most days, I don’t want to talk to anyone. Especially not people who wouldn’t just come find me in my house and sit next to me while I stare at a television, cursing about crops.
When I lived near cows, nobody ran into each other by accident. If you went into town, it was for a specific purpose. Beer, Chinese food, textbooks. But mostly, you ate ramen by yourself and wrote papers. I was excellent at both.
My college boyfriend gave me his old Game Cube because I am patently terrible at most video games. He wanted to play Super Smash Brothers whenever we were stoned in his dorm room and I just couldn’t hang. The learning curve on combo moves was too steep for me and button mashing is an inadequate coping mechanism. Whichever character I’d chosen would rocket off the map within minutes. The only games he had for the Game Cube that he was willing to part with were Paper Mario and Harvest Moon. I picked the one he liked the least.
The point of a virtual farm is the opposite of the point a virtual battle. In a virtual battle, same as in an actual battle, the point is winning. On a virtual farm, you are not competing against anyone. You are competing against the virtual earth and the virtual elements, most of which are deeply predictable and easily remedied. The virtual earth and elements cannot punch you in the throat or explode right next to you or incinerate you for not paying close enough attention. The virtual earth is the kindest, most patient opponent.
We never had a system in my house growing up that wasn’t inherited from cousins who’d replaced it with a more current version. I remember standing in front of our living room TV with the Duck Hunt gun while the dog pointed and laughed at me. It was traumatic to be bad when all of my friends knew how to do this thing and used it to be social without actually being social. Going to someone else’s house to play video games was an invitation I dreaded because I was already socially embarrassing and my inability to kill bosses would only compound that.
The point of a virtual farm is that nobody wants to see it. It is yours and you never have to share. There is no boss to beat and no one to impress. No friends with better farms because your friends have never played this game, nor do they care that you do. The best thing about Harvest Moon is that it isn’t a team sport. I am terribly uncompetitive. In college, I was broke and a stoner and convinced I could do nothing properly besides read and annotate novels no one cared about anymore. I had no GPA, so I had no idea if “properly” was how I did anything, but I kept showing up to class on time and meeting with my advisors and they renewed my scholarship every year so my effort counted for something. I sat on my porch smoking a lot of nights, smelling the cows at the farm. My roommate Sophia was inside playing Ocarina of Time. Or. My roommate Cass was inside playing Twisted Metal 2. Or. My roommates Sophia and Cass were inside shit talking their way through a Mario Kart session. I never played with them not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t know how and knew I couldn’t learn. I went inside and sat on my bed and watered my potatoes and mowed my fields and fed my livestock. Little hearts floated up out of their heads. I went to sleep in the game to save my progress and then went to sleep in real life.
The point of a virtual farm is that there is no point. Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life is the no-risk, all-reward Oregon Trail. You don’t have to worry about taking care of a family or braving disease in hopes of finding some future prosperity, but the pace is similar: plodding along, repeating tasks in the same small space for the same unremarkable results. There’s nothing riding on your efforts. No board of high scores. Not like this strange new version. Have I met the Harvest Goddess? Nope. Will I go looking for her? Not likely. I don’t want to play Harvest Moon unless it’s A Wonderful Life. My cow and sheep were named Spork and Foon, and I loved them. My seasons were modest but successful. There were no goals but maintaining this quiet victory of surviving and making it so other things could survive too. Not flourish, but survive. There’s a vast difference. Survival is all I need to feel like a winner.