Last year when I started this blog, I wrote about the “Flow State” and what factors into making one’s game an addictive experience: challenge and choice. In today’s article, I’m going to express my thoughts and opinions on a set of games that I personally find to be the perfect example of such a dangerously fun combination: Natsume’s Harvest Moon series.
I am fully aware that Harvest Moon is not for everyone. Have you ever tried to gush and squeal over something so nerdy that the person you’re talking to stares at you like you’re insane? Yeah. Try explaining your excitement over being able to raise alpacas for wool to a hardcore first-person shooter fan. It’s pretty much impossible to communicate your glee to anyone who isn’t a fan of the series. Seriously, though, Alpaca wool sells SO much more than sheep’s! All I have to do is keep breeding them and every couple of weeks I can rake in like over 20,000 gold in one day!
For those of you not aware of Harvest Moon’s extensive background, fear not — I can sum up the plot of every single game in one sentence: You end up in possession of an abandoned farm and have to restore it to its proper glory, aiding the town you’ve moved into and finding a wife to settle down with along the way.
There. That’s it.
Oh, and usually there’s some cutesy magical element where the local Harvest Goddess and her little sprite helpers ask you to do some stuff, too.
Your basic day in Harvest Moon will consist of waking up, watering/harvesting your crops, feeding your livestock, collecting livestock products such as eggs and milk, running around town to give your sweetheart a gift, and then foraging for sellable items in the forest/mine. Then you take all the stuff you gathered, drop them into your shipping bin, and go to sleep. Rinse and repeat. Every couple of weeks there will be an event or festival that you can attend or partake in, each with their own special awards (a prize-winning chicken lays golden eggs, dancing with a villager will increase your love/friendship points, etc.), and you will have to pay attention to what crops you buy and what season they’ll actually grow in. When you’ve given your sweetheart enough gifts, you can propose to her, and after a few months you’ll find yourself a father.
Yes — Harvest Moon is basically a virtual life, which means it’s 70% virtual work, which means you are pretty much playing a video game that makes you do chores for most of the gameplay.
Why the heck is this game popular?!
As I’ve mentioned before, Harvest Moon isn’t for everyone. It’s an acquired taste. My personal belief is that people play it more for the (simplistic) dating sim aspect than for the actual farming, which makes sense because any kind of dating sims rarely exist outside Japan, let alone in English. I certainly wouldn’t play the games as religiously if I didn’t get to relentlessly pursue a hottie in town, and I distinctly recall getting ever-so-excited when the games began to give the option of a female protagonist who could pursue a set of eligible bachelors. I also recall reading that any Harvest Moon series that did not do well typically had to do with a lack of or severely underdeveloped courting/marriage system, so I think my beliefs about the players’ actual motivation can stand in some foundation of fact.
All that aside, let’s answer the two big questions pertaining to Harvest Moon’s “addictability”: What is the Challenge? Where is the Choice?
The Challenge of Harvest Moon games lies in the player’s desire to achieve as close to a “perfect” farm as possible. The first Harvest Moon game I played was on the Nintendo 64, where not befriending enough of the villagers and missing out on key events (such as marriage with a child and a full barn of animals) would result in the protagonist’s father deeming your attempt to revive the farm a failure and dragging you back home. It was actually really depressing to see!
Befriending the villagers isn’t even a difficult task, either! It just takes time. Lots and lots of time, as well as a good amount of online research, since you’d have to give villagers items they like and remember their birthdays and choose the right dialogue options to increase their friendship points. Other tasks like collecting every type of bug or catching one of every type of fish are also achievable goals that simply take patience, but reward you in the end with special prizes or advantages or even a bonus to your game’s ending. So, in essence, Harvest Moon games are the pinnacle of “difficult but achievable” objectives — you just need a lot of patience to get through it!
And then there’s Choice. Harvest Moon has been growing more and more detailed in its recent incarnations, like finally allowing you to choose your appearance and even the arrangement of your home village in the recent release of Harvest Moon: A New Beginning. New stuff aside, the game has always given the player a lot of freedom — even in its earlier stages, you were able to name your livestock, your farm, your pet dog, and you had the choice of one of the several bachelorettes to romantically pursue. You also had the freedom to choose to fail — the game didn’t nag at you to feed your chickens if you didn’t feel like it or if you forgot. You’d figure out the consequences of neglecting your commitments pretty quick when you woke up and were treated to a disturbingly dismal cutscene of you standing over a dead animal’s grave. If you ignored your spouse or treated her badly by giving her items she hated, she would eventually leave you — and, if you had one by then, she’d take your child with her!
So in the end, if you wanted to “win” the game, you’d have to take care of your daily chores and be kind to the NPCs by choice. If you want to obtain that special upgraded hammer, you’d have to earn money to save up for it. If your animals suddenly fell ill, you better have enough money prepared on the side to be able to afford medicine. In a strange way, the Harvest Moon series could be used to teach its players about planning ahead and being responsible. Who knew?
I could go on forever about my personal experiences playing Harvest Moon and why I love the games so much, but I think I’ll save that for another article. Until then, here’s a thought to ponder and possibly comment on: Do you think simple, repetitive simulation games like Harvest Moon can be used to teach life lessons to younger generations, perhaps in a classroom environment? I’d love to hear what you have to say!