High Scores: Winter (The Wind Can Be Still)

Stardew Valley may be the most nostalgic game I’ve ever played. It’s nostalgic for the graphics of the 16-bit console era, its sprites seemingly lifted straight out of Chrono Trigger or Phantasy Star IV. It’s nostalgic for agrarian life, centered as it is on a farm your character inherits from their grandfather and leaves their cubicle at an Amazon-like corporation to tend. Every day of the game’s 112-day year, you wake up on your farm, in a farmhouse you must return to every night by 2 a.m. or face physical and financial harm. Nostalgia’s roots, nostos (a homecoming) and algos (pain, grief, distress), are practically written into the game’s code. The daily, mandatory nostos triggers a keen panic for those like me who enjoy fishing the game’s waters until 1:30 in the morning.

Now that over seven years have passed since the game’s February 2016 release, a player might feel nostalgia for the game itself. Seven years isn’t a long time, but the world is so different than it was at the time of Stardew’s release that the game might seem as old as its graphics suggest. The game’s enduring popularity is due in part to nostalgia for a past before creeping inflation, before COVID, before the 2016 election. But like all nostalgia, this kind of yearning is dangerous, longing for a past that never really existed at the expense of the very real needs of the present.

What I’m trying to say is, I played this game when I should have been studying for my comprehensive exams. It was an almost irresistible distraction. I’ve never been a big fan of simulators—I like a definite endpoint in my games—but I was hooked on Stardew, in large part because of its acclaimed soundtrack, which has been covered in The Guardian and garnered millions of plays on Spotify. Like many great indie games of the past decade or so, Stardew is a one-man production; its programmer, Eric Barone, is also its composer. There’s an aesthetic consistency that comes through such a singular, auteur-like vision of the game’s physical and spiritual world. The gameplay, the graphics, and the music combine to inspire the awe that Barone feels upon the changing of the seasons.

My favorite song from the OST, “Winter (The Wind Can Be Still),” nicely embodies the game’s complex nostalgia. The title is a lovely paradox; wind is a symbol for change, the only constant in life, but even the wind stops blowing sometimes. It may not be often (as “Can” suggests), but change does stop changing occasionally. In a present where every day seems to reveal some new, horrifying political development, the song’s statement is deeply intoxicating.

The precariousness of such stillness is audible in the song, which is both nostalgic and mournful, ending on a beautifully unresolved minor chord that echoes into the following silence. It sounds cold, this song that only plays during the game’s gorgeous “Winter” month, which forces the player to give up, or at least significantly curtail, their farming activities. Winter is a time of freedom, discovery, reflection, and stillness in the game and perhaps in real life, too.

“The Wind Can Be Still” was the song that played the day I married my in-game husband, Alex, the orphaned jock whose Crono-like spiky hair I couldn’t resist. Every character in Stardew is basically bisexual, and same-sex marriage is met with nothing less than celebration in the game’s community of two dozen or so individuals. This, too, feels keenly nostalgic. Obergefell v. Hodges was less than a year old at the time of Stardew’s release, and the game’s imagining of same-sex marriage as a default setting—not a hard-level challenge, not an Easter egg that your character must jump through involved hoops or beat ogrish bosses to accomplish—feels of its time. We still have Obergefell on the books, but we know it’s in the crosshairs. In Stardew, you and your same-sex spouse don’t feel hunted by the world outside the valley. The wind can be still.

Nostalgia is a tricky word that nags videogame fans and critics. It’s the go-to accusation against anyone giving props to an old game or finding fault with a new one. Does the slick Final Fantasy VII Remake really pale in comparison to the homely original, or do I just want to feel the way I did when I first played FFVII as a teenager? The irony of such an accusation is that this Remake only exists because of the intense nostalgia for the original. And it takes advantage of that nostalgia shamelessly, releasing itself in several costly installments that essentially gild the original’s lily. My critique of the FFVII Remake has less to do with my nostalgia than with the Remake’s nostalgia for the original. Nostalgia can form part of a valid critique of a game, but it should be more than an ad-hominem attack on the age of the critic.

Stardew Valley feels just as nostalgic as the FFVII Remake in its attempt to recreate Harvest Moon-style farm simulators from the 1990s. But much of Stardew’s fanbase is far too young to have played the SNES titles the game is so clearly nostalgic for. It’s a favorite among my college students (freshmen and sophomores, mostly), and I’ve met fans as young as thirteen. While Barone is clearly appealing to those who grew up with the wonderful 2D games of the ’90s, Stardew’s appeal transcends the time of its inspiration.

But does it transcend the time of its creation? Is Stardew’s appeal merely a desire to return to the relatively optimistic mid-Twenty-Teens? I don’t know that we have an answer for that yet. I do find the nostalgia of the game a bit dubious. Its vision of leaving behind an Amazon-addled modernity for a simpler, more self-determined life feels a lot like the vision of Instagram homesteading influencers. The manager of the game’s Joja Mart, a sort of Whole Foods, is a Snidely Whiplash-esque villain named Morris, complete with bow tie and pince-nez glasses. If you complete enough quests, Joja Mart will shutter and Morris will be driven out of town in a climactic confrontation at the refurbished Community Center. I’m not sure what good it does to portray Amazon as a two-dimensional stock villain when the forces of capitalism are corporate and complex. At best, it is a cheesy bit of catharsis.

Mark 4:39: “Then Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and the sea. ‘Silence!’ He commanded. ‘Be still!’ And the wind died down, and it was perfectly calm.” We want a savior to come along and rebuke the forces of change in our life. Stardew Valley allows you to be this salvation for as long as your file is open. It instills a sense of peace that feels real, no matter how cartoonish and fantastical the game is. We should play it reminding ourselves that this peace is illusory. The real Joja Corporation is bigger than ever. It’s going to take a whole lot more than a farm or a village to take it down.