Why sentimental pastoral themes make perfect fodder for video games
Story of Seasons is a video game in which you spend hundreds of hours very slowly growing an agricultural empire while attempting to convince a villager to marry you by giving them an egg every day. It is a game about hard work and settling down. The only thing you can fight in Story of Seasons is the natural rhythm of rural life – and it is a fight you will lose.
If this sounds weird to you (and I’ve certainly faced difficulties explaining the appeal of the game to some friends), you need to think about Story of Seasons in a broader context. There is history going on here.
Since we first began to live in cities, we have yearned for the innocence of the country. The ancient Greeks used epic poetry to eulogise the lives of herdsmen and shepherdesses; in the Elizabethan theatre, dramatists often took their characters out of the court and into wilderness; the Victorians wrote novels that bestowed nature with tragic romance. We have video games.
Partly, this is mechanistic: there’s been a discovery that the uncertainties and rhythms of farming make good gaming fodder. Zynga’s early Facebook game Farmville was a spectacular success, attracting over 40 million active users, with its simplified take on crop production and animal care; meanwhile, the much more complex PC series Farming Simulator has shown that there’s a mass audience for authentic simulation complete with branded machinery and multiple authentic livestock breeds.
But there is also something else going on, a sub-genre of games that invoke an almost twee sense of community and that glorify and sentimentalise rural life, very much in the pastoral style. Nintendo’s Animal Crossing titles put players into a village populated by anthropomorphic animals while Natsume’s Harvest Moon titles are all about bringing a decrepid farm back to life. Although the former doesn’t directly feature farming (apart from the viciously cut-throat world of turnip trading) they’re both about getting back to nature, about building a strong sense of community and about developing a close connection with the rhythms of the seasons and a slower pace of life. They are designed, just as the pastoral works of Theocritus, Marlowe, and Tennyson were, to explore the idea of the rural idyll; to take us beyond the artifice and alienation of the city.
The themes of pastoral literature – like many other cultural trigger points– have always been present in games. “Good” characters are often represented as being more at one with nature, while the bad guys are industrial or technological in design. Even in Sonic the Hedgehog, which begins in the rural Green Hill Zone, you have to bop the evil robots on the head to release the cute animals trapped within. Banishing a corruptive evil that has stopped nature from thriving is a narrative often found in the Legend of Zelda series; it’s there in Okami, and in Super Mario Sunshine. Role-playing adventures invariably begin in a village which becomes threatened by a ruinous outside influence – a metaphor for rampant industrialisation that takes us right back to the threatened Shire in Lord of the Rings.
As gamers we experience all this through a piece of high-end technology, but we still instinctively identify these villages with an honest pure way of life – with escape. It’s a feeling captured beautifully in last year’s apocalyptic adventure Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, which manages to create a pastoral drama, and a countryside rambling simulation, out of the end of the world.
Throughout history humans have been preoccupied with understanding and “getting back” to a Golden Age of natural harmony – which of course never really existed. In our efforts to associate with this “purer” existence, we have idealised the experience of rural life. Video games are just the latest means of doing that. Since moving to London I have found myself craving titles such as Animal Crossing and Story of Seasons. Like Marie Antoinette playing at being a milkmaid in her purpose built farm, I delve into an equally superficial homestead to sate my desire for simplicity and escape.
I am, of course, not alone. Harvest Moon itself was inspired by the creator Yasuhiro Wada’s own experience of growing up in the countryside, moving to Tokyo in the pursuit of excitement and ending up desperately missing his rural home. In a rapidly urbanising country like Japan, these games hit an extremely resonant chord with players. Getting back in touch with nature, enjoying a slower paced lifestyle – these are unattainable goals for a vast number of people living in densely populated cities and massively competitive job markets. In life, we may be cogs in the commercial machine, but in Harvest Moon, the player sets the tasks as the seasons gently change around them. When you’re overwhelmed by the noise, dirt and claustrophobia of the city, spending an hour or two strolling about a village, watering flowers has restorative properties – even of it’s just on a screen.
It may seem like a contradiction – to find a feeling of rural peace via a games console or PC. But the pastoral urge has always been expressed through available technologies and methods. The Elizabethans dreamed of escaping the city and starting anew in the country or on remote islands, and the theatre with its elaborate sets and special effects, allowed them to experience that. The Georgians used new ideas in urban architecture, creating leafy squares to withdraw from city life, while the Victorian middle classes constantly clambered to the edges of the suburbs in an attempt to gain space, fresh air and the feel of the country life. Playing Harvest Moon has the same effect as hanging a Constable print or listening to the Archers: we have always wanted the trappings of a “country” life, without the labour involved.
Instead of being incompatible, video games and bucolic imagery are a perfect match. While earlier pastoral forms had to just ignore the realities of country life – the excruciatingly early mornings, the hard labour, the responsibilities of being tied to a particular piece of land or a herd of animals – pastoral games can turn those elements into a quiet joy. Video games allow us to submerge ourselves in a peaceful environment for hours in a way that’s unavailable in art, TV or film. In Harvest Moon, we can partake in community events or feel the satisfaction of growing crops in a way that we can’t by looking at a painting.
It’s not that video games surpass art, film or TV in this respect – it’s just that the latest reiteration of pastoral themes has found a platform that fits modern consumer desires incredibly well. We live in an era of interactivity, we want to be involved. Games let us actually explore the valleys, groves, hills and fields that writers like Marlowe conjured so beautifully.（source：theguardian）