I don’t normally seek out analysis of video games. But every now and then I watch Game Maker’s Tool Kit or something like that – just if there’s something interesting that pops up. I’ve just finished one on keeping players engaged, where he mentions something about optimisation and Stardew Valley. It sparked a thought, so here we are.
So the video is here, and I’ll give some context. From about 5:36, Mark Brown (the GMTK guy) starts talking about long term goals. He’s saying that games can keep you engaged by giving you something to work towards, and he brings up Stardew Valley as a case in point. Basically, you start off with a trash-ass farm, and you implicitly know that you have to make it good. The goal is to make a productive farm – ideally one that’s going to be relatively self-maintaining so you can do other stuff with your time. He brings up Factorio too, which I haven’t played, and starts talking about the joys of optimisation and exponential growth. That’s where I wanted to start our conversation.
So in Stardew Valley, you’ve got a set amount of space for your farm. You can start with a couple different farm layouts – there’s like one with a massive lake and so on, so you can lean towards whatever play style you enjoy – but whichever style you pick, you can try to optimise and get the most amount of money. And you do get that potential for exponential growth, but… I guess my question is, why bother? What’s the end goal that you’re working towards? Ultimately there is a hard ceiling. There’s a theoretical limit to the amount of money you can make – you can only optimise so hard. And beyond a certain point, there’s just not a fuck of a lot of reason to optimise any further.
I’ll back up a little bit here. Broadly speaking, I’m not a huge fan of open-ended games – the real pure sandboxes, right, the Minecrafts and so on, but also games like Subnautica, Slime Rancher, uh, Don’t Starve, Cities: Skylines – even, ah, Project Highrise, which I’ve written about here before. It’s not even – oh FUCK, I’ve already made this argument about Highrise. Alright – don’t click that link, fuck’s sake. Okay… okay, no, I’ve read it, and there’s more things that we can say about this GMTK video. Okay. Well, uh, spoilers, we’re talking about capitalism, and if you clicked on the link you might’ve guessed that. Or if you, you know, read the title of this article.
I’ll get to the point. In games that have a set pre-determined narrative end-point, there’s implicitly a particular narrative arc. There’s rising action, heightened stakes, a climax, and then a conclusion. That’s great! But in more open games like the ones listed above, you’re just supposed to keep going. There are technically campaign modes or story modes in many of those games – Subnautica and Don’t Starve both have one or the other, although technically in Subnautica it only came along later. I’ve been playing it since before the full campaign came in though, so the point stands.
Anyway: in survival games like Subnautica and Don’t Starve, you just have to survive forever, and that in itself is a little bit boring, because I never feel like I’m working towards anything. In games like Stardew Valley, however, your job is to make a fuckload of money. There’s often no real point to that goal – it’s just money for money’s sake. You just continuously expand, and your income goes up exponentially, and then – well, really that’s it. It’s all kinda empty and meaningless, a number without any value. And there’s probably an indirect criticism of capitalism in there. If capitalism is about maximising profits, then in some sense games like Stardew Valley operate under a capitalist ethos, even if they’re pretending to have this back-to-the-land chilled out kinda attitude. It’s actually kinda ironic reflecting on it, because you’ve got the big evil corporation that’s muscling in on the town and undermining job security for the locals, but also your job as a player is similarly to make obscene amounts of money. Imagine if Stardew Valley let you hire people, and open other farms in other locations. Play that through for a couple hundred hours, and suddenly you are the Joja Corporation. You know what keeps profits high? Paying your workers minimum wage. Oh, and introducing unethical but profitable business practices like battery farming and all the rest of it.
This is totally not where Brown was going with the whole point about optimisation, and I’m definitely not trying to suggest that he’s a secret slave of the capitalist system. He just likes optimising shit. But it’s hard not to notice certain parallels. For me, I’m not super interested in open-ended gameplay, because – well, it doesn’t seem to have much of a point from a narrative perspective, which is what I’m interested in. Further, when open-ended gameplay is married with exponential financial growth, there’s a broader argument to be made about pointlessness as both a theme and a critique of capitalism.
Lastly, note that capitalism ultimately reaches a limit. It’s premised on infinite growth, infinite resources – but once you hit those caps, the system starts to break down. Think about, say, the farming industry. There’s only so much land on Earth, right – even if everyone on the planet was just a farmer, we’d cover the whole planet in farms, and then, well, that’s it. There’s no more land left to farm. There’s no more potential for growth. That’s where people start turning more towards technological and scientific advances – if you can’t expand your resources, you start looking for ways to get more out of what you’ve got. But like I said at the start – there’s still a hard limit. In Stardew Valley, eventually you’ll hit a point where you can’t optimise any further. You’ll have the best systems, the best plants or animals or whatever, the best everything. There will be no way to improve on the system. And then what do you do? What was the point of it all? For people who take joy from optimising systems – hey, not bashing you. You’re there for the ride. But there’s a broader thematic point to be made about capital. Once you’re Bill Gates, once you’ve won all the money – well, then what? Once you have more money than you can spend in a lifetime – then what? What’s the point? What have you achieved? What’s left for you? I don’t want to conflate open-ended games about commerce with capitalism, because I think that’s kinda unfair. But I do like games that end.